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Pay to park: Sweeping changes in the Great Smoky Mountains

A new program called Park It Forward would charge visitors to park in the national park and generate around $10-15 million per year.

Elizabeth Sims

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Published: 10:11 AM EDT April 6, 2022
Updated: 6:23 AM EDT April 27, 2022

Anyone who wants to park their car, truck or motorcycle in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will soon have to pay for a parking tag if a new proposal for a program called Park It Forward passes.

Early numbers suggest the Smokies Parking Tag program would operate as a 3-tier system. A full-day parking tag would be $5, a 7-day tag would be $15 and an annual tag would be $40. 

With 4,500 parking spaces in the park, the projected revenue gain would be around $10-15 million per year.

The proposed rates and tag duration were determined by comparing rates for similar access on private and public lands, according to a release from the park. The average parking rate in gateway communities that charge parking fees is $15 per day and $68 per month, according to the park. In National Park sites where parking fees are charged, the average rate is $9 per day and $50 per year.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said visitors would be able to get tags online, in the mail or fee machines in the park. He hinted at the potential for partnerships with nearby hotels, businesses and communities.

All motor vehicles parking in designated parking spots within park boundaries would be required to display the parking tag, according to the park. It would not guarantee a parking spot at a specific location. Parking would continue to be available on a first-come, first-serve basis throughout the park. 

Officials said unofficial roadside parking would be eliminated to help protect resources, improve motorist and pedestrian safety and improve traffic flow through congested areas.

Starting out the park is aiming for a 30% compliance rate that will increase over the years.

"This is an educational component. We want to work with our visitors. This is by no means to be a barrier to come into the national park," Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said.

The park said the tags would not be required for motorists experiencing the park through a scenic drive or using park roads as a commuter route. They would also not be required for pedestrians or cyclists.

“This is a real opportunity for each person who visits and uses the park to contribute towards its upkeep. It will provide a sustainable year-round source of funding for the park to meet the needs of today and tomorrow,” Cash said in a video.

Officials with the park held a virtual public meeting on April 14, where they talked about the program. During the meeting, officials said the program could help them raise up to $15 million per year, with around 4,500 parking spaces available in the park. 

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