With Great Smokies tag fee comes plans for roadside parking bans, law enforcement boost

·4 min read

With a plan to implement parking fees at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park starting March 1 comes other plans to ban roadside parking in some areas and spend more on law enforcement.

Following the Aug. 15 parking fee announcement of the "Park it Forward" plan, park spokesperson Dana Soehn told the Citizen Times the park plans to stop allowing visitors to park on the side of the road near many major attractions.

"Roadside parking is being eliminated across the park in specific areas where the following concerns need to be addressed: motorist and pedestrian safety, resource protection and/or congestion," Soehn said.

"Specifically, in the first phase, we are eliminating unsafe roadside parking associated with busy trailheads along Newfound Gap Road, Little River Road, Clingmans Dome Road, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and Cherokee Orchard Road."

Unsafe roadside parking will be eliminated in the Deep Creek and Big Creek areas as well, she added.

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"The goal is to have everything in place by March 1," Soehn said when asked when restrictions on roadside parking would go into effect.

The park also has a plan to make it clear to visitors where they're not allowed to park. The Smokies will start installing permanent roadside protections like wooden bollards, boulders, or split rail fencing and signs in these areas, Soehn said, "so it is clear to motorists where roadside parking is prohibited."

Roadside parking in the Smokies isn't going away altogether, however.

In areas "where these concerns do not exist" the park will continue to allow roadside parking.

"We understand this is a recognized need in some areas — especially along low-speed, gravel roads — where fishermen and others park to access streams in places where the roadside parking does not cause safety, congestion, or resource protection concerns," Soehn said.

Regardless of where or how people park, most every car visiting the Great Smokies will need a tag starting March 1.

The costs will be $5 for a daily parking tag, $15 for a seven-day parking tag and $40 for an annual parking tag, according to an Aug. 15 news release.

None of these will be refundable, transferable or upgradable. Each tag will be valid for a single vehicle and will be available for purchase both online and onsite, according to the park's website.

They will not be required for motorists passing through the area parking less than 15 minutes.

Revenue from the tags will go toward improvements to visitor experiences, protecting resources and maintenance, according to the release.

In an Aug. 15 interview, Smokies Superintendent Cassius Cash told the Citizen Times his two biggest spending priorities following the fee implementation are law enforcement and maintenance.

“The operational needs of the park are going to be my top priority,” Cash said. “Those are going to come in two forms: my law enforcement … (and) our maintenance division.”

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Cash said people come to the park expecting to have a “good time but also a safe time.”

He said he wants to put funds toward things like search and rescue efforts, traffic jams and bear jams.

The park has had record numbers in the past few years, topping out most recently at 14.1 million visitors in 2021.

Increasingly high visitation means not only growing needs for response personnel, but also for maintenance efforts.

“We have 26 wastewater systems here,” Cash said by way of example. “But I can guarantee you if they’re not working, you’re going to know.”

The park also has stacked up $200 million in deferred maintenance, Cash noted.

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Cars sometimes park on the side of the road nearly Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Officials say they plan to eliminate this practice by March 2023.
Cars sometimes park on the side of the road nearly Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Officials say they plan to eliminate this practice by March 2023.

He said these two priorities are based on “conversations we’ve had with every one of our communities.”

They also are based on some of the biggest cuts the park has weathered over the years.

“When we had to make tough decisions and our budget kept shrinking due to inflation,” Cash said, “those are two large divisions so those were two large opportunities to keep our budget intact.”

Asked how he was feeling following the tag fee announcement, Cash said, “Tired.”

“But I am feeling very proud of the work the folks here at the department have done to take this from an idea to a reality.”

“The visitors of yesteryear are different from the visitors of today, and they’ll be different from the visitors of tomorrow. Innovation always should have a seat at the table as you manage resources in the 21st century,” Cash said. “No one left me a playbook for managing through a pandemic … or the longest shutdown in government history.”

Cash started as park superintendent in 2015 and is the 16th person to hold the title.

He said Smokies officials visited and talked to other other parks across the nation. He said there is a “buzz” in the National Parks System about what is happening with the parking tag model.

“We were able to take on a big problem and, in our minds, offer a simple solution.”

Andrew Jones is Buncombe County government and health care reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter, 828-226-6203 or arjones@citizentimes.com. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Great Smokies to ban roadside parking, boost law enforcement spending