BANDY CREEK — Could Summer 2020 be the busiest summer the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area has ever experienced?
Niki Nicholas, the superintendent of the national park, thinks so.
As the Covid-19 pandemic causes people to vacation in different ways, including staying close to home and seeking ways to be outside and away from crowds of people, the Big South Fork fits the bill as an alternative vacation destination. It’s within a day’s drive of most of the U.S. population, and within a half-day’s drive of millions of people across much of the eastern part of the country.
“We are looking at tourism trends, and the information we’re getting from various sources, people need to get out of the house, they want to do things with the family, but getting on airplanes is something that from a number of different perspectives is gonna be much more reduced,” Nicholas said.
“We’re expecting very high activity for recreational use of the Big South Fork, which is great,” she added. “We want to show the world what a fabulous place this is.”
Just one month ago, the Big South Fork was completely empty — shuttered, with barricades blocking access to most roads and trailheads, as the National Park Service took steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Prior to the park’s closure, visitation was skyrocketing.
That spring increase in traffic to the Big South Fork was at least partially due to a nation on furlough — people who would ordinarily be working but who were not, due to the Covid-19 threat. With time on their hands, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park closed, they were seeking somewhere to be outside.
The summer tourism season is a different animal. There is still an abnormal number of people out of work, but many have returned to their jobs. However, they’re taking a more cautious approach to traveling for vacation, and some tourist destinations remain off-limits due to coronavirus restrictions.
Nicholas said she hopes that people will take precautions as they enjoy the Big South Fork.
“It’s very important that we all work together to make sure there’s social distancing involved,” she said. “Given that there are 125,000 acres, there is a lot of opportunity for social distancing here. Backcountry camping is open, and we’re pretty excited about potential for the summer.”
Backcountry camping isn’t the only camping option. On Wednesday, campgrounds on the Tennessee side of the national park — including Bandy Creek and Station Camp — will reopen. Campgrounds on the Kentucky side of the park will reopen at a later, as-of-yet unannounced date. Visitor centers also remain closed, for now, but bathroom facilities are open.
“We really hope that people demonstrate social distancing,” Nicholas said. “The main thing about Bandy Creek is that the campsites are fairly far apart compared to campgrounds in other parts of the country.”
The expected increase of visitation at Big South Fork comes on the heels of widespread storm damage that the Big South Fork incurred this past winter. Virtually every trail was victim to fallen trees, wash-outs, mud deposits from the rain-swollen river, and other damages. In the most extreme case, the John Muir Trail from Leatherwood Ford to Angel Falls Overlook was taken out in some spots by uprooted trees, and a recently-replaced foot bridge at Fall Branch was destroyed by a fallen tree.
While many repairs await the park’s maintenance crews and its new trails chief, Oneida’s Chris Carson, Nicholas said that all of the trails have been cut out, so that they’re passable.
“We had a tremendous amount of damage,” Nicholas said. “There’s still a lot of work to do and we’re going to continue to work on it. We need people’s help and understanding.”
There are opportunities for volunteers to pitch in — including the park’s Trailkeeper program. Trailkeepers adopt specific trails, reporting conditions on it to NPS personnel several times each year while also cleaning up litter along the trail and performing minor chores such as removing tree limbs.
Anyone interested in becoming a trailkeeper should contact Effie Houston, at (423) 569-9778.