Railroad announces rides will begin again starting June 4
Traditionally, Memorial Day weekend is a relatively busy time for Bryson City and Swain County as it is considered the unofficial kickoff to the summer season. Of course, 2020 has proven different than any previous year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With more social restrictions lifted in North Carolina just in time for the holiday weekend, the county saw a return of visitors to the area to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or just take time to get away to the mountains and relax.
On Saturday, Deep Creek in the National Park was busier than it has been all year with the return of visitors who were tubing in the creek and with several more hikers than in the past. However, the campground area was is still closed.
In downtown Bryson City, several more businesses were able to open their doors or expand their service with the state’s Phase II of lifting restrictions. It was evident in town over the weekend that more people were venturing out to enjoy a beer, get a to go meal or do a little shopping.
While it was a stark contrast to the height of the social restrictions that shuttered most businesses, the holiday weekend proved a slow return to the swell of visitors that the area is accustomed to seeing.
“Our Visitor Center numbers were down approximately 60% over the Memorial Day weekend compared to last year,” reported Mary Anne Baker, Swain County Tourism and Development Authority Executive Director. “I do not think that is indicative of the overall tourism inflow to Swain County. There are a couple of factors at play; one is that the museum and Great Smoky Mountains Association gift shop are still closed. We are only open for visitor information and public restrooms. Therefore, some visitors may have opted not to come inside.”
Baker added that some visitors to the area kept a low profile and stayed at their cabin rentals instead of venturing out into town.
“Secondly, from some lodging owners I have spoken with, it appears that many of our visitors over Memorial Day were staying in private cabin rentals, and may have chosen to stay put rather than come to town and be exposed to the general public,” she said.
Train rides resume next weekend
There’s little doubt tourism in Bryson City will be subdued until rides start back for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad passenger trains. On Monday, the railroad announced that trips will start again next weekend beginning on Thursday, June 4.
In the announcement, the company noted the gift shop and model train museum will also reopen. The company will be following the guidelines set by the US Centers for Disease Control to limit the potential spread of coronavirus.
This means the trains will be running at a reduced capacity as well to adhere to the social distancing regulations. Currently, first class service is being suspended until Aug. 1 and meals will be limited to pre-ordered box lunches. Passenger trains will be available in the open air gondolas, standard coach and crown class, and reservations must be pre-booked prior to arrival, according to GSMR.
"Like any other company we have had to adjust quite a bit," said Sarah Pressley with GSMR. "We have had to rearrange all of our seating options in order to create the appropriate amount of spacing and to ensure the guest feels comfortable. We are focusing on booking our open air coaches and bigger coaches as well to again give more space. We have also put a tremendous amount of thought and careful planning into our cleaning procedures and front facing employee protocols."
Among the safety procedures the railroad will be adhering to and the recommendations to passengers noted in the press release are:
• Wear a face covering while at the GSMR upon arriving in the parking lot and at the Bryson City Depot and throughout the experience
• Practice social distancing
• Gatherings must follow the state guidelines of 10 indoors and 25 outdoors
• Stay home if you are sick
• Be prepared with cashless payments
• Remain seated in your assigned passenger coach during your trip
The specialty rides that the GSMR would normally host during the summer are not happening this year due to the pandemic. However, tickets are being sold for the specialty train that draws the biggest crowds will still happen in 2020, the Polar Express Train rides that will be held during the holiday season this winter.
"We are very excited to get back up and running. It has been a tough few months of shutdown for us and we are ready to get our employees back," Pressley said. " We are approaching our reopening with cautious thought and care. Our first run back on June 4 will be with our steam engine, so it will be a highly anticipated day with the return of the Steam of The Smokies and operations."
Those wishing to book a train ride can visit the website gsmr.com or call 1-800-872-4681.
“We appreciate our patrons’ patience and are excited to see the return of a safe and prosperous 2020 railroad season,” announced the railroad in the press release.
The return of the train is good news for those who have lodging businesses or other businesses that rely on tourism.
The Swain County TDA is very excited about the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad beginning scenic rail excursions again on June 4,” Baker said. “We are encouraged by the new protocols and safety standards they have set forth for their staff and passengers. And we are eager to see the increase in visitors to Swain County that the return of passenger service will provide for lodging owners and businesses in Swain County.”