Why the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free and others are not

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few national parks with no entrance fee.

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There are many reasons the nation owes the great state of Tennessee a debt of gratitude.

Many of them are food related.

Many of them are sports related.

Many of them are music related. We also owe a few apologies on that count, if we’re being honest.

Some of them are bigger than others. Hey, entire state of Texas, I’m looking at you … you’re welcome.

But none of the reasons for which Americans should be grateful to Tennesseans are quite as important as free admission to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Seriously.

I was an adult before I realized other national parks charged an entrance fee. The whole idea is that the national parks belong to every American. They don’t put a toll booth and make me have a ticket to get into my backyard; why in the hell should I have to pay $35 per car to see my Grand Canyon?

Even if you don’t have a car, Yellowstone is $20 a head for hikers or bikers. I pay taxes! That’s my geyser over there! I own a piece of it! Those grizzly bears are essentially my employees.

Excuse me, ranger, but I would very much like to speak to whoever is manager of those buffaloes. This is an outrage!

So why is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park free? It’s because of Tennesseans and our deep and abiding distrust of the federal government. We stick it to those guys every chance we get.

Spruce Flats Falls
Spruce Flats Falls in Tennessee

US 411, aka Newfound Gap Road, connects Tennessee and North Carolina from Gatlinburg to Cherokee. The road was built before the formation of the National Park in a joint project between Tennessee and North Carolina.

When the federal government approached the states to take possession of the road and create the park, North Carolina folded and handed it over. Content not to pay for the road maintenance, the Tar Heel state deeded the highway to the federal government like a bunch of rubes.

Did Tennessee do that? Nope. We hustlin’ baby.

Like an experienced Monopoly player negotiating free landings on Park Place or Boardwalk, Tennessee told the federal government it wanted its citizens to have the right to ride that road any time they damn well pleased.

The resulting agreement stipulated that no toll or license fee could ever be imposed.

While it wasn’t the likely intent, the upshot is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few in the nation without an entrance fee.

You’re welcome, world.

While the current agreement which prevents the fee is “eternal,” there is a way the National Park Service could begin charging a fee. It would require the Tennessee legislature vote to lift the deed restriction and allow the NPS to charge a fee.

But, in the words of Davy Crockett right before he and Sam Houston and a buncha other Tennesseans went down south to save some Texan butt, “That ain’t never gonna happen, baby.”

In all seriousness, I can’t imagine a world in which we had to pay to picnic at the Chimney Tops or to ride the loop at Cades Cove. I spent my high school years in the shadow of the park, 15 minutes from the Townsend entrance. 

It’s inconceivable to me that I’d have to pay a fee to hike those mountains or wade in those streams.

It literally would have been life-changing.

I know in most parts of the country paying a fee – or buying a season pass – to get into a national park is just part of the equation. 

And I understand, I suppose, why the other parks charge a fee. The parks are expensive to maintain, and there are staff and other considerations. According to the NPS, in Yellowstone, entrance fee revenue provides $8.8 million a year for accessibility improvements, campgrounds, infrastructure, roads, native fish restoration, aquatic invasive species mitigation and more.

But the NPS also notes national parks only get to keep 80 percent of the fees collected.

So how much are we talking? How much did Tennessee save its citizens and its beloved visitors from all over the world?

Let’s work in round numbers. In 2019, 12.5 million people visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Let’s figure 2.5 people per car, and that’s 5 million cars. That’s $175 million in entrance fees.

To be fair, entrance fees would drive those numbers down. It’s a safe bet locals would get season passes, driving the revenue down further.

There’s no denying that Tennesseans made one hell of a deal, but cost the park system billions in revenue.

You know what? Our bad. Let’s settle up. Just send that bill to Texas, they still owe us one.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at [email protected] for questions or comments.


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