Visitor Experience Stewardship

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is consistently the most visited national park in the country. It is situated within a day’s drive of between one-third and one-half the population of the United States and was visited more than 12.5 million times in 2019.

Providing a high-quality visitor experience has grown more challenging due to increasing visitation. Since 2009, annual visitation to the Smokies has increased by 32%, 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 Selected as 2021 Focus Site

The Visitor Experience Stewardship process is outlined in the infographic below. The feedback gathered through the virtual workshops and PEPC were analyzed, distilled and evaluated. Laurel Falls was selected as the focus site for 2021. The pilot project will take place Sept. 7 through Oct 3, 2021.
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.

Laurel Falls Trail Congestion Management Pilot

When: September 7 through October 3, 2021
Where: Laurel Falls Trailhead parking areas
  • The Laurel Falls trailhead is on Little River Road (called Fighting Creek Gap Road on some maps) about 5.5 miles from the Gatlinburg, Tennessee entrance to the Park.
  • The 1.3 miles of the trail is paved from the trailhead to the falls.
  • The relatively short hike to see a water fall and its proximity to a major park entrance makes Laurel Falls Trail one the most popular destinations in the Park. In fact, over 375,000 visitors hiked Laurel Falls in 2020 – that’s an increase of over 110,000 people compared to 2019.
  • Learn more about Laurel Falls here: Laurel Falls - Great Smoky Mountains National Park (U.S. National Park Service) (
Pilot Goals:
  • Improve safety conditions
  • Provide a high-quality visitor experience
  • Gain information about management strategies
  • Protect park resources
  • Manage crowding and congestion
  • Gather visitor use data
  • Inform future management strategies
Pilot Strategies:
  • Prohibition of roadside parking
    • Park managers will prohibit roadside parking through use of physical barriers and staff presence. This will improve 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 will implement a timed-entry parking reservation ticket system to be administered through beginning August 24th. Parking reservations will be available for official parking areas at the trailhead only. The fee will be $14 per vehicle.
  • Additional opportunity for trail access
    • A commercially operated shuttle service will be provided as part of the pilot project to offer an alternative to personal vehicle-based visit. Rocky Top Tours will provide the shuttle service. Shuttles will run approximately every half hour from a parking lot in Gatlinburg, Tennessee starting. More information including advanced reservations can be found here:
Most visited parks in 2020 graph
This bar graph shows the ten most visited national parks in the country in 2020. Great Smoky Mountains National Park was visited over three times as much as the next most visited park, Yellowstone.

NPS graph

Visitation Statistics
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the country with over 12 million visitors in 2020.
Recent annual visitation is presented below. For complete records of National Park Service visitation and other statistics, check out the Public Use Statistics Office.
Visitor Experience Stewardship Newsletters


Last updated: September 14, 2021

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107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738


(865) 436-1200

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