America’s Most-Visited National Park Will Raise Fees Next Year

The funds will provide the most new financial support for Great Smoky Mountains National Park since the park was created in 1934.

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14.1 million people visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2021, making it the most visited in the park system.

Photo by Shutterstock

As of March 2023, Great Smoky Mountains National Park will increase camping fees and require visitors to have parking passes, with the funds going toward park maintenance and adequately staffing the uber-popular park on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee.

“We take great pride in being the country’s most-visited national park, but that distinction comes with tremendous strain on our infrastructure,” Superintendent Cassius Cash said in a press release. “Now, we will have sustained resources to ensure this sacred place is protected for visitors to enjoy for generations to come.”

Beyond its stunning, eponymously named mountains, the park is known for having more than 850 miles of hiking trails, nearly 20,000 species of wildlife, plants, and fungi, and accessibility—it is within a day’s drive from two-thirds of all U.S. states (which only adds to its popularity).

Why Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Raising Fees

According to the park, visitation has increased by 57 percent in the last decade. In 2021, it saw a record 14.1 million people (by comparison, Yellowstone saw 4.8 million people in 2021, Grand Canyon 4.5 million, and Yosemite roughly 3.2 million). However, the park’s operational budget hasn’t seen similar growth, and the increased traffic is “starting to take its toll with wear and tear on aging facilities and undue strain on limited staff.”

New Parking Fee Costs

The new fee structure will go into effect on March 1, 2023. Parking passes will cost $5 per day or $15 for a week. There will also be the option to purchase an annual pass for $40. The passes will be available at the park’s entrance; however, park staff is encouraging visitors to buy their passes online ahead of time.

Due to a combination of deed restrictions and federal law, the park is not allowed to charge a toll or entrance fee. The parking passes were the workaround. However, Cash noted that those who are passing through the area or who park for fewer than 15 minutes would not be required to have a pass.

“If you want to come by the visitor center and use the bathroom, you don’t need a pass,” Cash told the Associated Press. “We are trying to capture the costs of services used, not nickel-and-dime every vehicle. If you want to stop at an overlook and take a selfie with the beautiful scenery, you can still do that.”

New Camping Costs

Backcountry camping fees will also increase to $8 a night, with a maximum of $40 per person. At designated campsites, rates will rise to $36 per night for spots with electrical hookups and $30 for those without. Rates for group camps, picnic pavilions, and day-use cabin rentals will also increase. Complete information on the new fee structure is available on the park’s website.

The Associated Press contributed to this reporting.

Bailey Berg is the associate travel news editor at AFAR, where she covers breaking news, trends, tips, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. When not interviewing sources or writing articles, she can be found exploring art galleries, visiting craft breweries, hiking with her dogs, and planning her next adventure (at present, she’s been to 75+ countries and hopes to spend time in every one someday).
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