Visitor Experience Stewardship

This image shows a crowd of people at Laurel Falls - the waterfall is in the background.
Annual visitation has increased by 57% over the last decade, leading to trail congestion like this at Laurel Falls in July of 2019. Over 375,000 visitors hiked Laurel Falls in 2020 – that’s an increase of over 110,000 people compared to 2019.

NPS Photo

 
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is consistently the most visited national park in the country. It is situated within a day’s drive of one-half the population of the United States and was visited more than 14.1 million times in 2021.

Providing a high-quality visitor experience has grown more challenging due to increasing visitation. Since 2011 annual visitation to the Smokies has increased by 57%, 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 have remained flat over the last ten years.

Park managers are committed to working hand-in-hand with gateway communities, business and non-profit partners, and visitors to find solutions that improve the quality of visitor experiences, address congestion, and maintain the tremendous economic engine our park provides in a manner that continues to protect park resources and values.
 
 
Visitor Experience Stewardship Outreach
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 and a visitor use expert presented congestion management solutions that have been implemented on public lands across the country and globe. Over 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. Additionally, park staff collected feedback via the Planning, Environment & Public Comment (PEPC) system.
 
 

Laurel Falls Trail 2021 Congestion Management Pilot

The Laurel Falls Trail Congestion Management Pilot ran from Sept. 7 through Oct 3, 2021. Through the Visitor Experience Stewardship engagement detailed above, park managers were able to learn about what a desirable visitor experience for Laurel Falls would be and also some potential management strategies. .
 
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 site?
  • 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 https://www.recreation.gov. 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 recreation.gov 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. Park managers plan to hold a public scoping period for the EA during the first half of 2022 and plan to release the EA for public comment during the second half of 2022.
 
Top Left: the Laurel Falls parking crowded with cars, Top Right: parking lot during the  pilot. Bottom Left: crowded conditions at Laurel Falls prior to the pilot. Bottom Right: same area is shown with far fewer visitors.
Images of the parking lot and the falls viewing area both before and during the Laurel Falls congestion management pilot.

NPS photo

 
  • During pilot period:
    • 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.
 
Line graph showing creasing visitation from 2011 to 2021- arrow indicates 57% increase overall.
The bar chart shows annual visitation to Great Smoky Mountains National Park from 2011-2021. There has been a 57% over the last decade.

NPS graph

Visitation Statistics
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the country with over 14.1 million visitors in 2021. For extensive visitation statistics, check out the Public Use Statistics Office.
 
Monthly visitation shown in black bars from 2010-2020, 2021 monthly visitation shown in red dashed line.
The black bars shows average visitation to Great Smoky Mountains National Park per month from 2010-2020. The red, dashed line shows 2021 monthly visitation.  Raw numbers are included in the table below.

NPS Graph

 
Average monthly visitation is shown from 2010 - 2020, as well as 2021. Percentages of total annual visitation are also shown
Average monthly visitation from 2010 - 2020 as well as 2021 are displayed in the table for comparison. Additionally, monthly contribution to the annual visitation is displayed, both for the 2010 – 2020 average and for 2021 visitation.

NPS Table

 
Visitor Experience Stewardship Newsletters

 
 
 
 
Recent annual visitation is presented below. For complete records of National Park Service visitation and other statistics, check out the Public Use Statistics Office.

Last updated: March 30, 2022

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg , TN 37738

Phone:

(865)436-1200

Contact Us

Stay Connected