The Most Popular National Park Will No Longer Be Free

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Hundreds of millions of visitors are visiting National Park Service (NPS) units all across the country. Many national parks are experiencing record-breaking numbers of guests year after year.

However, visitors to the most popular national park will soon need to pay if they plan to spend much time in the park.

Today, we’re looking at a new policy that will make it more expensive to visit the most popular national park. Let’s get started!

Of the 63 National Park Service units designated as national parks, Great Smoky Mountains National Park takes the crown for being the most popular.

The park has welcomed over 10 million visitors since 2014, and there are no indications of it slowing down anytime soon.

The park experienced its busiest year ever in 2021 when it welcomed an astounding 14 million visitors.

To give you some perspective, Utah’s Zion National Park attracts 5 million annual visitors and is the next most popular unit with the national park designation.

You’d have to combine the visitors of Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Canyon National Park to beat the park’s massive number of visitors. That’s a whole lot of people!

Pro Tip: If you’re looking to beat the crowds, read our 17 Secrets to Avoiding Crowds on a Road Trip!

View of the Great Smoky Mountains national park, which will soon no longer be free to visit

About Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The most popular national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is split between North Carolina and Tennessee. The park’s central location in the eastern portion of the country and local tourist-focused communities attract many guests each year.

Whether they’re coming to explore the great outdoors or ride the coasters at Dolly Parton’s famous Dollywood, many visit the national park during their time in the area.

The park is home to Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smoky Mountains. It’s more than 500,000 acres, and Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated it as a national park in 1940.

If you spend much time exploring the park, there’s a chance you’ll be able to spot a black bear, elk, and or a rare Peregrine Falcon. It’s a beautiful park no matter what time of year you choose to visit.

What Is “Park It Forward?”

Park It Forward is a program that will begin on March 1, 2023, at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The program will require guests to the park to purchase a daily, weekly, or annual parking tag for their vehicle if they want to park in any designated parking spot in the park.

It will invest the revenue from the program back into ensuring it remains available for future generations. 

Keep in Mind: Some national parks are experiencing potentially fatal symptoms and are in danger! Read on to learn what we should be doing to protect our parks.

How Much Does It Cost to Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

Visiting Great Smoky Mountain National Park has been and will continue to be free. This is largely due to the park’s unique location and inability to restrict traffic.

Visitors can still visit or pass through the park for free but must purchase a parking tag if they plan to park their vehicle in any designated parking spot for more than 15 minutes.

View of cars parked at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where they will have to pay for a park pass as it is no longer free

Why Is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Starting to Charge Fees?

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been experiencing record-breaking attendance year after year. The park indicates that visitation over the last decade has increased by 57%.

However, despite the massive visitor increase, the park’s budget has grown slower or even decreased. The park is experiencing high levels of wear and tear on the park’s facilities and staff.

Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said, “When you’re in a scenario like this, we have to participate in our own rescue.” He also said, “We need the public to participate in preserving this natural wonder that millions of people enjoy.”

The park has stated that 100% of the funds raised from the increased and new fees will stay in the Smokies. The money will help preserve the park and help ensure that all visitors have a first-rate experience.

Funds will help increase park ranger presence, repair facilities, and restore recreational habitats for wildlife photography and fishing.

What Fees Are Increasing at Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

Visitors to the park will need to purchase a daily ($5), weekly ($15), or annual ($40) parking pass. These passes are non-refundable, non-transferable, and non-upgradable.

However, the parking pass isn’t the only fee that will be increasing at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Many visitors enjoy camping in the Smokies, and camping fees will also increase in the national park.

Costs for backcountry camping permits will double. Currently, a backcountry permit costs $4 per person per night with a $20 maximum. But, the new increased fees for backcountry camping permits will be $8 per person per night with a $40 max. 

Pro Tip: Before you hit the road with your rig, consider how to Plan an RV Trip to the Smoky Mountains!

When Do the Increased Fees Go Into Effect?

The park will need time to create the supporting infrastructure and educate the general public on the upgraded fees, especially obtaining a parking permit.

The increased fees and parking permit requirements will go into effect on March 1, 2023.

This allows roughly seven months for the word to spread and for the park to create a solid infrastructure for the program.

View of cars parked at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where they will have to pay for a park pass as it is no longer free

Are Other National Parks Increasing Fees?

With so many national parks experiencing increased numbers, it’s no surprise that we see parks increase fees. California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are considering not just a single rate increase but also two planned rate increases over the next two years.

This would take the $22 per night standard campsite to $28 in 2023 and $32 in 2024. Their large campsites would go from the current $50, $60, or $70 to $60, $70, or $80 in 2023.

Indiana Dunes National Park has been like Great Smoky National Park and has had no admission fees in the past. However, on March 31, 2022, the park began charging a $25 fee for non-commercial family-sized passenger vehicles.

Although, visitors who possess one of the interagency national park passes can enter at no charge.

Other National Park Service units other than national parks are also increasing fees.

Pecos National Historical Park implemented a reservation system for the 2022 fishing season, which runs from September 8 through November 14. Visitors wishing to make a reservation must pay a $15 fee during the reservation process.

Pro Tip: Have you downloaded our free National Park map yet?! If not, get it here -> The Best Map of the US National Parks to Track Your Adventures!

View of the Great Smoky Mountains national park, which will soon no longer be free to visit

Is Great Smoky Mountains National Park Still Worth Visiting?

The fees Great Smoky Mountains National Park are implementing may be annoying, but they’re helpful. The park received over 3,677 correspondences when they proposed the idea.

Eighty-five percent of the correspondences favored the proposed fees. However, 57% were from Tennessee and North Carolina.

The increased fees are relatively minimal for the average guest of the park but will significantly impact the park’s ability to care for and protect the park.

Don’t let these minor fees stop you from coming and experiencing this beautiful park!

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  1. Just as a clarification Great Smokey Mountain does not charge admission because when they were finalizing the agreement for establishing the park it was promised to the citizens including the many that had to give up thier family lands to form the park that there would never be a change to enter the park.

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