The Keller Williams Real Estate Team known as The Mountain Girls recently asked how they could support Lula Lake Land Trust. Matthew Hubbard offered them a spot right on the cover of our Open Gate Day Map and Brochures. One of these maps is handed out to each and every Open Gate Days visitor. Open Gate Days attracted over 22,500 visitors in 2017.
The Conversant Group located in Chattanooga, Tennessee was eager to work with a conservation partner like Lula Lake Land Trust. Rather than accept the traditional marketing opportunities, they elected to sponsor one event, Founder's Weekend and then asked if they could use the core preserve for a team campout and team building session.
Big Changes Coming to Lula Lake
About five to six years ago, Lula Lake Land Trust began allowing regular public access to the core preserve—the beautiful area with historic Lula Lake and Lula Falls. Prior to that time, the property was utilized almost exclusively for education, research, and private events. When Open Gate Days were initiated allowing the public to enjoy hiking, picnicking, and splashing about in the waters of Rock Creek, attendance was low and quite manageable, with staff recalling that they might sit in a chair and enjoy a book all day with only a handful of people out hiking the property.
Two years ago, things changed dramatically! The outdoors was “in" again. Chattanooga had been been named best outdoor town ever. RootsRated was pointing people to all things outdoors, and “waterfall hunting” came into vogue. Waterfall hunting! Lula Lake is to blame as well. We hired a very astute social media-ist who managed to build upon (what we considered at that time) the success of Open Gate Days. Where 50-100 people per day was the norm 5 years ago, 700 was becoming the norm for a beautiful Saturday. On Labor Day 2017 we thought we had seen the largest crowd ever at 1500 (total for the weekend). Low and behold, the last Saturday of March and the first Saturday in April, 2018, Lula Lake experienced head counts of 1,050 and 950 respectively! Cars parked everywhere they could squeeze in, drivers made new spaces where there were none before. Staff saw an emerging issue and closed the gates slightly early. When they did, cars began parking outside the gates along Lula Lake Road and people let themselves in despite the signs clearly stating that Lula Lake was closed. More staff were called in to manage the crowd. One staffer counted 57 cars illegally parked along the road; he ran out of warning citations. At closing time, people were walking against auto traffic attempting to leave. Traffic - inside Lula Lake? It was then that we realized that history was repeating itself and we human beings - nature lovers all - are collectively destroying the very place we come to seek escape. A trip back in time might help to recall civil war soldiers who bedded into the area, a railroad cut alongside a beautiful mountain creek spilling coal throughout, heavy logging over the top of the mountain and the 60s and 70s when Lula Lake was an anything-goes swimming hole and waste dump. On Monday mornings when the staff head in for clean-up, they noted disappearing native grasses, new “social trails”, overflowing trash cans and plastic water bottles left at the base of the falls.
The staff and the board of Lula Lake simply started asking the questions: “What are we becoming?”, “Is this what we are all about?” and “What do we do to prevent losing Lula Lake all over again?”
Fortunately that last question had already been answered for us—14 years ago—when Lula Lake and the Lyndhurst Foundation commissioned a master plan through landscape architect, Robinson Fisher. Among many other amenities, the Fisher plan called for a parking area adjacent to the entrance gate, a hiking path to the “Good Shepherd Meadow” (the current parking and event area) both leading to a deeper outdoor experience at Lula Lake; vastly different to the “old faithful” style of visitation currently in play.
Using the above as a guide, BIG changes will be coming to Lula Lake beginning June 30, 2018.
Visitors will enter the core preserve at the same entrance gate as always where a new parking and visitor facility is currently under construction. A new “conservation use fee” starting at $10.00 per car will be collected. Visitors will then use the existing roadway to begin their hike towards the Good Shepherd Meadow - an open space undergoing rehabilitation - where picnic tables and access to Rock Creek will welcome you. “The hike down and the intended use of the meadow area opens up a whole new experience at Lula Lake,” says Land Manager Patrick Kelly. “Due to limitations in parking, it will be more peaceful, more natural and give people a chance to see so much more of the property than they now just drive through to get to the lake and falls.” In the first year a very limited number of annual parking passes will be available. Holders may elect to drive down to the current parking area and use one of the 20 or so reserved spaces or they may choose to simply park in the lot without having to pay the fee each time they visit. Handicap parking will also continue to be available on a very limited basis. If the parking lot “up top” is full, visitors will be given a sheet pointing the way to Cloudland Canyon State Park, See Rock City, Ruby Falls, Reflection Riding or one of the many local trailheads. That sheet will have a link to the Lula Lake website that will pull up directions instantly. Should the parking lot empty by a dozen or so cars, new visitors will be allowed to enter. Due to longer hiking times the gates will close at 3:30pm in order for visitors to meet the 5:00 p.m. hard close. Additional staff and rangers will be on hand to patrol the roadside for gate-crashers and to manage unforeseen issues.
Mike Pollock, Executive Director of Lula Lake Land Trust said, “We are putting the land, the protection and preservation of the core preserve above all else. We know that the public will not understand at first and that we will have to work overtime to bring visitors into this new system, but it’s for the right reasons.”
The ultimate goal of this new system is not to reduce the volume of visitors overall but to increase the user experience and protect the core preserve from further deterioration. The number of cars will be limited, there is a new fee structure, and people will hike much farther. “Every bit of this has been engineered to reduce the number of people at any given time to prevent the collective effect of ‘loving the place to death,” says Pollock.
Open Gate Days will remain the first and last weekends of the month from May through November. Saturdays 9:00a.m - 3:30p.m and Sundays 12:00 - 3:30p.m. All visitors must be exiting the property by 5:00pm. Winter dates are Saturdays, December through April.
From the staff and Board of Lula Lake Land Trust: We must acknowledge that the community has been supporting us for 24 years, and we are truly grateful. We’ve heard voices in the community saying that they hated that they could never go to Lula Lake when they wanted in our early years. In the recent past, those voices have said that when they go to the property it’s always so crowded. Our goal is to have those same voices soon saying, “When I go to Lula Lake, I feel as if I have it to myself - the way it should feel.”
Director of Development and Communications
Lula Lake Land Trust