Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park will soon cost you more

Price increases for parking, camping will begin March 1, officials say

The country’s most-visited national park will soon charge visitors more for parking and camping, officials announced recently.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is rolling out parking pass fees and increasing camping permit prices starting March 1, 2023, according to a news release from park officials.

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Here’s what visitors need to know.

Parking passes

The new “Park it Forward” program will require visitors to display permits when parked for longer than 15 minutes. The park will offer three kinds of permits: daily passes for $5, seven-day passes for $15 and annual passes for $40, the release says.

After proposing the program in April, the park encouraged public comments. Officials said they received 3,677 responses, 85% of which provided support or constructive ideas for the project, according to the release. None expressed opposition to the fee.

Visitors can purchase passes either online or at the park, according to the park’s website. Each pass will be valid for only one vehicle, and passes will not be transferable, upgradable or refundable.

The number of tags available for purchase is unlimited, so officials do not anticipate the program will alleviate any congestion, the site says.

Parking tags will not be location specific and do not guarantee a specific parking spot.

“Just like today, parking at the busiest areas will require visitors to plan ahead to choose off-peak hours, days and seasons to better the chances of parking availability,” the park stated. “Parking will continue to be available on a first-come, first-serve basis throughout the park.”

Camping site fees

The park will also increase fees for frontcountry and backcountry camping.

Under the new system, backcountry camping will be $8 per night, with a maximum fee of $40 per camper, the release states. Frontcountry family campsite fees will cost $30 per night for primitive sites and $36 per night for sites with electrical access. Group camps, horse camps and picnic pavilions will increase by 20-30% depending on location and group size.

Public correspondence about camping fees showed support of 78% for backcountry fee increases and 82% for frontcountry fee increases, according to the release.

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Keeping up with more visitors

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited national park in the country, and more than the past decade, visitation has jumped 57%, according to the park. In 2021, it had a record-breaking 14.1 million visits.

Although visitation has increased, the park’s budget, which is allocated by Congress, does not grow proportionally to its number of visitors, the park’s website states.

“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,” the site reads.

Officials said they will reinvest all profits from parking passes and increased camping fees back into the park.

“A few examples of how these funds can be used are: improving visitor safety by increasing park ranger presence; repairing, enhancing and maintaining public park facilities; restoring recreational habitats for wildlife photography and fishing,” the website states.