GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK, Tenn. (WATE) — Now is your chance to travel a piece of Smoky Mountain history. Parson Branch Road has reopened after a 6-year closure due to damaged trees and road construction.
Parson Branch Road is a historic, gravel road that follows a route traveled by Smoky Mountain people for more than 180 years. It ran through an area of the former community called Chestnut Flats. The road provided a significant commerce route for Cades Cove residents, including direct access to the Little Tennessee River for trading goods.
Completed in 1838, Cades Cove resident Russell Gregory was appointed by Blount County to oversee construction of the road in order to provide access from the cove to what is now Highway 129. A descendant of Gregory was on hand for the reopening of the road on May 26.
“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.”
A small ceremony celebrated the reopening of the road with a ribbon-cutting honoring the modern-day crew who performed the needed work, as well as Friends of the Smokies who provided funding to support the years-long effort to clear trees and reopen the road.
The one-way gravel road was closed in 2016 after crews documented more than 1,700 dead hemlock trees along a 1-mile section that were standing within falling distance of the road. Park officials said the trees died due to a widespread infestation of the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid.
During the 6-year closure, the park said more than half the dead trees fell due to natural deterioration and multiple “large wind events.” This worked in their favor however because it allowed for the trees to be removed through a $150,000 contract with Richmond Tree Experts. Most of that funding was raised by Friends of the Smokies.
Parson Branch Road can be reached by taking a turn next to the visitor’s center in Cades Cove. Along the way, visitors can explore the Henry Whitehead Place just before entering the one-way road. The Burchfield and Boring cemeteries are along the route.
“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,” park officials said in a press release announcing the reopening.
High clearance vehicles are recommended for traveling Parson Branch Road. Motorhomes, buses, vans longer than 25 feet, and passenger vehicles towing trailers are prohibited.
The road is open seasonally, from around April to November each year. 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.
The 8-mile road now provides motorists a trail-like experience through a mature forest canopy with nearly 20 stream crossings, park officials said.