The Complete Guide to Camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) is the best way to explore America’s most popular national park.

More than 11 million people visit Great Smoky Mountains each year to bask in the incredible diversity of plant and animal life, marvel at the remnants of historic Appalachian mountain culture, and hike deep into the seemingly endless expanses of forested ridges.

Camp at one of ten developed campgrounds, hike deep into the backcountry to a remote wilderness campsite, or stay at the famous LeConte Lodge (the only in-park lodging option, accessible only by a 5.5-mile one-way minimum hike).

Or venture just outside the park boundaries for an even greater selection of campgrounds (including RV parks with full hookups), hotels, cabins, and more.

Here is our ultimate visitors guide to help you plan your Great Smoky Mountains National Park camping trip.

Index

  1. Highlights
  2. Park Layout
  3. Best Campgrounds in the Park
  4. Other Park Campgrounds
  5. Best Campgrounds Near the Park
  6. Free Camping
  7. Other Lodging
  8. Camping Gear Checklist
  9. Additional Camping Tips
  10. Must-See Destinations
  11. Hiking & Backpacking
  12. Other Park Activities
  13. Things to Do Nearby
  14. Plan Your Visit
  15. Sample Camping Itineraries

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Camping Highlights

Now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Great Smoky Mountains first became a national park in 1934.

Today, the park is most notable for its rolling hills, dense old growth forests, lush river valleys, springtime wildflowers, and remarkable biodiversity.

In addition to large mammals like black bear and elk, camping in Great Smoky Mountains also brings you into close contact with countless other wild animals, including fireflies and salamanders (the park is sometimes referred to as the “Salamander Capital of the World”).

But the biodiversity doesn’t stop with animal life – in fact, the Great Smoky Mountains are perhaps even better known for their wide-ranging diversity of plant life.

The ancient mountain range boasts thousands of plant species, including more than 100 native trees, 100 native shrubs, 1,600 flowering plants, 450 bryophytes (including mosses), and 50 ferns.

And in addition to all these natural wonders, Great Smoky Mountains still contains numerous historical remnants from Appalachian mountain culture, including log cabins, churches, and even a working grist mill.

All of these natural and cultural wonders are shrouded in the iconic blue smoke-like haze from where the national park and the surrounding mountain range draw their curious name.

Many visitors simply complete an auto tour of the park to take in must-see destinations like Cades Cove without venturing far from their vehicle. But camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along with hiking and backpacking, are key for the more authentic wilderness experience. 

*Great Smoky Mountains is one of few U.S. national parks without an entrance fee!

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Layout

Navigating Great Smoky Mountains National Park is fairly simple.

The park straddles two states with roughly half the park in Tennessee and the other half in North Carolina.

Note that the national park covers only part of the Great Smoky Mountains range which itself is a part of the Blue Ridge Mountains range as well as the larger Appalachian Mountains range.

There are three main entrances to Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well as a number of smaller entrances.

Although the three main entrances have the most amenities, including large visitor centers, the smaller entrances are often far less busy.

The north entrance near Gatlinburg, Tennessee is the most popular entrance. Known as the Sugarlands Entrance, it’s also the most touristy with a string of restaurants, hotels, gift shops, and tourist attractions on the road into the park.

Another northern entrance brings you through Townsend, Tennessee into the park. Although it’s much less busy than the Sugarland Entrance, about 25 miles to the east, the town still has a wide range of shops, restaurants, and hotels. It’s also the most convenient entrance to see the famous Cades Cove.

Entering through the main south entrance brings you through Cherokee, North Carolina via the Oconaluftee Entrance. You pass through the Cherokee Indian Reservation on your way into the park. Make sure to stop at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

Multiple smaller entrances give you even more options for entering the park. Note that some of these, like the Bryson City entrance, are dead end roads that do not connect with the rest of the park’s roads.

Other small entrances include Abrams Creek, Balsam Mountain, Big Creek, Cataloochee, Crosby, Deep Creek, and Greenbrier.

The multitude of roads (over 400 miles total) makes auto touring easy. You can simply drive to the areas you’d like to see or make a full loop around the park. See our sample Great Smoky Mountains camping itineraries for more information on how to see the entire park.

A detailed map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park will give you a better understanding of the park’s layout, including the location of its entrances, roads, and campgrounds.

Best Campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

There are ten developed campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

All ten of these are car campgrounds. All but one (Big Creek Campground) accept RVs, although most do have RV length restrictions. Each campground has running water and flush toilets. There are no showers or RV hookups available in the park.

Eight of the ten campgrounds accept advance reservations while the other two campgrounds are first-come, first-served. Abrams Creek, Balsam Mountain, Big Creek, and Cataloochee Campgrounds all require reservations.

Here are the best campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Abrams Creek Campground

Small and private, Abrams Creek Campground is perfect for those looking for a quiet place to go camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

It has just 16 campsites and accepts RVs up to 12 feet in length. It’s open from the middle of May to the middle of October. Advance reservations are required.

Learn more about Abrams Creek Campground.

Balsam Mountain Campground

One of the more remote campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Balsam Mountain Campground is ideal for those that value privacy.

It has 46 campsites and accepts RVs up to 30 feet in length. It’s open from the middle of May to the beginning of October. Advance reservations are required.

