The country's most-visited national park will soon have a new fee that's designed to help maintain the park over the long haul.
Starting March 1, drivers who park in Great Smoky Mountains National Park must pay $5 for a daily fee, $15 for a tag for up to seven days and $40 for an annual tag.
The money generated will "provide sustainable, year-round support focusing on improving the visitor experience, protecting resources, and maintaining trails, roads, historic structures, and facilities," according to a news release from the Park Service.
It still will be free to use all park roads and tags aren't required for drivers who park for less than 15 minutes. Unlike many other of the park service's national treasures, entrance to the vast Great Smoky Mountains National Park park is free.
Parking will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis, including at trailheads that have seen tremendous crowding in recent years.
“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," Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said in a statement.
The park along the Tennessee-North Carolina border is the busiest in the National Park Service and attendance soared during the pandemic when people spent more time outdoors. In 2021, the park had its busiest year on record with 14,137,812 visits.
Park officials spent months seeking input on the program and finding the right balance for visitors.
Former Sen. Lamar Alexander, a tireless advocate for the park, supported the plan.
"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. Every penny raised from the fee will be spent on creating a better visitor experience in the Smokies," he said. "Superintendent Cassius Cash and the National Park Service deserve thanks from all of us who enjoy the Smokies for solving a big problem with an obvious solution."
More details on the changes coming March 1, 2023:
Drivers must display a physical tag.
Tags are not refundable or transferrable.
Tags will be available to buy online or at the park.
Tags work for any area within the park.
Other National Park Service passes, like America the Beautiful passes, will not be accepted in lieu of parking passes.
Parking passes do not guarantee a spot in popular locations.
Back country campers need a pass. Front country campers will not need a pass for their designated spot, but passes are required at other park locations.
Proposed in April, the parking fee idea sparked tens of thousands of comments and correspondence from all 50 states. About 41% and 16% of all correspondence was from Tennessee and North Carolina residents, respectively.
About 85% of responses "expressed either strong support or included constructive ideas to improve the program," the release stated, adding none of them voiced opposition to the fee itself.
In addition, back country camping fees will double to $8 per night, with a maximum of $40 per camper, the release stated. Front country family campsite fees will increase to $30 per night for primitive sites and $36 per night for sites with electrical hookups.
Additionally, the park expects picnic pavilion fees will increase between 20% and 30%.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Great Smoky Mountains National Park parking fees in 2023