The nation’s busiest national park will begin charging a parking fee in 2023 for the first time.
The National Parks Service announced this week that parking tags will become mandatory at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with the money raised to be kept in the facility to improve the visitor experience, protect resources, and maintain roads, structures, and facilities.
Parking had always been free at the park. Starting March 1, 2023, fees will be $5 for a daily tag, $15 for a weekly tag, or $40 for an annual pass.
“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,” Superintendent Cassius Cash said in a release.
The money raised will go into a fund named Park It Forward to secure the future of the park.
“We take great pride in being the country’s most visited national park, but that distinction comes with tremendous strain on our infrastructure,” Cash said. “Now we will have sustained resources to ensure this sacred place is protected for visitors to enjoy for generations to come.”
Tags will work for any area of the massive park, but they do not guarantee the availability of a spot.
Use of the park’s roads will remain free. Visitors passing through the park will not be charged a fee and will not need a parking pass if they stop for less than 15 minutes.
In addition to parking fees, camping fees are being adjusted as part of the Park It Forward campaign.
Backcountry camping fees will be $8 per night, with a $40 maximum. Frontcountry family campsites will be $30 per night for primitive sites and $36 per night for those with electrical hookups.
Group camps, horse camps, and picnic pavilion fees are also being adjusted with a 20 to 30 percent increase. Those fees depend on location and size of the group.
According to the NPS, the change in fee structure for both parking and camping came in the wake of an extensive public comment period. More than 15,000 comments on the proposals were received, with 85 percent expressing strong support for the plan.
Respondents were overwhelmingly in favor of the annual tag option. The idea was sought by park leadership to specifically encourage local residents to visit multiple times throughout the year.
When and how the parking tags will become available has not yet been announced. Visitors to the park will be able to purchase them upon their arrival, but annual passes may be available by other methods as well.
Great Smoky Mountains is the nation’s most popular national park, and only getting more popular. Over the past decade, visitation increased by 57 percent to an all-time record of 14.1 million visits in 2021.
“With rising costs and more visitation, additional revenue is critical to support upkeep of the park,” the NPS said. “The new fee changes will provide an opportunity for park users to directly contribute towards protecting the park.”