Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials celebrated the reopening of Parson Branch Road recently with a ribbon-cutting event honoring the crew who performed the needed work and the Friends of the Smokies who provided critical funding to support the efforts. The historic gravel road, originally constructed in 1838, is now reopened to the public after a six-year closure.
“We are pleased to reopen Parson Branch Road in time for the 2022 summer season,” said 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.”
The one-way, eight-mile road was closed in 2016 after crews documented more than 1,700 dead standing dead hemlock trees within falling distance of the road corridor along a one-mile section of the roadway. The trees died due to a widespread infestation of the non-native forest pest, hemlock woolly adelgid. Over the last six years, more than half the dead trees fell due to natural deterioration and multiple large wind events, making it feasible to remove the remaining damaged trees through a $150,000 contract with Richmond Tree Experts. The Friends of the Smokies provided $100,000 to meet this need, which was matched by an additional $50,000 in federal funds. Park crews then completed needed road repairs including improving drainage and grading the road surface which required the replacement of 16 culverts and 550 tons of gravel.
“Our treasured National Park faces many daunting challenges each year on top of trying to meet routine, operational needs,” said 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.”
Parson Branch Road is a historic, gravel road that follows a route traveled by people for more than 180 years. Blount County commissioned Cades Cove resident Russell Gregory to oversee construction of the road, which was completed in 1838, to provide access from Cades Cove to what is now Highway 129. The road provided a significant commerce route for Cades Cove residents, including direct access to the Little Tennessee River for trading goods.
“The reopening of Parson Branch Road is certainly special,” said 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.”
Visitors can explore the rich history of the area by stopping in the Henry Whitehead Place just before entering the one-way road and then also access the Burchfied and Boring cemeteries 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 road also provides access to trails such as Gregory Bald Trail which is a popular route for hikers in June to experience the hybridizing azaleas in bloom atop the high-elevation grassy bald.
High clearance vehicles are recommended for traveling Parson Branch Road. Motorhomes, buses, vans longer than 25 feet, and passenger vehicles towing trailers are prohibited. This seasonally opened road is generally open from April to November annually. The road will close for the season on Nov. 13. For more information about the operating schedule for roads and facilities in the park, please visit the park website at https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/seasonalroads.htm.
- National Park Service release