KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Great Smoky Mountains National Park is asking for the public’s input on a plan to create a long-term revenue source for operations through new parkwide parking fees and an increase to existing fees for camping and cabin rentals.
All revenue generated from the proposed user fees would directly support operational costs such as trail maintenance, custodial services, trash removal and increased law enforcement staffing across the park.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most visited National Park. Visitation has increased by 57% over the last decade to a record 14.1 million visits in 2021.
According to a release, the park is in critical need of additional revenue to maintain upkeep as costs and visitation continue to rise. Fees for backcountry camping have not been increased in 10 years while the use of sites has increased to more than 100,000 camper nights per year.
“Great Smoky Mountains National Park is at a crossroads,” Superintendent Cassius Cash said. “We’re proud to be the most visited National Park, but it does present challenges due to wear and tear on aging facilities and a strain on park resources and employees. Parking tag sales, at a modest fee, would provide critically needed support to protect and enhance the visitor experience not just for tomorrow, but for generations to come. We appreciate the public’s input throughout this process.”
Proposed Smokies Parking Tag Program
Under the proposal, the park would continue to be entrance fee-free. Parking tags would not be required for motorists seeking a scenic drive or using park roads as a commuter route. Parking tags would also not be required for pedestrians or cyclists.
The park is proposing a daily parking tag for $5, a parking tag for up to seven days for $15 and an annual parking tag for $40.
The proposed plan would also eliminate unofficial roadside parking. The park says this would help protect park resources, improve safety for motorists and pedestrians as well as improving traffic flow through congested areas.
Tags would be required to be displayed on all motor vehicles parking in designated parking spots within park boundaries. The tag would not guarantee a parking spot at a specific location. Parking would continue to be available on a first-come, first-serve basis throughout the park.
Cash compared the new parking tags to passes you need to park on college campuses.
“If you went to a college campus and drove around just to tour it to see the campus you wouldn’t need a tag,” said Cash. “The moment you park your vehicle in a lot to go to a football game or the library, you’re required to have a parking tag.”
Parking rates were determined by comparing rates for similar access on private and public lands. The average parking rate in gateway communities where parking fees are charged is $15 per day and $68 per month. In National Park sites where parking fees are charged, the average rate is $9 per day and $50 per year.
Proposed Fee Program Changes for backcountry, frontcountry camping and cabin rentals
The park recommends increasing backcountry camping fees from $4 per night to $8 per night, with a maximum of $40 per camper. Additional frontcountry fees proposed to be increased include group camps, horse camps, and picnic pavilions by between 20 and 30 percent depending on size and location.
The proposed fee for all campgrounds for family campsites would be $30 per night for primitive sites and $36 per night for sites with electrical hookups. Formerly, rates for campgrounds varied across campgrounds and ranged from $17.50 to $25 per night.
Click here for a full table of proposed camping fee rate changes
What will the money be used for?
Cash says the money will be put to many different uses such as: the infrastructure and facilites, wastewater systems, to increase the law enforcement presence at the park, maintenance facilities, restrooms and more.
How to submit public comment on the proposal
Public comment on the proposed parking tag program, camping fees and day-use facility rate changes will be open from April 6 to May 11. From April 29 to May 1, the submission website will not be accessible due to a planned network outage. However, written comments will still be accepted.
Comments can be submitted online at parkplanning.nps.gov/GRSMfeeproposal2023 by selecting ‘open for comment’ from the left menu bar, opening the Proposed Smokies Fee Program Changes for 2023 folder and clicking on the green “Comment Now” button to access the online commenting form.
Comments can also be mailed to the park headquarters at 107 Park Headquarters Road Gatlinburg, TN 37738. They should be addressed to Superintendent Cassius Cash with Attn: 2023 Smokies Fee Program Changes Proposal.
A virtual public meeting to discuss the proposed fee program changes will take place on April 14 from 5 to 6 p.m. The meeting will include an overview presentation introducing the rate changes and a Question and Answer session.
Visitors may attend the meetings virtually by logging in at https://tinyurl.com/mttkdyxs. Participants are welcome to call in on listen only mode, and not view the presentation, by dialing (929) 436-2866 and entering passcode 980 8025 4376#.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated after the public comment period was extended.