After nearly 90 years of free parking, the country’s most-visited national park is in dire need of funding to rehabilitate, preserve, and protect this national treasure — and will be introducing a much-needed Park It Forward program this spring.
Filled with awe-inspiring vistas, diverse wildlife, and fond memories across generations, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) offers scenic drives, camping areas, and 800+ miles of trails that need to be maintained regularly. However, while the visitor rate has jumped by 57% over the past decade, the Congress-appropriated budget for the Smokies has not accounted for the incredible leap in visitation.
In short, there is limited staffing and aging facilities that are no longer able to preserve these 522,427 acres of precious land and natural habitats plus provide quality visitor services…notably while federal funding is decreasing or remaining relatively flat. Along with the new Smoky Mountains parking fee — effective March 1, 2023 — the national park will increase fees for frontcountry and backcountry camping in the Smokies to help.
With an estimated $14 million in park revenue, Superintendent Cassius Cash is confident the Park It Forward program will seriously aid staff and maintenance issues to ensure the Great Smoky Mountains National Park survives and thrives for many years to come.
Public Response to Parking Fee Proposal
After sorting and assessing 15,512 comments regarding the Park It Forward and camping fee proposal, the responses from North Carolina and Tennessee locals as well as citizens from across all 50 states showed park officials overwhelming support. With 51% in total agreement, 34% in a neutral position, and only 15% in opposition — along with valued support from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — the decision was made to move forward with the new modest parking fee and increased camping fees in the Smokies.
Park Superintendent Cassius Cash Announces Parking Program
Supervising the Great Smoky Mountains National Park since 2014 — and winning the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) Stephen Tyng Mather Award for creating the Smokies Hikes for Healing program in 2021— Superintendent Cassius Cash is passionate about bringing people and parks together and will be overseeing the new parking tag program with great care.
As a leader in national park preservation, Cash expressed his confidence in the milestone on August 15, 2022. “I have been incredibly encouraged by all the support, from across the country, and especially here in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, for the opportunity to invest in the future care of this treasured park… Now we will have sustained resources to ensure this sacred place is protected for visitors to enjoy for generations to come.”
Watch the official announcement of the new Smoky Mountains parking fee.
Park It Forward: Parking Fees & Passes
When you head into the national park to go mountain biking or hiking in the Smokies, ride horses, fly fish, picnic, explore historic structures, or participate in any other outdoor activities — outside the car — you’ll need to grab a parking tag.
Park It Forward does not apply to those simply taking a scenic drive or passing through the park. Smoky Mountain parking tags are only required for vehicles parking for longer than 15 minutes. And you can opt for a day parking pass, week parking pass, or annual parking pass for any vehicle type.
Parking Pass Prices
- 1 day — $5
- 7 days — $15
- 365 days — $40
Parking passes will apply to any parking spot within the park boundaries. And you must display the parking tag — with the matching license plate number for the vehicle.
Where to Purchase a Parking Tag
You can purchase a Smoky Mountain parking tag online that’s shipped to your home, or you can print your GSMNP parking tag. You can also grab a parking tag on site at a local visitor center or an automated fee machine in the Smokies.
FAQ: Smoky Mountains Parking Fee
Does the Great Smoky Mountains National Park really need a parking fee?
Yes! A rapid increase in visitor numbers plus a heavily limited federal budget means the park cannot be sustained without our help. To put things into perspective, the visitor count to Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon combined is significantly less than the 14.1 million visitors received in the Smokies in 2021…and that number is still skyrocketing each year.
How much of the Smoky Mountains parking fee actually helps preserve the national park?
100% of funds are funneled straight back into protecting, preserving, and rehabilitating the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! A few examples are listed below.
- Repair, improve, and maintain public facilities, park roads, and trails.
- Clear and remove trash from the park for a cleaner visitor experience.
- Increase ranger presence for added safety.
- Provide custodial services for places like Cades Cove.
- Restore recreational habitats for fishing and wildlife photography.
Do I need to pay a parking fee if I just drive through the Smoky Mountains National Park?
Nope. You only need to pay for parking if you stop for longer than 15 minutes.
Is there an entrance fee for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
No. Since the Smokies has 2 primary roads — Newfound Gap Road and Little River Road — with a federal law preventing entrance fees where tolls are prohibited, the park has never charged an entrance fee and legally can’t to this day. Only picnic pavilion rentals, day-use cabin rentals, frontcountry and backcountry camping fees, and now parking fees are currenlty implemented.
Note: the average entrance fee for American national parks is $12-15 per visitor. With the Park It Forward parking tag program, it’s roughly $2 per visitor for the Smokies…and that’s a stretch for a family-filled car or loaded van.
Am I guaranteed a parking spot if I purchase a parking tag?
No. Motorists must still plan accordingly as parking is first come, first served — even at the busiest times of the year.
Do Smoky Mountain parking tags expire?
Yes — at 11:59 p.m. ET on the expiration date for daily parking tags and weekly parking tags or at 11:59 p.m. ET on the last day of the expiration month for annual parking tags. You’ll find this information printed on your tag as well.
Are there any parking tag exemptions in the Smokies?
Yes. Exemptions for the Smoky Mountains parking tag are currently allowed for the following. Please reach out to the National Park Service (NPS) to complete respective exemption processes.
- Decoration Day permit holders
- Disabled parking placards or license plate holders
- Special use permit holders for burials, cemetery visits, and first amendment activities ONLY
- School groups
- Permitted researchers
Note: frontcountry campers parked at their designated campground do not need to purchase a parking tag; however, backcountry campers will need to purchase a parking tag.
Will parking passes be required on NPS fee free days?
Nope! The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is still participating in fee FREE days supported by the National Park Service. Parking tags will not be required or need to be shown on these 5 special days.
- Jan 16 — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday
- Apr 22 — First day of National Park Week
- Aug 4 — Anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
- Sep 23 — National Public Lands Day
- Nov 11 — Veterans Day in the Smokies
Smoky Mountain Cabin Rentals
Between hiking trails to waterfalls, reeling in rainbow trout, and spotting black bear cubs, river otters, slippery salamanders, or Elkmont’s synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, retreat to your nearby log cabin rental — in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, TN. Cabins for YOU offers vacation rentals super close to the park entrance, deep in the mountains with spectacular views, or near Parkway attractions.
Amenities abound and include private pools, hot tubs, game rooms, home theaters, fully equipped kitchens, cozy fireplaces, decks for days, gorgeous vistas, and king suites. Whether you’re here on a romantic getaway, family vacation, or group reunion, we have Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg cabins of all shapes and sizes for YOU! Plus, you can choose from pet friendly, luxury, and budget friendly, and condos are also available.
Visit the Smokies, drive through the national park, or grab a parking pass to stick around and explore a while — and return to unwind at your cozy cabin.