Learn more about Balsam Mountain Campground.

Big Creek Campground

Situated alongside roaring Big Creek, the Big Creek Campground provides a peaceful, meditative atmosphere for camping in GSMNP.

It has just 12 campsites and doesn’t allow RVs. It’s open from the middle of May to the end of October. Advance reservations are required.

Learn more about Big Creek Campground.

Cades Cove Campground

Cades Cove Campground serves as an excellent home base for exploring the beautiful and culturally significant Cades Cove, one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains.

It has 159 campsites. It accepts trailers up to 35 feet in length and motorhomes up to 40 feet in length. It also has an RV dump station. It’s open year-round. Advance reservations are accepted.

Learn more about Cades Cove Campground.

Cataloochee Campground

Cataloochee Campground offers a picturesque Great Smoky Mountains camping experience, nestled deep in a peaceful valley surrounded by gorgeous mountains.

The campground has 27 campsites and accepts RVs up to 31 feet in length. It’s open from the middle of May to the end of October. Advance reservations are required. 

Learn more about Cataloochee Campground.

Cosby Campground

Another large Great Smoky Mountains campground, Cosby Campground is notable for its shady, forested atmosphere and proximity to the Appalachian Trail.

It has 157 campsites and accepts RVs up to 25 feet in length. It’s open from the middle of May to the end of October. Advance reservations are accepted.

Learn more about Cosby Campground.

Deep Creek Campground

Deep Creek Campground is one of the best places to go camping in the Smokies for those that want to explore the beauty of the surrounding streams and waterfalls.

It has 92 campsites and accepts RVs up to 26 feet in length. It’s open from the middle of May to the end of October. Deep Creek Campground is first-come, first-served only. No advance reservations are accepted.

Learn more about Deep Creek Campground.

Elkmont Campground

The largest campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Elkmont Campground is the hub for exploring the Sugarlands area of the park, just miles from Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

It has 220 campsites. It accepts trailers up to 32 feet in length and motorhomes up to 35 feet in length. A seasonal RV dump station is available at the nearby Sugarlands Visitor Center. The campground is open from the beginning of March through the end of November. Advance reservations are accepted.

Learn more about Elkmont Campground.

Look Rock Campground

*Look Rock Campground is currently closed indefinitely, although funding has been granted to re-open the campground in the future.

Look Rock Campground was once a quiet, peaceful place to camp in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but has been closed since 2012. Funding was announced to re-open the campground, although no further updates have been made.

Smokemont Campground

Smokemont Campground is home to some of the best camping in the Great Smoky Mountains, especially for viewing the wildflowers in the spring or the fall colors in autumn.

It has 142 campsites. It accepts trailers up to 35 feet in length and motorhomes up to 40 feet in length. It has an RV dump station. The campground is open year-round. Advance reservations are accepted.

Learn more about Smokemont Campground.

Other Great Smoky Mountains National Park Campgrounds

There are plenty of places to camp in addition to the ten car campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Backpackers are allowed to stay at several backcountry campsites, including overnight shelters along the Appalachian Trail. Other options include group campsites for large parties and small horse campgrounds for equestrians.

Here are the best additional places to go camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Backcountry Camping

Dozens of backcountry campsites in Great Smoky Mountains are available for overnight camping. These include 12 campsites along the 71-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail that passes through the park. Many GSMNP backcountry campsites have backcountry shelters, especially along the Appalachian Trail. Backcountry permits are required for all overnight backpacking.

Learn more about backcountry camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Group Camping

Large groups of campers have seven group camping areas to choose from. These include one site at Big Creek, four sites at Cades Cove, three sites at Cataloochee, three sites at Cosby, three sites at Deep Creek, four sites at Elkmont, and three sites at Smokemont. Only tent camping is allowed in GSMNP group sites. Reservations are mandatory. The minimum party size is 7 at all group campsites. Each group campsite has its own maximum party size requirements.

Learn more about group camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Horse Camping

Horseback riding in Great Smoky Mountains is a popular way to enjoy the park. Those that wish to stay overnight have a choice of five dedicated drive-in horse camps. These are Anthony Creek, Big Creek, Cataloochee, Round Bottom, and Tow String. All five GSMNP horse camps provide easy access to backcountry riding trails.

Learn more about horse camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Best Campgrounds Near Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Not everyone wants to camp in Great Smoky Mountains National Park while visiting this beautiful region of the Appalachian Mountains.

Camping opportunities just outside the park’s borders range from RV parks with full hookups to private tent campgrounds. Because of the immense popularity of the park, there are dozens upon dozens of nearby campgrounds, so we’re going to highlight some of the very best. 

Here are a few of the best campgrounds near Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Arrow Creek Campground

Family camping in the Great Smoky Mountains doesn’t get much better than Arrow Creek Campground. Located just minutes from Gatlinburg, this sprawling, tree-shaded campground is designed with RV camping in mind. It has full RV hookups, bathrooms with showers, Wi-F Internet, and a large swimming pool. Several camping cabins are also available to rent.

Learn more about Arrow Creek Campground.

Cherokee/Great Smokies KOA

A stay at Cherokee/Great Smokies KOA is a great way to enjoy camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Just minutes from the park entrance, the KOA offers RV campsites with full hookups, a selection of camping cabins, and a large tent camping area. Additional amenities include bathrooms with showers, Wi-Fi Internet, a year-round pool, snack bar, dog park, and bike rentals.

