More than 14 million people visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park last year. Zero of them paid for entry. The second most-visited park behind GSMNP (which we will use in this article for brevity’s sake) is Zion National Park, which saw five million visitors last year. Zion charges $35 per car. GSMNP just announced a new “Park it Foward” program which instates first-time-ever parking fees and increased camping fees. But, let’s look at why the park has never charged — and is unlikely to ever charge — a standard entrance fee.
The money we so willingly give the National Park Service to visit these spectacular locales is vital to keeping the parks beautiful, safe, and well-staffed. And with numbers skyrocketing since the pandemic, funding is more important now than ever. Why, then, does the most popular park in the country not charge an entrance fee? It boils down to the park’s interesting history and one very important road.
A little about the land’s history
The Great Smoky Mountains jut up majestically on Cherokee homeland, and for more than a thousand years, the Cherokee people nurtured the area’s trade and agriculture through their deep knowledge of the land and its temperaments. In the 1700s, white settlers began to build homes, farm, hunt, pasture livestock, and aggressively reap the rich resources of the surrounding forest.
When the logging industry descended in the 1900s, companies began rapidly cutting the great ancient forests. “Unless the course of events could be quickly changed,” writes the Great Smoky Mountains Association, “there would be little left of the region’s special character and wilderness resources.” A few visionaries sparked a conversation about creating a land preserve within the crisp, nurturing mountain air. By the early 1900s, it was a plan. And the Great Smoky Mountains National Park plan intervened to save the land.
How the land became a National Park
Becoming a park was not an easy feat for the Great Smokies. While most of the older National Parks were carved from land already owned by the government, this park needed the land of thousands of small farmers and a few large timber and paper companies. “The farmers did not want to leave their family homesteads, nor did the large corporations want to abandon huge forests of timber, many miles of railroad track, extensive systems of logging equipment, and whole villages of employee housing,” writes the Great Smoky Mountains Association.
In a lengthy (and sometimes distressing) process, the land was purchased piece by piece to create the park. School children collected petty change, the Rockefellers donated millions, and the community — the country — strived to supplement state funds needed to purchase the lands. With the greater park vision and the hope for tourism guiding the cause, 85% of the park’s land was purchased from 18 logging companies and the remainder from about 1,200 individual landowners. The park was chartered by the United States Congress in 1934 and officially dedicated by President FDR in 1940.
A road runs through it
None of the often tricky deeds transfers specifically prevented entrance fees from being charged, nor did they demand free park access. So why, then, a fee-free entrance? It boils down to some legal jargon. The park’s 522,419 acres create an oval-ish bean shape, the TN-NC border slicing the centerline of the park length-wise. Before the park was established, the states of Tennesee and North Carolina built the Newfound Gap Road to connect the towns of Gatlinburg, TN, and Cherokee, NC.
In 1951, the state of Tennessee transferred Newfound Gap Road (Highway 441) and Little River Road (Highway 71/73) — to the federal government. Tennessee added the restriction that “no toll or license fee” would ever be implemented. Why? Before the creation of our modern highway system, these were the main roads between Tennessee and North Carolina. State legislators were likely concerned that tolls would limit traffic along this essential route. They wanted people to move freely from state to state and explore the newly created park.
GSMNP becomes famously-free
So, one tactful state provision became federal law, and now NPS can’t charge entrance fees where tolls are prohibited on primary park roads. Because Newfound Gap Road and Little River Road are the primary roads in GSMNP, the park is, to this day, unable to charge an entrance fee.
How does the park generate money?
The park recently announced its new “Park it Forward” program which instates parking fees for the first time ever. Beginning on March 1, 2023, guests parking anywhere in the park for more than 15 minutes will have to pay for a vehicle tag. According to the park’s release, a daily parking tag is $5, a seven-day parking tag is $15, and an annual parking tag is $40. The program is projected to bring in $10-$15 million a year to help the park’s operations, staffing, and other projects.
“Park it Forward” will also increase the park’s longstanding camping fee program for their ten front country campgrounds and their backcountry campsites. These fees help the park maintain services as visitation just keeps increasing. There are many other parks in the country without fees, and you can explore a list here.
Will this ever change?
Probably not! The original agreement stands. The only way to change it would be through an act of the Tennessee legislature, but that is unlikely. The park and its millions of yearly travelers contribute billions in annual revenue to local economies. We should all expect to enjoy GSMNP’s fee-free status for life. “Park It Foward” means you just have to pay to park.
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