Will Laurel Falls remain free? Pilot project tests parking fees

Laurel Falls in Smoky Mountains National Park

Laurel Falls is one of the most visited trails in the park with over 375,000 visitors last year (photo by shrirampatki/stock.adobe.com)

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A few years ago, my daughter’s all-star softball team played a Little League all-star tournament hosted by a neighboring community. 

Per Little League rules, the host is not supposed to charge admission to the games. Little League wants every friend or family member who wants to come watch their all-star player to be able to do so, without worrying about cost. 

This community, however, embraced the letter of the law but not the spirit. They charged for parking. 

It wasn’t a lot, $5 per car or something like that. But to me the amount was irrelevant. You are not supposed to charge. 

End of story.

And so I politely declined to pay and told others on the team to do the same until the tournament organizer and a groundskeeper accosted one of my less diplomatic parents, and I was forced to intervene.

They explained the rules didn’t expressly prohibit a parking fee. I asked if my parents could park elsewhere, and the answer was no.

Well, then, you’re charging an entrance fee.

Parking fees at the Laurel Falls trailhead

That memory shot to the front of my mind recently as I read the National Parks Service (NPS) plan for the Laurel Falls trail. 

Laurel Falls is one of the more accessible hikes in the mountains. Located not far from the Gatlinburg entrance to the park, the hike is only about 1.3 miles and is partially paved back to the falls, which are quite beautiful.

The pavement is rough and uneven, and it does not extend the full length of the trail.

Still, Laurel Falls one of the most visited trails in the park with over 375,000 visitors in 2020, why is why parking fees are part of the pilot project.

Congestion is an issue. Parking is an issue. 

Visitor experience and visitor safety are both issues. 

And so, the NPS has endeavored to come up with a solution.

That solution? Reduce congestion by making it more expensive to visit the falls with a parking fee. 

Read Also: Easy hikes in the Smoky Mountains, our top 6 ranked

One of the requirements when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created was that it would be free to visitors (photo by jdross75/stock.adobe.com)

Is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park free?

During the creation of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, one of the requirements of the state of Tennessee was that admission to the park be open to any dang body who wanted to come.

Yellowstone? You’ve got to pay. 

Badlands? You’ve got to pay. 

The Great Smoky Mountains? We’re free as a bird, baby.

That’s the way it is, and that’s the way it should be. 

And so as the park service endeavors to address the issue of congestion, they’ve sought focused-group input from visitors, volunteers and park staff.

Read Also: Why the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free and others are not

How the NPS is proposing to address congestion

The suggestions they’ve curated include cutting parking spaces, charging a parking fee, increasing the presence of rangers and volunteers and creating a commercial shuttle system to ferry visitors back and forth from the trailhead to Ober Gatlinburg. 

Listen. I believe in the Park Service. I think they do great work. They understand more about land management and operations than I ever will. 

But they also released a report with the following sentence:

“Reducing roadside parking will reduce the overall amount of parking spaces currently used by visitors.”

And this: 

“In October 2020, the park initiated a visitor experience stewardship engagement process.”

And so I will continue to view this plan to turn Laurel Falls and possibly other popular locations in the park into a for-profit experience with a heavy amount of skepticism. 

But John, they already charge to rent picnic pavilions and camping spaces in the park, you might reasonably say.  

That’s different. Overnight stays and pavilion access are above and beyond the regular everyday functions of the park.

Access to parking for a trail? That’s the whole reason the park exists.

You know why Laurel Falls is so popular? Because it’s beautiful and relatively easy to get to.

You want to ease congestion? Don’t disincentivize people from coming.

Create more areas that are easy to access. Create more trails like Laurel Falls where people can see the wonder of nature without embarking on a deep country hike. 

Don’t take people’s money. Invest our tax dollars in making the wonders of the park accessible to more people. 

Laurel Falls is located in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park (stock photo/TheSmokies.com)
The pilot project at Laurel Falls will take place from Sept. 7 through Oct. 3, 2021 (stock photo)

How much is the parking pass at Laurel Falls?

During the pilot process, they will charge $14 for a parking pass to the Laurel Falls trail, or technically $12 to park and a $2 processing fee.

Or you can pay $10 to park at Ober and $5 a head for the shuttle service. For my family, that’s $35 for a trip to Laurel Falls. 

Commercializing access to something that was previously free, in my opinion, is a bad road to go down.

I know there are commercial entities operating the park – the horse stables at Cades Cove for example. But this is different.

