Gatlinburg SkyPark

The Gatlinburg Wildfires

2016: Devastating Wildfires
On November 23, 2016, a wildfire ignited inside Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Despite intensive firefighting efforts, the complex of fires began to spread beyond the containment area. By November 28, the combination of a prolonged drought and heavy winds helped spread the fires to Gatlinburg. SkyPark general manager Randy Watson sent employees home that day, hoping to protect them from the effects of ash falling from the sky. 

That night, the fire attacked Gatlinburg SkyPark from both above and below, burning across the slopes and summit of Crockett Mountain and completely destroying the SkyLift. Separate fires continued to burn in other communities, including the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, which alone burned more than 10,000 acres.  

By December 12, the fires had claimed at least 14 lives and burned more than 17,900 acres (27 square miles), making it one of the largest natural disasters in the history of Tennessee. At least 14,000 people had to be evacuated, and more than 2,400 buildings were damaged or destroyed. 

2017: Rebuilding the Lift
The current version of the iconic SkyLift was installed in 2017 following the 2016 wildfires, with 92 new three-seat chairs replacing the old two-seaters. While firefighters were able to save the ticket building in downtown Gatlinburg, the upper terminal of the lift, towers and other buildings on Crockett Mountain were damaged beyond repair by the fires. The intense blaze burned every piece of wood in the buildings to ash.

Helicopter service was required to remove the old towers because of the size of the pieces and the steep landscape. On March 21, 2019, the chairlift towers and tower heads for the new SkyLift were flown in by helicopter. Crews on the tower platforms guided the new parts into place and climbed the towers to attach the tower heads. Additional improvements made the new ride smoother and quieter.

The new SkyLift, the first part of the park to be rebuilt, welcomed its first visitors on Memorial Day weekend 2017, only six months after the disaster. Today, the SkyCenter memorializes the fire with photographs and a tattered American flag retrieved from the ashes.

2019: SkyBridge Opens
In May 2019, the SkyBridge, in the design stages long before the wildfires, opened to international acclaim after seven months of construction, as the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America. A staggering 90 percent of the trees on the mountainside burned in the wildfires, making the views and experience on the bridge even more dramatic.