"Park It Forward" text is visible over an image of a sunrise over many peaks and vegetation in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Proposed Smokies Fee Program Changes for 2023

Great Smoky Mountains National Park » Proposed Smokies Fee Program Changes for 2023 » Document List

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (the park) is seeking public input on proposed fee program changes for 2023, including a new parkwide parking fee and an increase to existing fee rates at picnic pavilions, frontcountry campgrounds, and backcountry campsites. Under the Federal Lands and Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA), all revenue generated through these user fees would remain in the Smokies to directly support operational costs for managing and improving the visitor experience, including trail maintenance, custodial services, trash removal, and supporting more law enforcement staffing across the park.

Since 1934, people from around the world have visited the park to create memories and traditions that span over generations. Year after year, the Smokies is the most visited national park in the U.S. Over the last decade, visitation has increased by 57 percent to a record 14.1 million visits in 2021. The park serves as the economic engine for the region. For every $1 of federal funding invested in the Smokies, $50 is returned to local economies.

The Park is at a crossroads; while the number of visits has grown significantly, park staffing and the operational budget have not. Wear and tear on aging facilities and a strain on park resources and employees due to this increase in visitation can impact the visitor experience. Park managers have a proposed solution to provide a sustainable revenue source to help ensure the protection of this national treasure for future generations. Serving more visitors requires more money to adequately maintain the park's aging facilities. The park does not charge an entrance fee like many other parks of similar size and complexity. To find out why, visit our website: https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/whyfree.htm.

Proposed Smokies Parking Tag Program:

The proposed Smokies Parking Tag program would create a sustainable revenue source to address longstanding challenges associated with high use, year-round operational needs, and resource protection. Fee revenue would support the care of well-loved resources including trails, picnic areas and historic landscapes. The Smokies Parking Tag would provide an opportunity for park users to directly contribute towards upkeep of the park.

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. Annual parking tags would provide a simple mechanism for frequent visitors, particularly local visitors, to meet the parking tag requirement. The proposed rates and tag duration were determined by considering a comparison of 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 $67.50 per month. In National Park sites where parking fees are charged, the average rate is $9 per day and $50 per year. The park asks the public to provide input on the proposed parking tag cost and the duration of the parking tag.

As proposed, the Smokies Parking Tag 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. Unofficial roadside parking would be eliminated to help protect resources, improve motorist and pedestrian safety, and to improve traffic flow through congested areas.

The park would continue to be entrance fee free. The Parking Tag Parking tags would not be required for motorists experiencing the park through a scenic drive or using park roads as a commuter route. Parking tags would also not be required for pedestrians or cyclists. Tag sales would not be capped to limit access to the park. Parking tags would be per vehicle, not per person. Tags would likely be available for advanced sale through an online system and through in-person mechanisms such as automated fee machines and sales at park visitor centers.

Proposed Backcountry Fee Program Changes:

Based on cost comparability information and operational needs, the park is proposing to increase backcountry camping fees from $4 per night to $8 per night, with a maximum of $40 per person per permit for general backcountry permits and a $40 fee for Appalachian Trail (AT) Thru-hiker permits. The AT Thru-hiker permit rate is based on the average length of stay of 5 nights for a thru-hiker to travel through the park. Backcountry fees provide critical support for trip planning, 7-day-a-week backcountry office support and backcountry law enforcement patrol.

Increased revenue from overnight backcountry camping fees would enable the park to better maintain facilities, enhance visitor services and provide for resource protection throughout the backcountry. Revenue from backcountry fees have supported the Backcountry Permit System, the staffing of the backcountry office and field operations, trip planning assistance, and backcountry compliance efforts. 100% of the fees collected from backcountry permits are used to fund backcountry operations and needs within the park.

The backcountry permit fee has been in place without an increase since 2013. Since that time, there has been a 39% increase in backcountry use resulting in increased backcountry maintenance and operational needs. The additional revenue would support the maintenance of safety and navigation signage throughout the park as well as other amenities like fire rings, hitch racks, and cable systems for food storage; increased presence of backcountry rangers in the field; development of additional backcountry trip planning tools; and continued maintenance and improvement of the Backcountry Permit System

Proposed Frontcountry Fee Program Changes:

Increased revenue from frontcountry fees would enable to park to improve and maintain high-quality visitor services and support the ongoing maintenance of frontcountry facilities directly enhance the visitor experience. The park proposes standardizing frontcountry fees across the park as operational costs are now similar across location. The proposed fee for all family campgrounds 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. 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. Rates for daily rental of the Appalachian Clubhouse and Spence Cabin in Elkmont are proposed to be a standard daily rate, resulting in an average increase of the weekly rate and decrease of the weekend rate.

Proposed fee increases are based on a comparability analysis of similar services in nearby campgrounds, pavilions, and day use cabin rental spaces. Comparable rates for similar family campgrounds outside of the park was $38. Proposed frontcountry fee changes are as follows:

-Frontcountry campground fees would increase from $25 to $30 per night at Cades Cove, Elkmont, Cataloochee, Smokemont, and Deep Creek Campgrounds.

-Frontcountry campground fees would increase from $17.50 to $30 per night at Cosby, Abrams Creek, Balsam Mountain, and Big Creek Campgrounds.

-Group campground fees in Elkmont, Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Big Creek, Deep Creek and Smokemont would be standardized based on capacity. This would increase the group sites from $40, $50, $60 and $75 per night (depending on the capacity, size, and amenities of the site) to $50, $62, $75 and $94 per night, respectively. Cosby Group Campground would increase from $30 to $50.

-Horse camp fees would increase from $23 to $30 per night at Anthony Creek, Cataloochee, Round Bottom, and Tow String. The fees would increase from $29 to $36 per night at Big Creek, the only horse camp in the park with flushing toilets.

-Spence Cabin would change from $150 for weekday and $200 for weekend to a $200 fee regardless of day.

-Appalachian Clubhouse would change from $250 for weekday and $400 for weekend to $300 regardless of day.

Since 2016, when frontcountry fees were last updated, the revenues have been used to fund campground custodial operations, resource protection and emergency services as well as rehabilitation of numerous campground sites and improvements like replacement of bear-proof trach receptacles.

To learn more about this proposal, there will be a 1-hour virtual public meeting on April 14 starting at 5:00 p.m., EST. For more details and a link to join the meeting, click on "Meeting Notices" in the menu to the left. The presentation will be followed by a question-and-answer session on the proposal. Please submit formal comments no later than May 7, 2022. Select "Open for Comment" on the left menu bar, open the folder and click on the green "Comment Now" button to access the online commenting form or send comments mail to the following address:

Superintendent Cassius Cash
Attn: 2023 Smokies Fee Program Changes Proposal
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
107 Park Headquarters Rd.
Gatlinburg, TN 37738

More information including a video message from Superintendent Cassius Cash as well as a set of frequently asked questions can be found at our webpage here: https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/2023-fee-proposal.htm

Thank you for your participation and interest in this proposal. We look forward to hearing from you!

Contact Information

Dana Soehn, 865-436-1207