Many people love camping in the Smoky Mountains. This region is a true southern treasure, and it’s well worth a visit if you want to spend time in nature. However, there are a few things to learn about camping in the Smokies before packing up your gear and hitting the road.
The 6 ways to go camping in the Smokies are:
- Designated campgrounds
- RV camping
- Cabin camping
- Backcountry camping
- Horse camps
You’ve got plenty of options. The best camping choice for you will depend on the season, which attractions you want to see, and your budget. Read on below to discover the details on Smoky Mountain camping, so you can plan your trip with ease and confidence this year.
Where Are The Smokies?
The Great Smoky Mountains cut a jagged line across the American south, rising in a series of peaks and valleys across eastern Tennessee. They meet the southern portion of the Appalachian Mountains, cresting across the North Carolina border and encompassing 520,000 acres of stunning natural beauty.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts millions of visitors each year and is the most-visited national park in the country. Crowds gather to see the namesake blue fog surrounding these mountains, cradling them in a ghostly mist and offering surreal landscapes full of ancient forests and treasured history.
The Smoky Mountains shine in every season. Some visitors come to see the fall colors, some come to experience majestic views, and others are enamored with the wildlife. Black bears, turkeys, and deer frolic here, and lucky guests can see them traipsing through the forest.
There are a ton of camping options for those hoping to get back to nature in the Smokies, each one suitable for different circumstances. If you’re having trouble deciding, don’t sweat it – we’ll outline the best ways to camp in the Smokies below, so you can decide which choice is best for you.
6 Ways Of Camping In The Smokies
1. Designated Campgrounds
Designated campgrounds are best for adventurers who want to be smack-dab in the middle of nature without sacrificing certain personal comforts. If you want to camp out in a tent while still having access to flushing toilets and running water, designated campgrounds could be just the thing you’re looking for.
Tent campgrounds are perfect for budget travelers searching for an authentic Smoky Mountains experience, but it’s important to consider the season. It can get cold during the winter months, especially at high elevations. However, the temperatures aren’t too extreme compared to more northern national parks. Because of this, tent camping is possible all year round in some areas.
The National Park Service (NPS) operates 10 designated campgrounds in the Smoky Mountains. These are referred to as “frontcountry campgrounds,” because you can drive right in and don’t have to hike to them like backcountry sites.
All 10 park-operated campgrounds have similar amenities. They feature clean restrooms, picnic tables, fire rings, grills, and bear-proof dumpsters for waste disposal. Perfect for family camping trips, frontcountry campgrounds provide a secure space to get back to nature.
Eight campgrounds are open seasonally, while the Cades Cove and Smokemont campgrounds are open year-round for winter fun as well. All sites are well-maintained and strategically located throughout the park, so there will always be one near whichever attraction you want to visit.
Besides the park-run campgrounds, you’ll also be able to camp at several privately-owned facilities. These are run by locals and cater to many different types of campers. Private tent campgrounds can offer additional features you won’t find at the frontcountry sites, like hot showers and electrical outlets to charge up all your devices.
Some campgrounds take it a step further. Those like the Pigeon Forge KOA boast Wi-Fi, cable television, and laundry services, along with a swimming pool and sports complex for all your recreational needs. You can get as fancy as you want or stay primitive if you prefer. In the Smokies, the choice is yours.
2. RV Camping
Camping with an RV is a celebrated pastime across America, and the Smokies are a perfect destination. You can have any sort of RV experience you want here, whether you’re pulling a rig in search of seclusion or if you’re looking for a luxury resort.
RV camping can be an excellent choice for economically-minded campers wanting a flexible vacation. You’ll find RV campsites available at many of the frontcountry campgrounds. These can accommodate rigs of up to 40 feet and cost around the same as tent sites, but they do not have water or electric hookups available.
Outside Options May Be Best
If RV hookups are a must, you’ll need to choose a resort or campground outside the park because no government-operated sites have them. Heading to the park’s border towns of Gatlinburg, Cherokee, or Pigeon Forge will get you the hookups you want and many more amenities.
