Not all Smoky Mountain camping is created equal. In America’s most frequented park, what may seem as straightforward as pitching a tent can be more than a little complicated. Backcountry permits, shelter reservations, and front country (drive-in) sites booked months in advance can thwart many a dream for an overnight adventure in the pristine wilderness that is the Smokies.
And even after you’ve jumped through all the necessary hoops, you may discover the part of the park you’re in isn’t what you expected or wanted—not to mention trying to get away from the crowds if you do manage to secure a spot. And we should know: We’ve dealt with enough mosquito-infested backcountry endeavors, packed campsites, and unsavory run-ins with park rangers to speak with some authority on camping in the Smokies.
So whether you’ve got your sights set on tackling the tallest points in the park, kayaking down its raging rivers, or exploring as much as possible of these stunning hills, this insider’s guide to camping in the Smokies will help you make your adventure memorable for all the right reasons.
Stay Near the Action at Cades Cove Campground
The Cades Cove Campground is one of the most popular in the park, a nexus of adventure connecting craggy Thunderhead Mountain with rolling Cades Cove. It’s also one of the most accessible campgrounds in the park, and one of only two open year-round (the other is the Smokemont campground, located in the southeast on the North Carolina side of the park). The low elevation and well-maintained roads offer some of the best winter experiences in the park.
During the busiest summer months, reserve your spot well in advance to get your pick of the more pristine and woodsy spots. While some RV enthusiasts would consider the camping “rustic” (no running water or electric hookups), those hoping for a more set-apart camping experience might do better to purchase backcountry permits ($4 person/night) and head down the nearby Anthony Creek trail. Just a few miles down the trail, hikers can find two primitive campsites (the pink sites numbered 9 and 10 on this map) just a few miles down for a true wilderness experience.
If you want seclusion and solitude in a front-country camping experience, Cosby Campground is a great option. Once a hotbed of illegal moonshine production, this sleepy little spot has all the history you’d expect from a Smoky Mountain experience without the Cade’s Cove crowds. Being far from the tourist congestion doesn’t mean you’re far from the fun, though. Cosby Campground has access to a nice network of leisurely trails as well as passage up to Mount Cammerer, one of the most beautiful summits in the park. The majority of the campground functions on a first-come/first-serve basis, but there are almost always plenty of empty campsites, even on busy park weekend.
Shelter-Hopping along the Appalachian Trail
Seventy-two of the Appalachian Trail’s roughly 2,200 miles are contained within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains. Which, if you’re a thru-hiker, is just another week on the trail, right? But if you’re anybody else, traversing the entirety of the AT contained within the borders of the Smokies could be the best thing you do all year—and the most difficult, with a cumulative elevation gain of around 18,000 feet.
First, however, you want to make sure this is the trip for you. If you’ve never camped in the backcountry before, you may want to start with just an overnighter. The shelters along the trail are primitive, typically just three walls and a roof. You’ll likely be sharing the shelter with other hikers, not to mention two or three rodents that might scurry across your feet at night.
Second, you’ll need to plan well. This means knowing how many miles you’re going to go each day and where you’re going to sleep each night. Unless you’re in great shape, planning 10-12 mile days at the most is a good recommendation. At this pace, it should take six or seven days to make it through the park. Remember, think long-term: If you kill yourself the first day trying to keep up with a thru-hiker’s pace, you’ll be miserable for the rest of the trip.
Finally, make sure to make all the right reservations ahead of time. It’ll cost you $20/person to go all the way through the park, and you have to specify when and where you’re staying throughout the trip. A full list of backcountry guidelines and registration instructions can be found on the National Park Service website.
Tips for Paddlers
Unlike the Ocoee, Obed, French Broad, Pigeon, Green, Chattooga, Nolichucky, and other more dependable large-flowing rivers where reliable flow patterns result in camping mainstays, the waters of the Smoky Mountains change daily. And to stay attuned to constantly changing water levels, paddlers often need internet access in order. This means campsites in the park (where there is virtually no internet access) typically don’t serve as great outposts for serious kayakers.
But that’s not to say kayakers can’t camp in the Smokies. Here, suggestions from kayaker and author of Whitewater of the Southern Appalachians, Kirk Eddlemon:
“I like the Big Creek campground, and paddlers do stay there from time to time, for example, after a run on Big Creek, and before heading over to Greenbrier the following day, which typically will run well the day after Big Creek. Elkmont isn’t a bad place to stay either if you’re content to paddle the Little River, as the Little usually holds for a few days.”