Great Smoky Mountains to require reservation, parking fee near popular waterfall

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Laurel Falls is one of the most popular attractions in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.That popularity leads to traffic hazards, with visitors parking on the side of the road and walking in the middle of the street.So, starting Sept. 7, the National Park Service will require you to make a reservation for a two-hour time block to visit the falls.Not only that, you'll have to pay $14 to park in one of the designated areas. No parking will be allowed outside those areas.Reactions were mixed on social media, with some agreeing the park needs protecting and others saying $14 is too much

Starting September 7, it will cost you $14 to park near Laurel Falls

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has unveiled a controversial pilot project to charge visitors $14 to park near Laurel Falls, one of the park’s most popular attractions.

The National Park Service says the “congestion management project” will operate Sept. 7 through Oct. 3, which is among the busiest times in the 522,427-acre park.

“During the pilot project, trailhead parking will be provided by reservation only and no parking will be permitted in undesignated areas along Little River Road,” NPS officials said in a news release.

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“Parking reservations, for two-hour time blocks, may be made online ... for a fee of $14 beginning on Aug. 24, 2021.”

The plan quickly drew condemnation on social media, with some calling $14 exorbitant for a national park. Others called the two-hour window a “time limit on nature” that penalizes hikers if they “stop along the way to enjoy the scenery and to have fun.”

“Slowly figuring out ways to get around the agreement to not charge for access to the park,” Jerden Hunley wrote on Hiking the Smokies Facebook page.

“Fourteen dollars to park for the trail is insane. Should quickly become the least visited trail. If they do this at all they should make it $1-$2 maybe. Looks like a money grab,” Kenny McDonald said.

“So this trail is the only trail my father could hike when he had terminal cancer and wanted to hike with the family. There is no possible way we could have done it in 2 hours! The time limit is ridiculous! I absolutely hate this idea,” Debbie Maddox Mosley said.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has long been the nation’s “most visited national park,” according to the National Park Service. It had 12.1 million visitors in 2020, the NPS says.

The 1.3-mile trail to Laurel Falls is among its most popular sites, with “more than 375,000 visits in 2020,” park officials said.

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As a result, the nearby road, parking lot and trail have become unsafe at the height of the summer, officials said.

“Vehicles parked along the roadside obstruct the flow of traffic and create blind-spots for motorists, while visitors walking to or from their vehicles in the lanes of traffic are at risk of being struck by passing vehicles,” park officials said. “Roadside parking also impacts adjacent habitats, damages road edges, and causes erosion.”

It’s hoped requiring reservations will spread out visitation. The two-hour parking limit is based on a survey that showed most people finished the waterfall trail in about 90 minutes, officials said.

The idea for reservations and fees was suggested during a series of eight public workshops held virtually last fall to address “congestion and crowding in the park,” NPS officials said.

Some of the backers took to social media to defend the idea as critical to saving the park.

“Absolutely needed. We are loving our park to the point of destruction. The beauty of this area needs managing or risk losing it forever,” Barbara Rabek wrote on Facebook.

“This should have been done years ago and needs to be done in other areas of the park. The park is way too crowded,” Chelsea Ballard said.

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