Winter on the ridge: Wintry conditions cause Parkway closures despite warm temps at low elevations
Though a mixture of rain and ice pelted the windshield as I headed toward the Balsam Gap access of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the forecast was calling for a high of 52 and the car thermometer read 48 degrees.
I was headed up to see what springlike weather down below translated to when sitting at 6,000 feet on the scenic mountain road, because, let’s face it, I was skeptical. The Parkway had been closed for much of the winter, including the previous week, when temperatures in Waynesville climbed up to the sunny 60s.
By the time I reached the Parkway entrance, which sits at 3,400 feet, the temperature had dropped to 40 degrees. The Parkway was — you guessed it — closed, but Law Enforcement Ranger Lou Jahrling was there to take me past the gate. We shook hands, and he introduced me to Lauren Larocca, his fellow law enforcement ranger who was less than a week into the job since moving from Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska. Then we all jumped into the patrol vehicle to find out just what’s so risky about wintertime on the Parkway.
Richland-Balsam Overlook, elevation 6,411 feet, milepost 431.4
To look at it, you wouldn’t think that Richland-Balsam was the highest point on the Parkway. The sun is out, the road is clear, and the Parkway basically looks like the American ideal of the open road.
“It’s just because the way the road is,” Jahrling explains. “The way the road is, you can see the sun beating on it all day.”
The afternoon sun shines down unimpeded by any tall trees.
But as we drive toward the northernmost piece of our route, Bear Pen Gap, the situation quickly changes. The road disappears underneath a layer of snow, remnant of a Monday snowstorm that was just a cold rain down in Waynesville. It’s thin at first, later thickening to well over an inch. The road is invisible for more than a quarter mile.
“During the summer time, this is one of our bad curves where you get a lot of accidents,” Jahrling says.
With any kind of snow or ice on the road, the odds would get that much worse.
Pinnacle Ridge Tunnel, elevation 813, milepost 439.7
The tunnel is mostly clear, though a few patches of ice dot it. Icicles hang from the tunnel walls, adornments that Jahrling says can create hazard.
“They get long in the wintertime and can reach from the top to the bottom of the roadway,” he says.
Just on the other side of the tunnel, a fallen rock lies in the center of the lane, likely splintered off due to the harsh freeze-thaw cycles of winter. Jahrling swerves around it, no problem, but that section of road is on a hard curve. If there had been anyone coming in the opposite direction — as there doubtless would have been, were the road open — things could have ended badly.
Standing Rock Overlook, milepost 441.4, elevation 3,915 feet
A line of sawdust lies across the road, evidence of a fallen tree recently removed. It’s 37 degrees, but the road is shiny.
“This will mostly be ice, depending on the weather, if it goes below freezing,” Jahrling says.
Balsam Gap, milepost 443.1, elevation 3,370 feet
Here the road is clear, though a little damp. The temperature has risen to 40 degrees, and the sun is out. The road looks great for cruising, but the gates across the access roads are firmly closed.
Jahrling says he has caught people trying to sneak around them before.
“We had one case last year where they ran straight into the gate and tried to break it, and we’ve had some four wheel drive vehicles try to get around it,” he says.
That’s probably too high a price to pay for a Parkway view. Skirting the barrier in anything with a motor would result in a charge of entering a closed area, which carries a penalty of up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine. Skiing, walking and mountain biking are fine, however.
It’s 33 degrees, and snow is covering the road. We drive a little farther and come to a smattering of fallen rock.
“This was clear the other day, and this just happened,” Jahrling says.
Waterrock Knob, elevation 5,718 feet, milepost 451.2
The thermometer reads 32 degrees, 8 less than the low point at the Balsam access where we’d started. The road is completely covered with snow, probably retaining a good 1.5 to 2 inches of the 2 or 3 Jahrling said fell there three days ago, on Monday.
What snowfall was that? I had to think, but then realized Monday had been a day of cold rain back in Waynesville. Up here, it had been snow. Enough snow that Jahrling had seen a good number of people breaking out their skis and snowshoes.
As we descend the hill past Waterrock Knob, the snow continues and Jahrling shifts down a gear.
“This is the one section that never really gets any sun,” he says. “I remember when we had that snowstorm in November. Everything was gone, but they were still building snowmen up here.”
Thunder Struck Ridge, elevation 4,780 feet, milepost 454.4
The road is plenty clear up here, and it’s pretty, with a wall of rock on the right side of the road covered in icicles. Those aren’t a problem right now, but they will be later.
“Once it stays above freezing, it starts to melt,” Jahrling says. “We get a lot of water over the road, and then it turns to ice.”
Unlike state and county road workers, Parkway maintenance can’t combat those hazards with the usual methods of plow and salt. Plows are cost-prohibitive for the strung-out formation of the Parkway, and salt just isn’t allowed on National Park Service land, period.
Back in the lowlands
I drive back down to Sylva to finish my workday, all bundled up in a Columbia parka and knit hat, but it’s not long before I’m shedding the hat, pulling the jacket off, and turning down the heat in the car. By the time I get into town, it’s 50 degrees and sunny, the wintry sleet of 12:30 p.m. long gone and not a sign of snow. It feels a lot more like March than January.
“We want people to enjoy the road, but we want to do it as safely as possible,” Jahrling said earlier. “We have a lot of accidents in the summer, and it would just double with black ice and snow on the road.”
If he’d told me that by phone, I might have been kind of skeptical. But a January cruise along the Parkway amply demonstrates that life at 6,000 feet is a lot different than at 2,000.
“There’s only a trace down in Waynesville or Asheville. You come up here and it’s 2 or 3 inches, and you’re getting people who have never driven in the snow before,” said Jahrling, who himself has worked in a portfolio of national parks including Glacier and Grand Teton. “It’s just a recipe for an accident.”
So, the Parkway remains closed throughout most of the winter, waiting for the warmer days to come.
A better map
The Blue Ridge Parkway posts its road closures in real time on its interactive map, but that map is in for an upgrade.
The new version will launch later this month, featuring information about sights and facilities and a table version of road status in addition to the map. The map will also sync better with mobile devices than it does now. In the future, the Parkway hopes to house archived closure data and photos there.
The map is a template that others are copying. Yellowstone National Park is now using an interactive map based on the one the Parkway developed, Law Enforcement Ranger Lou Jahrling said.
Making the call
Though many Blue Ridge Parkway staff work seasonal positions, the park’s law enforcement staffing is the same year-round.
For the Pisgah District, which goes from Mount Mitchell to the Parkway’s southern terminus, 10 rangers patrol the road. The Parkway has no written policy guiding closure decisions, but law enforcement staff makes road safety part of the daily wintertime routine.
“Usually what we do is we come in, check the weather right away, see what the forecast is going to be and then go out and check the road,” said Lou Jahrling, lead law enforcement ranger for the piece of the Parkway from Mount Pisgah. He’s one of two for his area.
Jahrling will work with maintenance staff to clear out fallen trees and rocks, and if there’s just an isolated ice patch or two causing a problem, he’ll throw down some sand and drive over it once or twice to make it safe. Typically, the temperature on a section of road – there are 30 from Mount Mitchell south — has to stay above freezing for 24 hours to warrant an opening.
Once the road decision is squared away, he’ll spend the rest of the day on the kinds of tasks there’s only time to do in the winter. Making sure that the Parkway’s boundaries are well-marked, checking that no hunters have put their bear bait stations on Parkway property, scouting out the trails and completing trainings.
“I try not to sit in the office as much as possible,” Jahrling said.