The first hints of orange have splashed the maple trees along the Blue Ridge Parkway, signaling the coming of another fall foliage season, when tens of thousands of visitors hit the scenic highway to see the colorful display.
Mountain communities that rely on parkway visitors’ spending hope the changing of the leaves also will bring a change in fortunes after years of tight budgets that forced staffing cuts and facility closures along the motor road and saw parkway visitor numbers drop by the millions.
“We hope to have a couple of sellout weekends in October,” said John Kilmartin, general manager and part owner of the Alleghany Inn, the only motel in the town of Sparta, just 7 miles off the parkway. He hopes Sparta’s Mountain Heritage Festival on Saturday, and the annual hawk migration that draws birders to parkway overlooks for the next several weeks, also will fill some of the inn’s 64 rooms.
Though 2015 has been the best of the past four years, Kilmartin said, he’s still not doing as well as he did before 2011, when the operators of Bluffs Lodge and Coffee Shop on the parkway announced they would not reopen. The inn and restaurant sent hundreds of visitors each year to the town of Sparta, where they would visit artists’ galleries, eat at local restaurants and, if the lodge was full, spend the night at the Alleghany Inn.
In 2011, the first year without the referrals, Kilmartin says business at the Alleghany Inn dropped 10 percent and fell more in the subsequent two years.
“We took a big hit,” he said.
The 24-room lodge and its coffee shop at mile marker 240 opened in the late 1940s on what was originally called The Bluffs, 235 acres of mountaintop land that also includes a large picnic area, a campground and miles of hiking trails. The area was later renamed Doughton Park to honor a Robert Doughton, a state congressman who was a longtime Blue Ridge Parkway advocate.
Like other spots along the parkway, Doughton Park has many devotees: the hikers who frequent its trails, the families who have held reunion picnics on its grounds every year for decades, those who came back every year to rent the same room at the lodge, and the legions who enjoyed made-to-order fried chicken at the Coffee Shop, delivered by a pair of sister-waitresses who had worked there for a half-century each.
The lodge and restaurant, owned by the National Park Service, were operated by a hospitality company out of Arizona through the end of the 2010 travel season. But when it came time to reopen in the spring of 2011, the company said it was not renewing its lease.
Leesa Brandon, spokeswoman for the Blue Ridge Parkway, said that at the time, the parkway was planning to close the road south of the lodge for major repairs during part of 2011, and the operators may have worried that business would decline during the project.
Since the company pulled out, Brandon said the parkway has repeatedly put the contract to operate the lodge and restaurant out to bid, but has not found a concessionaire to operate them.
Both buildings have mold damage and the restaurant kitchen would have to be brought up to code. Brandon could not immediately say how much those repairs would cost.
Though the inn and restaurant were closed, all other attractions at Doughton Park remained open – until 2013, when the effects of federal budget sequestration hit, and every unit in the national park system had to cut its operating costs.
The Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs 469 miles from the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Cherokee, N.C., had to cut $784,000 part way through its fiscal year. That translated to a reduction in staff from about 300 people, including seasonal workers, to about 240, Brandon said. They came from every department: administration, law enforcement, resource management, interpretation and education, and maintenance and engineering.
In the spring of 2013, some parkway amenities had to be opened later in the season than usual, and some didn’t open at all. Smart View picnic area, Roanoke Mountain campground, Otter Creek campground, Rocky Knob Visitor Center and James River Visitor Center, all in Virginia, were closed to visitors that year. In North Carolina, the campground, picnic area and visitor facility at Crabtree Falls, part of the campground and picnic area at Doughton Park, and the Jeffress Park and picnic area also were closed to visitors that year.
Trees at scenic overlooks weren’t pruned, obscuring the panoramic views that draw people to the park. Grass wasn’t mowed. The backlog of repairs needed on the aging roadway itself, and at the hundreds of buildings and amenities along the route, grew into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
At its peak, in 2002, the Blue Ridge Parkway had 21.5 million visitors. In 2014, it had 13.9 million – though it remains the second-most-visited of the more than 400 units in the national park system, behind the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Mark Woods, who took over as superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway in fall 2013, said he was determined to make sure parkway visitors were minimally aware of the park’s budget shortages. In 2014, most facilities along the parkway were reopened, at least partially. This year, the Otter Creek Restaurant and Gift Shop, and the Rocky Knob Cabins, both in Virginia, remain closed along with Bluffs Lodge and Coffee Shop. All campgrounds are open, though several opened only some of their sites and one campground – Roanoke Mountain – was converted to a day use.
So far this year, Brandon says, visitor counts are up about 10 percent over 2014.
Relying on ‘friends’
But federal funding has not increased and staffing levels are still down. From a visitor’s perspective, Brandon said, the most obvious loss of Blue Ridge Parkway personnel is in maintenance.
“We are trying to be creative in figuring out ways to still get the job done,” Brandon said. This year, for example, high school students with the N.C. Youth Conservation Corps, working with the Conservation Trust for North Carolina and the nonprofit Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, made repairs to trails and camping areas in the parkway’s Highland District. The Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway raised money to pay for tree clearing and pruning at overlooks, and organized the work of more than 2,200 volunteers who clean campgrounds, maintain trails and buildings, and help biologists gather information on threatened species.
Nearby communities help out as well; the board of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority voted to give the parkway a portion of the county’s occupancy tax receipts to help pay to maintain the vistas on the stretch of parkway that runs through the county.
Together, Brandon said, these and other groups provide a critical source of labor and funding.
“They’re out there doing a lot of hard work that makes the parkway look a lot nicer, which is what the visitor walks away with,” she said.
Though Congress has yet to approve a 2016 budget, the one President Barack Obama proposed includes an increase in spending on national parks, and would establish a Centennial Fund that would mark the Park Service’s 100th anniversary next year by addressing some of its maintenance backlog. If it’s approved, Brandon says the parkway would try to get enough of that money to make repairs to Bluffs Lodge and Coffee Shop in the hope of attracting someone to reopen them.
In the meantime, Kilmartin has been doing more to draw people to his inn. He’s traveled the Blue Ridge Parkway, meeting rangers and staff at visitor centers and leaving brochures along the way. It’s paid off, he says; occupancy has been up this year over last.
Biologists say conditions are right for this to be an extraordinarily colorful leaf season.
Before you go
For information about amenities and operating hours along the Blue Ridge Parkway, go to www.nps.gov/blri/planyourvisit/hours.htm.
For information on fall color at different elevations along the Blue Ridge Parkway, go to www.blueridgeparkway.org/v.php?pg=286, or call the parkway information line to hear the latest seasonal report at 828-298-0398, and select option 3.
For a list of coming events and festivals in the North Carolina mountains, go to http://highcountryhost.com.