Outdoors Briefs

Trailhead restrictions coming to Laurel Falls

The pilot project aims to spread out use throughout the day, avoiding massive crowds such as this, which have become typical on the popular trail. NPS photo The pilot project aims to spread out use throughout the day, avoiding massive crowds such as this, which have become typical on the popular trail. NPS photo

From Sept. 7 through Oct. 3, the Laurel Falls Trail parking lot in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be available by reservation only. 

The Laurel Falls Congestion Management Pilot Protect aims to improve visitor safety, relieve congestion, better protect park resources and enhance visitor experience on the heavily used trail. The first 1.3 miles of the trail received more than 375,000 visits in 2020, making it one of the park’s most popular trails. 

Online reservations are now available for two-hour time blocks in the parking lot. The fee is $14, and reservations can be made at www.recreation.gov . Rocky Top Tours will also provide shuttle access to the trailhead from Gatlinburg for a fee of $5 per person. Shuttle information is available at www.rockytoptours.com . During the pilot project, no parking will be permitted in undesignated areas along Little River Road. 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. 

“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.” 

During more than two weeks of public comment on the pilot project, the park received 150 submissions from 18 states, with 70% coming from Tennessee residents. The most prevalent comment, representing 42% of submissions, included concerns about the parking reservation fee amount. The second most prevalent comment, representing 22% of submissions, expressed general support of the pilot project effort, while 6% 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. 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. 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. 

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3 comments

  • So a focus group of 220 people represented over 12.5+million yearly visitors. Where will the Laurel Falls overflow go? Maybe Rainbow or Grotto falls? The parking lots at Rainbow and Grotto falls already are overflowing and people park along the road. I guess it’s OK to park along the road there. Maybe the focus groups are looking at that area too. Focus groups are a CYA strategy by the PS. If goes wrong, blame focus group. I turns out OK, the PS looks progressive in using focus groups. Parks are for people not lazy PS.

    posted by Mark Dotson

    Thursday, 08/26/2021

  • wow. that messes with their no entry fee philosophy. If they start charging for each park feature it could get very expensive to visit the park.

    posted by scott burns

    Thursday, 08/26/2021

  • wow. that messes with their no entry fee philosophy. If they start charging for each park feature it could get very expensive to visit the park.

    posted by scott burns

    Thursday, 08/26/2021

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