KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — As attendance records shatter, officials with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are explaining a proposal that they say will help cover the cost of operating and maintaining the park.
A virtual meeting is planned for 5 pm on Thursday, April 14 to discuss raising fees and adding a parking fee. At the meeting, the public will be allowed to ask questions. Officials encourage people to join virtually.
Although traffic to the park has increased significantly, Spokeswoman Dana Soehn said park staffing and funding has not. Visitation to the park has increased by 57% over the last decade, to a record 14.1 million visits in 2021, she said.
The park is proposing a daily parking tag for $5, a parking tag good for up to seven days for $15, and an annual parking tag for $40.
Revenue from the fees would remain in the Smokies and support park maintenance, custodial services, staff shortages, trash removal, and more needed projects.
Also proposed is an increase to the existing fees for picnic pavilions, campgrounds and campsites. Currently, it costs $14 to $23 a night for camping and fees for renting picnic pavilions range from $12.50 to $80, depending on location.
“If the proposal to charge for parking was to move forward some of the ways that we can use those critically needed funds are to address improving visitor services.” said Soehn.
Soehn said that the parking pass would only be needed for those who stop to visit within the park. If you were not stopping and just wanted to drive through the scenic park, you would not have to purchase the pass.
Soehn explains that with the millions of visitors the park is receiving, there has been wear and tear to the area. The money will allow them to fix trails, adjust custodial services that are needed in the bathroom, improve cleaning cycles and hire more staff.
About 110 of more than 400 national parks charge an entrance fee, but the Great Smoky Mountains does not. Soehn explains that the park is not allowed to charge an entrance fee due to a deed restriction.
“The single action that prohibits us from charging a fee is that deed restriction by the state of Tennessee on that roadway that no tolls can ever be charged. That affects us because we have a federal statute that says if we can’t charge a toll to use our primary roads then we can’t charge entrance fees or tolls anywhere else in the park.” Soehn said.