Fee Changes Coming to the Most Popular National Park in the U.S.
With the recent boom in outdoor recreation and public land visitation, many areas are looking for new ways to help manage crowds. For Great Smoky Mountains, the most visited national park in the U.S., that means a potential increase in fees.
At a recent public meeting, park leadership laid out plans for the fee increase and focused on explaining why these changes are important. This meeting was held prior to the now open public comment period. Park leaders are hoping to solicit feedback before potentially increasing camping fees and instituting parking fees for visitors.
Historically, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been free to enter. Its central location on the East Coast means that many Americans live within a few hours’ drive of the park, unlike other popular destinations like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or the numerous parks in Southern Utah. Thanks mainly to this proximity, the park saw 14.1 million visitors in 2021, surpassing the second most popular park, Zion, which saw 5 million visitors, by a wide margin.
“We simply cannot meet the needs without cutting services or access to the park,” said Dana Soehn, park management assistant, during the virtual public meeting on April 14, 2022. “We’re asking that visitors—like they do at all other national parks—start to contribute to the national park.”
Due to binding rules that came with the federal takeover of the area, the national park can’t charge an entrance fee, so instead, it’s looking to charge a parking fee. The Smokies Parking Tag program impacts all visitors who need to park a vehicle in a designated spot within the park’s boundaries—the parking tag is per vehicle, not per person. The proposed cost is $5 for the day or $15 for a 7-day pass. There is also an annual parking pass option at $40.
According to the National Park Service (NPS), prices were determined by comparing rates on private and other public lands. Under the program, the park will continue to be free to enter and vehicles that are only driving through, or those walking or biking, won’t need a parking tag. Parking will continue to be first come, first served, and to purchase tags, “Visitors can expect advanced, online sales as well as in-person sales,” according to the NPS.
There are also proposed fee increases at campgrounds. Most frontcountry campgrounds could change from less than $20 to $30 per night. This price increase change includes popular campgrounds like Smokemont Campground and Cosby Campground. For frontcountry sites with electrical hookups, the price could increase to $36 per night. For backcountry camping, permits could double from $4 to $8 per night. The proposed changes also affect Appalachian Trail (AT) through-hiker permits. Currently, the plan doesn’t include details on whether registered overnight campers will also need a parking tag—public comment on this issue is encouraged.
Great Smoky Mountains leadership is still working on specific details about the change and how interagency passes, like America the Beautiful, may be used within the park. Even with the price increases, the park’s superintendent says one of the main goals is to avoid any economic barriers that may turn people away from visiting.
“We were very price sensitive when we outlined the different days and costs the pass would be good for,” said Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash.
Park management hopes these costs will help rebuild staff so it can better manage congestion in the park while also increasing public safety. Both have become increasing problems as the park continues to see high visitation numbers.
Anyone interested in adding feedback about the price and duration of the parking tag, as well options for visitors stopping on scenic drives and other issues, can submit opinions online or write to the park at:
Superintendent Cassius Cash
Attn: 2023 Smokies Fee Program Changes Proposal
107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
The public comment period ends on Saturday, May 7, 2022, with park officials hoping to implement any changes in early 2023.