Why No Entrance Fee?

Archival photo of visitors at Newfound Gap overlook, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Archival photo of visitors at Newfound Gap, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. NPS photo

The states of Tennessee and North Carolina purchased the land we now call Great Smoky Mountains National Park. From school children collecting pennies to the Rockefellers donating millions, people from all walks of life stepped up to supplement state funds needed to purchase the lands, which were then transferred to the National Park Service.

About 85% of park lands were purchased from 18 logging companies. The remainder was purchased from about 1,200 individual landowners. Without these land sales, the park wouldn't be what we know and enjoy today.

Some landowners were provided lifetime leases within the park. Yet of the hundreds of deed transfers underlying the land sales, none specifically prevented entrance fees from being charged, nor did they provide for free park access.

The park's enabling legislation also doesn’t prevent the park from charging an entrance fee.

Why, then, don’t we charge an entrance fee? It boils down to a few historic legal actions.

In 1951, the state of Tennessee transferred Newfound Gap Road (Hwy 441) and Little River Road (Hwy 71/73) to the park. That deed transfer contained a restriction preventing tolls on either road. (Before the creation of the Interstate Highway System, these were the main roads between Tennessee and North Carolina, and the state likely included this restriction to ensure access to free interstate travel.)

A federal law (1994 {1964} U.S. Code Title 16) prevented the NPS from charging entrance fees where tolls are prohibited on primary park roads. Because Newfound Gap Road and Little River Road are the primary roads in GSMNP, we are, to this day, unable to charge an entrance fee.

The park does, however, have an active user fee program, primarily for camping. We have long charged fees in our ten front country campgrounds, and in 2013, we started charging a fee for backcountry campsites. These fees are an important source of revenue for the park, allowing us to maintain services as visitation increases.

Last updated: April 11, 2022

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