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Best Places to Camp in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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Although national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon in the western United States tend to draw the public spotlight, several national parks back East deserve just as much attention. It may be surprising to some that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, draws more than 10 million visitors each year, making it the most visited national park in the country (Sorry, Yellowstone).
With over 800 miles of hiking trails to explore, more than 90 restored or preserved historical structures, and abundant wildlife viewing opportunities, Great Smoky Mountains National Park deserves more than just a day visit.
Although there are several quaint mountain towns surrounding the park for visitors to find lodging (Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge also have plenty of touristy shops and attractions), the best way to really immerse yourself in the beauty and serenity the park has to offer is to stay at one of the many in-park campgrounds.
If you’re planning a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains, here are a few of the best places to camp to help maximize the park's abundant adventure opportunities.
One of ten front-country campgrounds within the park, Cades Campground is the most developed. Located on the west side of the park, this campground has 159 sites and is open year-round.
Cades Cove has restrooms with running water and flush toilets, although there are no showers. Its campsites can easily accommodate trailers up to 35 feet and motor homes up to 40 feet; there is even a dumpsite available for campers.
Cades Cove Campground is also situated along Cades Cove Loop, a one-way loop road with spectacular mountain views and bountiful wildlife viewing opportunities. If you want to see wild turkeys, whitetail deer, elk, coyotes, and black bears, this is one of the best places to do it.
At an elevation of 2,600 feet above sea level, Cataloochee Campground is located on the quieter eastern side of the park. If you want to get off the beaten path and away from tourist season crowds, this is one of your best opportunities without heading into the backcountry.
Getting to the campground isn’t for the faint of heart. The gravel road there is full of twists and turns up the mountain, and several of the switchbacks have some pretty steep dropoffs and no guardrails.
However, this campground is well worth the effort to get there. It’s located near several streams that offer some stellar trout fishing opportunities. The Rough Fork trail is also close by. This trail leads to the Woody House. Built in 1880, this house is open to the public and worth the hike to get there.
Cataloochee Campground has only 27 sites, so it’s best to make reservations in advance. There are no hookups or showers, but the campground does offer flushing toilets.
Set against a backdrop of mountain views and the pristine Little River, Elkmont Campground is a popular destination for campers visiting the Great Smoky Mountains. With 220 campsites, this is the park’s largest and most popular campground.
Not only is Elkmont close to Gatlinburg, but it also provides easy access to three popular trailheads — the Little River Trail, Jakes Creek Trail, and Meigs Mountain Trail. If hiking isn’t your style, Elmont also has plenty of opportunities for fishing, wading, and relaxing along the Little River.
Visit the campground in early June, and you can witness the synchronous fireflies. Just one of 19 different species of lightning bugs that call the park home, Photinus carolinus are one of the few species known to synchronize their flash patterns.
The campground also has a general store where campers can buy ice, a welcome commodity during the hot, humid summer months. However, none of the campsites have electrical hookups.
Located near the park’s western boundary in Tennessee, Abrams Creek Campground is an excellent option for front-country campers who want to get off the beaten path (but not too far off of it. The campground is quiet and slightly secluded, yet it still makes an excellent base for day hikes.
The campground has only 16 sites, so make sure to make your reservations early—sites 8 and 9 offer exceptional views of Abrams Creek.
The campground offers few amenities but has flush toilets and potable water. Each site has a fire ring, and although RVs and trailers are allowed, they are not recommended.
If you genuinely want to wander off-grid and immerse yourself in the beauty of the southern Appalachian Mountains, the best way to do it is with some good old-fashioned backpacking. While you can’t just pitch a tent anywhere you want in the park, there are several backcountry campsites that are worth the hike.
If you plan to set up camp in the backcountry of the Great Smoky Mountains, there are a few rules you should be aware of.
- Camping is only allowed at designated sites.
- Stays at backcountry campsites are limited to three consecutive days.
- All overnight stays in the backcountry require a permit. The permit costs $8 per person per night with a maximum fee of $40.
- Campers must bury human waste in a hole at least 6 inches deep and 100 feet from campsites, shelters, trails, and water sources.
Located at Sheep Pen Gap, just below the spot where Gregory Bald and Wolf Ridge trails intersect, Campsite 13 is the perfect place to extend your stay on what is a challenging hike. Gregory Bald is just a short distance away from this campsite. The clearing offers jaw-dropping views of the surrounding mountains, Clingman’s Dome, and Fontana Lake. If you make the hike in early June, Gregory Bald is decked out in crowns of blooming azaleas.
Located near the halfway point of the Grapeyard Ridge Trail, this site is the perfect layover for exploring one of the park’s best-kept secrets. Located near the headwaters confluence of the Little Pigeon River, this trail skirts several old cemeteries, old settler homesteads, rock walls, and vintage chimneys. It also passes the wreckage of an old steam engine that toppled into the canyon in the 1920s.
If you’re new to backcountry camping, Campsite 50, located up the Chasteen Creek Trail from Smokemont Campground, provides a beginner-friendly introduction. The trail parallels the Bradley Fork of the Oconaluftee River, and campers can take a spur path off the trail to enjoy the Chasteen Creek cascades.
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