Thursday, January 31, 2013

GSMNP Permit Process for Thru-Hikers


NOTICE - In 2013, Great Smoky Mountains National Park will implement a new system for obtaining backcountry permits and will also begin charging fees for permits. Backpackers and equestrians will need to plan in advance to obtain a backcountry permit for any overnight stays in the backcountry. At this time, the new process for obtaining permits has not been finalized. Updated information will be added to this page as it becomes available.

As of this writing, this is all the information made available on the GSMNP Backcountry Camping web page about a new online reservation system that is scheduled to go into effect on 13 February. Lots of often conflicting bits and pieces of info and conjecture about how this is expected to affect thru hikers is surfacing in online forums - and lots of phone calls being made to park officials, but there still isn't an official policy published. And with hikers already heading for the Smokies, this isn't good.

What I found after the break ...

The following is excerpted from a post recently placed on various hiking forums by Laurie Potteiger of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy:
  • A.T. thru-hikers will be charged $20, with the permit good for 38 days. A GRSM backcountry permit can be obtained up to 30 days in advance. Thru-hikers will have 8 days to pass through the GRSM. Thru-hiker permits will be available year-round.
  • The current GRSM definition of an A.T. thru-hiker will remain “a backpacker starting & ending their hike at least 50 miles outside GRSM”.
  • Thru-hikers will be able to obtain permits on-line, by fax (once payment is made by phone), and in person at the GRSM Backcountry Office (BO) at the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, TN. Credit cards will be accepted on-line, by phone and in person at the BO. Checks, money orders and cash will be accepted in person at the BO.
  • There will be no refunds.
  • Each thru-hiker will have to carry their own paper permit.
  • ½ of the permit must be left in the trailhead permit receptacle at either Fontana Dam or Davenport Gap. Thru hikers will need to write their date of entry into the GRSM on both halves of their permit.
  • Four bunks will be reserved in each GRSM A.T. shelter for thru-hikers March through May. Thru-hikers must always give up space in shelters to non-thru-hikers holding reservations.
  • Ranger presence will be increased on the A.T. during thru-hiker season.
  • For more information, please call 865-436-1297.
If this is really the final policy, it will allow one to purchase the permit up to 30 days in advance with an eight day transit. It would be good for any time during that 38-day window, and allow thru hikers the flexibility to plan in advance, without being tied to exact dates.

This means most northbound hikers can purchase their permits just before leaving home, as they would have sufficient time to get to Springer, hike to Fontana Dam, and thru the GSMNP within the 38 day window the permit allows. Those who don't want to commit $20 till they're sure they'll make it to the Smokies will have to find access to a computer with a printer in Franklin, the NOC or Fontana Village. Fontana Village will offer this service.

The website for acquiring permits, www.smokiespermits.nps.gov, is not yet live, but should be operational by February 13.

I purposely left out information about how this policy affects non thru-hiking backcountry hikers and campers so as not to confuse the issue. But you will see on the various links that they have to specify their itinerary, and are paying a fee per night, instead of the flat rate being levied on thru-hikers.

For more information on the reasons for the permits, visit these links:
http://www.nps.gov/grsm/parkmgmt/index.htm
http://www.nps.gov/grsm/parkmgmt/bc-reservation-permit-faq.htm

I will be staying tuned to this issue, and will post updates to this page as I get them.