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  • Writer's pictureSteve E

The Best Campsites of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Best Developed and Dispersed Campsites both Inside and Outside of America's Busiest National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains of Great Smoky Mountain National Park are Smoking, Greatly! The fog that sets in among the rolling hillscape of Southern Appalachia takes on a smokelike appearance, settling in thickly, which is where the mountains get their name

Morton Valley Overlook: Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Photo Credit: Chris Blake


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Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an American treasure, but certainly not a hidden one. Over 14 million people visited the park in 2021, making it far and away the most popular National Park in the country.

Many people limit their visits to scenic auto tours on the park’s 384 miles of road, hardly scratching its surface. However - with 800 square miles of old growth forests, towering waterfalls, ancient mountains, and endless hiking trails - camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the best way to truly experience this special place in all its glory.

Sunbeams zap through the yellow Autumn foliage down to the forest floor within Great Smoky Mountains National PArk

Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Photo Credit: Joshua Woroniecki

Camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Camping options are relatively plentiful in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are ten campgrounds within park boundaries. Eight either require or accept reservations and two are entirely first-come, first-served. All but one (Big Creek Campground) can accommodate RVs.

The park also features some of the most scenic, plentiful, and wild backcountry camping opportunities on the east side of the Mississippi. There are over 100 backcountry sites throughout the Smokies, including 12 Appalachian Trail shelters along its 71-mile stretch through the park. Keep in mind that you’ll need a permit for any overnight trip in the park’s backcountry.

You can explore the National Park Service website for descriptions and details for all of the campgrounds in the Smokies. But this can be a bit overwhelming - to make planning your trip nice and easy, we have handpicked our personal favorites for every type of camping preference.

Ethereal purple fog settles over Cades Cove Campground, as miles of yellow grassy plains stretch out to the distant mountains within Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Clouds over Cades Cove Campground - Photo Credit: Chris Blake

Developed Campgrounds

From solitude seekers to gregarious groups, let’s start with the best developed campgrounds in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Best for Nature Lovers: Cosby Campground

Nestled in a forested, shaded valley of the northeast corner of the Smokies, Cosby Campground provides some respite from the busier parts of the park. With access to the Appalachian Trail and dozens of other routes, it is the best camping option for nature lovers looking to get out and explore the wonders of the Park.

There are 157 campsites at Cosby, though only a handful can accommodate RVs. Reservations are accepted, and the campground is open from mid-May to late October every year.

Best for RVs and Larger Groups: Cades Cove Campground

Located in one of the most popular regions of the park, Cades Cove Campground is an excellent home base for both RV campers and large groups. It has 159 individual campsites, plus four group sites that can host up to 30 people.

Group camping is tent-only, but most of the other sites can accommodate RVs. Cades Cove has a campground store, an RV dump station, and is located within close proximity to countless activities. Every member of your group will have something to do, from touring the nearby historic log structures, taking a horseback or carriage ride, or exploring miles of hiking and biking trails.

This campground is open year-round, and sites are available for reservation on a six-month rolling basis.

Best for Last-Minute Planners: Deep Creek Campground

For the impulsive among us, do not fret - you can still pull off that last-minute camping trip in the Smokies! Your best bet is to head for Deep Creek Campground, where the 92 campsites are all first-come, first-served - and each one can accommodate both RVs and tents.

The campground is surrounded by picturesque streams and waterfalls, and is located near some of the best hiking trails in the entire park - such as the Deep Creek Loop Trail and the Lonesome Pine Overlook. It is open from mid-April to late October.

Best for Things to Do: Elkmont Campground

Elkmont Campground is the largest, busiest, and most accessible campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Just 8 miles from the bustling tourist town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Elkmont offers quick access to museums, restaurants, galleries, and aquariums — all while getting to camp in the captivating old growth forests of the National Park.

The campground features 200 tent/RV campsites and 20 walk-in tent sites, and is open from mid-March to late October. Reservations are accepted and can be made up to six months in advance.

