Before Sugarlands Visitors Center in Gatlinburg opened at 9 am, dozens of people were waiting outside to purchase parking tags. As of March 1, parking fees arrived at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“It’s been great to see how smooth it is for folks and a tremendous amount of support from the community so far,” National Park Service management and program analyst Kendra Straub told Knox News.
Most visitors to the country’s most popular national park that day opted to get their tags via convenient machines, which only take card payments. There are 16 at six locations throughout the park. Knowing your license plate number will prevent an avoidable trip back to your car.
Through the Park It Forward program, any vehicle parked longer than 15 minutes is required to visibly display a valid parking tag that costs $5 for the day, $15 for a week or a $40 annual tag.
Mimi and Tim Dickey from Nebraska had no idea their visit to the Smokies fell on the first day of required parking tags, but they had no issue with buying a pass for the day. “We’re just excited to come see the park,” Tim Dickey said.
The new parking system is designed to increase safety and decrease traffic jams and damage to the park, which has seen an increasing number of visitors over the past decade. Nearly 13 million people flocked to the Smokies in 2022 and a record 14 million explored the park in 2021.
Fishing guide Tavon Russell already has an annual tag. Initially frustrated that the new system might disrupt his typical routine, he said the potential for reduced car traffic would be a welcome benefit.
“That’s one of the things that I like about it,” Russell said. “I’m gonna be able to go from one side of the park, Cades Cove, with a group and make it all the way back over to Gatlinburg within a decent hour.”
A new era of parking in the Smokies
The park has about 4,200 parking places, ranging from 167 at Clingmans Dome to only 17 for Grotto Falls. A tag does not guarantee a parking spot in desired locations, and roadside parking has been limited due to recently installed barriers.
Park officials and frequent visitors suggest arriving extra early to popular trailheads for better chances of getting a spot.
Afternoons and early evenings tend to be the busiest time of day. And weekends, holidays and from May through October typically see the highest number of visitors during the year.
“There is plenty of parking across the park, every day of the week, even in July, as long as the visitors plan ahead,” spokesperson Emily Davis told Knox News. “Visitors who plan a trip during the week, in slower seasons or early morning or later afternoon may have an easier time finding a parking spot.”
Shuttle service options are increasing later this year to work in tandem with the parking system and alleviate traffic. These local shuttle companies will provide pick-up and drop-off services at locations throughout the park.
Parking passes help the Smokies
Officials have stated the introduction of the parking tags is not intended to limit visitation but to ensure the park remains sustainable as visitation increases, especially since it can’t charge entrance fees. The added revenue from the parking tags will be used to maintain trails, roads, historic structures and facilities.
“It’s a parking tag, but what it really is, is a direct contribution from you to this national treasure, and to keep it safe and an enjoyable experience for today and for future generations,” Straub said.
Straub noted that early sales of the parking tags had allowed the park to approve the hiring of over 12 permanent full-time maintenance staff and seven search and rescue employees. The added revenue will also go towards other categories such as visitor safety and educational programming.
The future of parking in the Smokies
Frustrations might run high as visitors find full parking lots at desired locations and adapt to the new system, but park leadership is looking toward the future.
Davis told Knox News technology to monitor real-time parking space availability is being considered, as well as free shuttles, similar to those available at other national parks such as the Grand Canyon or Acadia.
More information on Great Smoky Mountain National Park parking tags and 2023 fees can be found at nps.gov/grsm.
Devarrick Turner is a trending news reporter for Knox News. He can be reached by email at [email protected]. Follow Devarrick on Twitter @dturner1208. Enjoy exclusive content and premium perks while supporting strong local journalism by subscribing at knoxnews.com/subscribe.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: How the first day of Smokies parking passes went