SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. — The Great Smoky Mountains National Park said it recently reviewed the data from its Cades Cove Vehicle-Free Day and Laurel Falls Trail Congestion Management pilot projects in 2021, which aimed to improve safety, visitor experience and resource protection.
Based on the data, park managers announced the permanent implementation of full-day, vehicle-free Wednesday opportunities for Cades Cove Loop Road beginning May 4 through Sept. 28 in 2022, according to a release from the park.
Visitor feedback was positive for the second year of the Cades Cove Vehicle-Free Day pilot with 84% of visitors providing supportive comments, according to the park. Around 42% of commenters requested additional vehicle-free access opportunities on the Cades Cove Loop Road.
The park said an average of 1,296 visitors participated each Wednesday from May 5 through Sept. 1, 2021, and on average, 44% of those visitors walked and 56% cycled the Loop Road.
The full-day approach, along with on-site parking management, allowed better access and more opportunities to enjoy the experience throughout the day, according to officials. Parking was generally available 82% of the time, however, parking lots were consistently full during the morning hours.
Park managers will continue to manage and monitor the parking areas similarly in 2022, according to the park. Visitors are encouraged to come in the afternoon and evening hours for a better chance of securing a parking space. More information about vehicle-free days is available online.
The park said it will continue to review visitor use management strategies for Laurel Falls as a part of the Laurel Falls Trail Management Plan Environmental Assessment (EA). Until this process is complete, no reservation or shuttle systems are planned for Laurel Falls.
Around 91% supported the Laurel Falls Trail pilot project, which included time-restricted, reservation-only parking and restricted parking in undesignated areas along Little River Road, according to officials. Managing access through the reservation and shuttle system was expected to spread use more evenly throughout the day, creating a less crowded and more enjoyable experience on the trail and at the falls.
The park said visitors experienced lower rates of litter and a reduction in crowding overall during the pilot. An average of less than one grocery bag of trash was collected by volunteers during a six-hour shift, which was down significantly from an average of 2.2 bags prior to the pilot.
The Laurel Falls Trail Management Plan EA will consider management strategies such as those employed during the pilot project, according to officials. Park managers plan to hold a public scoping period for the EA by early summer and then release the EA for public comment later in the year.