At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the park’s boundaries span two states ⎯Tennessee and North Carolina ⎯ giving you a variety of entrance points to access this beautiful area. With lush waterfalls, valleys and mountain views, where should you settle in for the night and camp?
We put together a personalized guide to camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park from a beautiful horse camp to car camping in style and RV paradise. Before you head in, though, know there are no showers or electrical or water hookups in the park.
Just answer one question: What type of camper are you?
1. I love car camping
Deep Creek Campground – South
A first-come, first-served campground, Deep Creek offers access to beautiful streams and waterfalls, as well as two of the park’s few mountain biking trails – Deep Creek and Indian Creek.
Open early April to late October, the 92-site campground has restrooms with running water and flush toilets. Each individual campsite has a fire grate and picnic table. RVs up to 26 feet in length can be accommodated here, but there is no dump station. The cost per night is $17.
While it is 47 miles from Gatlinburg, Tenn., and 13 from Cherokee,N.C., it is only three miles from Bryson City, N.C., where you can stock up on groceries. There are also medical facilities.
Smokemont Campground – South
On the southern end of the park, the Smokemont Campground is a popular base on the North Carolina side and with good reason.
With great access to the Oconaluftee River and Bradley Fork, a number of great hiking trails, the Mountain Farm Museum and Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Smokemont and its 142 sites make exploring the park easy and fun year round. During peak season from May 15 to Oct. 31, a site is $20. During the off season, the cost per night is $17. It also has a grassy area where visitors can play volleyball, Frisbee or just sit in the sun and read.
Like the other campgrounds in the park, Smokemont has restrooms with flush toilets and running water. Each site has a fire grate and picnic table. For the RV crowd, the campground can accommodate trailers up to 35 feet and motor homes up to 40 feet. While there are no hook-ups, there is a dump station.
Reserve your spot at this popular campground in advance online at www.recreation.gov or by phone at 877-444-6777.
Cades Cove Campground – West
Rent bikes, go on a trail ride on horseback, see wildlife and enjoy The Loop Scoop, a delicious concoction of soft-serve ice cream, sprinkles and M&Ms on a chocolate waffle cone at the general store near the Cades Cove Campground.
The most developed of Great Smoky Mountains’ campgrounds, Cades Cove Campground is open year round with 159 sites. And it is situated right at the 11-miles, one-way loop road that offers spectacular views, historic buildings and wildlife-viewing opportunities. Just nine miles from Townsend, Tenn., and 27 miles from Gatlinburg, the campground on the western side of the park. The campground has restrooms with running water and flush toilets. Each individual campsite has a fire grate and picnic table.
It can accommodate trailers up to 35 feet and motor homes up to 40 feet and has a dump station open year-round. There are no showers or electrical or water hookups in the park. The price for one night of Cades Cover paradise? $17-20.
Reservations must be made one day in advance and can be made as early as six months in advance by phone at 877- 444-6777 or go online to make reservations at www.recreation.gov.
Cataloochee Campground – East
Close to some of the best rainbow and brook trout fishing and far away from the crowds, Cataloochee Campground is just enough off the beaten path to offer more solitude than the more popular and larger campgrounds of Cades Cove and Elkmont.
Tucked away in the far eastern area of the park, Cataloochee is home to only 27 camping sites at $20 per night. Advance reservations are required, however, throughout the entire season it is open, which usually runs from late March to late October, depending on weather conditions.
With a network of trails far less used than those in other parts of the park, the Cataloochee area is home to the Caldwell Fork and Rough Fork trails, which are open to hikers and horseback riders. You also can do a self-guided tour of the nearby Palmer House, built in 1869 and a reminder of the settler history in the park.
Getting to the campground is not for everyone. The entrance road to Cataloochee Valley is a winding, gravel road with drop-offs and no guard rails. You could encounter horse trailer traffic on this narrow road, which may involve stopping or reversing to enable other vehicles to pass.
The campground has restrooms with running water and flush toilets. Each individual campsite has a fire grate and picnic table. There are no showers or electrical or water hookups in the park. Make reservations by phone at 877- 444-6777 or online at www.recreation.gov.
Elkmont Camground – North
Fall asleep to the gurgling sounds of Little River at the Elkmont Campground where the riverside campsites are extremely popular.
Just eight miles from Gatlinburg, Tenn., Elkmont is an extremely popular campground because of its size ⎯ it’s the park’s largest with 220 sites ⎯ proximity to Gatlinburg and its access to three trailheads and fantastic fishing, relaxing and wading in the Little River. It also offers interpretative programs and has a general store.
