The Great Smoky Mountains National Park announced today it will adopt a ‘Park it Forward’ parking tag program, meaning visitors will have to pay to park for the first time in the park’s history. The new program will also increase camping fees beginning March 2023.
“Today marks a significant milestone in the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and I’m honored to be a part of it,” Superintendent Cassius Cash said. “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’s budget, appropriated by Congress, does not increase based on visitation. Over the last decade, the park’s budget has remained relatively flat, in spite of increasing visitation. When adjusted for inflation, the buying power of those dollars has decreased significantly. In order to balance the park’s budget each year, park managers have had to reduce visitor services and decrease staffing levels. All at a time when we need them more than ever. The implementation of the parking tag program, as well as front-country and backcountry fee increases, is crucial to the park’s future. Over the past decade, park visitation has skyrocketed by 57 percent. 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.
New funding sources are needed to rehabilitate this national treasure and preserve the magic of the Smokies for future generations.
The 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, according to the park’s release. 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.
GSMNP said the use of all park roads will remain toll-free, and parking tags will not be required for motorists who pass through the area or who park vehicles for less than 15 minutes.
The tags will not guarantee a parking spot at a specific location, according to the park. Parking will continue to be available on a first-come, first-served basis throughout the park.
The park said it will eliminate unsafe roadside parking at specific areas to enhance the visitor experience by improving motorist and pedestrian safety, increasing traffic flow and protecting roadside resources.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park, according to the release. Over the last decade, visitation increased by 57% to a record 14.1 million visits in 2021.
The park initially announced the Park it Forward and camping fee proposal in April, and the public was encouraged to submit its comments.
This invitation generated 3,677 correspondences from all 50 states, and a total of 15,512 independent comments were identified, categorized, and assessed as part of the review process, according to a release.
North Carolina Senator Kevin Corbin was among state leaders who spoke out against the proposed fees, encouraging the park to continue allowing access to the park free of charge.
Overall, 85 percent of correspondences expressed either strong support or included constructive ideas to improve the program, according to GSMNP. None of these correspondences voiced opposition to the fee itself.
About 41 percent and 16 percent of all correspondences were from Tennessee and North Carolina residents, respectively. Support from the six counties bordering the park varied with 82 percent of Blount County (TN), 73 percent of Sevier County (TN), 90 percent of Cocke County (TN), 60 percent of Graham County (NC), 60 percent of Swain County (NC), and 85 percent of Haywood County (NC) residents who submitted feedback expressing either support or neutrality for the new parking fee, according to a release.
The most prevalent comment regarding tag duration was support for an annual tag, according to the park. In response, the director of the National Park Service authorized permission for the park to offer an annual tag, which will allow parking throughout the park from the date of purchase.
The park said any visitor can purchase an annual parking tag, but 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.
How will the parking tag requirement be enforced?
While law enforcement rangers do have the authority to issue citations, educating visitors about the parking tags will be a key component of implementation.
A variety of staff positions will assist in raising awareness of the program through presence across the park. As visitors become educated on the program, the park will phase in enforcement over time.
Will interagency passes be accepted in lieu of the parking tag or will there be a discount on parking tags for interagency pass holders?
Interagency passes (aka America the Beautiful passes) will NOT be accepted in lieu of the parking tag and will NOT provide a discount for the purchase of the parking tag.
The park determined that providing discounts for parking was not operationally feasible.
The park continues to apply a 50% discount on camping fees for two America the Beautiful pass types, Access and Senior.
You can learn more about the America the Beautiful pass types here: https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/passes.htm.
Will the park offer free parking tags to Tribal citizens?
Yes, the National Park Service will provide parking tags at no cost to Tribal leaders who will then distribute the tags to Tribal citizens who are coming to the park for traditional activities.
The National Park Service expressly allows citizens of American Indian Tribes to enter parks for traditional activities without paying fees.
This guiding policy can be found in NPS Management Policies (2006) and Recreation Fee Management Reference Manual 22A, Section 10.1.1.
Will there be a discount for residents of local counties?
The annual tag option is specifically provided to meet the needs of local residents for year-round, repeated access.
Would family members be able to visit family gravesites inside the park without paying the fee?
The park uses the Special Use Permit system to issue permits at no cost for Decoration Days, family reunions for descendants across the park, and cemetery visits.
Decoration Day permit holders will be exempt from the parking tag requirement for the duration of their permit.
Each cemetery visit is unique and park staff work directly with descendants to coordinate special access including annual boat shuttles, vehicle shuttles, and use of administrative roads.
I thought the park couldn’t charge any fees. How can you charge for this?
Although the congressionally authorized budget for the National Park Service helps to cover the costs of preserving parks like Great Smoky Mountains National Park, those funds do not cover all of the operating costs associated with millions and millions of visitors who drive park roads, flush park toilets, and use park services annually.
In 1965, Congress officially provided National Parks the ability to charge user fees to help fully meet costs through authorities in the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act and, more recently, the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act.
Most parks of similar size and visitation as the Smokies receive revenue from fees, concessions, and donations that doubles their annual funding support and provides a sustainable revenue source to meet visitor needs.