Being outside the park doesn’t mean compromising on location. You’ll still be in the Smokies themselves, surrounded by thousands of acres of national forestland offering their own million-dollar views. Many resorts lie along gorgeous creeks or are situated close to town so you can see the city sights while you’re at it.
An All-Season Choice
RV camping is perfect for families who want to experience the magic of the Great Smoky Mountains in every season. You can hike snow-covered trails and view icy mountain peaks by day, then return to the warmth of your camper by night.
Summer is also good for RVs, as you’ll be able to escape the oppressive heat of the day and perhaps even run your electric fan to cool off in the evening time. You can pack up and head to another place at a moment’s notice when camping in an RV, so there’s no need to worry if you aren’t fond of your current site.
3. Cabin Camping
Some people love nature, but they love central air and heat even more. If you’re not one to give up on these amenities, cabin camping is for you. Cabins offer a homey, rustic feel complete with flushing toilets, hot showers, and a kitchen – something a tent just can’t compete with.
Cabins also offer nearly all the same benefits as RVs. You’ll get easy access to the mountains and surrounding areas and a warm place to lay your head at night, but you won’t get the mobility. However, you will get more room to spread out and have access to amenities an RV may not have.
You can rent a cabin for groups of any size, so solo mountaineers are just as welcome as family reunions of 20+ people.
Something For Everyone
There are various different cabin rentals in the Smoky Mountains. Those searching for spectacular vistas and an ultra-private experience can find it easily by heading to high-altitude mountaintop cabins like LeConte Lodge.
If you want a more accessible adventure suitable for children and pets, head into Gatlinburg and book a stay at Dollywood’s cabin rentals. Here you’ll find a plethora of activities like games rooms, hot tubs, and an on-site Dolly Parton-themed amusement park.
Whether you’re a couple on their honeymoon or you’re a group of HR reps on a teambuilding retreat, there’s a cabin rental to accommodate you. Prices range from economical to high-end, and you’ll find rentals available in each region to put you near the attractions you just can’t miss.
What if you could have all the luxurious amenities you crave while still enjoying the authentic feel of tent canvas blowing gently in the wind? Glamping lets you do just that. A mix of the words “glamorous” and “camping,” glamping blends these two different worlds with class.
Glampers get to sleep out under the stars in a tent, but they aren’t relegated to rocks and hard ground. Instead, glamping tents provide comfortable mattresses, fresh linens, and tons of mosquito netting so that the smaller critters don’t get too close.
Depending on the glamping venue, you may even have an electric fan to get you through those warm summer nights. There are numerous glamping options available in the Smoky Mountains, so you’ll have your pick of places to choose from.
Glamping trips are more reminiscent of a 5-star resort vacation than they are of a camping trip in a tent. Facilities strive to be as opulent as possible to draw in the crowds, and you’ll get to reap the rewards. Places like The Ridge in Sevierville operate much like hotels, attracting clients with fitness centers, Wi-Fi lounges, and even pools.
If you want a more nature-focused experience, there are options for you as well. Glamping destinations like GLAMP by Stay Minty offer luxury redefined in gigantic domes where you can nest beneath the stars surrounded by greenery.
Plan Glamping Carefully
Keep in mind that most glamping venues are open seasonally, so winter isn’t the best time for your trip. While some destinations can host over a dozen guests, others limit visitors to two or three per tent. Some allow children and some are age-restricted, so it’s important to check with your venue of choice before booking.
Keep in mind that glamping is one of the pricier options. Since the tents or pods are so heavily outfitted with extras, that translates into a higher price. Glamping tents are often more expensive than RV sites and even cabin rentals, so budget accordingly.
5. Backcountry Camping
Camping in the Smoky Mountains backcountry is an experience everyone should have at least once. If you want a rugged and nature-focused adventure complete with full immersion in the great outdoors, the backcountry has what you’re looking for.
