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.
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.
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.
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.
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.