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Pilot project to manage Laurel Falls trail congestion begins September 7

During the pilot project period, parking in undesignated areas would be prohibited. Parking at the trailhead would be provided by reservation only.

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — The National Park Service is seeking public input on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Laurel Falls Trail Congestion Management Pilot Project. The pilot project would address visitor experience, safety and parking congestion at one of the park’s busiest trails from Sept. 7 through Oct. 3, 2021. 

"At Laurel Falls specifically, we'll see cars parked up to a mile along the Little River Road," said Caitlin Worth, a public affairs specialist with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. "Those folks are in a position often where they have to walk in the road to get to the trailhead, which is a safety concern for both motorists and those that are parked."

During the pilot project period, parking in undesignated areas would be prohibited. Parking at the trailhead would be provided by reservation only through recreation.gov for a fee of $14 per car.

Visitors could access the trailhead via shuttle service from Gatlinburg for a fee of $5 per person. That's similar to what Bob Madden has seen in other parks.

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"In Acadia, you pull into a central parking area —kind of the main visitor center — and then from there, you get on shuttles that take you throughout the park," he said. "[That's] a lot more efficient because you avoid this crush of cars parked all over the place."

Other visitors told 10News they wouldn't want to take a shuttle.

"Parks that we've been in before where you have a shuttle feels to me a little more touristy and a little less about what the park is all about," said Roxy Hermon, who was visiting from Missouri. 

The Laurel Falls Trailhead is located approximately 5.5 miles from the Gatlinburg entrance to the park. The paved trail leads 1.3 miles to Laurel Falls and then ascends to the Cove Mountain Fire Lookout. 

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The relatively short hike to the falls and proximity to a major park entrance makes Laurel Falls Trail one of the most popular destinations in the park with nearly 350,000 visitors per year.

Park managers propose implementing these temporary measures to assess their effectiveness in reducing congestion and enhancing visitor safety. 

Information gathered during this pilot will be used to inform the alternatives developed in the previously announced Laurel Falls Trail Management Plan, which is also open for preliminary public comment.

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A virtual public meeting was hosted to discuss the plan and pilot project on Thursday, July 22. 

Public commenting on the pilot project will remain open through Aug. 7, 2021. Written comments may be submitted online. 

For more information about the proposed Laurel Falls Trail Congestion Management Pilot Project, visit the National Park Service website.