Because of the varied length and slopes of campsite driveways, some sites are better for tents than RVs. Get out and assess the site before you try to park your RV. Sites can accommodate motor homes up to 35 feet and trailers up to 32 feet. There’s no dump station here. The campground has restrooms with running water and flush toilets. Each individual campsite has a fire grate and picnic table. There are no showers or electrical or water hookups in the park.
For those who truly want to get away from it all, Elkmont has 20 walk-in sites for tents only. It also offers nine wheelchair accessible sites and three have 5 amp hook-ups for medical equipment.
The price for one night of Elkmont paradise? $17-23. Don’t miss out on this campground. Make your reservation up to six months in advance by phone at 877-444-6777 or online at www.recreation.gov.
2. My tent is an RV
Smokemont Campground with Dump Station
The campground can accommodate trailers up to 35 feet and motor homes up to 40 feet. While there are no hook-ups, there is a dump station. See more details above under car camping.
Cades Cove Campground with Dump Station
The campground can accommodate trailers up to 35 feet and motor homes up to 40 feet and has a dump station open year-round. There are no showers or electrical or water hookups in the park. See more details above under car camping.
Elkmont Campground with No Dump Station
Because of the varied length and slopes of campsite driveways, some sites are better for tents than RVs. Get out and assess the site before you try to park your RV. Sites can accommodate motor homes up to 35 feet and trailers up to 32 feet. There’s no dump station here. The campground has restrooms with running water and flush toilets. Each individual campsite has a fire grate and picnic table. There are no showers or electrical or water hookups in the park. See more details above under car camping.
3. I don’t go anywhere without my horse
Big Creek Horse Camp
For the Cadillac of the five horse camps at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, head to Big Creek, the only horse camp in the park with drinking water available and flush toilets. With five sites available, this campground, while still a bit primitive, is open April through end of October, depending on weather conditions each year.
With miles of incredible horseback riding trails, river access, a ranger station and historic sites less than a mile away, the five-site Big Creek is a great place to base out of in the northeastern side of the park. Plus, there is plenty of shade to keep you and the animals a little cooler during the summer months.
There are hitching posts and horse stalls for your horses at the campground. Horses are not allowed to be in the camping area. There is a limit of six people and four horses per site. Other park regulations include that those bringing horses into the park must have the original or a copy of an official negative test for equine infectious anemia.
To get to Big Creek, head 16 miles east of Newport, Tenn., on I-40. Get off at exit 451. Follow the road past Walters Power Generating Station to four-way intersection. There will be signs to Big Creek.
Advance reservations are required for Big Creek and all of the park’s horse camps. To make reservations, call (877) 444-6777 between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. or online at www.recreation.gov.
4. It’s backcountry or bust for me
Forney Creek Trail via Appalachian Trail
To get bragging rights that you hiked part of the Appalachian Trail, spend a few nights on the Forney Creek Trail via the AT. You can make this an out-and-back 18.6-mile trek or a 20.6-mile loop. Backcountry sites 68, 69, 70 and 71 are along this stretch, and you will need a backcountry permit and reservations for the sites in which you plan to spend the night.
You will summit Clingmans Dome within the first half mile and can tackle Andrews Bald on the way there or back, depending on how you are feeling. From Andrews Bald, you can see Fontana Lake and expansive views of the Smokies. You can make it a loop by taking the Springhouse Branch to the Forney Ridge trail up and over Andrews Bald, but know it is basically a 10-mile stretch back to the car from campsite 71.
To get a backcountry permit, detailed information on backcountry camping and trail conditions, call the Backcountry Office at 865-436-1297, which is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or go online to the backcountry permit site.
To get to the trailhead, turn off Newfound Gap Road .1 mile south of Newfound Gap and follow the 7-mile-long Clingmans Dome Road to the large parking area at the end.
Great Smoky Campgrounds at a Glance
|Abrams Creek||16||No||12 ft|
|Balsam Mountain||46||No||30 ft|
|Cades Cove||159||Yes||35/40 ft Dump St|
|Deep Creek||92||No||26 ft|
|Smokemont||142||Yes||35/40 ft Dump St|
Approximate Open Dates
Abrams Creek, Balsam Mountain: late May – mid October
Big Creek, Cosby, Deep Creek: late April – late October
Cataloochee: late March – late October
Elkmont: mid March – late November
Cades Cove, Smokemont: Year-round
Sites can be reserved at five of the campgrounds (see above for which ones) by visiting recreation.gov or calling (877) 444-6777. The rest are first-come, first-serve.
For up-to-date campground dates and fees, visit the National Park Service website, www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/frontcountry-camping.htm.
Need a map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Buy the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map for Great Smoky at REI.com. The map includes trails, trailheads, points of interest, campgrounds, geologic history and much more printed on waterproof, tear-resistant material.