This option takes you as close to nature as you can possibly get. Backcountry camping requires you to hike in with all your gear, so it’s a good choice for active campers who want to experience the Smokies up close and personal. It’s also free, making it an ideal choice for budget backpackers.
Options For Everyone
This marvelous mountain range has over 800 miles of hiking trails, and there are dozens of beautiful backcountry sites located along them. You can pick and choose your desired elevation, destination, and the scenery you want to enjoy along the way.
Backcountry camping will help you connect with nature in a way you may never have experienced before. Breathtaking scenery rises up to greet you from the Smoky Mountains, and the ever-changing landscape serves as a reminder of just how powerful the earth can be.
Park Rules Apply
Of course, you’ll need to make sure to follow the rules in order to keep the park and yourself in pristine condition for the next go-round. Make sure to get a backcountry camping permit from the park’s office before you set out, no matter when you plan to go.
Always leave no trace when camping and follow seasonal fire restrictions. You’ll also want to check with the park service for current information on bears, and plan on appropriate food storage in case any furry friends pay you a visit.
6. Horse Camps
Want to bring along your equine companions? The Smoky Mountains are a big destination for horseback riders. With 500 miles of horse trails, abundant streams, and plenty of horse-friendly facilities, it’s no wonder people come from across the nation to ride their horses here.
The NPS operates five seasonal campgrounds just for horseback riders. These are spread out across the park and include Anthony Creek, Big Creek, Cataloochee, Round Bottom, and Tow String. They’re priced economically, costing around the same as a tent campground.
Many of these campgrounds intersect with beautiful horseback riding trails. There is always water available for your horse, but you might have to bring potable water to drink yourself. There will be enough room to park your trailer, and each site has enough space for up to four horses and six people.
No Horse? No Problem
If you don’t have your own horse but still want to ride one in the Smokies, there are options for you too. You can book a trail ride at Jayell Ranch, Cades Cove Stables, or any number of venues that offer day rides in the Smokies.
6 Best Places To Camp In The Smokies
1. Elkmont Campground
Best Tent Campground | Open Season: March – November | Best Feature: Riverside Campsites
If you’re looking for a designated campground with a little bit of everything, Elkmont is the place to be. Sitting high at 2,150 feet in elevation, this locale offers an escape from oppressive heat come summertime and offers gorgeous views for fall and spring campers.
Here you’ll be able to take your pick of over 200 campsites, each located among towering pines and lush green undergrowth. Some are situated along the banks of Jakes Creek and Little River which run through Elkmont, and campers can take a swim or cast a line to catch fish if they have a permit.
Elkmont is special not only for its on-site recreational activities but also because of its proximity to popular attractions. You’ll have direct access to the Laurel Falls Trailhead, and hiking down to the waterfall will give you a spectacular view of this 80-foot cascade. You’ll also be able to see the ruins of the Little River Logging Camp and check out other historic sites nearby.
Elkmont offers accessibility for everyone with ADA-compliant campsites and is pet-friendly for your four-legged friends (on leashes). It’s a park-run frontcountry campground, so water, toilets, and grills are available. This is an economic option, but make sure to book online in advance because spaces fill up quickly in the high season.
2. Pine Mountain RV Park
Best RV Campground | Open Season: All Year Round | Best Feature: Pigeon Forge Trolley Stop
The Pine Mountain RV Park offers everything you need for a good time. Its proximity to the Smoky Mountains and surrounding area attractions like Dollywood makes it the perfect base camp for a family vacation. Plentiful on-site activities like hiking, fishing, and swimming mean you’ll never get bored here.
There’s something for the kids, with a playground and heated pool for splashing around. Laundry facilities, updated showers, and available creekside campsites mean you’ll be surrounded by beauty in a practical location that keeps your needs in mind.
Pine Mountain is open all year, with off-season rates kept lower to make things economic for you. They have full water, sewer, and electric hookups available with 30 and 50-amp service. You can park your RV in a back-in or pull-through space, eliminating the headache of maneuvering through an area you feel uncomfortable with.
