A Simple Guide to Smoky Mountain Parking Passes, Park it Forward

daily parking tag in front of Great Smoky Mountains national park sign

Starting March 1, guests who park in the national park longer than 15 minutes will need a valid parking pass (photos by Marie Graichen and Alaina O'Neal/TheSmokies.com)

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park launched its Park it Forward program on March 1, 2023. The new program is meant to help generate revenue to improve visitor services and address maintenance needs. While the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been historically free to enter, visitation has put a strain on management and upkeep. For example, the park experienced its second busiest year ever in 2022 with 12,937,633 visits.

Last year’s visitation was more than 1.5 million above the park’s ten-year average. To put that in perspective, the Smokies area receives more visitation than Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon national parks combined, making it the most-visited national park in America.

Do you have to pay for parking at the Smoky Mountains National Park?

Yes. The Park it Forward program will require visitors to purchase and display a tag for any vehicle parking within the national park for more than 15 minutes.

Do you need a pass to get into the Smoky Mountains National Park?

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not have an entrance fee, so simply entering the park and driving around will not require a pass. A pass is only required if you plan on parking for more than 15 minutes.

graffiti on a cabin inside cades cove in the smoky mountains national park
Funds are needed around the park for preservation and maintenance. Pictured: Graffiti and vandalism on a cabin in Cades Cove (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Why is there no entrance fee for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

When the national park was being formed, Tennessee built in a restriction with the government that stated no tolls could be charged to use Newfound Gap Road and Little River Road. And Tennessee’s deed restriction set in 1951 still affects visitors today. Essentially, the law says if you can’t charge visitors on the primary roads, you can’t charge a fee for roads elsewhere in the park.

So how can they implement a parking fee?

The Federal Land Recreation Enhancement Act still allows park officials to collect parking fees and campground fees. The park also needs funds to protect resources and maintain trails, roads, historic structures and facilities. In a press release, park superintendent Cassius Cash said, “The 2022 visitation report confirms what we have long known to be true – Great Smoky Mountains National Park continues to be a special place for millions of visitors.” “Park it Forward will undoubtedly help protect the park resources and enhance visitors’ experiences substantially now and into the future.” 

Park users will directly contribute to protecting the park when they buy a parking tag. All revenue generated through the Park it Forward program will remain in the park to support operational costs for managing and improving trail maintenance, custodial services and trash removal. It will also help alleviate roadside parking congestion. The program will also support more resource education programs, emergency responders and law enforcement staff across the park. 

parking tag displayed in window
Weekly and daily tags should be displayed face-up on the front, lower passenger side dashboard (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

How much does it cost to park in the Great Smoky Mountains?

The parking tags will cost $5 daily or $15 weekly. Parking tags will be available for purchase both online and onsite. For example, guests can purchase weekly or daily parking passes at recreation.gov as well as automated fee machines that will be available year-round, 24 hours a day at several locations around the park.

Weekly or daily tags purchased online through recreation.gov must be printed by the guest. In other words, park staff will not print it for you. There is also a $40 annual parking tag available for purchase through the Great Smoky Mountains Association. These tags will be shipped to your home. The annual tag option is ideal for residents who want year-round, repeated access to the park. Note that guests will need to enter their license plate number at the time of purchase. Finally, all parking tag types will be available for purchase at some of the park’s visitor centers across Tennessee and North Carolina, including:

  • Gatlinburg Welcome Center
  • Sugarlands Visitor Center
  • Townsend Visitor Center
  • Cades Cove Visitor Center
  • Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont Store
  • Clingmans Dome Visitor Center
  • Oconaluftee Visitor Center
  • Swain County Visitor Center

Annual tags should be displayed on the lower passenger side windshield. Weekly and daily tags will need to be displayed face-up on the front, lower passenger side dashboard. Finally, the parking tag options and prices apply to all vehicles, including motorcycles, UTVs and RVs.

Clingmans Dome Visitors Center
Parking tags will also be available for purchase inside many visitor centers around the park (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

When will my parking tag expire?

Daily parking tags will expire at 11:59 pm on the date of purchase. Weekly tags will expire at 11:59 pm 7 days after the date of purchase. Annual tags expire one year from the date of purchase.

Will there be any exceptions?

