2/7/2012 - Blue Ridge Parkway visits up 6 percent in 2011
by Karen Chavez - Asheville Citizen Times
No. 1 national park site in country looks ahead
ASHEVILLE -- Perhaps the visitors who didn't show up in the Smokies last year went sightseeing on the Blue Ridge Parkway instead.
Or maybe visitors flooded through the parkway construction zones that finally opened in 2011.
Either way, the parkway saw an increased popularity last year, with a 6 percent rise in visitation over 2010.
The scenic roadway attracted nearly 15.4 million visitors last year, up from 14.5 million.
At the same time, the Smokies had about half a million fewer visitors, dropping from 9.5 million in 2010 to 9 million in 2011. Smokies officials attributed the numbers to a 2010 increase from visitors who were turned away from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
"We had a lot of the parkway closed in 2010," parkway superintendent Phil Francis said. "We had a very difficult winter, that carried over into the spring. We opened the area near Mount Pisgah (closed for a year to perform slide stabilization work).
"But I would attribute any increase in visitation to the normal changes from one year to the next. It's hard to put your finger on it."
Give or take a million visitors, the parkway, which stretches 469 miles from Cherokee up to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, is still the most visited of all 397 units of the National Park Service.
In addition to the Smokies and the parkway, the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in Flat Rock is also a unit of the park service and also experienced an increased influx of visitors last year.
The park had 89,719 visitors in 2011, up from 87,875 in 2010, a 2.1 percent increase. Additionally, October 2011 had a record high of 12,740 visitors to the 264-acre park in Henderson County.
"We had a beautiful October. It was just exquisite," Superintendent Connie Backlund said. "The colors were just grand. We find that weather can make a big difference."
Backlund also said the continuing lag in the economy might have led more people to stick to day trips and driving vacations last year.
"We're within a day's drive of well over half of the American population. We're well-positioned. That is significant in the number of visitors we receive," she said.
The heavy volume of visitors is expected to continue on the parkway, Francis said, even though more road projects are planned for 2012.
The biggest road project will be more slide stabilization, said Mike Molling, parkway chief of maintenance. The work will take place about 25 miles northeast of Asheville at Milepost 358, three miles south of the turnoff to Mount Mitchell State Park. The work is expected to start in June or July with one-lane closures.
"We've had a retaining wall fail. We noticed a slump in the pavement last spring," Molling said. "We did a quick overlay of asphalt to bring it back up to level, but it was a temporary fix.
"One problem is the type of filling they used in the '40s and '50s wasn't very good. It's starting to decompose."
Molling said the construction area is a half-mile long and will operate under one-lane closures with traffic lights until the end of the busy tourist season, when both lanes will close, until spring 2013.
Other road work planned for 2012 include the following:
Grandfather Mountain paving: The work between mileposts 299-317 from Grandfather Mountain to Linville Falls, began last year and will continue this spring and summer with one-lane closures.
Big Witch Tunnel and Big Witch Overlook repair: The erosion repair at the overlook and drainage system work in the tunnel at Milepost 361 have been ongoing since November and will continue. The work should be finished with complete road openings by April 15.
Graveyard Fields project: A half-million-dollar National Scenic Byways grant was awarded to the parkway to install restrooms and expand parking at the popular trailhead at Milepost 418. Work was expected to begin this year, Molling said, but the funding has not been received.
In addition to the road projects, which also include work on the Virginia side of the parkway, the new communications center at Parkway Headquarters in Asheville is expected to be dedicated in March, Molling said.
The 1,800-square-foot building will house all of the parkway's dispatchers as soon as the last microwave radio transmission tower is in place.
Francis said parkway staff is also revising the General Management Plan, which would be the first in the parkway's 75-year history.
The draft was released to the public last year, and some 9,000 public comments were received. The vast majority of the comments were from visitors concerned about bicycling on the parkway, Francis said.
"An action alert went out in the cycling community," Francis said. "People wrongly thought we meant to restrict bicycling on the parkway."
He said other comments included those requesting mountain biking opportunities, concern about the parkway being designated a national historic landmark and concern about excessive noise from motorcycles.
"We have a lot of different parkway users. We're glad that people expressed their opinions," he said.
Staff are still reviewing comments and revising the plan to reflect those comments, Francis said. The final draft of the general management plan will go to the regional office in Atlanta and then Washington D.C. for final approval, which Francis said he anticipates by the end of the year.