You’ll have cable, Wi-Fi, and great views of the Smokies from Pine Mountain. You’ll also be right next to the Pigeon Forge Parkway. There’s even a trolly stop at this park, so you can hop on and off with ease to visit the neighboring town and see the sights.
3. LeConte Lodge
Best Cabin Rental | Open Season: March – November | Best Feature: Spectacular Views
Staying in a LeConte Lodge is an experience unlike any other. This is the only lodging option inside the park that is operated privately, and it’s the only cabin rental of its kind anywhere in the world. This is a truly elevated destination, resting at 6,360 feet on Mount LeConte.
The lodge offers seven rough-hewn cabins. It’s a rustic but cozy option, letting visitors get a feel of life in the Smokies as it was experienced by the first settlers. Sit in the glow of a kerosene lamp, sip tea on a rocking chair in the middle of the Smokies, and listen to the sounds of nature.
While other cabin rentals offer luxuries like hot tubs and internet connections, LeConte Lodge is all about simplicity. There is no electricity here, but guests can use a propane heater to get warm during the cool fall nights and take sponge baths with hot water taps outside of their cabins.
You cannot drive up to LeConte Lodge. Hiking up is the only way to reach this mountaintop paradise, and the shortest route is around 5 miles long. But once you arrive, you’ll be rewarded with the best views around from your private covered porch.
LeConte is a pricier option because of its remote location and the work it takes to keep up a lodge of its magnitude. However, all your meals are provided for you here, munching on hearty and delicious food that you don’t have to haul up yourself. This is the perfect getaway for couples and groups of friends looking to experience the high side of the Smokies.
4. GLAMP Dunn’s Creek
Best Glamping Campground | Open Season: April – November | Best Feature: Private Hot Tub
Dunn’s Creek glampground offers a fresh take on glamping. These tents are gigantic domes rising high in the sky and offering beautiful views. Domes range in size and capacity to accommodate groups of up to six, with the largest offering 1,200 square feet of living area. That’s bigger than many apartments!
With your own kitchen, A/C, and luxurious king-sized mattresses, you’ll feel like real royalty here. You can sit in your very own private hot tub as you sip on fresh espresso, or cook dinner in your own personal full-size kitchen as you listen to the brook babbling just a few feet away.
The Glamping experience at Dunn’s Creek can be personalized with spa services, guided tours, and more. The location is secluded in out-of-the-way Crosby, Tennessee. It affords you the chance to get back to nature on your own terms while enjoying plentiful opportunities for hiking, fishing and watersports.
Dunn’s Creek is the most luxurious glamping facility available in the Smokies. As such, it books up quickly and is quite costly when compared to other options. However, those in search of a good time surrounded by comfort will be more than satisfied here.
5. Campsite #32
Best Backcountry Campsite | Open Season: All Year Round | Best Feature: Historic Markers
Serving up a true backcountry experience, Campsite #32 doesn’t even have a proper name! Getting there is an adventure in and of itself, as the trail is peppered with ruins and a famous steam engine wreck from yesteryear.
You’ll start from the Greenbrier region and hike along Grapeyard Ridge Trail to arrive. Be prepared to hike for a while, as this is a 7.6 mile out-and-back trail. That means you’ll need to hike at least 15 miles in total, so bring good shoes and plenty of snacks to get you there and back.
The hike isn’t an easy one. You’ll be gaining over 1,000 feet in elevation as you make your way to #32, but you’ll need to travel past the campsite itself to take in all the ancient treasures that lie forgotten along this path. Once you settle in for the night, you’ll find a spacious flat area complete with fire rings and hooks to hang food bags from.
This backcountry site offers fresh water from the creeks that trickle nearby, sobring your water filter for safe sipping. You can splash in the pools, catching minnows and crawdads before bedding down for the night. Remote but surprisingly well-developed, #32 should be on every backcountry backpacker’s list.
6. Big Creek Horse Camp
Best Horse Campground | Open Season: April – October | Best Feature: Mouse Falls
Big Creek Horse Camp is one of the most popular riding camps in the Smokies, and for good reason. Sitting at 1,700 feet amidst gently-rolling terrain, you’ll be surrounded by open meadows and serene streams as you and your equine pals explore the mountains.
