GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — Beginning next March, visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be required to purchase a parking pass to use the facilities.
Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said in an interview that the fee is necessary to meet maintenance and staffing demands at the country’s most visited national park. The Smokies have seen a 57% increase in visitors over the last decade with a record 14.1 million views in 2021. However, allocations are not based on visits and have remained relatively flat, Cash said.
Due to a combination of deed restrictions and federal laws, the park can’t charge an entrance fee, so Cash said had to look for other ways to increase income. In addition to parking passes, the park is raising camping fees. All money raised will go directly to park staffing, deferred maintenance and operations, Cash said. That includes things as basic as keeping bathrooms clean, picking up trash and maintaining roads.
Parking fees will be $5 per day or $15 for seven days. There will also be a $40 annual pass. The park encourages visitors to purchase their passes in advance. They will be available for sale online, and the park is also working to offer sales at hotels and other businesses in surrounding communities.
Drivers won’t need a pass to drive through the park or to make short stops at the park, Cash said.
“If you want to go through the visitor center and use the bathroom, you don’t need a pass,” he said. “We are trying to capture the costs of services used, not nickels and dimes for each vehicle. If you want to stop at a viewpoint and take a selfie with the beautiful scenery, you can still do it.”
Backcountry camping fees will double to $8 per night under the new structure, with a maximum of $40 per camper. The park said such fees have not increased in 10 years, while site usage has risen to more than 100,000 camper nights per year. For other campgrounds, rates will increase to $36 per night for sites with electrical hookups and $30 per night for those without. Rates for group camps, horse camps and picnic pavilions will also increase. Complete information about the the new fee structure is available on the park’s website.
Separately, the park is exploring ways to relieve congestion at its most popular attractions like Laurel Falls, which had 375,000 visitors last year. In a pilot project, the park recently offered a shuttle from the nearby resort town of Gatlinburg to the falls, a service that was very popular, Cash said.
While both visits and the cost of doing business have increased over the past decade, “one thing that has stayed the same is people’s expectations,” Cash said. He hopes the new fees will help the park continue to meet those expectations.
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