GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK (WATE) – A major repair project is happening in a popular part of the Smokies, cutting off access to Cades Cove.

Laurel Creek Road, the seven-mile route from the Townsend Wye to Cades Cove is closed through Saturday, Feb. 29. This full closure is needed while crews repair Bote Mountain Tunnel’s drainage system and seal cracks.

MORE: Access to Cades Cove closed through Feb. 29 as crews repair tunnel

Bote Mountain Tunnel dates back to 1948

Park officials say Bote Mountain Tunnel was constructed in 1948 and hasn’t had any serious rehabilitation work since then.

Before crews started working, wildlife management teams inspected the tunnel, making sure no animals were roosting in the tunnel.

On Thursday, park rangers gave WATE 6 On Your Side access to see the repairs happening inside the tunnel.

“There’s been a few cracks that have developed in the lining over the years and water is starting to seep in the tunnel. We get some icicles in the winter so that starts to become a safety hazard,” said Herb Kupfer, a landscape architect with the National Park Service.

While we were there, crews were focusing on the demolition of the concrete lining.

“Once they get all the concrete chipped out, they’ll put new drains in the wall of the tunnel and then cover it with shotcrete to match the finish,” explained Kupfer.

Both sides of Bote Mountain Tunnel are closed with a make-shift wall as Kupfer says repairs are temperature sensitive, “We need to have temperatures above 50-degrees to be able to place the concrete back in place.”

Cades Cove has 2 million visits a year

On average, Cades Cove has around 2 million visitors a year, most of them between May and October.

“There’s no good time to close off access,” said Dana Soehn with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

She says park officials made a timeline for the project with community leaders.

“A single-lane closure to Cades Cove in the months of July and June is much more disruptive then really a full-closure during January and February,” added Soehn.

Repairs slated for completion by May 20

The hope is to complete the repair project by May 20.

“We just want to make sure everybody gets here safely and we want to make sure they have a beautiful drive,” said Kupfer.

Periodic single-lane closures will happen between March 1st and June 15th as crews finish tunnel repairs and repave that area.

Trails are still open but park rangers say it’s a 14-mile, round-trip trek just to get access to Cades Cove loop and with the shorter winter days, it wouldn’t allow much time to enjoy it. Park rangers suggest hiking other trails throughout the park during this closure.

Cades Cove Campground, which is normally open during the winter, is closed through March 5. Park officials say to accommodate winter campers, Elkmont Campground and Smokemont Campground on the North Carolina side of the park will remain open year-round.