There are many 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 free entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Seriously. We can go hike up to Clingmans Dome or picnic by a waterfall anytime, all for free.
However, with recent announcements, many wonder if that will remain true. Will the Great Smoky Mountains remain free? More on that later.
How much does it cost to go to a national park?
Fees for national parks vary depending on location. For example, the prices typically range from about $15-35 per visit.
Some charge per vehicle, some charge per person.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not have an entrance fee. It may, however, soon have a parking fee.
According to the National Park Service (NPS), The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) allows the NPS to collect revenue, which is used to enhance the visitor experience.
Why is there no fee for the Smoky Mountains?
In short, the Smokies are free 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.
Will the Smoky Mountains always be free?
Well, 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 through www.recreation.gov. Shuttles were also available from Gatlinburg to the trailhead – also for a fee.
That pilot program concluded, and at the time of this writing, the Smoky Mountains are free to visit. That may change again soon.
Currently, the officials with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are asking for feedback from the public again about a Park It Forward program. Officials will collect feedback through May 11.
Do you have to pay to park in the Smoky Mountains? 
Not yet. But officials are currently seeking feedback about a proposed program called Park It Forward, where visitors would need to pay for a parking tag to visit the Smoky Mountains. The program also increases fees around the park.
Officials answered questions during a public meeting on April 14, 2022.
Superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Cassius M. Cash said, “If this proposal goes forward, we want to make sure that we get it right.”
Cash said that the park has seen a 57% increase in visitation over the last ten years and that the park resources are in critical need.
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.
In short, the park is overcrowded and underfunded.
Is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park allowed to charge a fee?
The state of Tennessee’s deed restriction set in 1951 still affects visitors today.
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.
That restriction affects us today because 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.
Notably, officials say, 100% of the fees would stay in the park.
How much is the proposed parking tag?
The proposed daily parking tag would cost $5. For a tag valid for up to 7 days, it would cost $15. An annual tag would be $40.
This amount, officials note, is lower than the NPS average of $9 per day and $50 annually.
The parking tag would be per vehicle, not per person.
Tags would be available in advance through the online store and also onsite through machines or visitor centers.
The tag would not guarantee a spot at a specific location. It is strictly first-come, first served.
Officials stated that the proposed tag is not meant as an economic barrier. It is to support the national park, visitor experience, staffing and preservation.
The program also aims to eliminate out-of-bounds roadside parking. Alum Cave, Laurel Falls, Grotto Falls, Roaring Fork, Big Creek and Deep Creek are locations that have a history of congestion and parking issues.
The proposal also plans to increase camping fees. Frontcountry fees for sites like family campgrounds, horse camps, group camps and picnic pavilions will also increase.
The program would not affect visitors who simply drive through the mountains or take a scenic drive.
When would the parking program begin?
It is not official yet. Public comment about the proposal is being collected through May 11, 2022.
To comment, visit the website at go.nps.gov/parkitforward.
Select the “Open for Comment” option on the left menu bar, open the “Proposed Smokies Fee Program Changes for 2023” folder, and click on the green “Comment Now” button to access the online commenting form.
You can also mail a letter to:
Superintendent Cassius Cash
Attn: 2023 Smokies Fee Program Changes Proposal
107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
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.
What do you think about park fees? Let us know in the comments below.
View a web story version of this article here.
Note: This article may be updated as the fee policy changes.