Yes, the NPS will provide parking tags at no cost to Tribal leaders who will distribute the tags to Tribal citizens who are coming to the park for traditional activities. The park will also use the Special Use Permit system to issue permits at no cost for Decoration Days (ancestor veneration observances), family reunions for descendants and cemetery visits. Decoration Day permit holders will be exempt from the parking tag requirement for the duration of their permit. Also, vehicles with state-issued disabled placards or license plates do not need to display a parking tag. School groups and researchers may also be exempt from paying for parking with a proper permit. Visit the NPS website to learn more.

Can I use my America the Beautiful pass as a parking pass?

No. The National Park Service (NPS) says that interagency passes will not be accepted instead of parking tags. However, the NPS will participate in fee-free days, so guests will not need to display a parking tag on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Jan., the first day of National Park Week in April, the anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act in Aug., National Public Lands Day in Sept. and Veterans Day in Nov.

  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday)
  • April 22 (first day of National Park Week)
  • August 4 (anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act)
  • September 23 (National Public Lands Day)
  • November 11 (Veterans Day)
donation box at cades cove
Cades Cove is still free to visit as long as you do not park the car for more than 15 minutes. You can still donate to the park with donation boxes if you wish (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Does Cades Cove cost money?

It depends. If you only plan on driving the loop and making brief stops that are shorter than 15 minutes, then Cades Cove is free. If you wish to do any hiking in the area while you visit, or wish to stop at some of the historic buildings and take your time looking around, you will want to purchase a parking pass unless you are sure you do not want to spend much time outside of your car. Of course, if you plan on camping at Cades Cove, campground fees will apply.

Do you need a reservation to enter the Smoky Mountains National Park?

Reservations are not required simply to enter the park. If you plan on doing any hiking, you can purchase your weekly or daily parking tag either on-site or online up to 6 months before your visit. Reservations will be required for those who are staying on the campgrounds, picnic pavilions, Appalachian Clubhouse or Spence Cabin. Locations that have reserved parking spaces will not require a parking tag during the rental. However, any motor vehicles parked outside of the reserved parking areas will require a parking tag.

Laurel Falls
Laurel Falls is one of the most popular waterfalls in the Smokies (photo by JMichael Photography/stock.adobe.com)

Will a parking tag guarantee a parking spot?

No, obtaining a parking tag will not guarantee a specific parking spot. You will not have a specific time frame for parking (other than on a daily or weekly basis). Parking will continue to be available on a first-come, first-served basis throughout the park. The NPS encourages visitors to plan when visiting busy locations like Laurel Falls Trail or Clingmans Dome by planning a trip during off-peak hours.

Can my family share a parking tag? Will I need one for each car?

No, families cannot share a tag and yes, you will need one for each car. The parking tags cannot be transferred between vehicles and must include the license plate number matching the vehicle in which it is displayed. In other words, if you get a new license plate, you will need a new parking tag.

What if I do not purchase a parking tag?

Guests who do not comply with the new parking tag requirement may receive a warning, or a citation or risk the vehicle being towed at the owner’s expense.

cars pile up on roadway in the smoky mountains national park
The new Park it Forward program will help alleviate congestion and increase parking safety (media photo courtesy of the NPS)

Will this make a difference for the park?

Probably. By having free entrance to the national park for decades, the NPS missed out on potentially millions if not billions of dollars of revenue. Over the years, the park has struggled to properly maintain the trails and historic buildings with limited funding. With the new program, 100% of the tag revenue from the parking tag sales will stay in the park.

Is anything else changing?

Another change this year will include increased shuttle services. Several local companies will offer shuttles to some of the park’s most popular locations to reduce traffic congestion.In addition to purchasing parking tags and taking shuttles, visitors can help take care of their park by coming prepared with alternative destinations in mind if parking is not available at desired sites. With over 800 miles of trails and more than 380 miles of scenic roadways, visitors have many options for other locations that offer first-rate experiences.

Guests are also encouraged to avoid the busiest areas and the busiest months. or example, May through October are generally the busiest months in the park while weekends and holidays are the busiest days. For more information on the new parking pass system, visit the NPS website.

What do you think of the new parking pass system? Have you purchased a pass yet? Let us know in the comments below.

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