- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

TOWNSEND, Tenn. — Nineteenth-century farms, black bears and a pastoral landscape surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains have made picturesque Cades Cove the most popular destination in the country’s most-visited national park.

More than 2 million visitors a year flock to this 6,500-acre valley at the southern end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, making it one of the most heavily used park areas anywhere in the United States.

“You have great scenery, great nature and great history. It’s got the combination there,” says Dianne Flaugh, the park’s landscape architect.

However, with sightseers comes traffic congestion, particularly during summer vacation and right on through autumn, when visitors flock to see the brilliant colors of the leaves.

Up to 4,450 vehicles a day take the narrow, one-way, one-lane road that loops 11 miles around the cove.

Forget the 20 mph speed limit; it’s backwoods gridlock every time someone pauses to ogle a deer or photograph a bear. Campers and cars are lined up bumper to bumper, with occupants breathing in the exhaust.

The National Park Service cautions that the loop road trip can take three to four hours during these busy times. “Expect delays” advises the park Web site.

With traffic volume roughly doubling every decade since the 1970s to more than 563,000 vehicles a year, the park is considering ways to cut, not just cope with, congestion in Cades Cove.

Five suggested actions take progressively stronger approaches, from adding warning signs for “bear jams ahead” and creating more roadside pull-offs to instituting a shuttle service or limiting access during peak periods.

“I am perfectly happy that people want to come and spend three or four hours in Cades Cove,” Miss Flaugh says, “but I think it ought to be spent doing something more enjoyable than watching the red brake lights of the car in front of them.”

Consultants surveyed nearly 900 Smokies visitors in July as part of a $1.3 million study on the Cades Cove experience. The results, still being compiled, will lead to a round of public meetings next summer and final recommendations in 2008.

Melanie Simon of ORCA Consulting in Clermont, Fla., headed the survey work, which involved interviewing visitors entering the cove, those leaving the cove and those who stopped at other park locations.

By and large, visitors love the cove and had to be drawn out to find a reason to complain, she says.On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the best, virtually every person leaving the cove rated the experience an 8, 9 or 10, she says. “Now there are some complaints about traffic, but generally, people seem to be willing to put up with that,” Miss Simon says.

The biggest issue for many was restricting access. Most were opposed.

Congress stipulated in creating the Smokies park in the 1930s that it was the people’s park and would never have an admission fee. It has become one of the few major national parks where the public still can enter for free, although fees are charged for such things as backcountry campground reservations.

Visitors were asked whether it was more important to be able to come to Cades Cove whenever they wanted or when there were fewer crowds. “The majority were saying ‘come whenever we want,’” Miss Simon says.

Not every visitor who approached the survey-takers decided to enter the cove, Miss Simon says. Some turned around after they found out how long the trip could take or saw pictures of the traffic they could face.

These tentative conclusions sound similar to the results of another Cades Cove visitors survey, taken in 1998. That survey found that “amazingly enough — well, no, it is not amazing — people love the park, so everybody is usually satisfied with their visit,” Miss Flaugh says.

“I’ve got a lot of mixed emotions about it,” says visitor David Mills of Owensboro, Ky., preparing recently to take his family, sitting in lawn chairs in the bed of his Ford pickup, on their annual drive through the cove.

“Some of us like to bicycle ride [through the cove] and some of us like to ride in the truck. But that bumper-to-bumper traffic doesn’t work, either. So they ought to do something.”

• • •

Cades Cove is eight miles from Townsend, Tenn. An 11-mile, one-way loop road circles the valley floor. Expect traffic delays in peak summer and fall; driving around the loop can take two to four hours.

Alternatively, you can bike the loop, and there also are hiking and horseback trails. The Cades Cove Visitor Center is about six miles around the loop at the Cable Mill area.

For more information, visit www.nps.gov/grsm/gsmsite/cadescove.html. For general information about the park, call 865/436-1200. To learn more about future plans to manage traffic in the area, go to www.cadescoveopp.com.

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