Great Smoky Mountains National Park Set for Over $10 Million in Upgrades

Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Park it Forward program has raised over $10 million in its inaugural year through recreation fee revenues, including parking tag sales and camping fees. The funds are allocated for improving visitor safety, increasing park ranger numbers, and the repair and upkeep of park facilities. The park’s second year of the parking tag program began this month. 

Superintendent Cassius Cash expressed gratitude for the extensive support from partners, neighbors, and the visiting public, which has facilitated the funding of vital services such as the expansion of the search and rescue program, additional parking at Laurel Falls trailhead, and the recruitment of over 25 new park rangers.

“Our team at Great Smoky Mountains National Park is grateful for the support of our partners, our neighbors, and the millions of visitors who are helping us take care of one of the country’s most visited national parks,” said Superintendent Cassius Cash.

“We’re already using this funding to increase our search and rescue program, add parking spaces at Laurel Falls trailhead and we are in the process of hiring more than 25 new park rangers.” 

Initiated in March 2023, the Park it Forward initiative aims to ensure sustained protection and enhancement of the visitor experience by enabling park patrons to contribute directly through the purchase of parking tags. Concurrent with the program’s start, the park also raised its camping fees. All proceeds from these fees are dedicated to park improvements.

Skyline Drive Shenandoah National Park Virginia

Improve visitor safety 

Utilizing the recreation fee revenues, the park has initiated various projects aimed at enhancing visitor safety, including the formation of a Preventative Search and Rescue (PSAR) team, consisting of seven rangers tasked with reducing the need for search and rescue operations through proactive visitor education.

Moreover, a new team of arborists has been hired to manage the safety hazards posed by fallen or hazardous trees, particularly following severe weather events.

Increase park ranger presence

Since March 2023, the park has hired eight roving rangers responsible for visitor engagement, trash collection, and assisting with various emergencies in an effort to increase ranger visibility. The park is also improving infrastructure such as roads and facilities and plans to hire more maintenance staff to better maintain park assets.

Skyline Drive Shenandoah National Park Virginia
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Improve Roads and Facilities and Enhance Visitor Experience

To enhance the visitor experience, funds will be used for adding 50 new parking spots at Laurel Falls Trailhead, refurbishing the historic Mingus Mill, and upgrading facilities at Look Rock Campground for better accessibility. These initiatives also include replacing steel bear-proof dumpsters and improving the cleaning frequency of highly frequented restrooms.

Superintendent Cash anticipates future fee-funded projects that will continue to address maintenance needs and improve the visitor experience. Annual parking tags can be purchased for $40 online at Smokies Life, with $5 daily and $15 weekly tags available at or on-site kiosks. Tags are also available at Smokies Life store locations, with annual tags valid for one year from the purchase date.

“There’s so much more to come—our team continues to plan fee-funded projects for future years to address needed maintenance and to improve your experience in the park,” said Superintendent Cash. “We look forward to continuing to demonstrate the value of this historic investment in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.” 

Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside