Cades Cove started vehicle-free Wednesdays with a little rock slide and a lot of visitors on Wednesday, June 24.
The area was packed with cars Wednesday, but none of them was driving the 11-mile loop road. Tourists, national park junkies and people looking for a scenic drive in the jewel of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are going to have to park their motoring plans for the time being.
That’s because vehicle-free Wednesdays at Cades Cove are here to stay. At least for the next three months.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s pilot program of keeping cars off the loop road began Wednesday and is set to wrap up Sept. 30. It was met by a barrage of enthusiastic hikers and cyclists who were allowed to enjoy the valley without the fumes and the traffic from sunrise to sunset.
Sunrise rock slide
Early morning visitors eager to traverse the cove on foot were met with a literal roadblock, however.
A small rock slide on Laurel Creek Road had to be cleaned up before the park let visitors in. Park officials said in an email they “understand the need to maintain safe road access to the public to allow for visitor enjoyment,” adding that, during larger slides, they contract with external crews to manage the aftermath.
Wednesday’s incident was small enough for park staff to handle by 10 a.m., stabilizing the crumbling earth and removing two trees.
Hours later, hundreds of cars filled the parking lots and lined the roads near the cove’s entrance.
Parking demand exceeds cove
Park enthusiasts from 37 states voted on this pilot project, which was first announced in early 2020.
An official survey of 2,278 people showed 60% of them were enthusiastic about the trial program, while 20% opposed it.
Until June 24, Cades Cove was kept closed to vehicles until 10 a.m. every Wednesday and Saturday morning.
Now, the park will stay open to drivers all day Saturday, a loss for some who responded to the survey — 15% of them wanted at least a portion of Saturdays to stay at least partially free of vehicles.
“We looked at the day that had the least vehicle traffic,” Wednesdays, park spokeswoman Dana Soehn said in an interview with The Daily Times before the trial started. “We wanted to better accommodate people who just want to drive through the loop.”
The heaviest drive day is Saturday, Soehn said.
“The idea is, if we keep it closed for the entire (Wednesday), we’ll eliminate the queue of cars lining up on Laurel Creek Road,” she explained. “That will give better access for pedestrians and bikers.”
Soehn said parking management at the cove has become much harder to deal with over the years.
That’s why the park is not closing the loop to motorists on Saturday for the time being. “We can no longer manage these partial days. We know we need to make a change to make it sustainable,” Soehn said. “This is just one opportunity ... to still offer that experience but without creating even less access days.”
Soehn said it’s a balancing act, to some degree: Visitors want different things from the cove. But at this point, “The demand is greater than the parking availability,” she said.
GSMNP officials have at least acknowledged other solutions to this issue, such as a shuttle system or timed entries or a reservation system. “There’s a lot of different models we can look at,” Soehn said. “We don’t think this is the only answer, it’s just one of the solutions we felt was worth a study.”
Are there plans to build more parking spaces? Soehn said that’s not something that can be done overnight, but it’s an option.
“Staff are monitoring many aspects of the potential impacts of this management action,” park officials emailed Wednesday. “Some of the metrics focus on issues including congestion, parking availability, visitor counts, safety incidents and visitor experience.”
Only data from the next three months will tell what the future holds for Cades Cove tourism, officials said.