GSMNP

Great Smoky Mountains National Park will introduce parking fees in 2023

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

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

Some of them are bigger than others. Hey, the 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 several years of free entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Recently, however, our national park is becoming a bit less free.

This week, national park officials announced that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is moving forward with the proposed Park It Forward program.

Laurel Falls in the Great smoky Mountains
The Laurel Falls trailhead is the first location that tested a parking program (photo by JMichael Photography/stock.adobe.com)

New fees for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Traditionally, the Smoky Mountains have been free to enter. But this week, Great Smoky Mountains National Park leadership announced the decision to adopt the Park it Forward parking tag program.

The new program will impose a parking fee and also increase camping fees beginning next year.

Parking tags will be required beginning March 1, 2023.

The parking rates will be $5 for a daily parking tag, $15 for a parking tag for up to seven days and $40 for an annual parking tag.

The revenue will stay in the park to provide sustainable, year-round support. This includes improving the visitor experience, protecting resources and maintaining trails, roads, historic structures and facilities.  

“Today marks a significant milestone in the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and I’m honored to be a part of it,” said Superintendent Cassius Cash.

“I have been incredibly encouraged by all the support, from across the country, and especially here in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, for the opportunity to invest in the future care of this treasured park.”

Why a parking fee and not an entrance fee?

Essentially, the Smokies have traditionally been free to enter due to Tennesseans and our deep and abiding distrust of the federal government.

We stick it to those guys every chance we get.

US 411, aka Newfound Gap Road, connects East Tennessee and Western 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.

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 pleased.

Specifically, when Tennessee transferred the deed for Newfound Gap Road and Little River Road, a restriction stated that said no tolls could be charged to use those two roads.

The state of Tennessee’s deed restriction set in 1951 still affects visitors today.

Essentially, the law says if you can’t charge on the primary roads, you can’t charge a fee for roads elsewhere in the park.

That being said, the Federal Land Recreation Enhancement Act still allows park officials to collect parking fees and campground fees.

Read Also: Easy hikes in the Smoky Mountains: The 8 best hikes for beginners

Alum Cave overlook at the Smoky Mountains
The parking area for Alum Cave is often overcrowded (photo by Melinda Fawver/stock.adobe.com)

Public feedback on the parking fees

National park officials collected thousands of correspondences about the proposed parking fee last spring. According to a press release from park officials, 85% of correspondences expressed either strong support or included constructive ideas to improve the program.   

About 41% and 16% of all correspondences were from Tennessee and North Carolina residents, respectively.

The most prevalent comment regarding tag duration was support for an annual tag. In response, the Director of the National Park Service has authorized permission for the park to offer an annual tag.

While any visitor may purchase an annual parking tag, the approval for this option was sought by park leadership specifically for local residents who are more likely to visit multiple times throughout the year.

Park managers will continue to incorporate substantive feedback into the Park it Forward implementation plan.

Who will need a parking tag? Does it guarantee a spot?

Overall, the use of all park roads will remain toll-free. Parking tags will not be required for motorists who pass through the area or who park vehicles for less than fifteen minutes.

The tags will not guarantee a parking spot at a specific location. Parking will continue to be available on a first-come, first-served basis throughout the park.

Unsafe roadside parking will be eliminated at specific areas across the park.

This is expected to improve motorist and pedestrian safety, increase traffic flow and protect roadside resources. 

Operational details, including where to purchase Park it Forward tags, will be posted on the park’s website.

Traffic at Cades Cove
Currently, an estimated 14.1 million visitors come to the Smoky Mountains each year, which has created funding issues for park officials. The new parking program will only affect visitors who park their cars. Visitors who drive through Cades Cove, for example, could still enjoy the scenic drive free (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)

Does the Smoky Mountains National Park have camping fees?

Of the correspondences related to camping, 78% expressed support for backcountry fee increases and 82% expressed support for frontcountry fee increases. Backcountry camping fees will be $8 per night, with a maximum of $40 per camper.

Frontcountry family campsite fees will be $30 per night for primitive sites and $36 per night for sites with electrical hookups. Group camps, horse camps, and picnic pavilions fees will primarily increase by between 20 and 30 percent depending on group size and location.

Prices are subject to change.

For a complete listing of all frontcountry facility rates, visit the park website.

Why is the Smoky Mountains National Park introducing a parking fee?

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park. Over the last decade, visitation increased by 57 percent to a record 14.1 million visits last year.

The new fee changes will provide an opportunity for park users to directly contribute towards protecting the park. 

All funds generated through these recreation fees will remain in the Smokies to directly support costs for managing and improving services for visitors such as trail maintenance, custodial services, trash removal and supporting more law enforcement staffing across the park.

It will also help maintain picnic areas, visitor centers and campsites.

Dana Soehn, who has worked with the park for 32 years, acknowledged the enormous body of work that goes into maintaining the park.

This includes protecting water quality, performing trail maintenance, maintaining roadways, operating custodial services and operating several wastewater systems.

Officials noted the fee is not meant to be an economic barrier.

Meigs Mountain Trail Sign in Fall
The new fees will support trails within the national park, like the Meigs Creek Trail (photo by William Silver/shutterstock.com)

When did the Smokies parking fee begin?

Park officials made the announcement this week. The program will officially begin in March 2023.

The Great Smoky Mountains were completely free until a recent pilot project that affected the Laurel Falls parking lot.

Last fall, the NPS conducted a pilot program at the site to limit congestion.

The program limited on-site parking to only those who made reservations. Shuttles were also available from Gatlinburg to the trailhead – also for a fee.

That pilot program concluded, and the park decided to move forward with the parking initiative this week, which will be implemented in 2023.

People pay taxes, why do they pay for national parks?

Personally, I think the national parks belong to every American. They don’t put up a toll booth and make me buy a ticket to get into my backyard, so why should I have to pay $35 per car to see my Grand Canyon?

I pay taxes! That’s my geyser over there! Those grizzly bears are essentially my employees.

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

Still, the NPS addresses this frequently asked question by stating that fees have become an important source of revenue to improve the visitor experience and protect natural resources.

In fact, entrance fees for national parks predate the establishment of the NPS itself in 1916.

For example, Mount Rainier National Park started charging an entrance fee in 1908.

Factoring in inflation, the $5 entrance fee they charged in 1914 would be the equivalent of a $123 entrance fee today, according to the NPS.

Are national park fees justified?

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.

I understand why 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.

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. Let’s say nearly 5 million cars visit the park each year (a low estimate, with 14.1 million visitors).

That’s (potentially) hundreds of millions in fees.

Still, change is difficult.

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.

Overall, there’s no denying that Tennesseans struck a deal and ultimately 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.

Note: This article is updated as new information becomes available.

What do you think about the park fees? Let us know in the comments below.

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