New fees could soon be coming to the nation’s busiest national park, including charging visitors for parking for the first time.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is looking to offset the costs of maintaining the park, which has seen a significant increase in traffic over recent years.
“Over the past decade, park visitation has skyrocketed by 57 percent,” the National Park Service said. “Because the park’s operational budget hasn’t seen similar growth, the increase in visitors is starting to take its toll with wear and tear on aging facilities and undue strain on limited staff.”
The park had an estimated 14.1 million visitors in 2021, about triple the number of other popular parks like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.
“New funding sources are needed to rehabilitate this national treasure and preserve the magic of the Smokies for future generations,” the NPS said. “So, it’s time we Park It Forward.”
Officials are proposing three new sources for income: parking tags, front country fees, and backcountry fees.
Great Smoky Mountains is one of the few national parks that doesn’t have any parking fees, but that may change in the near future.
The proposed cost for parking would be $5 for a daily tag, $15 for a weekly tag, and $40 for an annual pass.
Officials said these numbers are actually on the low side. They said the average rate for parking in gateway communities near the park is $15 daily and $67.50 monthly. It also said the average in other national parks is $9 daily and $50 annually.
Fees apply for a permit for up to 8 days and 7 nights. Currently, campers pay $4 per night with a maximum of $20 per person/permit. Officials are proposing doubling those fees.
For hikers, fees for up to 8 days and 7 nights are currently $20 per person. That is also proposed to double.
Front Country Fees
There are dozens of costs for campgrounds, group camps, horse camps, picnic pavilions, and day-use cabins. All are proposed to be increased.
For campgrounds, with a capacity of six people, rates are a proposed $30, up from current rates of $17.50 or $25, depending on which of the 11 sites are selected.
Eight different group camp sites can accommodate anywhere from 15 to 30 people, and those rates are proposed to increase to $38–$94, depending on which is chosen.
Five horse camps, which can accommodate up to six people and four horses, are proposed to jump from $23 to $30. The one camp with flush toilets is proposed at $36.
Picnic pavilions are proposed to increase from $25 to $32 for most of the sites.
The Appalachian Clubhouse, which can hold up to 96 people, is proposed to go from $250 on weekdays and $400 on weekends to $300 for any day.
The Spence Cabin, which accommodates 40 people, is proposed to be $200 everyday. It currently is $150 on weekdays and $200 on weekends.
Park officials noted that their budget has remained relatively flat over the past decade, but the traffic has dramatically increased.
“In order to balance the park’s budget each year, park managers have had to reduce visitor services and decrease staffing levels,” the NPS said. “All at a time when we need them more than ever. And with visitation projected to continue rising, the approval of the parking tag, front country, and backcountry fee proposals is crucial to the park’s future.”
Officials are taking public comment on the proposal until May 7, at which time a decision will be made. Details on how to do that either online or in writing can be found on the NPS website.
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