NPS seeking feedback from the public

Not all of the suggestions were bad. The group also suggested repairs to the trail and to the falls viewing area as well as more rangers onsite, which is always a good thing.

Devising a system to let visitors assess the congestion level before visiting is also a good idea, though implementation might be a bit complicated. 

A virtual public meeting to discuss the Laurel Falls Trail Management Plan and the Laurel Falls Trail Congestion Management Pilot Project was held on Thursday, July 22. 

Public comments are being accepted until Aug. 7, 2021. Written comments may be submitted. 

To submit comments, go to parkplanning.nps.gov and click on the green “Comment Now” button on the left to access the online commenting form. 

Send comments mail to the following address:

  • Laurel Falls Trail Congestion Management Pilot Project
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  • 107 Park Headquarters Rd.
  • Gatlinburg, TN 37738

When will the parking fees at Laurel Falls begin?

The pilot would will look at visitor experience, safety and parking congestion at one of the park’s busiest trails from Sept. 7 through Oct. 3, 2021.

During the pilot period, parking in undesignated areas would be prohibited. Parking at the trailhead would be provided by reservation only through recreation.gov.

Information gathered during this pilot will be used to inform the alternatives developed in the previously announced Laurel Falls Trail Management Plan.   

What do you think about the proposed parking fee? Let us know in the comments.

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at [email protected] for questions or comments.

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13 thoughts on “Will Laurel Falls remain free? Pilot project tests parking fees”

  1. Ok I understand the congestion-that is why we have not hiked here in several years now. I want to come to see the park without feeling more crowded up than a busy day at Dollywood. I have seen people moving barricades; however, if I or anyone else made a reservation then what or how are you going to enforce this-keeping someone else from parking in a reserved place? Tow their car if they stay to long???Or would everyone have to shuttle-then what about the current federal government covid mandates? Alot of things to deal with changing this especially right now. People have enough stress in their lives right now so why add to this when they just want to come to the park for a vacation in a natural setting? At best timing is terrible-leave this be but place more rangers here if funding allows.

  2. It us a bunch of hog wash. The park is free to the people of this country has Been from the start it was set up that way and that how it should stay. All they are doing is trying to line there pockets. And stop people from enjoying the falls.

  3. I do not agree with charging any fees to the Smokey Mountains or to visit any waterfalls..that is a terrible thought.

  4. Not an issue if you truly a care about the GSMNP. Personally, as a monthly donor, I approve. I think Cades Cove should also be a fee based attraction. The only part of the park that cannot charge an entrance is the actual entrances to the np from public lands.

  5. That is a steep fee, and especially for locals and the citizens of TN who visit the park often. Should build another parking area maybe with a short hike to the trailhead.

  6. Not right! I have driven by Laurel Falls and there seems to be a lot of traffic and cars all over the place, all the time! One of the best things about The Great Smokey Mountains is that it is FREE and will always be so. Parking fee to a trailhead is REDICULOUS!!! What if that was implemented at Alum Cave or Chimneys? There is always congestion at those trailheads too. Do you not want any visitors to the park at all?!?! I wouldn’t pay to park at a trailhead. That sounds REDICULOUS. I wouldn’t do it.

  7. No trail fees period! We have been going there for 25 years exposing different family members to the park- because it has been free and for that reason only. Do not ruin it. Start at Laurel and it will spread like fire.

  8. If the NPS establishes a parking fee here it will most likely be a foot in the door for parking fees at every trailhead. The fact that it is a free form of recreation adds to my enjoyment.

  9. Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park “for the permanent enjoyment of the people.”

  10. It is right and proper to charge a fee for limited parking. And contrary to this article, they are not “lining there pockets” (cringe), nor getting rich. If you knew the deficit they are operating under, you would gladly open your wallet. Fees are necessary to to keep the trails accessible and passible. The Smokies and park are still free. Just be thankful you can enjoy them.

  11. Its a great idea. Who wants to see cars parked all over the road? Lessening the number of people on the trail will make for a better adventure.

  12. My name is Al. I been coming here since the 70ends. The smoky mountain was all way free and should stay that way. How can you put a time limit on enjoying the Smokie.there a easy fix put up no parking signs and give tickets. And put a light up by sugar land instead of a stop sign. There’s always thing that can be done with out charging money for. People come to get outside and enjoy the mountain. Why rune a good thing 14 for parking is crazy. Thanks

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