Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance fee: Will it stay free?

the Great Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few national parks with no entrance fee (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

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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.

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)

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.

Read Also: Easy hikes in the Smoky Mountains, our top 6 ranked

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.

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

Do you have to pay to park in the Smoky Mountains? [2022]

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.

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 would only affect visitors who park their cars. Visitors who drive through Cades Cove, for example, could still enjoy the scenic drive for free (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)

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.

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. 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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15 thoughts on “Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance fee: Will it stay free?”

  1. Leave it alone. You would be denying a lot of people the chance to view their beauty due to fixed incomes that would be already stressed buying fuel to make the trip.

  2. I can just see it now, Gatlinburg has to stop it’s annual New Years celebration due to noone paying to get into Gatlinburg! It would vaporize overnight… Pigeon Forge would be next…

  3. Please don’t forget about the sacrifices of all of the local families who were displaced by the formation of the park. Those who chose to not sell their land at whatever price the government decided to pay were removed from their land — forcibly if need be — and given as compensation a fraction of the original offer. Like many of the other truly “local” folks, my people settled in what’s now the GSMNP, from Smokemont to the Sugarlands, from Elkmont to Big Greenbrier, mostly during the first half of the 19th century. Many were there to witness the brutal Cherokee Removal in 1828-29, never imagining that their own descendants would be subject to removal (albeit much less violent) just over a century later. Don’t forget to thank those folks, too — both the Cherokee and the European settlers who carved a life out of a rugged wilderness, only to have it taken from them so that we could have the Great Smoky Mountains National Park today.

  4. That’s why it is one of the busiest. That and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Going to school in Maryville, come an idle afternoon folks would just pile into a car for a drive to the Park or Cades Cove. I’d probably hate for that to change even though I’m on the NC side now. I’d certainly hate to have to pay every time I got on the Parkway.

  5. As a direct descendant of a family that had to move from Smokemont I can’t imagine having to pay to go see family. “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go” never said anything about paying too get there!!! My family ran the store at Smokemont until 1948 when the CCC camps were done and the logging and sawmills were finished where the campground is today. The original agreement was that the would never be any fees to travel from one side is the mountain to the other!
    Still have family in Cherokee and Bryson City. Thank you Tennessee for keeping our Smoky Mountains free!!!!

  6. Leave the smokey alone they r free thing to all the men and women .. and texas is free because we volunteer to help them. I never seen the other parks and never will

  7. I’m from Kentucky and the Great Smokies are near enough to me that I have been visiting for years. The towns nestled in these mountains are beautiful and the people welcoming. Keep them free, please, so those of us in lower incomes can enjoy the wonder, history and beauty.

  8. I am on a fixed income. I travel at least once a year because I know I can afford a vacation there. It costs nothing to drive Cades Cove, Roaring Fork Nature Trail or many other side roads. I have my favorite hotel to stay at in Gatlinburg where I can walk the parkway in the evenings. Charging a fee would change the entire experience for me. I would no longer be able to stay my usual 4-7 days to compensate for the added cost.

  9. My comments to NPS:

    We are retired and on fixed income. We do not have extra money! Several years ago we got a “Senior Pass” for National Parks. The only thing we do is stop to look at waterfalls and perhaps take a short walk to get there. Our senior pass should let us do that with no parking fees!

    What you should do is charge extra to the people who are “living” there and using park resources for several days while camping.

    We drive through the Great Smoky Mountains each year on our way to family reunion. It is one of the few places left that allows us to drive through and see God’s beautiful creation.

    No parking fees please!

  10. I have lived in Wears Valley all of my life. Worked in Gatlinburg a lot, you can drive thru the GSMNP to Gatlinburg and it takes about 25 minutes. If you drive thru Pigeon Forge to Gatlinburg it takes much long because of traffic. I have always considered Metcaf Bottoms picnic area part of my home. I appreciate the fact the GSMNP is free. I don’t think we should have to buy a parking permit to go there or to travel thru to work in Gatlinburg.

  11. Nothing is free. The huge amount of labor and resources needed to keep the park open, clean and beautiful costs money. We are on a fixed income and don’t really go on “vacations”, just family visits. But we carefully plan and save money for those trips. We pay tolls to drive on many highways, why not chip in to keep such a beautiful place in operation?

  12. Hi Brenda – that’s a great question. They have addressed interagency pass holders but I’m sure more details will be released if and when the Park it Forward program is implemented.

    Currently, the NPS says …
    “America the Beautiful passes explicitly apply to entrance fees. The passes don’t entitle passholders to expanded amenity fee discounts for things like camping and parking, but parks may propose including them if feasible. The park is actively working on assessing whether or not discounted parking tags could be provided to America the Beautiful passholders.”

    Hope that helps!

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