GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is inviting the public to review the Environmental Assessment that could impact the future of Laurel Falls Trail and to provide feedback on the proposed changes.
The National Park Service is proposing changes that include widening the trail, adding more parking spaces, adding rest areas along the trail and the creation of a multiplatform viewing area at the falls.
Input on the Laurel Falls Trail Environmental Assessment has been extended through Sunday, June 4.
Additional time to comment on the EA is being provided because the National Park Service Planning, Environment and Public Comment website was unexpectedly down May 19-23, according to the May 24 news release.
Laurel Falls Trail is one of the most popular destinations in the park, given its relatively short hike to the falls and the proximity to a major park entrance, GSMNP said. According to the park, the trail had more than 375,000 visitors in 2020.
According to the release, the assessment evaluates a no action alternative and a proposed action. With the no action alternative, there would not be changes to the existing Laurel Falls Trail or the parking areas, which is limited at the trailhead.
The plan was shaped by public input revived during civic engagement in the summer of 2021 and public scoping in the winter of 2022-2023.
Widening Laurel Falls Trail
The proposal preferred by NPS includes removing and replacing 31,000 square feet of existing asphalt on the 1.3 mile trail. It would be widened to 8 feet to allow visitors to pass each other without stepping off trail. The assessment estimates this widening would cause the removal of 120-160 trees.
“Trail widening would improve visitor circulation and reduce visitor-created trails and associated denuded vegetation,” the assessment states.
The improved trail would follow the existing alignment of the historical 1930s fire trail and match existing grades, which range from 4.5% to 16%. Five retaining walls would also be constructed, two at the viewing area.
Additionally, in the six locations where the trail contains historical stone edging, those stones would be relocated to the new widened trail edge in the same location, or as close to the original location as possible.
Signage near the trailhead would include information about trail conditions, including distance, trail surface, and steepness, to allow visitors to make informed decisions before initiating their hike.
Proposed changes at the trailhead
Timed-entry parking reservation system would continue under the new plan, at least for the busiest portion of the year. But the plan also calls for the addition of at least 50 more parking spaces in the areas that support Laurel Falls and Sugarland Mountain trailheads.
The park would construct two new asphalt parking areas to the east of the Laurel Falls trailhead on the same side of Little River Road as the trailhead. The first parking area would be built west of Maloney Point and accommodate an estimated 44 vehicles. A second parking area would be built east of the Laurel Falls trailhead parking and would accommodate about 10 parking spaces.
The biggest visual change at the trailhead would be the creation of an “arrival plaza.” Plans for the 16-foot radius concrete area would include a stone seating wall and allow visitors to gather before hiking, and include an 8-foot sidewalk between the parking lot and the plaza.
Changes at the falls
At the falls, the NPS would construct a multitiered viewing area that includes five platforms and two bridges at the upper and lower falls, connected by walkways and stairs. The viewing area would encircle the lower falls and add stone steps with railings between existing boulders to transition visitors directly from the trail to the lower viewing platforms. The bridges and viewing platforms would create a looped trail around the falls area and more than 2,000 square feet of viewing decks for visitors.
The bridge would serve as a new viewing platform with railings and would be constructed on top of the bedrock that visitors are currently using as a viewing area and where park officials say slips and falls commonly occur. The new upper falls viewing area would provide visitors “a safe location” to view and photograph the upper and lower falls, according to the assessment.
The park would also construct a smaller overlook east of the falls, where the existing tree canopy opens to provide long-distance views of the park, including Blanket Mountain.
Feedback can be submitted to the park online here, or by mail at:
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
ATTN: Laurel Falls Trail Management Plan/EA
107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
According to GSMNP, the park is conducting public scoping for the proposed plan in compliance with the National Environmental Police Act and National Historic Preservation Act.