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 years of free entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So while there is no entrance fee to enter the park, there are now parking fees with the new Park it Forward program.
RELATED VIDEO: Great Smoky Mountains National Park Entrance Fees
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Is there a fee to enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
Traditionally, the Smoky Mountains have been free to enter. However, the national park is now implementing the Park it Forward parking tag program. Parking tags are now required. The parking rate is $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. The parking tags will be associated with your license plate number and cannot be transferred or shared.
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 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. And 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.
How is the public reacting to the new parking fees?
Prior to implementing the new program, national park officials collected thousands of correspondences about the proposed parking fee. According to a press release, 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, respectively.
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. Also, unsafe roadside parking will be eliminated in specific areas across the park. This is expected to improve motorist and pedestrian safety, increase traffic flow and protect roadside resources.
Does the Smoky Mountains National Park have camping fees?
Backcountry camping fees are $8 per night, with a maximum of $40 per camper. Frontcountry family campsite fees are $30 per night for primitive sites and $36 per night for sites with electrical hookups. Fees for horse camps, picnic pavilions, day-use cabins and group camps also apply. 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. For example, the park experienced its second busiest year ever last year with 12,937,633 visits. That’s more visitors than Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon national parks combined. The new fee changes are intended to 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. It will also help maintain picnic areas, visitor centers and campsites. Dana Soehn, who has worked with the park for more than 30 years, acknowledged the enormous body of work and operational costs that go into maintaining the park. This includes protecting water quality, performing trail maintenance, trash removal, maintaining roadways, operating custodial services and operating several wastewater systems. Officials noted the fee is not meant to be an economic barrier.
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 National Park Service (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 about? 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). 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 that 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.
Is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park the only free national park?
No, but it is one of only a handful. There are a little over a dozen national parks that are free to enter. Other free national parks in the South include Biscayne National Park in Florida, Congaree National Park in South Carolina, New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia and Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas.
What do you think about the park fees? Let us know in the comments below. View a web story version of this article here.