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Great Smoky Mountains National Park To Implement Backcountry Fee In February


Planning to backpack through Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Beginning February 13 you'll need to pay for the privilege as the park implements a user fee to help cover costs for managing its backcountry program.

The cost will be $4 per night per person, a cost some find unreasonable but which the park moved forward with after a lengthy public involvement process. Park officials say they'll use the fee money to provide increased customer service for backcountry trip planning, reservations, permits and the backcountry experience.

A park-specific reservation and permit system, to which users will have 24/7 access, will go live on February 13. It will allow backcountry campers to make reservations and obtain permits online from anywhere Internet access is available. Reservations may be made at any time up to 30 days in advance, allowing maximum flexibility for those making last minute plans.

Appalachian Trail thru-hikers may obtain a permit through the reservation system up to 30 days in advance of the date they anticipate being in the park and are required to carry a paper copy with them while they are hiking through the park. Their permit is valid up to 38 days from the date they obtain it.

Thru-Hikers have eight days (7 nights) to get through the park, and a break to rest or resupply in a nearby town does not negate one’s standing as a thru-hiker. There is a $20 cost for the Thru-Hiker Backcountry Permit.

"It is important to note that to qualify for an AT Thru-Hiker Permit, a person must begin and end their hike at least 50 miles from outside of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and only travel on the AT while in the park," park spokeswoman Molly Schroer said. "Anyone who does not meet these criteria will need to get a General Backcountry Permit."

Backcountry users will no longer be required to call the Backcountry Office to obtain reservations. Reservation and permit requests will also be accepted in person at the Backcountry Office, which is located at the Sugarlands Visitor Center.

Backcountry Office hours will be expanded with additional staff available to provide trip planning assistance both over the phone and in person. In addition, the park will expand its backcountry ranger presence to better protect park resources through enforcement of food-storage and other regulations and improved visitor education regarding Leave-No-Trace principles.

For more information about the changes, please visit the park’s website and follow the "Management" link on the left side of the page, or call the park’s Public Information Office at 865-436-1207. For general backcountry information or backcountry reservations, call the Backcountry Office at 865-436-1297.


The new backpacking reservation will certainly simplify trying to get reservations for a particular site.

The old system was so cumbersome and hit-and-miss. Also no more trying to figure out which site need advanced reservations and which ones are first-come first serve. It will even make the maps simpler. (National Geographic, are you listening?)


I'm not in favor of charging a fee for overnight backcountry use of the park. The backcountry is the very last place where user fees should be levied.

Also, I am not aware of any other park in the general region where a fee is charged for backpacking into public wilderness. Perhaps there are plans in the works to expand fee collection for backpacking in other park units as well?

If user fees are offered as a solution to the NPS budget crises, I wonder just where the stopping point will be? The possibilities seem limitless: Will we start charging for entrances to visitor centers? How about fees for guided hikes and evening programs? How about the installation of pay toilets in park comfort stations?

Like the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Big South Fork, the Obed River, and Cumberland Gap, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park operates without any fees collected at park entrance stations. I understand that Hwy 441 and the Little River Road are both off limits to fee collection due to legislative agreements with the State of TN.

But, how about charging a fee for use of the Cades Cove Loop? Certainly it costs the NPS much more to manage and maintain Cades Cove than it does to patrol, monitor, and issue permits for backpacking into the backcountry.

Perhaps the chance that fees levied on automobile access to Cades Cove might negatively effect park visitation, which in turn would impact local economies, would generate intense opposition from adjacent gateway communities?

Wow, what a shock. People who make money from the Smokies support the fee. This has been the case from the very beginning. Locals however, see this for what it is. A foot in the door for other fees and a way to run folks out of the backcountry. It doesn't seem to matter to out of town folks that our out of town superintendent lied, manipulated data and ignored all user input to charge forward with a tax for sleeping on the ground. On the website, is a list and timeline of Ditmanson's deception. I encourage everyone to read it and consider donating to this group. They are suing the NPS to stop the fee and need donations. I gave and hope others can do the same. When people see the truth, instead of swallowing whatever the NPS gives out as the weekly justification, you will walk into the disinfecting light. One particular NPS memo obtained clearly stipulates that, "there will be no increase in revenue as a result of this fee." That sure is interesting since they will raise a quarter million per year solely for a reservation system. Folks neither need nor want a reservation system, the current one works fine and there are no documented complaints about it. That reservation system will be a decent revenue generator but even more, there is language that limits the amount of time you can spend in the empty backcountry.

