Winter’s on its way, bringing with it colder climes, warmer drinks, and an end to the camping trips for all but the steeliest of you. But don't pack up all your camping gear quite yet. How about one more night under the stars? Here’s a list of three of the best camping trips near Knoxville, in order from laid-back to hope-you-make-it-back.
Easy: Cades Cove
Cades Cove is one of the most beautiful and most accessible parts of Great Smoky Mountains National Park at any time of year. And with drive-up camping spots complete with flushable toilets, potable water, bike rentals, and other amenities, the Cades Cove campground is a great place for park visitors just looking to relax and spend a night under the stars.
Some of the most beautiful hikes in the park are right next door to the campground, including the Rich Mountain Loop Trail, which offers several overlooks and passes by the rustic John Oliver Cabin. You can also drive along the scenic Cades Cove Loop to access the Abrams Falls Trail and several historic churches and cabins from the days when the cove was populated by early settlers. But remember, the loop is very, very popular, especially during peak autumn colors, so be prepared for stop-and-go traffic along the length of the loop.
The lower elevation in this area means fall colors last further into the later months, as do warmer temperatures. You’ll also notice that less snowpack means fewer slick icy spots along the trails, compared to the higher elevation hikes around Mount LeConte and Clingmans Dome. With the Cades Cove Campground as your home base, you can dawn a lightweight day pack and explore the area at a leisurely pace. And if you’re desperate for civilization, the sleepy town of Townsend isn’t very far away. Lock all your food in the trunk before you set out, though, because black bears are very active in this area.
Moderate: Big South Fork
From the Bandy Creek Campground and Visitors Center at Big South Fork , you have plenty of options for your weekend out. If you decide to camp at the campground, several very accessible and scenic day hikes are nearby, including the Angel Falls Rapids Trail and the Angel Falls Overlook. Both are among the most popular trails in the park.
If you’re looking to do an overnighter, the Grand Gap Loop Trail offers a cumulative 12.4 miles that follows part of the John Muir Trail and also goes right by Angel Falls Overlook. Backcountry Permits are required, but they are free of charge and available at the Bandy Creek Visitor Center upon arrival.
The park offers a complex network of trails that are less regulated than those in the Smokies, but I’ve found this map and trail guide offered by the National Parks Service most helpful when navigating this part of Big South Fork.
Strenuous: Joyce-Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness Loop
If you’re up for a challenging hike with steep elevation changes and potentially waist-high water crossings, The 12-mile loop in the Joyce-Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness starting at Farr Gap might be for you. In the summer, it’s a doable-but-strenuous day hike where you’ll probably get your feet wet. But in the colder months—especially at high water—the water crossings at Slickrock Creek make it a difficult and potentially dangerous overnighter.
Hiking poles and water shoes are strongly recommended for water crossings, and you should always make sure you unclip your waist and chest straps before attempting to cross. This might make the crossing feel a bit more cumbersome, but if you fall in the water, you want to be able to get loose from your heavy pack as quickly as possible. It’s a tough endeavor, but Wildcat Falls and the beautiful views from Big Stack Gap Branch and the Fodderstack section will make the whole trip worthwhile.
Before you leave for the Joyce-Kilmer Slickrock Loop, be sure to: