During the last week in January, I was poking around the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Facebook page and saw an announcement that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would be instituting a fee for anyone wishing to obtain a backcountry permit. The fee, along with a new website to pay it, would be up and running beginning February 13.
Glad for the heads up, I filed the info away for later. I then revisited it yesterday so that I could figure out all of the details.
First, I went to https://smokiespermits.nps.gov/, at which point I was presented with two options: general backcountry permits or A.T. thru-hiker permits. The Park defines an A.T. thru-hiker as someone who begins and ends her hike at least 50 miles outside of the park. Of course, I clicked that option.
The subsequent webpage broke down for me all of the basic trip planning info. I feel like this is really important, so I don’t even want to summarize. Instead, I’m just copying directly from the website:
- Permits are required for all overnight stays in the backcountry.
- Each thru-hiker must obtain a separate permit.
- You must have a paper copy of your permit with you at all times while hiking through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Please follow the instructions on your permit once you get to the park.
- You may obtain an AT Thru-Hiker Permit up to 30 days in advance of the date you anticipate arriving in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
- There is a cost of $20.00 per permit. The cost of the permit is non-refundable.
- 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. A break to rest or resupply in a nearby town does not negate one’s standing as a thru-hiker.
- Thru-Hikers may tent in the immediate area around shelters only if the shelter is full. Thru-hikers are required to stay in shelters when there is space available. Thru-Hikers must always give up bunk space in shelters to those with shelter reservations.
At the bottom of the page is a button to click to actually apply for a thru-hiker permit. Since I was going through the exercise, I took this next step. I entered dummy data, and when the form asked the estimated date I’ll enter the national park, I entered the latest date then available on the drop down menu, March 17.
I then clicked Submit Application, which brought me to a page that summarized my info and required that I accept the seven conditions of the permit (generally concerning safety and Leave No Trace principles). At the bottom of this page is an option to “Pay Now.” Having clicked this, I found that the purchaser can pay with either a credit/debit card (specifically Visa, Mastercard, American Express, or Discover) or with a bank account debit (i.e. a digitally submitted check).
Obviously this is where I stopped since I’m not ready to purchase my backcountry permit, but from what I understand, I will receive an email with the backcountry permit attached.
Generally, I do not have a problem with the $20 fee as the funds will go toward hiring two backcountry rangers. However, I was concerned about the rigidity of the permit process. I can only get the permit 30 days in advance and then it expires 38 days thereafter. If I get the permit before I start, how do I know my estimated arrival date and if I’ll be out of the park within 38 days? And for that matter, what about people that are forced to drop out for whatever reason? That’s $20 (non-refundable) down the drain.
Since this fee is brand new, there are still many questions unanswered on the National Park Service website, so I called up the park’s Backcountry Information office at 865-436-1297. The man I spoke to was really helpful and clarified the situation.
First of all, the estimated arrival date a thru-hiker enters online does not obligate her to arrive on that date. Instead, the way it works is that, after crossing over Fontana Dam, the thru-hiker will tear the permit in half, sign and date both halves, and place the bottom half in a box at the entrance to the park. Only then will the permit become active, thus starting the 8-day clock to hike the 71 miles in the park.
OK, well that seems reasonable, but there’s a second issue. I think purchasing the permit will be simple enough on my smartphone, but I still wasn’t sure where I’d be able to get to my email to print the permit. The man with Backcountry Info said that plenty of hostels, etc. along the way provide internet access. If I’m concerned and unsure where I’ll be staying (yes, that’s me), the library in Franklin, NC (27 miles before Fontana Dam) has confirmed that thru-hikers can print permits there.
I looked on the Franklin library’s website: internet access is free, and printing is 25 cents a page. The only limitation is that the library is not open on Sundays. If all else fails, I called the Fontana Lodge, and the man I spoke with said that thru-hikers are welcome to use the internet and to print for free, whether or not they stay as guests. And someone is available behind the front desk 24/7 to help. I’d rather not wait until the last minute, but it’s good to know it’s an option, if necessary.
So, there you have it. In theory, getting and using the permit shouldn’t be that big of a deal. I’ll let you know how it goes in practice (and hopefully practice makes perfect).