Smokies AT Thru-Hiker Permits to Double in Price in 2023
Beginning March 1, 2023, thru-hiker permits in North Carolina and Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) will double in cost from $20 to $40. This decision comes in conjunction with GSMNP’s new Park it Forward initiative, which will introduce paid parking permits within America’s most visited national park. Implementing the parking tag system will significantly increase GSMNP’s revenue.
Thru-hikers have been required to obtain Smokies permits to enter the National Park since 2013. The Park issues an average of 3,000 thru-hiker permits annually. The AT travels through GSMNP for approximately 72 miles. For many NoBo hikers, the Smokies pose the first real challenge on their journey from Springer to Katahdin.
The increase in cost applies to more than just thru-hiker permits.
All backcountry permits within GSMNP will double in price in 2023. Dana Soehn, National Park Service (NPS) Management Assistant and Public Affairs Specialist, stated to The Trek that since 2013, “there has been a 39% increase in backcountry use resulting in increased backcountry maintenance and operational needs.”
Soehn stressed that funds generated by the price hike would apply directly to maintenance and conservation efforts within GSMNP. “Increased revenue from overnight backcountry camping fees would enable the Park to better maintain facilities, enhance visitor services, and provide for resource protection throughout the backcountry, she said. “100% of the fees collected from backcountry permits are used to fund backcountry operations and needs within the Park.”
One possible use of the funds could be to increase the Park’s presence on the AT with more boots on the ground. Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) ridgerunners and NPS law enforcement backcountry rangers patrol the AT through the Smokies during thru-hiker season. “In 2022, we had a total of four staff dedicated to this program, but anticipate increasing visibility through more staffing as funds increase,” Soehn said. “We actually experience pretty high compliance with backcountry permits in the Park. When our staff encounters someone without a permit, we provide education and give them the opportunity to secure a permit at that time.”
The AT travels through numerous state parks, national forests, and two national parks. However, only GSMNP, Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, and Maine’s Baxter State Park require permits.
At this time, GSMNP has the only paid permit requirement along the trail. Thru-hikers must print a paper copy of their Smokies permit up to 30 days before they enter the Park. Most NoBos obtain their permits at Fontana Village, while SoBos print their permits in Hot Springs. According to the GSMNP permitting webpage, “A Thru-Hiker Permit is valid for up to 38 days from the date you obtain it. Thru-Hikers have 8 days to get through the Smokies.”
As the 2023 hiking season approaches, aspiring thru-hikers are reminded to plan ahead when acquiring Smokies permits. Estimate when you hope to reach the southern Park boundary and identify in advance where you will print your permit. According to the AT Thru Hiker Backcountry Permit webpage, “you must have a paper copy of your permit with you at all times while hiking through Great Smoky Mountains National Park.” Be prepared to pay the $40 fee, and rest assured that your money is going directly back into the Park.
Featured image: Clingmans Dome at sunrise. Photo via Jake Arens.
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