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The Complete Guide to Camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Nestled between North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers. As the most visited national park in the United States, it offers a diverse range of ecosystems and an array of camping opportunities.

Those looking to immerse themselves in the park’s natural beauty will find a variety of campgrounds and backcountry sites that serve as perfect bases to explore the sprawling landscape. Read on to learn more about camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park!


Key Takeaways

  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a range of camping options, from developed campgrounds to backcountry sites.
  • Proper planning and adherence to park guidelines are imperative for a successful camping trip.
  • Respect for the environment and park wildlife ensures the preservation of the park for future visitors.

Planning Your Camping Adventure

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When venturing into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, selecting the proper campground and understanding the reservations and permits process is crucial for a successful camping experience. This guide will help campers navigate these important steps.

To ensure a memorable and comfortable camping experience, careful planning is essential. Campers must familiarize themselves with campground amenities, reservation requirements, and park regulations. When setting up camp, it’s crucial to follow Leave No Trace principles to minimize impact on the environment. With campgrounds accommodating everything from tents to RVs, and sites that range from secluded backcountry spots to accessible family-friendly areas, there’s something to suit every kind of camper.

Choosing the Right Campground

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a variety of campgrounds catering to different preferences, whether one seeks the conveniences of frontcountry camping or the solitude of the backcountry. For those with RVs, campgrounds like Smokemont and Cades Cove accommodate vehicles up to 40 feet in length. Tent campers have a wide range of options, with some campgrounds providing a more primitive camping experience. For larger groups, group campgrounds are also available but require special attention when booking due to their limited availability.

Reservations and Permits

To secure a campsite in the park’s more popular campgrounds, advance reservations are highly recommended, particularly from May 15 through October 31. Reservations can be made via the website, which is a central resource for campers seeking to book campsites or obtain the necessary permits for backcountry camping. All backcountry campers must obtain a permit, ensuring safety and the conservation of the park’s natural resources. Remember that some backcountry camping areas require campers to stay at designated sites, while others operate on a zone-camping basis, allowing more flexibility on where to pitch a tent.

Setting Up Camp

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When setting up camp in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, campers need to familiarize themselves with available amenities and adhere to park regulations to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.

Campsite Features and Amenities

Each campsite within the park typically includes a fire grate for contained campfires, a picnic table for dining and gathering, and, in most frontcountry campsites, flush toilets and drinking water facilities are provided. Campsites are designed to be accessible by vehicle, allowing for convenient offloading of camping gear. It’s important for campers to use designated areas for their tents or trailers to minimize impact on the surrounding environment.

Camping Rules and Regulations

Strict guidelines are in place to preserve the biodiversity and natural beauty of the park. Only firewood that is heat-treated and bundled with a certification stamp from the USDA or a state department of agriculture is permitted; this is to prevent the spread of invasive insects. Pets are allowed in the campgrounds but must be kept on a leash at all times and should not be left unattended. Campers must be mindful of wildlife, including black bears, by storing food and scented items in bear-resistant containers. To avoid attracting wildlife, all food, garbage, and equipment used to prepare or store food must be kept sealed when not in use.

  • Quiet hours are typically from 10 PM to 6 AM.
  • Generators may be used only during designated hours, avoiding disruption to fellow campers.

Compliance with these rules helps maintain the park’s ecological integrity and ensures that all campers have a safe, respectful, and unforgettable visit.

Best Campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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When visitors seek an immersive experience in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, selecting the right campground is crucial. The park offers a variety of campgrounds with unique features, catering to different preferences.

Cades Cove Campground stands out due to its year-round availability and its proximity to an 11-mile scenic loop road offering wildlife viewing and access to historic sites. Each site at Cades Cove can accommodate tents and has a limit of six people.

For a more secluded stay, Elkmont Campground is the largest in the park, providing a more rustic experience. Nestled beside the Little River, it is a favored spot for anglers and hikers alike. Sites here can be booked through Elkmont.

Meanwhile, Cosby Campground is known for its serene setting and its closeness to hiking trails. It’s a quieter alternative to the more bustling campgrounds, yet still provides essential amenities. The information can be found at Cosby.

For those who prefer backcountry camping, the park has a designated area with several campsites accessible by trail. Permits and reservations for these sites need to be made in advance and are available through the National Park Service website.

CampgroundFeaturesReservation Link
Cades CoveOpen year-round, historic sitesBook at Cades Cove
ElkmontLarge sites, river accessBook at Elkmont
CosbyQuiet, near trailsBook at Cosby

It’s vital for campers to book their sites in advance, especially during peak seasons, to secure their ideal camping experience in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Free Camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park can take advantage of several free campsites to fully immerse themselves in nature. These campsites are perfect for those looking to enjoy the park’s scenic beauty without the cost associated with traditional camping sites.