Learn more about Cherokee/Great Smokies KOA.

Greenbrier Campground

Set on the banks of the Little Pigeon River, this Smoky Mountain campground is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and GSMNP. It features 120 full hookup RV campsites, multiple tent camping areas, and cabin rentals. They even offer RV rentals. 

Learn more about Greenbrier Campground.

Horse Cove Campground

For a more remote Great Smoky Mountains camping experience, Horse Cove Campground is worth a look. Although it has just 18 first-come, first-served campsites, usage is light so chances are you’ll secure a spot for the night. The quiet, forested campground is located next to a rushing stream. It’s best suited for tent camping.

Learn more about Horse Cove Campground.

Indian Creek Campground

Another top-notch campground located near Cherokee, North Carolina, Indian Creek Campground proves a convenient place for family camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It has a mix of RV campsites with full hookups, private tent campsites, and camping cabins. The nearby creek is a fantastic place for trout fishing.

Learn more about Indian Creek Campground.

Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg KOA

Another KOA campground near Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg KOA is the ideal place for family campers to set up home base. It features pull-thru RV sites with full hookups, a grassy tent camping area, numerous camping cabins, and a host of additional amenities.

Learn more about Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg KOA.

Smoky Bear Campground and RV Park

RV camping in Great Smoky Mountains doesn’t get much better than Smoky Bear Campground and RV Park. Pull-thru RV sites with full hookups, private tent sites away from the RVs, comfortable cabins complete with AC, and a convenient location just minutes from the park make this a fantastic place to stay on your GSMNP camping trip.

Learn more about Smoky Bear Campground and RV Park.

Townsend/Great Smokies KOA

Family campers and RV enthusiasts love the Great Smokies KOA in Townsend. It features pull-thru RV sites with full hookups, a grassy tent camping area, and a variety of different camping cabins to choose from. Nearby Little River is a great place for swimming and trout fishing. Plus, you won’t want to miss bicycling the 5-mile long Townsend Bike Trail (bicycle rentals are available at the KOA).

Learn more about Townsend/Great Smokies KOA.

Free Camping Near Great Smoky Mountains National Park

There are numerous opportunities for free camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park if you know where to look.

Well, not exactly in the national park but near the park. Most of these free campgrounds are located in the national forests surrounding the national park.

Although it’s primitive camping only at most of these free campsites, exploring these national forests, particularly camping in Cherokee National Forest, gives you a great taste of the Great Smoky Mountains without all of the crowds in the national park itself. 

The best free campsites near Great Smoky Mountain National Park are located in Cherokee National Forest, Nantahala National Forest, and Pisgah National Forest as well as the Harmon Den Wildlife Management Area.

A few of the very best free camping areas are the Bear Creek Hunt Camp, Lake Santeetlah, and Panther Creek

Camping at Lake Santeetlah is particularly beautiful and peaceful. If you can’t find any of the free campsites, there are a multitude of cheap campsites in the same general area.

Do note that most of these free campsites are dispersed camping areas without any amenities. They often lack any development (aside from a sometimes-maintained road and a flat area to park your RV or pitch your tent).

A handful of the free campsites near Great Smoky Mountains do have basic amenities such as picnic tables, designated firepits, and vault toilets – but plan for the experience to be completely primitive.

For tent campers, you might want to bring a camping toilet – or, at least, know how to go to the bathroom outdoors.

Another idea is to bring a camping shower and learn about camping hygiene. You might consider bringing a complete camp kitchen to make cooking your favorite camping meals that much easier. 

Most RV campers, on the other hand, have built-in toilets and showers. But you should still be prepared to camp without hookups (also known as boondocking).

Do note that while many free campsites near Great Smoky Mountains can be accessed by all vehicles, including low-clearance and RVs, some have narrow, unmaintained roads where high-clearance and four-wheel drive making the going much easier.

For more information on free camping, our guide to free camping in the United States is an invaluable resource as is FreeCampsites.net.

* We’d love to hear from you if you’ve been free camping near Great Smoky Mountains National Park before!

Other Great Smoky Mountains National Park Lodging Options

Options for overnight stays aside from camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are minimal.

LeConte Lodge, the only lodge in the national park, is accessible only by foot on a hiking trail that varies from 5.5 miles to 8 miles, depending on the route. Luckily, plenty of Airbnb’s, cabins, and hotels are located just outside of the park’s borders – and you won’t have to hike in to them! 

Here is the best lodging in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

LeConte Lodge

LeConte Lodge sits at 6,593 feet high atop Mount LeConte. It’s made up of a series of rustic cabins, many with majestic views of the surrounding mountains. A dining room serves warm meals to overnight guests. Note that no road is available into the lodge – hiking (via, at the shortest, a 5.5-mile trail) is mandatory.

Learn more about LeConte Lodge.

Nearby Hotels, Cabins, Airbnb’s

There are a wide variety of hotels, cabins, and guest houses near Great Smoky Mountains.

Almost all of the area communities, especially gateway communities, have at least a small selection of lodging available.

