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Smokies to require parking passes beginning next March

FILE - The West Prong Little Pigeon River flows over rocks dotted with fall foliage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenn., Nov. 5, 2015. Beginning March 2023, visitors to the national park will need to purchase a parking pass to use the facilities. (Adam Lau/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP, File)

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — Beginning next March, visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park will need to purchase a parking pass to use the facilities.

Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said in an interview the fee is needed to keep up with maintenance and staffing demands at the country's most visited national park. The Smokies have seen at 57% increase in visitors over the past decade with a record 14.1 million visits in 2021. However, appropriations aren't based on visitations and have remained relatively flat, Cash said.

Due to a combination of deed restrictions and federal law, the park is not allowed to charge an entrance fee, so Cash said they had to look at other ways to increase revenue. In addition to the parking passes, the park is increasing camping fees. All the money raised will go directly into park staffing, deferred maintenance and operations, Cash said. That includes things as basic as keeping the restrooms clean, picking up trash and maintaining the roads.

Parking fees will be $5 per day or $15 for seven days. There will also be a $40 annual pass. The park is encouraging visitors to buy their passes in advance. They will be available for sale online, and the park is working to offer sales at hotels and other businesses in the surrounding communities as well.

Drivers won't need a pass to drive through the park or to make brief stops in the park, Cash said.

“If you want to come by the visitor center and use the bathroom, you don't need a pass,” he said. “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.”

Backcountry camping fees will double to $8 per night under the new structure, 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. For other campsites, the rates will increase to $36 per night for sites with electrical hookups and $30 per night for those without. Rates for group camps, horse camps and picnic pavilions will also increase. Complete information on the new fee structure is available on the park's website.

Separately, the park is exploring ways to ease congestion at its most popular attractions like Laurel Falls, which had 375,000 visitors last year. In a pilot project, the park recently offered a shuttle service from the nearby resort town of Gatlinburg to the falls — a service that was very popular, Cash said.

While both visitation and the cost of doing business have increased over the past decade, “one thing that has stayed the same is people's expectations,” Cash said.

Former U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a longtime parks supporter who grew up near the Smokies and still lives nearby, issued a statement on Monday praising Cash for "solving a big problem with an obvious solution.

“Funding from the new parking fee and from the Great American Outdoors Act enacted in 2020 will provide the most new financial support for the Great Smokies since the park was created in 1934," the Tennessee Republican said.

The Associated Press

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