Photo: Asheville Citizen-Times
Karen Chavez, Asheville Citizen-Times
CHIMNEY ROCK, N.C. -- It might not be as impressive as the crack that closed the Blue Ridge Parkway, but the Chimney Rock Park crack, caused by spring rains, is doing damage on a smaller scale.
Torrential rains in early May caused the road failure, about a quarter mile from the entrance, said Matt Popowski, public relations manager for Chimney Rock Management.
The park has been operating with flaggers guiding traffic on one lane since the slide occurred. The N.C. Department of Transportation will oversee a permanent road repair project, which will close the park completely starting as early as next week.
"The project includes rebuilding the damaged section of the entrance road and constructing a new retaining wall," Popowski said. "The closure will be about a month, since work might need to stop during times of snow. Rumbling Bald Climbing Access will still be open and visitors can still climb at Rumbling Bald with Fox Mountain Guides."
Park Superintendent James Ledgerwood said the project was delayed for eight months to take advantage of the time of year with lowest visitation, to cause the least impact. The park averages more than 200,000 visitors a year.
"The project has been approved for the time period of Jan. 6-Feb. 28. It likely won't start for at least another week," Ledgerwood said. "They have to design the retaining wall. It's in design process right now and can take up to 15 days."
He said because the project is still in the design phase, a total cost has not yet been determined. As soon as the design is completed, the entire park will be closed for at least 21 days to reopen the entrance road to two lanes. The park road is 3 miles long and gains 900 feet in elevation, ending at 2,000 feet elevation at the upper parking lot below the Chimney Rock itself.
Ledgerwood said the popular Rumbling Bald Access on the other side of Hickory Nut Gorge from the main park, will still be open.
"Winter is the best time for climbing because there is less poison ivy and it's not as hot, so you can grip better. Rumbling Bald is south facing, so even when it's cold, it gets a lot of sun. There is also a hiking trail that is half-mile to the boulder face, about 1-mile round-trip."
The impending total park closure is just the latest in what has been a rough year for the state park in Rutherford County, about 25 miles southeast of Asheville.
In April, the park was closed for more than a week while the DOT worked to remove a giant boulder that was identified as a safety hazard hanging over the main road, halfway between the Meadows and the top parking lot.
In early May the slide occurred near the entrance, closing the park for a day. At the end of July, the elevator to the Chimney, which allows visitors to bypass the steep, 500-step Outcroppings Trail, was closed to visitors for electrical repair. The elevator reopened in mid-October, but was closed again in mid-November for part replacement, Popowski said. It will not open before the end of February.
Hickory Nut Falls, one of the most popular attractions in the rugged, rocky park, where parts of "Last of the Mohicans" was filmed, has been closed to visitors since November 2012, after a storm-induced rockslide. Popowski said the remaining bridge structure needs to be removed from the trail, and trail rebuilding will begin. It should reopen sometime this year, he said.
"It was a challenging year. We're excited about getting the waterfall trail back open," Popowski said. "It's tough when you have to close down for any period of time, but we're working with N.C. State Parks and N.C. DOT and we know they're doing what they can to help us get open as soon as possible. It's amazing that we've had so many challenges, but we've had so many awards this year."
This summer, Blue Ridge Country magazine's Best of the Southeast Mountains reader poll voted Chimney Rock State Park four platinum awards and three gold awards, including "Favorite State Park" and "Best Beautiful Fall Foliage Spot;" USA Today Travel ranked the park in the 10 Best "High Places in the World;" and Buzzfeed ranked the park's rappelling Santa as one of the "8 Most Extreme Santas In The World," among other accolades.
Popowski suggests visitors take advantage of the lowered entrance fee implemented because of the various closures. Usually $15 per adult, park admission will be $10 until the park closes for the road repairs.
"Come out and enjoy the park for the next week while you can," he said.