Gatlinburg, to the north of the park in Tennessee, has the most accommodations, including large hotels like the Hilton Garden Gatlinburg, budget motels like Motel 6 Gatlinburg Smoky Mountains, and cabins like Parkside Cabin Rentals

On the southern side of the park, Cherokee has numerous accommodations, such as Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, Hampton Inn Cherokee, and Great Smokys Cabin Rentals

Airbnb is another option for finding guesthouses, cabins, and other lodging near Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Specific Camping Gear You’ll Need

Camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is much more enjoyable when you bring the right camping gear.

Make sure to use our family and car camping checklist to make sure you bring all the right equipment, including a sleeping bag, camping tent, and camping lantern.

In addition to all of this standard camping gear, make sure to pack weather appropriate clothing that’s well-suited to the time of year you plan to camp in the Great Smoky Mountains. And, if hiking is on the agenda, a pair of broken-in, high-quality hiking boots is a must.

Fortunately, year-round weather in the Smokies is mild to moderate. Even in winter, heavy snow usually only occurs at the highest elevations.

However, rain is possible any time of the year, even during the summertime. So, make sure you are familiar with the best tips and tricks for camping in the rain.

Although not necessarily remote compared to other national parks, Great Smoky Mountains doesn’t have any RV hookups and has minimal additional opportunities for charging electronic products.

A portable power source for camping in the Smokies is a great tool for those that want a backup to keep all their important devices charged up at all times on their camping trip.

Proper wildlife safety equipment, along with wildlife safety knowledge, is essential for your Great Smoky Mountains camping trip.

The park is home to a large population of black bears, roughly 1,500 total. Although black bear attacks are rare, it’s important to know what to do if you see a black bear.

Never leave coolers or food unattended, properly dispose of all food scraps, use wilderness food storage best practices, and invest in a bear resistant canister, especially if you’re backpacking in the Smokies.

In addition to black bears, other Great Smoky Mountains wildlife known to cause issues with human visitors include ticks, snakes, and wasps as well as poison ivy. Luckily, mosquitos aren’t a major issue thanks to the lack of standing water.

A well-stocked camping first-aid kit is essential for camping in the Smokies – or anywhere else for that matter. The “Ten Essentials” is the classic list of the basics you need for emergency situations in the great outdoors.

*Our simple family camping checklist will help ensure you don’t forget any important items!

Additional Camping Tips and Information

The following resources will help you plan the best Great Smoky Mountains National Park camping trip possible.

Do I Need Camping Reservations?

Reservations are recommended for camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In fact, four of the ten car campgrounds require reservations. These are Abrams Creek, Balsam Mountain, Big Creek, and Cataloochee Campgrounds.

Four additional car campgrounds allow reservations to be made. These are Cades Cove, Cosby, Elkmont, and Smokemont Campgrounds.

Campsites at these eight Great Smoky Mountains campgrounds can all be reserved online.

The final two car campgrounds are first-come, first-served. These are Deep Creek and Look Rock (currently closed) campgrounds.

We recommend making camping reservations for Great Smoky Mountains National Park if you plan to visit during the busy summer months.

Backpacking and backcountry camping also required advanced reservations. A limited number of Great Smoky Mountains backpacking permits are available – so make your reservations well ahead of your trip.

You can make backcountry permit reservations online.

First-Come, First-Served Camping

Deep Creek and Look Rock Campgrounds are completely first-come, first-served. No advance reservations are available.

Although some advance reservations are available, Cades Cove, Cosby, Elkmont, and Smokemont Campgrounds all offer some first-come, first-served campgrounds.

Arrive in the late morning or early afternoon to secure a first-come, first-served campsite during the busy summer months – otherwise advance reservations are recommended.

RV Camping

All but one Great Smoky Mountains campground is well-suited to RV camping.

The sole campground that doesn’t allow RVs is Big Creek Campground.

However, it’s important to note that most campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park do have size restrictions for RV campers.

Balsam Mountain, Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Elkmont, Look Rock, and Smokemont Campgrounds all offer spaces to RVs up to or over 30 feet with Cades Cove and Smokemont Campgrounds both accommodating trailers up to 35 feet and motorhomes up to 40 feet.

Remember to check RV size restrictions before making reservations (which are recommended for RV campers due to a limited number of RV campsites).

Although no RV hookups or utilities are available within the national park, there are three RV dump stations (at Cades Cove, Sugarland Visitor Center, and Smokemont).

Several RV parks and campgrounds are located in gateway communities just outside the park’s boundaries. Most offer full RV hookups, dump stations, wireless Internet, cable TV, and other RV camping amenities.

*Check out our guide to renting an RV or camper for an enjoyable Smokies camping trip with all the comforts of home!

Camping in the Summer

The best time to go camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is in the summer.

The months of June, July, and August typically have the best weather (with July as the warmest and sunniest), although these are also the most crowded months of the year.

Camping reservations are recommend, especially for family campers, during the busy summer months.

Camping in the Off-Season

The second best time to camp in the Great Smoky Mountains is in the fall.

The national park is known around the world for its brilliantly colored fall foliage, dubbed “fall colors.”

Slightly cooler temperatures and smaller crowds makes fall a great time to go camping in Great Smoky Mountains. October is the best month to see the famous fall colors.

Note that not Cades Cove and Smokemont Campgrounds are the only campgrounds that are open year-round. Most other campgrounds are open from roughly the end of May through the end of October.

