Smokies to test paid parking at Laurel Falls Trail to reduce congestion

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is trying a new approach to curb congestion and improve safety at the busy Laurel Falls Trail. Beginning Sept. 7 visitors to the trailhead parking area will be required to reserve their spot and no parking will be permitted in undesignated areas along Little River Road.

The parking reservations will be given in two-hour blocks and cost $14. Reservations may be made online at www.recreation.gov beginning Aug. 24. The pilot program will last through Oct. 3.

“I want to thank the public for providing great feedback throughout the process of developing this pilot project,” GSMNP Superintendent Cassius Cash said. “The concept was born 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 1.3-mile trail is one of the most popular trails in the park with more than 375,000 visits in 2020. 

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. 

The parking reservation is one of the latest efforts at Laurel Falls Trail to keep visitors safe and lower the repeated environmental impact so many visitors can create at the site.

The park says 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 manage parking and monitor conditions 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.

Rocky Top Tours will provide shuttle access to the trailhead from Gatlinburg for $5 per person. Information about the shuttle can be found at www.rockytoptours.com.  

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