GATLINBURG, TENN. (WGHP) – If you are among the 14.1 million who visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park last year, your input is requested about planned changes in future visits might cost you.

The National Park Service is considering a parkwide parking fee – for the first time – and increasing various other access fees, starting in 2023, and a public hearing is being held this week to gather input from you and everyone else who might be affected.

Yellowstone was designated the first national park in 1872, but the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has the most annual visitors. (WGHP file)

Before you comment, though, you need to have the ins and outs of what is being proposed. Park managers are looking to capitalize on those 14.1 million visitors in 2021, which was a 13% increase from the pre-pandemic year of 2019 and a 57% increase during the past decade. The National Park Service says it is the most visited national park.

Visitors to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park have increased markedly in the past decade. (NPS)

With more visitors comes more maintenance costs, and that’s why the park service is looking at adding and increasing what you must pay to use the park. Here’s what the plans call for:

  • A first-ever parking tag would cost you $5 for the day, $15 for seven days or $40 for an annual pass, meaning you could come and stay on your own schedule without additional parking costs. There would be no entry fee, so drive-thru visits would continue to be free. NPS leaders say most facilities charge $15 a day or $68 for a month for parking.
  • An increase in the cost for camping in the backcountry – translation: the remote areas – from $4 to $8 per night, with a maximum of $40 per camper. The park service says this would be the first increase in 10 years and that usage has increased by more than 100,000 camper nights per year.
  • A standardized fee for all campgrounds of $30 per night for primitive campgrounds and $36 per night for those with electrical outlets. These prices had ranged from $17.50 to $25, the NPS says.
  • There also would be various fee increases of 20% to 30% for group camps, horse camps and picnic pavilions and the daily rentals of the Appalachian Clubhouse and Spence Cabin in Elmont, Tennessee.

In a release announcing the proposed increases Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said the Smoky Mountains National Park was “at a crossroads.”

“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,” Cash said. “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.”

A map of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. (NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)

How to comment

The public input period began April 6 and will continue through May 7, but there is a virtual public meeting at 5-6 p.m. Thursday during which officials will present an overview of the changes and take questions.

NPS officials recommend that you log into the meeting at this web address about 5 to 10 minutes before 5 p.m. You also can dial in and listen at 929-436-2866 (the passcode is 980 8025 4376#).

Otherwise you can comment by visiting this web address and clicking on “Comment now” or by writing Superintendent Cassius Cash, Attn. 2023 Smokies Fee Program Changes Proposal, 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, TN  37738.

  For more information, you can visit the park’s website.