Winter camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is actually a great way to enjoy the park. Although temperatures do dip below freezing in the middle of the winter, more than a light layer of snow isn’t common at lower elevations.

In addition to winter hiking and camping, many of those that visit the Great Smoky Mountains in winter head up to higher elevations to find snow for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.

Winter campers would do well to pack a winter camping tent, winter sleeping bag, and possibly even a winter tent heater.

*Our guide to the best winter camping gear is perfect for those camping in the Smokies in cold weather.

Camping for Appalachian Trail Hikers

Roughly 71 miles of the 2,180-mile long Appalachian Trail passes through Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In fact, the highest point of this famous trail is located in the park – the 6,625-foot summit of Clingmans Dome.

Most section hikers and backpackers will need around 7 days to hike the portion of the trail that passes through the national park (going one-way).

Appalachian Trail thru-hikers (those hiking the entirety of the 2,180-mile long trail) often spend much less time on the trail, between 3 and 5 days, depending on their pace.

No matter how many days you plan to spend camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park while hiking the Appalachian Trail, it’s important to apply for an overnight backcountry permit.

Special backcountry permits are available for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers to ensure that all thru-hikers have a place to stay overnight.

Do note that, unlike some sections of the trail, those hiking through Great Smoky Mountains must camp in designated backcountry campsites or shelters.

The national park provides 12 total shelters along the 71-mile stretch of trail. These shelters fill up quickly during the prime hiking season, especially in rainy weather.

Camping with Pets

Like most national parks, camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park with pets is difficult.

Pets are only allowed in campgrounds, picnic areas, parking lots, and on paved roads. Pets are not allowed on hiking trails, backcountry areas, or inside any park buildings.

The exception is the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail. Dogs are allowed on both of these trails.

In addition to these limitations, dogs must be kept on leash, all pet waste must be picked up immediately, and no pets are to be left unattended (even if they’re in a vehicle or an RV).

Learn more about visiting Great Smoky Mountains with pets.

*Take a look at our guide to camping with dogs to learn more about backpacking and camping with your four-legged friend!

Food Storage and Wildlife Safety

The Great Smoky Mountains are home to a wide range of potentially dangerous wildlife.

Black bears are perhaps the most dangerous to human visitors. But you should never any wildlife, including elk and deer. Stay at least 50 yards away when viewing wildlife. Never feed any wildlife in the park.

Proper wilderness food storage is equally important, especially for backpackers. Always properly store food (and food waste) and use a bear-resistant container as necessary. 

At certain times of the year, it’s even more important to be cautious around wildlife. Case in point is during the fall breeding season for elk, in which the male elk, known as bulls, become much more territorial and aggressive than normal.

Many hikers and backpackers carry bear bells, bear horns, and/or bear spray while hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains.

You should also familiarize yourself with what to do in a black bear encounter (as well as how to avoid bear encounters while hiking).

Where to Buy Groceries/Supplies

Fortunately, stocking up on groceries and other supplies is easy when camping in the Smokies.

Several towns are located just outside the park’s borders, including Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Townsend, Cherokee, Bryson City, and more. Most of these gateway communities have a variety of grocery stores, gas stations, general stores, and more.

Slightly further away from the national park are Knoxville (about an hour northwest) and Asheville (about two hours east). Both of these cities have even more options to buy groceries and supplies, including REI and Cabela’s as well as smaller mom and pop outdoor retailers. 

Do note that options for groceries and supplies are limited within the national park itself.

Cades Cove Campground Store, Elkmont Campground Concession, Smokemont Riding Stables, and Cades Cove Visitor Center sell limited groceries and supplies as well as snacks, limited prepared food, and beverages.

Do note that there are no gas stations within Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Must-See Destinations

There are countless amazing places to visit and things to see while camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

However, there are a few must-see destinations that all visitors should try to check out.

Here are the top must-see destinations in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Appalachian Trail

More than 71 miles of the famous Appalachian Trail pass through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are several options to hike a portion of the trail, such as the 13-mile Davenport Gap to Max Patch, or you can backpack the entire thing. But visitors who simply want to catch a glimpse of America’s longest footpath can do so at several points in the park, including Clingmans Dome, a popular place to see Appalachian Trail thru-hikers

Cades Cove

It’s hard to beat the beauty of Cades Cove. Once a center of Native American and pioneer activity, this isolated valley is now known one of the best places to see wildlife in Great Smoky Mountains. It also contains many historic remnants of Appalachian culture, including churches, barns, and cabins. Make sure to drive the 11-mile one-way loop road to see the entire area.

Cataloochee Valley

Rugged mountains surround picturesque Cataloochee Valley. In addition to the peaceful atmosphere, the valley is notable for its well-preserved historic buildings, including two churches and a school house. It’s a hot spot for wildlife viewing, fishing, and horseback riding. It’s home to the primitive Cataloochee Campground.

Clingmans Dome

One of the most majestic must-see destinations in Great Smoky Mountains, Clingmans Dome is a 6,643-foot tall mountain. It’s notable as the highest point in the national park as well as the highest point along the entire Appalachian Trail. A paved trail leads to a manmade observation tower that offers 360° views of the Smokies.

Elkmont

Few historic areas in the Smokies are more fascinating than Elkmont Historic District. Located in the Little River Valley, this region of the park contains a multitude of historical buildings from the Appalachian pioneer culture, including several historic cabins that make up part of a larger abandoned ghost town.