I have no respect for dayhikers who think backpackers need a fee. They will think fee when the NPS charges them to park, dayhike or see the fireflies. That was approved right after the backcountry fee was Ok'd.

I support southern forest watch in their upcoming lawsuit against the NPS. They are fighting the right fight against unelected bureaucrats who are imposing a tax.

Danny Bernstein's comment is, at best, misleading if not downright ingenuous. For folks such as myself, someone who has camped in the backcountry of the Smokes for a full six decades, the old system worked fine for most sites (those which did not require reservations). Far from being cumbersome, you simply picked up a form, filled it out, left the requisite information, and were good to go. Moreover, for locals living in what is a decidedly impoverished region (Swain County contains well over 40% of the entire Park's acreage and is one of the poorest counties in N. C.), the fee is a real financial burden. For example, I personally know, quite well, a family of campers with three children. Twenty bucks a night is a significant amount of money for them.

Beyond that, what Ms. Bernstein fails to note is that most vocal supporters of this (and there aren't many living in the area around the Park) have a financial interest in being sycophants. In fact, I believe she leads hikes in the Park.The Park handled this whole situation poorly from the get-go, with so-called hearings being a sham, with the justification for the fee changing repeatedly, with the original justification being a flat-out falsehood as the Park's own statistics showed (they said the backcountry was overcrowded), and with the arrogance of Park officials being shameful.

Small wonder there's a lawsuit in the offing, and one other point might be made. The date for "pay to enjoy the Park the people donated" is almost at hand and unless something has changed in the last day or two, the system for reservations isn't even functional.

Jim Casada


I won't get into the specifics of reserving a site at Great Smoky, but 1) Danny Bernstein has to the best of my knowledge no financial interest in this matter. She leads hikes, for free, for Friends of the Smokies, and 2) this sort of fee isn't unusual in the Park System, at least not in the West.

And for folks traveling long distances, the security of having a reservation lends considerable peace of mind.

Does that make it right? Depends on whom you ask. Check out the debate over similar fees and reservations at Voyageurs National Park.


Now, there would seem to be at least two solutions for those opposed to the backcountry fee at Great Smoky: One, get the legislatures of both Tennessee and North Carolina to back off on their stance that no fee should be charged for traveling Newfound Gap Road, or urge the Park Service to get creative with other fees they can levy to raise revenues, such as Owen suggests above.

Going forward, let's all please try to keep personalities out of your comments and focus instead on the problem and possible solutions.

And just to be clear, my comment is neither an endorsement nor a criticism of the fee situation at Great Smoky. If we take a stance, it will clearly be identified as a Traveler's View.

What was so "cumbersome" about the previous reservation system? Dialing a 1-800 number? And was it really that difficult interpreting which campsites are reservation only and which are first-come, first-served? The red campsite numbers indicate reservation-required and the green ones don’t require one. Not terribly complex.

For $48 that my family wkd trip will cost me (or +$100 for the Boy Scout troop) I’ll gladly go to the trouble of dialing an 800 number and interpreting colored numbers.

And NPS has already stated that the fees collected will only cover the cost of the reservation system. So the talk of this funding "expanded ranger presence" is just rubbish.

I will add that if this fee was going toward trail and/or campsite maintenance, I think most backpackers would be much more accepting of this. In reality I think we all know it's just a test run for a bevy of GSMNP fees to come.

It seems very strange to me as well that if the old system were so complained about, as insinuated by Ms. Bernstein, there would be a documented trail of complaints. As it stands, the Southern Forest Watch has copies of all the complaints and NONE of them mentioned anything to do with the reservation system. (I guess she was too busy to register a formal complaint, as were many others) As a matter of fact, in the past several years there were but 15 total complaints and none of them had to do with the reservation system. Most had to do with horses and signage. Horses don't have to pay a fee to damage the trails. You are correct, Tom. This is a smoke and mirrors show, a pre determined farce of public input with a pre determined outcome. But what do we stupid hillbillies know. Thank God for the federal government and elitist outsiders who know what is best for true backcountry campers that are self sufficient and require no "trip planning" or hand holding. Now the shelters will be free for the guide services to take their Clients and other people will just head up to Leconte and stay at the concession. The only place on the Appalachian Trail that requires a credit card to pass is the Smokies. Unbelievable. Kephart, Broome, Masa Col Chapman and every pioneer that forfeited their homestead are rolling over in their graves.

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