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.