Numerous horse trails connect with Big Creek Horse Camp, each one offering a unique journey into the Smoky Mountain scenery. Take the Big Creek trailhead on-site to pay a visit to the famous Mouse Falls, a 30-foot waterfall fit for a postcard that cascades towards mossy boulders.
For the best experience, enjoy this campground in the springtime. That way you’ll get to see scores of gorgeous wildflowers just as they bloom, and listen to the sounds of spring animals getting back into the swing of things as the weather warms up.
Sites here are reasonably priced and potable water is available for both you and your horse. This is also the only horse camp in the Smokies that is ADA-compliant, so anyone with a horse can come here. If you don’t have a horse, you’ll have to book a site at Big Creek Campground down the road.
Camping In The Smokies – Features And Amenities
Your campsite itself isn’t the only factor to consider when visiting the Smokies. You’ll want to learn all about the features and amenities here, as chances are you’ll be taking some day trips to see the sights. The good news is, you’ll have plenty to do. This region is full of breathtaking natural attractions and man-made exhibits showcasing the area’s culture and spirit.
Clingman’s Dome is an observatory resting high above the clouds. At an astonishing 6,643 feet in elevation, the Dome isn’t just the highest point in the Smokies – it’s the highest point in all of Tennessee. Here you’ll be awarded with astonishing 360-degree panoramic views of the Smoky Mountains. On clear days, vistas stretch over 100 miles.
Entry to Clingman’s Dome is free, and the observatory is open all year round to intrepid visitors who want a view to remember. However, Clingmans Dome Road, which leads to the dome, is high and can get icy. For that reason, it’s closed from December to March, so during this time you’ll need to hike to reach the dome.
The Forbidden Caverns lie deep in the earth below the Smokies. Used by generations of native Americans, moonshiners, and legendary figures, the Forbidden Caverns are now open to the public for your viewing pleasure.
Head to this attraction in Sevierville, Tennessee, to learn about the captivating history of the caves. For a small entry fee, you’ll be richly rewarded with towering rock formations, grottos, underground streams, and a dazzling light show at the end of the tour. These caverns are open from April to November and are one of the most spectacular cave systems in the nation.
The Ramsey Cascades are the tallest waterfalls in the Smoky Mountains. At more than 100 feet high, these falls appeal to even the most seasoned nature enthusiasts. However, getting there is no easy feat. Starting in Greenbrier, you’ll need to hike more than 8 miles to reach these remote cascades and return to your vehicle.
It’s an all-day trip requiring a strenuous climb with over 2,000 feet in elevation changes. However, the Ramsey Cascades aren’t something you want to miss out on. Besides the breathtaking beauty of the falls, the trail itself is spectacular. You’ll also have the opportunity to see native salamanders, deer, and bears if you go in the spring or summer.
If you want to see historic sites in the Smoky Mountains, Cade’s Cove is the place to be. This valley has been designated as an official historic site by the NPS, and offers an array of activities suitable for the whole family.
Travel back in time with an array of churches, schoolhouses, and production mills dating back to the early 1800s. You can hit the nature trail to view deer, elk, and other wildlife in the summer, or head indoors to see the old Grist Mill. Guided trail rides on horseback are available, or you can break out the wheels for a family cycling trip on the bike trails.
Everyone’s favorite country singer has given her hometown community of Sevier County a destination attraction all its own. Dolly Parton’s namesake “Dollywood” is a theme park where you can bring the whole family to ride roller coasters, see spectacular shows, and explore interactive exhibits in numerous venues.
The park hosts festivals during all seasons, from the Flower and Food Festival in the spring to the Smoky Mountains Christmas event during holiday season. Autumn visitors can enjoy the foliage by day and visit the Harvest Festival by night, carving pumpkins and sampling local delicacies like Sweet Potato Poutine.