Fontana Lake

Fontana Lake is a large reservoir that forms part of the southern border of Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Created by Fontana Dam, the lake is a popular place for fishing, swimming, and boating. A multitude of campgrounds are located nearby, both inside the national park as well as in the nearby Nantahala National Forest.

Newfound Gap

Newfound Gap is notable as the lowest drivable mountain pass in the Smokies. In addition to the sheer beauty of this mountain drive, it’s also known for the incredible diversity of ecosystems that you pass through. The great changes in elevation causes a great difference in the types of plant life you see at different points of the drive.

Oconaluftee

Another historic site in the Great Smoky Mountains, Oconaluftee was once a Cherokee village before it became an Appalachian settlement. Today, it’s home to a large visitor center and acts as the main southern entrance to the national park. Named after the nearby river and surrounding river valley, the beautiful area is a popular place for observing wildlife.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Don’t visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park without stopping at Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. The 5.5-mile one-way loop follows the awe-inspiring Roaring Fork, one of the fastest mountain creeks in the park. Drivers are able to stop to view the historic Ogle homestead.

The Sinks

The Sinks are one of the best places for swimming in GSMNP. Located along the Little River Road Scenic Drive near the Sugarlands Visitor Center, the Sinks consist of a series of deep pools at the base of a waterfall. Do note that swimming here can be dangerous (and potentially deadly), especially near the waterfall, so always be cautious. Or, play it safe and just swim in the calmer, safer Greenbrier section of the park instead.

Hiking & Backpacking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a must for the full wilderness experience.

Day hikes range from one-mile trails perfect for families to ten-mile trails that are better suited to seasoned, well-conditioned hikers. There are also plenty of opportunities for backpacking, including the 71-mile portion of the Appalachian Trail that crosses through the park.

Here are some of the best Great Smoky Mountain hikes for all skill levels.

Best Short Hikes

Great Smoky Mountains is home to a number of short hikes perfect for families with small children.

Two of the best are the 0.5-mile roundtrip Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail and 0.8-mile roundtrip Elkmont Nature Trail. Both are flat and moderately trafficked. They’re a great way to get a small taste of the wilderness the park is known for.

For a slightly longer Great Smoky Mountains hike, the 1.8-mile roundtrip Spruce Flat Falls Trail is hard to beat. It has only mild elevation gain and you’re treated with fantastic views of the beautiful waterfall at the turnaround point.

The 1.2-mile roundtrip Clingmans Dome Observation Tower Trail is another short GSMNP hike that all visitors should check out. It brings you to the summit of the highest point in the entire park, so you already know the views of the Smokies will be phenomenal. Although clear days are rare, you might luck out with views up to 100 miles in each direction if the haze does clear.

Best Day Hikes

There are dozens of great places to go day hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Hikers that prefer something short and sweet love the Andrews Bald Trail. This 3.5-mile roundtrip hike takes you to the grassy titular bald with wide-open views of the surrounding hills and valleys. It’s a popular picnicking location and a great spot to see wildflowers in spring.

The interestingly named Charles Bunion Trail is one of the most photographed areas in the entire national park. Hike in via the Appalachian Trail for an 8.6-mile roundtrip hike with excellent views of the Smokies. Visit in spring to see wildflowers galore.

There are a few different ways to get to the top of Thunderhead Mountain with the famous Rocky Top knob as part of its western summit. Among the best is the Rocky Top from Lead Cove Trailhead, a 10.5-mile roundtrip hike. While strenuous in nature, the difficulty is well worth it as you’re greeted with incredible 360° views. Horses are also allowed on this trail.

The 8.1-mile roundtrip Ramsey Cascades Trail takes you through deep old-growth forest and ends at the titular waterfall. Over 100 feet tall, the towering Ramsey Cascades sends water careening down into several holding pools that salamanders love to hide in.

Another classic Great Smoky Mountains hike is the 3.6-mile roundtrip Chimney Tops Trail. This heavily trafficked trail crosses three rushing streams, contains a basic rock scramble, and ends with brilliant views of the surrounding mountains from a rocky pinnacle (the so-called “Chimney Tops”).

Best Overnight Backpacking Trips

The ultimate backpacking trip in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is undoubtedly the 71-mile portion of the Appalachian Trail that passes through the park.

Join Appalachian Trail thru-hikers and hike this entire section of the trail. Most hikers need around a week to complete the trek while serious backpackers can complete it in as little as three or four days.

Another option is to hike a small portion of the Appalachian Trail. For example, the 13.3-mile one-way trail from Davenport Gap to Max Patch Road is one of the best sections for a short backpacking trip. Either bring two cars or plan on an in-and-back hike.

Other excellent Great Smoky Mountains backpacking trips include the 21.5-mile Big Creek Loop through an area of the park known for its many creeks, the 28.2-mile Deep Creek Loop through another creek-heavy section, and the 13.7-mile Spence Creek Loop for a scenic ramble through open meadows and dense forests.

For a completely unique backpacking experience, hike up to the LeConte Lodge, a collection of cabins atop Mount LeConte, to stay the night in rustic comfort. Although not exactly backpacking in the traditional sense, a stay at the park’s only lodging facility requires a long hike in (anywhere from just over 5 miles to more than 13 miles one-way).

