You may not have to pay to enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but you’ll soon have to pay to park at one of its most popular attractions.
The National Parks Service is launching a pilot program next month to charge visitors a $14 fee to park at Laurel Falls. Reservations are required and can be made at Recreation.gov. Reservations will give users a specific time to enter the parking lot at the trailhead.
As part of the program, which runs for 4 weeks and begins September 7, informal parking along the side of the road near the parking lot will be blocked. This will improve the safety conditions at the trailhead parking area and along the road, the NPS said in a release.
“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,” park officials told The Charlotte Observer. “Roadside parking also impacts adjacent habitats, damages road edges, and causes erosion.”
The pilot program is a result of a visitor experience stewardship outreach the NPS did regarding the park. Starting last October, staff held eight virtual workshops with the public, employees, and volunteers seeking suggestions to improve the Great Smoky Mountains experience.
The NPS received 391 submissions, and well over half of them concerned Laurel Falls, mostly with concerns about overcrowding. Among the requests were a well-ordered flow of foot traffic to the falls, more physical space to enjoy the 1.3-mile trail, and designated parking.
The Laurel Falls trailhead is located less than 6 miles from the Gatlinburg, Tennessee, park entrance. The short hike to view the falls and its proximity to the entrance make it one of the most popular stops in the park. More than 375,000 people hiked the trail in 2020 as travelers sought things to do during the heart of the pandemic. That number represented a 110,000-person increase over 2019.
NPS officials believe the pilot program will improve safety conditions, provide a high-quality visitor experience, protect park resources, and manage crowding and congestion, among other things.
“Providing a high-quality visitor experience has grown more challenging due to increasing visitation,” the NPS said. “Since 2009, annual visitation to the Smokies has increased by 32 percent, resulting in congested roadways, overflowing parking lots, roadside soil erosion, vegetation trampling, and long lines at restroom and visitor center facilities. Meanwhile, staffing levels have decreased, and funding has remained flat over the last 10 years.”
Those who don’t want to deal with parking can get to the falls by an alternative method. Rocky Top Tours will provide a shuttle service from Gatlinburg every half-hour.