Starting next March, visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will need to purchase a parking pass to use the facilities.
Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said in an interview that the fee is necessary to meet maintenance and staffing demands in the nation’s most visited national park. The Smokies have seen a 57% increase in visitors over the past decade with a record 14.1 million visits in 2021. However, credits are not based on visits and have remained relatively stable, a said Cash.
Due to a combination of act restrictions and federal law, the park isn’t allowed to charge an entry fee, so Cash said they need to look at other ways to raise revenue. . In addition to parking passes, the park is increasing camping fees. All money raised will go directly to park staff, deferred maintenance and operations, Cash said. This includes such basic things as keeping toilets clean, picking up trash, and maintaining roads.
Parking fees will be $5 per day or $15 for seven days. There will also be a $40 annual pass. The park encourages visitors to purchase their passes in advance. They will be available for sale online, and the park is also working to offer sales at hotels and other businesses in surrounding communities.
Drivers won’t need a pass to drive through the park or to make brief stops in the park, Cash said.
“If you want to go through the visitor center and use the bathroom, you don’t need a pass,” he said. “We try to capture the costs of the services used, not pay each vehicle nickel and dime. If you want to stop at a lookout point and take a selfie with the beautiful scenery, you can always do that.
Backcountry camping fees will double to $8 per night under the new structure, with a maximum of $40 per camper. The park said these fees have not increased in 10 years, while use of the site has grown to more than 100,000 RV nights a year. For other campsites, rates will increase to $36 per night for sites with electrical hook-ups and $30 per night for those without. Rates for group camps, equestrian camps and picnic lodges will also increase. Complete information on the new pricing is available on the park’s website.
Separately, the park is exploring ways to reduce congestion at its most popular attractions like Laurel Falls, which welcomed 375,000 visitors last year. As part of a pilot project, the park recently offered shuttle service between the nearby resort town of Gatlinburg and the falls — a very popular service, Cash said.
While visits and the cost of doing business have increased over the past decade, “one thing that has stayed the same is people’s expectations,” Cash said.
Former U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, a longtime parks supporter who grew up near the Smokies and still lives nearby, released a statement on Monday praising Cash for “solving a big problem with an obvious solution.”
“Funding from the new parking fee and the Great American Outdoors Act enacted in 2020 will provide the newest financial support to the Great Smokies since the park was established in 1934,” the Tennessee Republican said.