GATLINBURG, Tenn. – Great Smoky Mountains National Park announced a plan Wednesday to start charging parking fees along with higher rates for campsites, day-use cabin rentals and picnic pavilions starting next year.
Visits to the park have increased 57% over the past decade to a record 14.1 million last year and have taken a toll on facilities, the park said in a news release. Additional revenue from the changes would allow the park to address renovations along with law enforcement staffing challenges and services including trail maintenance and trash removal.
The park is seeking public comment through May 7 and has scheduled a virtual public meeting on April 14 to discuss the proposals. Comments can be submitted online or by mail.
“Great Smoky Mountains National Park is at a crossroads,” park Superintendent Cassius Cash said in the statement. “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.”
The proposal includes $5 for daily parking, $15 for up to seven days and $40 for an annual tag. The rates were determined by comparing similar access on private and public lands, the statement said. The average parking rate in nearby towns where parking fees are charged is $15 per day and $68 per month. In national parks where visitors are charged for parking, the average rate is $9 per day and $50 per year.
Visitors would be required to display a tag on vehicles parked in designated 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-served basis. In addition, roadside parking would be eliminated to help protect resources, assist traffic flow through congested areas and improve motorist and pedestrian safety.
Noting that it does not charge an entrance fee, the park said parking tags would not be required for motorists who are on scenic drives through the park or use park roads as a commuter route. Pedestrians and cyclists would not be required to purchase parking tags.
Backcountry camping fees would double to $8 per night under the proposal, with a maximum of $40 per camper. The park said such fees have not increased in 10 years while site use has risen to more than 100,000 camper nights per year.
Frontcountry camping fees would be standardized across the park. Nightly family campsite fees would be $30 for primitive sites and $36 for sites with electrical hookups. The nightly fees previously ranged from $17.50 to $25, the statement said.
Rates for group camps, horse camps and picnic pavilions would increase up to 30%, depending on size and location. Proposed daily rental rates would be $200 for the Spence Cabin and $300 for the Appalachian Clubhouse. Current rates are higher on the weekend.