Photo of visitors gathering at Laurel Falls. Some are seated on a wooden bench, most are standing, some pose for a picture in front of the upper falls.

Laurel Falls Congestion Management Pilot Project 2021

Great Smoky Mountains National Park » Laurel Falls Congestion Management Pilot Project 2021 » Document List

We invite you to provide comment on a temporary congestion management pilot project set to take place at Laurel Falls trailhead from Sept. 7 through Oct. 3, 2021. The pilot project seeks to gain information about potential management strategies to improve the visitor experience, protect Park resources, and manage congestion and crowding. The information obtained during the pilot project would support development of the Laurel Falls Trail Management Plan, which is described in more detail here: https://parkplanning.nps.gov/LaurelFalls.

Laurel Falls Trail Background Information:

The Laurel Falls trailhead is on Fighting Creek Gap Road about 5.5 miles from the Park's Gatlinburg, Tennessee entrance. The 4-mile trail leads to 80-foot high Laurel Falls at the 1.3-mile mark and then ascends to the Cove Mountain Fire Lookout. The trail is paved from the trailhead to the falls. The relatively short hike to the falls and proximity to a major park entrance makes Laurel Falls Trail one the most popular destinations in the Park with over 375,000 visitors in 2020.

Relationship to the Laurel Falls Trail Management Plan:

The National Park Service (NPS) has initiated planning efforts for the Laurel Falls Trail Management Plan in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (the Park). The Laurel Falls Trail Management Plan would focus on the 1.3-mile segment from the trailhead to the falls, and guide future trail management and visitor use. You can obtain more information and provide input on the Laurel Falls Trail Management Plan here: https://parkplanning.nps.gov/LaurelFalls. The Laurel Falls Congestion Management Pilot would serve to provide visitor use and experience data for the over-arching Trail Management Plan.

Past Planning Effort: Visitor Experience Stewardship Engagement - October 2020:

In October 2020, the Park initiated a visitor experience stewardship engagement process. Park staff held eight virtual workshops with the public, employees, volunteers, and partners to collect their input on congestion and crowding in the Park. As a part of the workshop, Park staff presented information about the current state of the Park ((https://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/management/ves.htm) and a visitor use expert presented congestion management solutions implemented on public lands across the country and globe. More than 200 people attended the workshops and provided input on their ideal Park experiences as well as their opinions on how sites could be better managed. Because the workshops were virtual, people from all over the country had the opportunity to participate. Additionally, Park staff collected feedback via the Planning, Environment & Public Comment (PEPC) system. People from 28 states provided feedback through the PEPC system, totaling 391 submissions collected. Participants had the opportunity to comment about any area in the Park but were prompted to discuss the following sites: Cades Cove day use area, Laurel Falls Trail, Clingmans Dome day use area, Alum Cave trail, Chimney Tops Trail, Rainbow Falls Trail, Trillium Gap Trail, and Big Creek day use area. The Park received 220 submissions related to Laurel Falls Trail. Some of the key features of a desirable visitor experience for Laurel Falls Trail raised through the visitor experience stewardship civic engagement process included:
• Visitors have the opportunity to access safety information before beginning their hike.
• Visitors experience a well-ordered flow of foot traffic to the falls.
• Visitors have adequate physical space and time to enjoy and perhaps take photographs of the falls.
• Parking is available in designated spots.
• Visitors can safely travel from their vehicle to the trail head.

Participants of the visitor experience stewardship civic engagement proposed various management practices to improve Laurel Falls trail, including:
• Reduce or eliminate roadside parking.
• Charge a parking lot fee.
• Make repairs to the trail and falls viewing area.
• Increase the presence of rangers and volunteers in the parking area and on the trail.
• Provide information about congestion conditions to the public.
• Provide alternative transportation to the trailhead from the surrounding gateway communities.

Laurel Falls Congestion Management Pilot Project:

Based on information obtained during the Visitor Experience Stewardship Engagement process in 2020, Park managers will implement a congestion management pilot project at Laurel Falls Trail in September 2021.

The Laurel Falls Congestion Management Pilot Project will include the following elements:

• Reduction of roadside parking: Roadside parking will be reduced through a combination of signage, temporary physical barriers, and increased staffing. These measures could extend from Maloney Point to the quiet walkway parking area along Fighting Creek Gap Road.

•Shuttle service: Reducing roadside parking will reduce the overall amount of parking spaces currently used by visitors. Therefore, a commercially operated shuttle service will be provided as part of the pilot project to offer an alternative to personal vehicle-based visits and the parking reservation system. Rocky Top Tours will provide the shuttle service. Shuttles will run approximately every half hour from the Ober Gatlinburg parking lot at 300 Cottage Drive in Gatlinburg, Tennessee starting at 9:00 a.m. The last shuttle will leave the trailhead at 4:00 p.m. The shuttle will cost $5 per person. The parking lot charges $10 per vehicle.

• Timed-entry parking reservation system: To allow for better trip planning during the pilot project, Park managers will implement a timed-entry parking reservation ticket system to be administered through recreation.gov. Parking reservations will be available for official parking areas at the trailhead only. A $2 processing fee will be charged for each transaction on recreation.gov. An additional $12 per vehicle fee will be charged for a parking reservation ticket as a cost recovery mechanism to support Park operations associated with the pilot project for a total cost to the visitor of $14 per vehicle.



The information gathered during the pilot project will be wrapped into the Laurel Falls Trail Management Plan. The park welcomes feedback on the congestion management pilot. In order to delineate between comments regarding the overall trail management plan and comments specific to the congestion management pilot, the park has opened a separate comment period.

Please submit formal comments no later than August 7, 2021. Select "Open for Comment" on the left menu bar, open the Laurel Falls Trail Congestion Management Pilot Project Public Comment Period folder and click on the green "Comment Now" button to access the online commenting form or send comments mail to the following address:
Laurel Falls Trail Congestion Management Pilot Project
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
107 Park Headquarters Rd.
Gatlinburg, TN 37738

Contact Information

Caitlin Worth, 828-348-3406