Great Smoky Mountains Natl. Park — You're going to have to pay to park and pay more to camp in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park starting March 2023.
Park leadership decided to adopt the 'Park it Forward' program, meaning park visitors will have to pay to park for the first time in the park's history and camping fees will increase, according to a release.
The park said parking tags will be required on any motor vehicle parked within the park boundary beginning March 1, 2023.
The parking rates are $5 for a daily parking tag, $15 for a parking tag for up to seven days and $40 for an annual parking tag, according to the park's release. All revenue will stay in the park to provide sustainable, year-round support focusing on improving the visitor experience, protecting resources, and maintaining trails, roads, historic structures, and facilities.
GSMNP said the use of all park roads will remain toll-free, and parking tags will not be required for motorists who pass through the area or who park vehicles for less than 15 minutes.
The tags will not guarantee a parking spot at a specific location, according to the park. Parking will continue to be available on a first-come, first-served basis throughout the park.
The park said it will eliminate unsafe roadside parking at specific areas to enhance the visitor experience by improving motorist and pedestrian safety, increasing traffic flow and protecting roadside resources.
“Today marks a significant milestone in the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and I’m honored to be a part of it,” Superintendent Cassius Cash said. “I have been incredibly encouraged by all the support, from across the country, and especially here in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, for the opportunity to invest in the future care of this treasured park. We take great pride in being the country’s most visited national park, but that distinction comes with tremendous strain on our infrastructure. Now we will have sustained resources to ensure this sacred place is protected for visitors to enjoy for generations to come.”
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park, according to the release. Over the last decade, visitation increased by 57% to a record 14.1 million visits in 2021.
The park said additional revenue is critical to support the upkeep of the park with rising costs and more visitation. The new fee changes will provide an opportunity for park users to directly contribute towards protecting the park.
The park initially announced the Park it Forward and camping fee proposal in April, and the public was encouraged to submit its comments.
This invitation generated 3,677 correspondences from all 50 states, and a total of 15,512 independent comments were identified, categorized, and assessed as part of the review process, according to a release.
Overall, 85% of correspondences expressed either strong support or included constructive ideas to improve the program, according to GSMNP. None of these correspondences voiced opposition to the fee itself.
About 41% and 16% of all correspondences were from Tennessee and North Carolina residents, respectively. Support from the six counties bordering the park varied with 82% of Blount County (TN), 73% of Sevier County (TN), 90% of Cocke County (TN), 60% of Graham County (NC), 60% of Swain County (NC), and 85% of Haywood County (NC) residents who submitted feedback expressing either support or neutrality for the new parking fee, according to a release.
The most prevalent comment regarding tag duration was support for an annual tag, according to the park. In response, the director of the National Park Service authorized permission for the park to offer an annual tag, which will allow parking throughout the park from the date of purchase.
The park said any visitor can purchase an annual parking tag, but the approval for this option was sought by park leadership specifically for local residents who are more likely to visit multiple times throughout the year.
"I think it's good. They need to fund the parks," said Adam Lutt, who was visiting from Colorado. "With all the vehicle traffic coming through here, they need some way to make it sustainable."
Other visitors said they wished the park would look at other solutions first.
"We've been coming here for years and years," said David Adams from Georgia. "With the inflation going on and everything right now, I think they need to just put that off for a while."
Park managers said they will continue to incorporate substantive feedback into the Park it Forward implementation plan. More details are available on the park's website.
Of the correspondences related to camping, 78% expressed support for backcountry fee increases and 82% expressed support for frontcountry fee increases, according to the release.
GSMNP said backcountry camping fees will be $8 per night, with a maximum of $40 per camper. Frontcountry family campsite fees will be $30 per night for primitive sites and $36 per night for sites with electrical hookups.
Group camps, horse camps, and picnic pavilions fees will primarily increase by between 20 and 30% depending on group size and location, according to a release. Rates for daily rental of the Appalachian Clubhouse and Spence Cabin in Elkmont will be $300 and $200, respectively. For a complete listing of all frontcountry facility rates, visit the park website.
The Federal Lands and Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) provided the authority to charge these fees, according to a release. All funds generated through these recreation fees will remain in the Smokies to directly support costs for managing and improving services for visitors such as trail maintenance, custodial services, trash removal, and supporting more law enforcement staffing across the park. More information is available online.