Camping in the Great Smoky Mountains

One of our local experts dishes out her favorite adventures in the Smokies.

Itching to overnight close to home? Look no further. Encompassing more than a half million acres, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest natural areas in the eastern United States. Annual visitations have surpassed 10 million in recent years, making it the nation’s most-visited national park. 

Straddling the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina, this Appalachian Mountains icon features 6,000-foot peaks, braided rivers and hardwood forests—plus a diverse array of plants and animals. Hiking lovers will find hundreds of miles of trails to explore. History buffs will appreciate the time-worn buildings and artifacts scattered throughout the park. 

While many opt to experience the park through visitor centers, viewpoints and car windshields, you’ll get a more intimate experience through activities like fishing, camping, bicycling, hiking and backpacking

Camping within the Smokies is one of the most rewarding ways to experience the park. Both car-accessible (also known as frontcountry) and backcountry options cater to a variety of camping preferences. Here are our insider’s best suggestions.

Frontcountry Camping 

Ferns next to a stone wall in a forest. Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee.

There’s no shortage of options when it comes to camping within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Frontcountry campers may choose from 10 car-accessible campgrounds (note that Look Rock Campground is currently closed) across both the North Carolina and Tennessee sides of the park.  

Each of the campgrounds has toilets and running water (no showers, though). Fees range from $17 to $27 per night, and online reservations, which are required ahead of time, are available through recreation.gov. Accessible units are available from May 15 to October 31. They are, generally, level and adjacent to restrooms as well as modified with specialized tables, paving and fire grills. To reserve an accessible unit, call 1-877-444-6777.

For all campgrounds, book in advance as there are no walk-in sites or first-come, first-serve sites. 

Here are a few of our local expert’s favorites. 

Abrams Creek Campground (16 sites) 

Abrams Creek Campground is an excellent off-the-beaten-path option on the Tennessee side of the park, near its western boundary. Try to snag campsite eight or nine for a prime spot along the river.  

While somewhat secluded from other regions of the park, this is still a great base for day hikes, including several loops. Low hiker traffic on these trails makes them a pleasant alternative, even if the final destination is the ultra popular Abram Falls

The campground is open from late May through the middle of October. Reservations are required.  

Cades Cove Campground (159 sites, wheelchair accessible) 

Driving, walking or biking through Cades Cove is a must for any trip to the Smokies. By staying at Cades Cove Campground, you’ll have easy access to see historic buildings, admire wildlife, enjoy a picnic and more. The sites here are a bit closer together than the campsites at some of your other options, but the campground is in a good location and is one of the more child-friendly options. 

If you want a shady site near restrooms and Cades Cove Nature Trail, reserve a spot on the backside of C-Loop (sites C15–C21). C-Loop is generator-free from mid-April through Thanksgiving weekend.  

It is important to note that this popular area gets extremely congested during peak season because has only one entrance.  

Cades Cove Campground is one of two campgrounds in the Smokies that remains open year-round (the other is Smokemont Campground on the east side of the park). Reservations are required.  

Cataloochee Campground (27 sites) 

Reached via a narrow, winding gravel road, Cataloochee Campground is on the North Carolina side of the park, which tends to be much quieter than areas like Cades Cove, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. This campground is the perfect place to find seclusion away from the hustle and bustle of the park. 

Be on the lookout for elk grazing in Cataloochee Valley around dawn and dusk. The valley is home to the park’s large herd due to a wildlife reintroduction project in 2001. Be sure to also check out the variety of historic structures that have been preserved within the valley. Highlights include frame buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Boogerman Trail passes through old homesteads and past old-growth trees.  

The campground is open from early April through the end of October. Reservations are required.  

Deep Creek Campground (92 sites)  

Deep Creek Campground is a midsize spot on the North Carolina side of the park, near its southern boundary and close to Bryson City. With so much to do in the surrounding area, this campground is great for families (but is busy during peak season). Go waterfall chasing or tubing in the Deep Creek area. Or hit the trail on one of many day hikes like the 2.4-mile Three Waterfalls Loop Trail. The area also has a trail section that’s open to mountain biking, one of the few places in the park where cycling is permitted. 

The campground is open from early April through the end of October. Reservations are required.  

Elkmont Campground (220 sites, wheelchair accessible)  

Elkmont Campground is the largest campground in the park and is less than 10 miles from Gatlinburg, Tennessee. There is a lot to do in this area, and it’s easily accessible, making it a good option for families. Since Little River runs through the campground, there are several riverside campsites. 

The Elkmont area was a popular vacation destination for wealthy families from eastern Tennessee in the early 1900s, but after the park was established in the ’30s, it all but disappeared. Now a ghost town, evidence of the former getaway remains along some of the hiking trails in the area. If you’re up for an adventure, check out the Elkmont Toll Bridge and the House of Fairies. 

Nearby day hike options include Little River Trail, Jake’s Creek Trail and the Cumberland Gap Trail. A few of the park’s more popular hikes like Alum Cave and Mount LeConte aren’t too far away. 

You can also spy the synchronous fireflies at Elkmont every year in late May or early June. A parking pass is required to see the flashing insects, which you can apply for via an annual lottery system. 

The campground is open from mid-March through the end of November. Reservations are required.  

Backcountry Camping 

Backcountry permits are required for all overnight stays within the backcountry in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you’re backpacking, make sure to plan accordingly. We’ve put together a comprehensive checklist for backpacking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, including hiking essentials, clothing and personal gear. Trip-planning assistance is available through the Backcountry Office by calling 865-436-1297 (8am to 5pm EST, seven days a week).  

Tips for Camping in the Smokies 

Synchronous fireflies
Synchronous fireflies in Elkmont, Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Photo Credit: Spencer Black | blackvisual.com)

Follow Campground Rules

The following rules apply to the park’s frontcountry campsites:  

  • Only certified heat-treated firewood may be brought into the park. 
  • Six people or fewer may occupy a campsite. 
  • Do not leave pets unattended. 
  • Respect quiet hours (10pm to 6am). 

Backcountry regulations are available on the NPS website. 

Confirm Reservations & Facilities 

There are no walk-in sites or first-come, first-serve sites. Online reservations are available through recreation.gov. Since none of the frontcountry campgrounds have showers, check-in is a good time to ask about the nearest shower facilities. 

Double-Check the Weather 

Elevations in the park range from 800 feet to 6,643 feet, a topographic difference that can drastically affect local weather. Temperatures can vary by 10 to 20°F between the base of a mountain and its summit. Also, clear skies in the lowlands do not guarantee equally pleasant weather at higher elevations. Good planning and weather-wise packing are critical for an enjoyable trip. 

Practice Bear Safety 

All backcountry users are required to hook their packs to bear cables overnight. Every backcountry site in the park should have one of these cables, so you don’t need a bear canister within the park but can bring one if you prefer. Because some surrounding national forests require canisters, though, you should check with the forest you plan to enter if your trip takes you beyond the park borders. 

Grab a Paper Map 

Cellular reception is extremely limited within the Great Smoky Mountains. To find your way around, pick up a paper map from one of the visitor centers and download offline maps as a backup. 

Avoid the Crowds 

Consider a trip outside of the two peak seasons: mid-summer (June 15 to August 15) and the entire month of October. Weekends in October are especially crowded, and you should expect traffic delays. If hiking, hit the trail early in the day (before 9am) to avoid parking issues and large numbers of day hikers. 


For more adventures, get involved with REI classes and events at your local store. We also offer trips and guided tours in the Smokies. From camping to cycling, there are a variety of ways we help you get outdoors.

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