There's no entrance fee at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, when Tennessee and North Carolina turned over the land to the federal government in the 1930s, one of the conditions was that "no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed" to access the main road. That helps explain why Great Smoky Mountains is the most-visited national park in the United States.
But starting September 7, visitors will need to pay $14 to park near the trailhead to Laurel Falls (pictured above), one of the most popular sights in the Smokies.
As part of what's being called the Laurel Falls Congestion Management Pilot Project, hikers will need to reserve paid parking ahead of time at Recreation.gov, and there will be a two-hour time limit to how long nature lovers can linger on the 1.3-mile trail.
In a statement, the National Park Service (NPS) justified the new system by arguing that the trail's 375,000 annual visitors are causing overcrowding and unsafe conditions along the path, at the waterfall, and on Little River Road, particularly when motorists park in undesignated areas.
It's hoped that paid reservations will spread use of the trail more evenly throughout the day. The NPS statement says the average time needed to complete the hike is 90 minutes.
It's not clear how strict enforcement of the time limit will be, but the statement does warn that staffers will monitor the parking situation.
"If hikers plan to be on trail for longer than the allotted two-hour time block," the NPS states, "they must use a different trailhead and are encouraged to contact the Backcountry Office for more information on other trail access points."
As The Charlotte Observer points out, the plan has not been popular on social media. A post about the paid reservation system in the Hiking The Smokies Facebook group received more than 200 comments, few of them positive, before the original poster turned the commenting feature off.
Many have complained about the $14 fee amount, saying that it's too high and feels like a "money grab," while others object to the two-hour window as too brief or impractical. Supporters counter that reservations are a necessary evil given the overcrowding that amounts to "loving our park to the point of destruction."
Since outdoor domestic recreation has been one of the few vacation options open to Americans during the pandemic, millions have flocked to U.S. national parks over the last year and a half. To manage the crowds, popular sites such as Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and Glacier national parks have introduced reservation systems of their own, and Acadia now requires advance booking for summer drives on Cadillac Summit Road.
Similarly, Zion and the Indiana Dunes are considering new fees for trail access and park entry, respectively.
For now, the parking fees for Tennessee's Laurel Falls trail are set to last only through October 3 under the NPS pilot program.
There is a way to access the trailhead for less than $14 during that time. Rocky Top Tours of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, operates a shuttle to Laurel Falls for $5 per rider. Visit RockyTopTours.com for more information or to reserve a seat.