While the Smoky Mountains are America’s most visited National Park there are many people who simply drive through or are only making a day visit to popular attractions in the park’s boundaries. LeConte Lodge is the only lodging facility in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and it requires a day hike to get there, leaving the only other viable option for overnight stays within park boundaries to be camping. If you really want a memorable Smoky Mountain vacation then camping is a great way to experience it.
Smoky Mountain camping is one of my favorite mountain vacations. The park operates 10 campgrounds and can accommodate tent camping and RV camping. Campgrounds range small to large and comfort amenities vary. The three most popular campgrounds in the park are Smokemont, Elkmont and Cades Cove. They are also the biggest, most easily accessible campgrounds from three different points with the most number of sites available. These three are also the only ones that sell fire wood on site (if you are looking for that particular addition!).
Cosby campground is also rather large but is not as easy to get to from the main road that runs through the park. Other Smoky Mountain campgrounds include Abrams Creek, Big Creek, Deep Creek, Balsam Mountain, Cataloochee, and Look Rock.
The Smokemont Campground is located closest (six miles) to the Cherokee, NC entrance to the park on Newfound Gap Road (Rt 441). There are 142 campsites in this campground and it has flushable toilets but no showers. Potable water and a dump station are available for RVs and campers. There are no electrical hookups, however, and a generator use is restricted to only two loops of the campground during the peak season.
Campsites are equipped with a picnic table, paved drive, fire pit, and a 13×13 tent pad. The picnic table does have a lantern pole and the fire pit has a grilling grate. There is access to hiking and horse trails directly from the campground. A riding stable, fire wood, and are also immediately accessible.
Smokemont offers year-round camping but be advised that the elevation is 2,198 feet. Camping fees are between $17 and $20. Trailers cannot exceed 35 feet in length and RVs no longer than 40.
The Elkmont Campground is located closest to the Gatlinburg, TN entrance at eight miles away on Newfound Gap Road. This is also the biggest campground in the National Park. There are 220 campsites in this campground, some of which are right next to the Little River which runs through the camp. Potable water is available but there is no dump station at the campground. Campers can use the dump station six miles away at the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Campsites are pretty standard here as well. They come with picnic tables and fire pits, tent pads and none of them have hook ups. As always, generator use is prohibited in some areas of the campground. Lots of hiking options are available at the campground and in the immediate area. Wood and ice are also available at the campground.
Elkmont is not open year-round, opening up mid-March and closing at the end of November. Sites cost $17 to $23 per night. Trailer length should not exceed 32 feet and motor homes are restricted to 35 feet.
Cades Cove Campground
It makes sense that the most visited section of the park also has a very popular campground. This is my personal favorite and I have been camping here for over 20 years.
The Cades Cove Campground is located nine miles from Townsend, TN on Laurel Creek Road. There are 159 campsites with flushable toilets and running, potable water. Although, again, there are no showers, there is a dump station for campers and RVs. Generator use (because there are no hook ups) is restricted to one loop for part of the year.
This campground is so much fun because of all the extra stuff it has that the others don’t. There is a camp store from which to purchase fire wood, ice, food, beverages, soft serve ice cream, and souvenirs. Horseback riding and the Anthony Creek Horse Camp are also located at Cades Cove. The 11-mile scenic loop road is what draws people in and the Cades Cove campground offers bicycle rentals for those who want to bike through it. Several hikes originate from either the campground or the loop road.
A tent pad, fire pit, and picnic table are all standard issue. There is also a separate picnic area with many picnic tables right next to Anthony Creek. Sites cost between $17 and $20 with a 40 foot maximum RV length.
A few side notes…In case you were wondering, none of the campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park have showers or electrical hookups. This may be the reason why people prefer to stay on the outskirts in one of the tourist traps. If you are going to stay outside of the park, I’d recommend Townsend. It is quiet, not touristy, small and has cabins, motels and campgrounds with showers. This is also where you want to go for some river tubing because the National Park doesn’t operate any tubing adventures.