GATLINBURG, Tenn. – Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials announced on Tuesday, Aug. 17 that Laurel Falls Trail parking will be available by reservation only from Sept. 7 through Oct. 3 as part of the Laurel Falls Congestion Management Pilot Project. The pilot project aims to improve visitor safety, relieve congestion, better protect park resources, and enhance the visitor experience on Laurel Falls Trail. The 1.3-mile trail is one of the most popular trails in the park with more than 375,000 visits in 2020.
During the pilot project, trailhead parking will be provided by reservation only and no parking will be permitted in undesignated areas along Little River Road. Parking reservations, for two-hour time blocks, may be made online at www.recreation.gov for a fee of $14 beginning on Aug. 24.
“I want to thank the public for providing great feedback throughout the process of developing this pilot project,” said Superintendent Cassius Cash. “The concept was borne out of public workshops last fall and further refined after the latest public meeting as we strive to address safety and congestion challenges at this busy site.”
The park collected public comments on the congestion management pilot project from July 20 through Aug. 7. The park received 150 submissions from 18 states, with 70 percent coming from Tennessee residents. The most prevalent comment, representing 42 percent of submissions, included concerns about the parking reservation fee amount. The second most prevalent comment, representing 22 percent of submissions, expressed general support of the pilot project effort, while 6 percent of submissions expressed opposition.
The high level of Laurel Falls Trail use has resulted in congestion along the trail, crowding at the falls, and unsafe conditions along Little River Road. Vehicles parked along the roadside obstruct the flow of traffic and create blind-spots for motorists, while visitors walking to or from their vehicles in the lanes of traffic are at risk of being struck by passing vehicles. Roadside parking also impacts adjacent habitats, damages road edges, and causes erosion.
Managing parking through a reservation system is expected to spread use more evenly throughout the day, creating a less crowded and more enjoyable experience on the trail and at the falls. The two-hour timeframe for parking reservations is based on monitoring data collected this summer. On average, most hikers complete the hike in 90 minutes. Park staff will be on hand to actively manage parking and monitor conditions during the pilot. The information learned during this pilot will help the park make more informed decisions about how to manage the area in the future.
During the pilot, hikers who plan to utilize the Laurel Falls Trail parking area to use Sugarland Mountain Trail must also obtain a parking reservation to park at the trailhead. If hikers plan to be on trail for longer than the allotted two-hour time block, they must use a different trailhead and are encouraged to contact the Backcountry Office for more information on other trail access points. Additionally, Rocky Top Tours will provide shuttle access to the trailhead from nearby, Gatlinburg, Tenn. for a fee of $5 per person. Information about the shuttle can be found at www.rockytoptours.com.
For more information about congestion monitoring in the park, please visit the park website at https://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/management/ves.htm.
– National Park Service release