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Donation will open Smokies visitor centers for holiday weekend

Despite the ongoing government shutdown, two visitor centers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be open over Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend thanks to a donation from Friends of the Smokies. Appropriations from federal recreation fees are also keeping a third visitor center, as well as a variety of restroom facilities, open during the shutdown.

Park visitation typically spikes over the holiday weekend, and park partners had worried that if no visitor services were available over that period, damage to the park would ensue. Friends of the Smokies’ donation will keep the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee and the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg open from Friday, Jan. 18, through Monday, Jan. 21. Hours will be 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday through Monday and 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday.

Monday afternoon, the centers will close again until federal funding is restored and the park fully opens.

“We are proud to commit funding for the visitor centers and restrooms to reopen during the holiday weekend in order for rangers to provide a safe and enjoyable visitor experience,” Friends of the Smokies Executive Director Tim Chandler said. “Any opportunity to work with our partners to preserve and protect America’s most-visited national park is a welcome one, and Friends of the Smokies stands at the ready to provide further support.”

The donation will fund resource education park rangers to work the visitor center and provide information services to park visitors. The nonprofit will also pay park employees to clean, reopen and maintain restrooms at the visitor centers during the temporary reopening, and Great Smoky Mountains Association staff will keep park stores open at both locations, with all sales supporting the park.

Restrooms are also open at Newfound Gap, Cable Mill in Cades Cove, Smokemont Campground and Deep Creek Picnic Area, due to direction from the National Park Service last week that revenue generated by recreation fees could be used to clean and maintain the facilities during the shutdown. This federal funding also allowed the reopening of Cades Cove Campground and Picnic Area — including restrooms — and maintenance of Little River Road between Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area and the Townsend Wye and Foothills Parkway East. The funding is also keeping the visitor center at Cable Mill in Cades Cove open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with staffing from GSMA.

Friends and GSMA have both stepped up during the shutdown to provide essential services during the park’s busiest times. GSMA donated more than $50,000 to keep the visitor centers at Oconaluftee, Sugarlands and Cades Cove open from Dec. 22 through Jan. 1, and Jan. 4 Friends of the Smokies announced it would fund restroom maintenance at Newfound Gap and Cades Cove for at least two weeks, though the funds were not needed that long due to the release of federal recreation fees.

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