A ‘Less Traveled Area’ of Great Smoky Mountains National Park Just Reopened for the First Time in Six Years

by Jon D. B.

One of Great Smoky Mountains National Park‘s most historic roads has finally reopened after a six-year-long battle with dead hemlock trees.

On Thursday morning, Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GRSM) officials celebrated the reopening of Parson Branch Road with a ribbon-cutting event. Rangers, media, family, and friends celebrated the crew responsible for Parson Branch’s rehabilitation, alongside Friends of the Smokies for providing critical funding.

Parson Branch Road was originally constructed in 1838, a century before the existence of Great Smoky Mountains National Park itself. But for the last six years, Parson Branch has been closed due to hundreds and hundreds of dead standing hemlock trees. In total, GRSM and assigned crews documented more than 1,700 of the dead hemlocks within falling distance of the road. The historic one-way, eight-mile-long road would close in 2016 for the safety of drivers. Once it did, rehabilitation could begin.

According to the park, these hemlock trees died due to a ” widespread infestation of the non-native forest pest,” hemlock woolly adelgid. More than half the affected trees would fall on their own during the six year closure. GRSM then hired Richmond Tree Experts through a $150,000 contract to dispose of the rest. Friends of the Smokies would provide $100,00 to meet this need, the park says. The remaining $50,000 would come from federal funds.

‘With the dead hemlocks gone, GRSM could finally complete needed repairs for the almost-200-year-old road itself’

With the dead hemlocks gone, GRSM could finally complete needed repairs for the almost-200-year-old road itself. Drainage improvements, road surface grading, and gravel replacement were all sorely needed. In total, 550 tons of gravel were brought to repair Parson Branch, alongside the replacing of 16 drainage culverts.

A restored Parson Branch Rd. May 26, 2022 (NPS, GRSM media release)

“We are pleased to reopen Parson Branch Road in time for the 2022 summer season,” offers Deputy Superintendent Alan Sumeriski. “Not only does this restore access to one of the most special places in the Smokies, it also allows another opportunity for people of all abilities to spread out and explore less traveled areas of this very busy park.”

“Our treasured National Park faces many daunting challenges each year on top of trying to meet routine, operational needs,” adds Friends of the Smokies Board Chair Sharon Pryse. “I am proud to represent the Friends of the Smokies and donors from across the country who respond to help the park address these unplanned and unfunded needs so visitors of today and tomorrow can enjoy these remarkable experiences.”

The History of Parson Branch Road is also Cades Cove’s Legacy

Today, Great Smoky Mountain National Park visitors can finally return to this ‘less traveled area’ of the Smokies. And they can do so using a path that’s been in existence for over 180 years. It was Cades Cove resident Russell Gregory, in fact, that would oversee construction of the road circa 1838. At the time, Blunt County officials wanted a road that connected Cades Cove residents to Highway 129. This would greatly increase commerce and trade for the county. Parson Branch Road was the result, finished in 1838.

Parson Branch Road reopening ceremony, May 26, 2022. (NPS, GRSM media release)

“The reopening of Parson Branch Road is certainly special,” says Cades Cove Preservation Association member Larry Sparks. “It’s significant not just for me as a former Cades Cove resident and descendant of Russell Gregory, but also for all who love and appreciate the history and beauty of Cades Cove and Chestnut Flats. I would like to applaud the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the reopening of Parson Branch Road today! May this road opening serve as a tribute to my 3rd generation great grandfather Russell Gregory and others who literally built it with pick and shovel in hand.”

‘The eight-mile road now provides motorists a trail-like experience through a mature forest canopy with nearly 20 stream crossings’

Visitors can explore this rich history by checking out GRSM‘s Henry Whitehead Place just before entering the one-way road. The Burchfied and Boring cemeteries also feature along the route.

“The eight-mile road now provides motorists a trail-like experience through a mature forest canopy with nearly 20 stream crossings,” the park promises. “The road also provides access to trails such as Gregory Bald Trail… A popular route for hikers in June to experience the hybridizing azaleas in bloom atop the high-elevation grassy bald.”

If you on heading to Parson Branch Road, however, the park recommends high clearance vehicles.

Motorhomes, buses, vans longer than 25 feet, and passenger vehicles towing trailers are prohibited.

Parson Branch Road will now be open from April to November each year. The road will close for the season on November 13, 2022.