Laurel Falls Pilot

The Laurel Falls Trail Congestion Management Pilot ran from Sept. 7 through Oct 3, 2021. Through the Visitor Experience Stewardship engagement in 2020, the public informed park managers about what a desirable visitor experience for Laurel Falls would be as well as potential management strategies to achieve the desireable experience.
So, what did we hear from the public when we asked about a desirable visitor experience for Laurel Falls?
  • 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 trailhead.

And what did the public recommend the park do to better manage the Laurel Falls experience?
  • 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.


Pilot Strategies:

  • Prohibition of roadside parking

    • Park managers prohibited roadside parking through use of physical barriers and staff presence. This improved the safety conditions at the trailhead parking area and along the road corridor.

  • Timed-entry parking reservations

    • To allow for better trip planning during the pilot project, Park managers implemented a timed-entry parking reservation ticket system administered through Parking reservations were available for official parking areas at the trailhead only. The fee was $14 per vehicle.

  • Additional opportunity for trail access

    • Rocky Top Tours provided shuttle service during the pilot period. Shuttles ran approximately every half hour from a parking lot just outside Park boundaries in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Pilot Results:

The Laurel Falls pilot received a 4.6 out of 5 average rating on and overwhelmingly positive feedback through comment cards and emails, with 91% expressing support for the pilot. Visitor use management strategies for Laurel Falls will continue to be reviewed 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.
Images of before and after the congestion management pilot at Laurel Falls Trail.
Images of the parking lot and the falls viewing area both before and during the Laurel Falls congestion management pilot.

NPS photos

  • 97% of parking reservation tickets were sold and confirmed

  • Only 16% of reservation holders did not show up for their reservation

  • No out of bounds parking for Laurel Falls Trail was observed

  • Crowding at Laurel Falls was substantially reduced

  • Litter was reduced from the pre-pilot average of 2.2 grocery bags of litter per 6-hour shift to only 0.5 grocery bags per shift during the pilot

  • Shuttles were 30% full on average with an average daily ridership of 83 people

  • Visitors stayed for an average of 104 minutes, well within the 2-hour reservation time block

  • Although there were no formal measurements, anecdotal accounts suggest crowding at other locations such as Elkmont day-use area may have increased.

Current Status and Next Steps:
Park managers released the Laurel Falls Trail Management Plam Environmental Assessment in October 2023. The park intends to implement the plan and begin construction on improvements to the trail and trailhead starting in 2024. The NPS expects the trail to be closed for a minimum of 18 months.

Last updated: January 18, 2024

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Mailing Address:

107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738



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