Remember that all overnight camping in the backcountry requires a backcountry permit (reservable in advance).

*Check out our guide to planning a backpacking trip for the best tips to make your Great Smoky Mountains backpacking trip one for the record books!

Other Activities in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

There is much more to do while camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in addition to seeing the sights, hiking, and backpacking.

Here are some of the best things to do on your next Great Smoky Mountains camping trip.

Art & History

The geologic history of Great Smoky Mountains goes back hundreds of years. The first people to live in the area were the Cherokee Indians. In the late 18th century, European pioneers began to settle the region’s valleys. There are ample opportunities to learn about the culture and history of the region, including viewing many historic buildings. The national park also runs an Artist in Residence program.

Learn more about the history and culture of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Bicycling

Bicycling is allowed on most roads in GSMNP. However, many of the roads are not well-suited for bicycling because of their narrow construction and heavy automobile traffic. A few roads, such as the 11-mile roundtrip Cades Cove Loop Road, are popular among bicyclists. No mountain biking trails are available in the park.

Learn more about bicycling in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Canoeing & Kayaking

There are minimal opportunities for canoeing and kayaking in the park. The big exception is Fontana Lake along the southern border. This is an excellent spot for canoeing, kayaking, and even stand-up paddleboarding. No motorized boats are allowed. The Nantahala River to the south of the park is a popular place for whitewater kayaking and rafting.

Learn more about canoeing and kayaking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Cross-Country Skiing

Winter in the Great Smoky Mountains is perfect for cross-country skiing. High elevations often receive heavy snowfall in the winter, especially after storms, and even snow at lower elevations isn’t uncommon. Because many park roads close down in the winter months, Nordic skiers and snowshoers flock to these snowy roads for their wide-open nature. Clingmans Dome Road is one of the best places for cross-country skiing in GSMNP.

Learn more about cross-country skiing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Eating & Drinking

There are minimal places to eat within the national park. The Cades Cove Campground Store is perhaps the most well-stocked location with a snack bar that sells breakfast food, hot and cold sandwiches, pizza, ice cream, and more. The LeConte Lodge also offers warm meals in a dining room for overnight guests. Luckily, there are dozens of restaurants, bars, and other places to dine just outside the park.

Learn more about eating and drinking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well as the best places to eat near Great Smoky Mountains.

Fall Colors

Go camping in GSMNP in the fall to experience the beautiful changing colors. The autumn leaf season starts at higher elevations and travels into lower elevations, stretching the time to see fall colors for several weeks, although the best time to see them is in October.

Learn more about the fall colors in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Fishing

2,900 miles of streams as well as Fontana Lake make the Great Smoky Mountains an excellent place for fishing. In fact, the park is notable as one of the last places with a wild trout population in the eastern half of the United States. Fishing is permitted year-round, although a fishing license (you need a different license for Tennessee and North Carolina) is required.

Learn more about fishing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Horseback Riding

Horseback riding is a fun way for visitors of all ages to enjoy camping in the Smokies. Roughly 550 miles of backcountry trails are open for horseback riding. Guided horseback rides are offered in the Gatlinburg, Townsend, and Cherokee. Hayrides as well as carriage and wagon rides are also available at certain times of the year. There are five horse campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains.

Learn more about horseback riding in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Ranger Programs

Great Smoky Mountains has a number of ranger-led programs that are interesting and enjoyable for children and adults alike. These include campfire talks, guided walks, junior ranger programs (open to those under 13), and not-so-junior ranger programs (open to everyone over 13).

Learn more about ranger programs in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Wildlife Viewing 

Observing wildlife is one of the best things to do in GSMNP. Although sometimes challenging due to the thick forests, the keen-eyed visitor has the opportunity to see black bear, elk, salamanders, and many other critters. Animals are typically most active in mornings and evenings. Birding in the Smokies is another popular park activity.

Learn more about viewing wildlife in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Wildflowers

Thousands of wildflowers bloom from early spring through late summer in the Great Smoky Mountains, although April is arguably the peak time to see them. Many visitors also enjoy seeing the deciduous trees and blooming shrubs regain their flowers and color during the same general time frame.

Learn more about viewing wildflowers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Other Things to Do Near Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Take some time to explore the area surrounding the national park on your Great Smoky Mountains camping trip.

In addition to a number of national forests and other natural areas, there are a handful of vibrant towns and other places of interest just outside the park’s borders.

Here are some of the best things to do near Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Asheville

Just two hours to the east, the city of Asheville serves as the North Carolina hub for exploring the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s also an interesting town in its own right – with a vibrant arts scene, world-class dining, and a host of historic architecture. Don’t forget to stop by the Biltmore Estate, built by George Vanderbilt and notable as America’s largest privately-owned home.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Traveling between Shenandoah National Park in the north and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the south, the world-famous Blue Ridge Parkway is an excellent way to slow down, enjoy the meandering road, and experience Appalachia up close and personal.

Cataloochee Ski Area

Located near Maggie Valley, North Carolina, just outside the park’s borders, Cataloochee Ski Area is the perfect place for winter visitors to enjoy a variety of winter activities, including downhill skiing and snowboarding. It has eighteen ski runs and a maximum elevation of 5,400 feet.

