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Great Smoky National Park considering charging a fee for backcounty camping

by Liz Childers

In late July, Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials announced plans to begin charging a fee for backcountry camping. With over 500,000 acres stretching across the North Carolina – Tennessee border, the park attracts about 9.5 million visitors annually. It is currently one of few national parks that currently does not require a fee.

Park officials say the proposal is a response to customer complaints. Under the current system, reservations are only required for the most popular sites and those with shelters. However, permits are required to camp on any of the backcountry campsites.

Reservations or permits can be obtained Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. by phone or in person at the Backcountry Information Office at the Sugarland Visitor Center. What’s the issue then? Nancy Gray, GSMNP spokesperson, told a reporter from Knoxville, Tennessee’s WBIR that the information office is only open, on average, three hours a day. So it’s difficult to catch the office when it’s open and, Gray said, that customers have complained that phones are constantly busy.

This staff shortage translates over to a lack of oversight in the actual backcountry. Without park rangers, campers arrive without permits. This leads to rule breaking, such as improper trash storage and dogs on the trails. It also means overcrowding of sites; combined with the trash storage issue, wildlife problems can develop, as well.

By establishing a nominal fee for camping, park officials say they would easily make enough money to better staff the park. This would improve monitoring of the backcountry and allow the park to address campers’ complaints. The proposal also includes a plan for online reservations. This allows everyone to easily make and print their reservation and frees up the volunteers at the Information Office to aide in visitors in trip planning.

The GSMNP is having public meetings to discuss the proposal. The first occurred last night in Cherokee, NC.

In the same article, WBIR reported that before last night’s meeting over 500 campers had signed a petition against the fees. Reasons for the opposition included a fear of it deterring people from experiencing the Smokies and the worry that money generated by the fee may not go solely towards the backcountry.The second meeting will be tomorrow night, August 18, at 7:30 p.m. in Knoxville at the Park Headquarters.

The GSMNP is accepting comments on the proposal until August 26. They can be emailed to the Park Superintendent at or mailed to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, Tennessee 37738.

What do you think about the proposal? Is it good to have better monitoring of campsites to improve everyone’s experience or should the great outdoors be free to everyone, even if it’s in a national park?