Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials announced the implementation of vehicle-free access along the Cades Cove Loop Road each Wednesday, from June 17 through September 30, as part of a pilot study to improve the visitor experience. The park proposed the study due to congested parking areas and disruption of visitor services associated with the vehicle-free periods on Wednesday and Saturday mornings during the summer months that have been in effect for several years.
As part of the public planning process, park officials received feedback from 2,278 individuals from 37 states during the comment period in March. More than 60% of the comments were supportive of the trial change, and 20% of the comments were in opposition of the proposal. About 15% of the comments expressed a desire for the Saturday morning closures to continue, but most of these individuals also supported a full-day closure on Wednesdays. Several respondents expressed additional concerns including 8% of comments requesting consideration of a shuttle operation, 4% of comments noting concerns about limiting access for people with disabilities during the vehicle-free days, and a variety of other suggestions regarding congestion, safety, and descendant access.
The park began collecting data on visitor use during vehicle-free time periods in 1995. Over the last 25 years, use has continued to increase with up to 1,100 people a day cycling or walking along the roadway during the 3-hour closure time period. This increased use resulted in several challenges including congestion, lack of parking, and disruption in campground and picnic area operations. During the morning closures, access to the campground, picnic area, horse concession operation, campground store, and hiking/equestrian trails is blocked to accommodate parking for the biking/pedestrian opportunity on the Loop Road. As a result, traffic leading to the Cades Cove area is often gridlocked by a line of motorists waiting for the Loop Road to open at 10:00 a.m.
A categorical exclusion was signed in June 2020, completing the National Park Service’s environmental compliance process for initiation of the pilot study. Park officials have incorporated feedback from the planning process into a monitoring program to assess the effectiveness of the trial in improving safety and the visitor experience for multiple user groups. By closing the roadway for the entire day, bicyclists and pedestrians will have over 12 hours of daylight to use the Loop Road without vehicles. By spreading use throughout the day, parking should be more available with less impacts to campground, picnic area, and concession operations. By eliminating the Saturday morning closures, more motorists will have access to the Cades Cove area for these services along with scenic driving on what is traditionally the busiest day of the week for travel in the area. In addition, park staff and volunteers will be able to better support visitor programs on Wednesdays and Saturdays instead of devoting all personnel to traffic management and parking.
The results of the pilot study will be evaluated by park management to inform future planning. Vehicle access will continue to be provided seven days a week, October through April, and six days a week during the trial period, June through September, providing ample opportunities for park descendants and visitors to enjoy Cades Cove. Mobility-assisted devices are welcomed during vehicle-free days on the Cades Cove Loop Road for individuals with disabilities. If visitors need accommodation to safely access Cades Cove on designated vehicle-free days, they should call 865-448-4105 for more information in advance of their visit.