Dollywood

Theme park fans rejoice – Dollywood offers those camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park all the screaming thrills they’ll ever desire. Located just outside the park in nearby Pigeon Forge, the sprawling theme park and waterpark hosts a variety of musical acts throughout the year – including regular appearances by Dolly Parton herself.

Gateway Communities

The many gateway communities to the park are worth visiting in their own right. Most popular is busy nearby Gatlinburg, notable for the Gatlinburg Space Needle, a kitschy main shopping street, and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. Other nearby communities include Pigeon Forge, Townsend, Hot Springs, Waynesville, Cherokee, Bryson City, Maryville, and Sevierville.

Knoxville

Just an hour to the north and west of the park, Knoxville serves as the Tennessee hub to the Great Smoky Mountains. In addition to world-class dining and entertainment, the city is brimming with architecture, culture, and history, especially from its Civil War past.

Plan Your Visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Use these additional resources to help plan the best Great Smoky Mountains National Park camping trip.

How to Get There

Most visitors reach Great Smoky Mountains from Knoxville or Asheville.

Knoxville is around one hour to the north while Asheville is just under two hours to the east.

The McGhee-Tyson Airport near Knoxville and the Asheville Regional Airport are the largest airports near the park.

Remember to check road conditions in the park before you visit during the winter as some roads close due to snow.  

Here’s more information on directions to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

When to Visit

The best time for camping in the Great Smoky Mountains is during summer.

June, July, and August have the best weather – but also the largest crowds. For a less busy camping experience, visit GSMNP in September or in October to experience the famous “fall colors” and the rest of the park with fewer crowds.

Spring is another good time to visit the Smokies, although you should prepare for rainy weather and colder temperatures. Note that many campgrounds will not yet be open for the season.

Even winter is a beautiful time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains, but remember that services are limited, only two campgrounds are open, and some roads might be closed due to snow and winter storms.

Fees & Passes

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of only a handful of national parks in the United States without an entrance fee.

Yes, you heard that right! Getting into GSMP is completely free. However, all campgrounds within the park do have a fee.

Learn more about Great Smoky Mountains fees and passes.

Maps & Guidebooks

Among the very best maps and guidebooks are Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park Travel Guide and Top Trails: Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 50 Must-Do Hikes for Everyone.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Camping Itinerary

It takes roughly an hour to get to Great Smoky Mountains from Knoxville to the northwest or two hours from Asheville to the east.

Thanks to its convenient location straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains are an extremely popular camping destination for locals living in each state as well as for out-of-town visitors.

Here are three popular road trip itineraries for camping in the Great Smoky Mountains and the surrounding area.

One Week in GSMNP

Like most national parks, the longer you have to go camping in Great Smoky Mountains, the better.

Although motivated visitors can see most of the park’s must-see attractions in as little as three days, it takes at least a full week to truly experience all the park has to offer. This gives you enough time to camp at multiple GSMNP campgrounds as well as take a few day hikes to get off the beaten path.

Beginning in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a one week camping trip in Great Smoky Mountains lets you see Newfound Gap Road, Roaring Fork, Cosby, Cataloochee, Cades Cove, Fontana Lake, Deep Creek, Cherokee, and dozens of places in between.

Moon Travel Guides has an excellent sample itinerary for one week in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip

Perhaps one of the best road trips in America is to drive the entirety of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Designated a National Parkway and an All-American Road, the 469-mile long scenic highway runs from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Take your time driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, dubbed “America’s Favorite Drive” by the National Park Service. Revel in the slow pace of life in the Blue Ridge Mountains and appreciate the rich biodiversity of plant and animal life.

Make sure to spend at least three days camping in Shenandoah National Park and three days camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the full experience. Many visitors add an additional one to three nights in btween the two national parks, including a stop in Roanoke.

Spring, summer, and fall are all great times to make this camping road trip. Spring is the best time to see wildflowers in bloom while fall is the best time to see the gorgeous fall colors.

Appalachian Mountains Road Trip

Make camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park just one part of an unforgettable Appalachian Mountains road trip.

Although the options for this camping trip are almost limitless, a popular route for serious road trippers is to follow the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail thru-hike from near Atlanta, Georgia up to Baxter State Park in Maine.

Of course, you don’t have to complete the entire drive for an amazing camping road trip. But at the very least cover the Blue Ridge Parkway portion of the Appalachian Mountains.

For a short and sweet trip, start in Atlanta and drive through the beautiful forested mountains until you reach Washington D.C. If you plan your trip properly, you’ll be able to spend the majority of your driving time on scenic two-lane highways.

At least one or two weeks at the minimum are necessary to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime family camping road trip.

Additional Resources

Here at Beyond The Tent, we want to help make your Great Smoky Mountains National Park camping trip as enjoyable as possible.

Here are some additional resources you might find helpful collected from our own site:

And here are some other online resources for camping in the Great Smoky Mountains:

Please feel free to reach out to us about any questions you might have about camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park!

2 COMMENTS

  1. Can’t believe how awesome this looks! As a Canadian who is looking to explore more of the U.S., this will definitely make the list.

  2. Hey Jake, Nice read, man. I stumbled upon your site through a reverse image search. I am a contributor with shutterstock and I am always curious to see where my images are used(clingman dome-moon). Good stuff!

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