Don’t let the fact that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited in the U.S. turn you off from coming in an RV. Several roads that cross through the park are main thoroughfares for those traveling between North Carolina and Tennessee, so while 12.5 million people drove through the park in 2019, not all of them actually stopped to experience all the amazing things the park has to offer. Armed with our six tips to ensure a stress-free trip in your RV, you’ll be ready to explore this 800-square-mile park.
1. Pick a Campsite
There are a variety of campgrounds to choose from in Great Smoky Mountains National Park depending on the size of your rig. Smokemount and Cades Cove campgrounds can accommodate the largest vehicles, up to 40 feet for motorhomes and up to 35 feet for trailers. Elkmont can accommodate motorhomes up to 35 feet and trailers up to 32 feet. Cataloochee, Balsam Mountain, Deep Creek and Cosby campgrounds can accommodate vehicles up to 31, 30, 26 and 25 feet respectively. Abrams Creek technically allows RVs, but only if your vehicle is less than 12 feet in length.
Reservations can be made online at www.recreation.gov/camping/gateways/2739 for each of these campgrounds and many require advanced booking. Book as far ahead as possible, especially in the summer and fall months.
If you need electric or water hookups, you’ll have to find a private campground or RV park outside the national park since no in-park campgrounds have hookups. The towns of Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Cherokee, all just outside park entrances, have many options.
Inside the park you can access dump stations at Smokemont and Cades Cove campgrounds or the Sugarlands Visitor Center year-round.
2. Know where you can’t go
While most park roads are paved or well-maintained gravel, there are a handful of roads where trailers and RVs are prohibited. Park your rig at one of the visitor centers and take your personal vehicle if you want to explore Balsam Mountain Road, Greenbrier Road past the ranger station, Heintooga Ridge Road, Rich Mountain Road, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and the park exit at Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area.
Take care when driving your rig through the Cataloochee Entrance. It’s a steep and narrow, gravel road with sharp drop offs and no guard rails and there are often horse trailers passing through. If you have a large vehicle, it may be best to avoid this entrance as backing up to allow other vehicles to pass is often necessary. Also exercise caution on Little River Road between Townsend and Elkmont Campground.
3. Keep an Eye on your Gas Gauge
There are no gas stations in the park, so keep an eye on that gas gauge even though the views are hard to peel your eyes away from. The closest towns with fuel and other services are Cherokee, N.C., Gatlinburg Tenn., and Townsend, Tenn.
4. Be Bear Aware
More than 1,500 black bears live in the Great Smoky Mountains and while attacks are rare, they can be dangerous. Bears are attracted by food and smells. When leaving your RV, make sure all windows, doors and vents are sealed. All food should be stored out of sight of windows. If you are storing any food inside your RV, it should be completely hard-sided. Bears are very clever and can break their way into any soft-sided areas.
5. Think High
Elevations in Great Smoky Mountains National Park range from just 1,462 feet to 6,673 feet. While winter in the Smokies is usually pretty mild, you can leave the Sugarlands Visitor Center in a t-shirt and experience snow as you drive up to Newfound Gap. Check with a ranger on road conditions. If you’re uncomfortable driving in adverse weather, always check the forecast before heading out, even if you see blue skies at your campground.
6. Take a Scenic Drive
You’d be remiss to take a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park without driving some or all of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a National Scenic Byway that stretches from the park’s North Carolina Oconaluftee Entrance all the way to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Check out our 516-mile road trip for all the best stops along the way.