KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A Great Smoky Mountains National Park pilot program aimed at reducing vehicle congestion at one of the most visited trails in the park has now gone into effect. Visitors to the Laurel Falls trailhead parking area will be required to reserve their spot.
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.
No parking will be permitted in undesignated areas along Little River Road.
Park officials say 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. On average, most hikers complete the hike in 90 minutes.
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.
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.
The park collected public comments on the congestion management pilot project from July 20 through Aug. 7. Staff will be on hand to manage parking and monitor conditions during the pilot program.