Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials recently assessed monitoring data collected during the Cades Cove Vehicle-Free Day and Laurel Falls Trail Congestion Management pilot projects in 2021. Both pilot projects aimed to improve safety, visitor experience, and resource protection. Based on assessments, park managers announced the permanent implementation of full-day, vehicle-free Wednesday opportunities for Cades Cove Loop Road beginning May 4 through Sept. 28 in 2022. Visitor use management strategies for Laurel Falls will continue to be reviewed as a part of the Laurel Falls Trail Management Plan Environmental Assessment (EA). Until this process is complete, no reservation or shuttle systems are planned for Laurel Falls.
Visitor feedback was positive for the second year of the Cades Cove Vehicle-Free Day pilot with 84% of visitors providing supportive comments. Approximately 42 percent of commenters requested additional vehicle-free access opportunities on the Cades Cove Loop Road. An average of 1,296 visitors participated each Wednesday from May 5 through Sept. 1, 2021. On average, 44 percent of those visitors walked and 56 percent cycled the Loop Road. The full day approach, along with on-site parking management, allowed better access and more opportunities to enjoy the experience throughout the day. Parking was generally available 82 percent of the time, however, parking lots were consistently full during the morning hours. Park managers will continue to manage and monitor the parking areas similarly in 2022. Visitors are encouraged to come in the afternoon and evening hours for a better chance of securing a parking space. More information about vehicle-free days can be found at https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/cades-cove-vehicle-free-days.htm.
Most commenters, 91 percent, supported the Laurel Falls Trail pilot project. During the pilot period, trailhead parking was provided by reservation only and no parking was permitted in undesignated areas along Little River Road from Sept. 7 through Oct. 23, 2021.
Parking reservations, which were available for two-hour time blocks, were made online at www.recreation.gov for a fee of $14 per vehicle. These fees were used to staff the parking lot, provide on-site portable toilets, and purchase roadside signage and barriers. Managing access through the reservation and shuttle system was expected to spread use more evenly throughout the day, creating a less crowded and more enjoyable experience on the trail and at the falls. Overall, visitors experienced lower rates of litter and a reduction in crowding during the pilot. An average of less than one grocery bag of trash was collected by volunteers during a six-hour shift, which was down significantly from an average of 2.2 bags prior to the pilot.
The Laurel Falls Trail Management Plan EA will consider management strategies such as those employed during the pilot project. Park managers plan to hold a public scoping period for the EA by early summer and then release the EA for public comment later in the year. Specific dates for these public comment periods will be announced in future news releases.
For more information about visitor experience stewardship, please visit the park website at https://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/management/ves.htm.
- National Park Service release