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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.