Best For Privacy: Balsam Mountain Campground

Privacy can still be found, even at America’s busiest National Park. For some seclusion away from the typical tourist destinations, we recommend Balsam Mountain Campground. There are 46 quiet, secluded, unserviced tent/RV campsites.

The Balsam Mountain region, on the North Carolina side of the park’s southern reaches, is a hiking and fishing paradise - with only a fraction of the traffic that popular spots like Cades Cove and the Sugarlands receive. Reservations are required to stay at this campground, which is open from mid-May to early October.

A backpacker wearing a cap, sunglasses, and an extremely full green backpack looks out over a mountain overlook at the fog and evergreens dotting the hillsides of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Heading into the Backcountry - Photo Credit: Kirk Thornton

Backcountry Camping

Opportunities for backcountry camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are bountiful. Over 100 designated dispersed campsites and shelters provide a lifetime’s worth of backpacking adventures, with itineraries for every skill level from absolute beginners to the most experienced hikers.

Most of the 100+ campsites are identified by a number rather than a name. You can review the park’s detailed campground and trail map for trip inspiration.

Backcountry reservations are required and cost $4 per person per night, up to a maximum fee of $20 - even for trips longer than five nights. All shelters, as well as campsite #113, have a maximum one-night stay. All other campsites have a maximum three-night stay, after which you can stay in the backcountry, but will need to move on to another site. Reservations can be made online or in person through the Backcountry Office at the Sugarlands Visitor Center.

Whether as one-night destinations or as part of a longer trip, here are a few of our can’t-miss campsites and trails within the Great Smoky Mountain backcountry:

  • Campsite No. 13 (Gregory Bald Trail): Famous for panoramic views and vibrant summer blooms of flame azaleas, Gregory Bald is one of the highlights of the entire National Park. Catch an epic sunset and stay at Campsite No.13 to turn this 11.3 mile trip along Gregory Bald Trail into an unforgettable overnight adventure.

  • Campsite No. 32 (Grapeyard Ridge Trail): Camping at Campsite No. 32 is great for solitude seekers and history buffs. The Grapeyard Ridge Trail weaves past ancient homesteads and pioneer cemeteries, deep within the beautiful and rarely visited creeks and ravines of the Smokies backcountry.

  • Campsite No. 50 (Chasteen Creek Cascade Trail): This creekside campsite is one of the most beautiful — and accessible — camping spots in the Park’s backcountry. Close to the stunning Chasteen Creek Cascades and only a mile from the Bradley Fork Trailhead, Campsite No. 50 is perfect for first time backpackers or families.

An epic sunrise or sunset over the endless fog-encapsulated hills of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Oranges, yellows, blues, and endless nameless colors run rampant

Great Smoky Mountains Stretching for Miles - Photo Credit: Chris Ried

Camping Outside Park Boundaries

The immense popularity of Great Smoky Mountains National Park means that there is no shortage of camping options just outside the park as well. From primitive sites to full-service RV campgrounds to yurts and luxury cabins, there are far more options than we can cover here. The areas around Gatlinburg, Townsend, and Cherokee in particular all have several campground options, and offer quick access to the National Park.

For the adventurous, frugal, or crowd-averse, free camping in the National Forests surrounding the Smokies is another excellent option. Cherokee National Forest, Nantahala National Forest, and Pisgah National Forest all offer plentiful primitive or dispersed camping opportunities, and are a way to experience some iconic Smokies scenery while staying off the beaten path.

The forest canopy overhead obscures the forest floor in darkness, with some light dappling in amongst the trees of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Deep in the Woods of the Great Smoky Mountains - Photo Credit: Jennifer Burk

Planning Your Great Smoky Mountains Camping Trip

With so many camping options, and so many differences in reservation systems, amenities, and accessibility, trip planning quickly becomes arduous. Camping should be stress-relieving, not stress-inducing. Rather than being a logistical exercise, it should be a time to focus on what really matters and what we love to do.

Our goal at Pathloom is to make that happen: explore our outdoor trip planning app to find out how we’re making outdoor adventure easier and more enjoyable for all!


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