Big Change Comes to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not charge an entrance fee. Sounds great. Right? Not so fast. Effective March 1, 2023, the park has implemented a new parking fee program. What is behind the change, and what do you need to know to plan your visit?

Why is the Park Now Charging Parking Fees?

According to National Park Service (NPS) statistics, the Great Smoky Mountains, America’s most visited national park, received nearly 13 million visitors last year. That is more visitors than the combined totals for Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone National Parks. 

From 2011 to 2021, the park’s visitation increased by approximately 60%. That vehicle and foot traffic volume leads to wear and tear on the park’s infrastructure. The park budget has remained relatively flat despite the visitation spike over the past decade. 

Due to inflation, those dollars provide less maintenance and conservation than in years past. Struggling to balance the budget, the NPS has reduced staffing and visitor services.

How Will the Fees be Used?

The NPS states it will utilize 100% of the parking fees to help preserve the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and ensure a first-rate visitor experience. Accordingly, the parking pass program is called Park It Forward. 

The NPS provides examples of how it plans to use the funds:

  • Increase ranger presence to improve visitor safety
  • Repair, enhance, and maintain public facilities
  • Restore recreational habitats for wildlife photography and fishing

How Much is a Parking Pass?

Parking fees apply to all vehicle types and sizes. You can choose from the following durations:

  • Daily: $5
  • Weekly: $15
  • Annual: $40

Maintaining Perspective

Of the 63 national parks in the United States, 41 regularly charge entrance fees. Those fees vary from $5 to $35. Although not an entrance fee, the Great Smoky Mountains parking fee is comparable to the regular entrance fees in many of our national parks.

For our national parks that charge an entrance fee, the NPS offers five entrance fee-free days in 2023. The NPS states you do not need to display a parking pass on fee-free days.

What Else Do You Need to Know?

The NPS provides the following guidelines:

  • Parking passes may be purchased at the park or online.
  • Each tag is valid for a single vehicle and must include a license plate number matching the car.
  • You cannot replace, transfer, upgrade, or obtain a refund for a parking tag.
  • You must display the physical parking tag in the vehicle. Digital representation is not accepted.
  • Parking tags are not location specific and are required to park anywhere in the Great Smoky Mountains.
  • A parking pass is unnecessary for travelers passing through or those who park for less than 15 minutes.
  • You cannot use an interagency park entrance pass instead of a parking pass.
  • A parking pass does not guarantee a parking spot.
  • If you have a rental vehicle, wait until you know the license plate number before purchasing a parking pass.

Is the Parking Pass Worth It?

the Smokies
The Great Smoky Mountains. Photo credit: [Shunyu Fan via Canva.com]

Straddling the borders of Tennessee and North Carolina, the misty mountains attract tourists worldwide. The visitation numbers speak for themselves. Many travelers proclaim the Smokies as one of the best national parks on the East Coast

Ultimately, the decision to visit the park comes down to each individual. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers many places to explore. Beyond the mountains, you can explore natural features like lush forests, coursing streams, cascading waterfalls, and colorful wildflowers. The park offers scenic drives and many recreational activities. Wildlife in the Smokies includes black bears, deer, and red and gray foxes. 

Wrap-Up: Great Smoky Mountains Parking Fees

Effective March 1, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has implemented its Park It Forward program. Although the park does not charge an entrance fee, visitors must pay for a parking pass. If you have further questions, visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park site. Parking fees will help preserve the Great Smoky Mountains for future generations.

Featured image credit: [SeanPavonePhoto via Canva.com]

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About the author

We are Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.