(GSMNP press release) Great Smoky Mountains National Park leadership announced the decision to adopt the Park it Forward parking tag program and to increase camping fees beginning next year. Parking tags will be required to be displayed on any motor vehicle parked within the park boundary beginning March 1, 2023. Approved 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. 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.
“Today marks a significant milestone in the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and I’m honored to be a part of it,” said Superintendent Cassius Cash. “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 Park it Forward and camping fee proposal was initially announced in April, and the public was encouraged to formally submit its comments. This invitation generated 3,677 correspondences, and a total of 15,512 independent comments were identified, categorized, and assessed as part of the review process. Correspondences were received from all 50 states. Overall, 85% of correspondences expressed either strong support or included constructive ideas to improve the program. 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.
The most prevalent comment regarding tag duration was support for an annual tag. In response, the Director of the National Park Service has authorized permission for the park to offer an annual tag, which will allow parking throughout the park from the date of purchase. While any visitor may purchase an annual parking tag, 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. Park managers will continue to incorporate substantive feedback into the Park it Forward implementation plan. Operational details, including where to purchase Park it Forward tags, will be posted on the park’s website at https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/2023-fees.htm.
Use of all park roads will remain toll free. Parking tags will not be required for motorists who pass through the area or who park vehicles for less than fifteen minutes. The tags will not guarantee a parking spot at a specific location. Parking will continue to be available on a first-come, first-serve basis throughout the park. Unsafe roadside parking will be eliminated at specific areas across the park to enhance the visitor experience by improving motorist and pedestrian safety, increasing traffic flow, and protecting roadside resources.
Of the correspondences related to camping, 78% expressed support for backcountry fee increases and 82% expressed support for frontcountry fee increases. 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 percent depending on group size and location. 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, please visit the park website at https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/2023-fees.htm.
Year after year, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park. Over the last decade, visitation increased by 57 percent to a record 14.1 million visits in 2021. With rising costs and more visitation, additional revenue is critical to support upkeep of the park. The new fee changes will provide an opportunity for park users to directly contribute towards protecting the park.
The authority to charge these fees is provided in the Federal Lands and Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA). 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. For more information about the public comment process, please visit the park website at https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/2023-fees.htm.