Designated Campsites:

  • Free campsites are available, but they may not offer the same amenities as paid sites.
  • Campers should be prepared for a more rustic experience, which often means no water, no bathrooms, and no picnic tables.

Campsite Regulations:

  • Campers must adhere to all park regulations, including fire safety and food storage.
  • Bear Safety: Proper food storage is critical in bear country. Campers should use bear-proof containers.

Leave No Trace:

  • It is imperative to practice Leave No Trace principles. Pick up all trash, and do not disturb the natural environment.
  • Maintaining the cleanliness and natural beauty of these campsites ensures their continued availability for future visitors.


  • Free campsites may not be as easily accessible as paid sites. Some might require hiking or 4WD to reach.
  • Campers must follow the park’s rules regarding the maximum length of stay at these campsites.
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Other Lodging Options

For visitors seeking alternatives to camping within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are various lodging options available. LeConte Lodge stands as the only in-park lodging choice, which travelers can reach exclusively by foot. The lodge offers a unique experience as it necessitates at least a 5.5-mile one-way minimum hike to access its facilities.

In addition to in-park lodging, the surrounding areas offer a plethora of accommodation options that cater to different preferences and budgets, including:

  • Hotels: Numerous hotels positioned at the gateway communities of the park, such as Gatlinburg and Cherokee.
  • Cabins: A variety of cabin rentals present a rustic yet comfortable stay, often featuring amenities like fireplaces and hot tubs.
  • Bed and Breakfasts: For a homely touch, there are several bed and breakfast establishments that provide a cozy and intimate setting.
  • Resorts: Those looking for more upscale amenities may opt for resorts that offer spa services, fine dining, and recreational facilities.

Each option serves as a comfortable base for exploring the natural beauty and attractions of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To ensure availability, visitors are advised to book their accommodations in advance, particularly during peak tourist seasons.

Activities and Attractions

Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a variety of recreational opportunities, each providing a unique way to experience the natural beauty of the park. From expansive views on mountain peaks to rich historical sites, visitors can engage in activities that suit all interests and experience levels.

Hiking and Wildlife Watching

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a hiker’s paradise, boasting over 800 miles of trails. Highlights include the famous Appalachian Trail, which traverses the park for about 70 miles, and the Alum Cave Trail, a moderately challenging hike that leads to spectacular views of the park. Hikers often encounter diverse wildlife, such as elk in Cataloochee Valley, which were successfully reintroduced and can be seen grazing in the open fields especially during dawn or dusk. Cades Cove offers another prime spot for wildlife watching, where white-tailed deer, black bears, and wild turkey are frequently sighted.

Waterfalls and Historical Areas

Waterfalls are abundant throughout the park, with some of the most photogenic cascades accessible via well-maintained trails. Laurel Falls and Abrams Falls in Cades Cove, or Tom Branch Falls in Deep Creek area, are easily reached and provide stunning backdrops for photography and picnicking. The park is also home to a number of historical areas where visitors can step back in time. The Elkmont area was once a pioneer settlement and a logging community, and now features a collection of preserved buildings including rustic cabins and the remnants of the Appalachian Club. Near the Smokemont campground, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center exhibits Southern Appalachian mountain culture, complete with demonstrations at the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill.

Staying Safe and Preserving the Park

Visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park should prioritize safety by adhering to park regulations and practicing Leave No Trace principles. It’s imperative to stay aware of weather conditions and terrain while hiking, and to utilize designated picnic areas for meals to minimize human impact on the park.

When encountering wildlife such as the black bear, maintain a safe distance. Hikers should make noise to alert bears of their presence and store food securely. Feeding wildlife is strictly prohibited within the park.

Campers must use bear-proof storage boxes, and it is recommended to cook and eat at least 100 yards away from your tent. Never leave food or trash unattended. It is also crucial to collect all trash and dispose of it in designated bear-proof containers to protect these animals and their habitat.

Visitor centers in Gatlinburg, Townsend, North Carolina, and Tennessee offer comprehensive information on park safety and are equipped with maps and helpful guidelines.

Safety TipAction
Trail AwarenessStick to marked paths.
Wildlife EncountersObserve from a distance.
Food StorageUse bear-proof containers.
Litter PreventionCarry out all trash.

By upholding these practices, visitors actively contribute to the preservation of the Great Smoky Mountains, ensuring a pristine environment for future generations to enjoy.

Great Smokey Mountains National Park

Enjoy Camping in the Great Smoky Mountains!

Camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a diverse and enriching outdoor experience. . Prior planning and adherence to park guidelines ensure a memorable adventure in America’s most visited national park.

For more information, be sure to check out our camping archive!


Sunday 17th of November 2019

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!

Brendan Bellavance

Friday 17th of May 2019

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.