Camping In The Smokies – Important Things To Know
Ready to book your trip? Before you head out, there are a few key things to know about the Smokies. Familiarizing yourself with some of the park rules and common standards will help your trip go off without a hitch, while learning how to prepare for weather and wildlife will get you ready for any eventuality.
Entry to the Smoky Mountains National Park is free. They’re open year-round so you can come in any season, and the Park Service makes a great effort to clear the main roads during times of snow and ice. This makes it one of the most accessible parks in the nation, but there are some strict standards visitors are required to uphold.
Unlike in many parks, you’ll always need a permit to camp in the backcountry. You can only camp at shelters or designated areas, so dispersed camping is a no-go. Pets are not allowed on hiking trails except Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconoluftee River Trail and must always be kept leashed in any campsite.
The Smoky Mountains are known far and wide for the presence of black bears. It is vital to prepare properly for black bear sightings and to protect yourself and the bears by not interacting with them. Bring along bear canisters if you plan on camping in backcountry sites, or lock food in park-provided receptacles in frontcountry campgrounds.
You might also see elk, boar, and deer while camping. The diverse wildlife is part of what makes these mountains so amazing, but it’s vital to follow protocol when you chance upon animals. Do not ever feed the wildlife and make sure to keep a safe distance of at least 50 feet away.
Mind The Season
Since the Smokies are open all year round, you might be tempted to hop in your car and speed off without much thought about the season. However, that would be a pretty big mistake. It’s important to look up the weather of your campground beforehand, so you know exactly what to expect when you get there.
The Smoky Mountains generally have hot and humid summers. The winters closer to sea level are pretty mild, with some days reaching up into the 60s. However, high elevations can experience very harsh conditions, with snow and ice remaining on the mountains even through the spring and summer months.
Camping In The Smokies – Best Time To Visit
So, what’s the best time to visit the Smoky Mountains? That depends entirely on what you’re hoping to get out of your vacation. There’s something to love about every month, with each season offering a different aspect of mountain life to look forward too.
Summer is undoubtedly the most popular time to visit the Smokies. Temperatures can climb up to the 90s in lower elevations, so it’s perfect for splashing around in the water or fishing from shady riverbanks. At higher elevations, it doesn’t get so hot.
It’s rare to see temperatures even reach the 80s on many mountain peaks, so summertime is the ideal season for high-elevation hiking. It’s worth noting that the park may get crowded during summertime, so book early to make sure you get a spot at your camp.
For lovers of fall foliage, the Smokies are a destination that shouldn’t be missed. The temperate climate of these mountains means that fall months stay comfortable, and in early autumn during September and October you’ll see daytime highs in the 50s and 60s in lower elevations.
Higher elevations get cooler, but there’s little chance of snow or ice until November. Lows reach below freezing on mountaintops, but early fall is the dry season, so precipitation is unlikely. If you’re going in autumn, bring layers to stay comfortable as temperatures can shift quickly.
Winter in the Smoky Mountains is generally mild. In the valleys, daytime highs rest in the fifties, but usually go down to below freezing for the night. Up in the mountains, temperatures are more extreme and can dip as low as -20 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you’re accustomed to colder temperatures, visiting during wintertime has its appeal. Those who dislike crowds can often see attractions without a soul around, adding an extra layer of mystery to the experience. Keep in mind that since most campsites are closed during the winter, accommodations will be limited.
Spring is often unpredictable in the Smoky Mountains. Higher elevations could see ice and snow flurries with lows far below freezing, while valleys can see temperatures rise to above 60 degrees. It’s better to stick to lower elevations for springtime visits.
Wildflowers in full bloom offer a colorful spectacle, and new forest growth coupled with emerging birds and other tiny creatures makes this season almost magical. Expect heavy rains in early springtime, and be sure to bring waterproofing materials for camping out.
No matter what kind of camper you are, the Smoky Mountains has an experience just for you. The plethora of options draws in visitors from all over the world, with captivating history, majestic waterfalls, and scenic views serving to keep people coming back year after year.