Smoky Mountain National Park camping is a dream. Don’t like camping in a crowd? There’s definitely a place for you! Love the social life of a busy campground? You’ll find a home here that you’ll love and cherish. You’ll discover 10 traditional drive-up campgrounds with over 800 sites. They call these the front country campgrounds in this neck of the woods.
The 7 group campgrounds are perfect for family reunions, scouting and church groups. Plus, Great Smoky Mountain National Park is home to 5 Horse camps that connect to the 550 miles of horse-approved trails throughout the park.
Add to that over 100 backcountry campsites and shelters where you can really get away from it all. Some of these shelters follow the Appalachian Trail. Others are along horse-accessible trails. We found a few within a couple of hours of the trailhead, making backcountry camping more accessible to the average hiker than in many National Parks.
Do You Need Reservations to Camp in Smoky Mountain National Park?
The answer is YES. You should make reservations in advance.
All campgrounds now require them and usually don’t offer on-site reservations. This has been a big change over the last few years. Many articles about Smoky Mountain National Park camping on the internet are from just a few years ago when most GSMNP front country campgrounds were first come first serve.
So we headed out assuming that April is a slower vacation month, school breaks were over, and we should be able to wander in at our leisure without a reservation.
This is where we got into a bit of trouble. While most other National Parks have a way to claim unreserved sites at the campground, we found that wasn’t true in
GSMNP. One campground host told us that the bigger campgrounds might have assistance on duty during peak season, but it was staffed inconsistently.
So make a reservation before you get into the park.
Front Country Sites open up 6 months prior to the reservation date and Group sites open 12 months prior on a rolling calendar. The good news for people who don’t plan is that you can often reserve available sites same day, even same hour. The Recreation.gov reservation site is cell phone user-friendly. That is if you can get cell reception. You might have to drive out a couple miles to pick up reception as it is rarely available in the campgrounds.
Lucky for us, Elkmont campground had a landline phone with a direct connection to reservations next to the welcome sign that we were able to use our first night. (We sat on hold for 20 minutes – which was a lesson in patience – but it worked).
Lesson learned! Before moving to Smokemont Campground, we pulled into the Sugarlands Visitor Center Parking Lot, which has WIFI and booked that next night from our phone.
Amenities in Great Smoky Mountain National Park Campgrounds
Are there Water, Toilets and Showers in the Smoky Mountain Campgrounds?
All Front Country campgrounds have potable running water and flush toilets, which we find a great luxury compared to our many experiences with pit toilets and no running water. However, many would disagree with our definition of luxury and say the lack of showers was a challenge.
We noticed that there were many opportunities just outside park entrances to grab a shower. Since this is an extensive section of the Appalachian Trail, many places cater to providing amenities like this to both hikers and campers. There are no water hookups at individual campsites. You’ll usually find the running water available next to the bathrooms.
Will I Find Electric Hookups for my RV?
Campgrounds in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park do not have Electric Hookups. An exception is a limited number of sites with 5 amp outlets for medical needs in Cades Cove, Smokemont and Elkmont Campgrounds. Campgrounds that allow RVs, allow generator usage between 8am and 8pm.
Can I Have Camp Fires and Where Can I get Fire Wood?
Each campsite has a designated fire ring. It’s rare for Great Smoky Mountains National Park to restrict campfires since it rains consistently in the Smokys, but do check the signage as you enter the campground before you light a fire.
All firewood must be either certified heat-treated wood or gathered from downed trees within the park. For more information, here’s the link to the Campground Regulations.
Are Dogs Allowed in Campgrounds in Smoky Mountain National Park?
It’s pleasant to find that leashed dogs and confined pets are allowed in the campgrounds. However, dogs are not permitted on the hiking trails within the park boundaries.
Also, keep in mind that bears and dogs don’t mix well. Since there is a large population of bears in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, keep your treasured puppy safe by being aware of your surroundings.
Will We Encounter Bears? and What about Food Storage?
With 1500 Black Bears in the park, you are highly likely to encounter one during your visit. I urge you to take your safety and the safety of the bear seriously. The Park Rangers have put together a really great bear safety guide here that you should review before your visit.
I’m pretty obsessive about campsite cleanliness. A ground squirrel or raccoon can do a lot of damage too. When camping, our rule is that all food stays in the car trunk except when actually cooking.
After a meal, all cooking areas including the picnic table are wiped down to reduce any temptations. Dishwater is disposed of in the locations assigned by the campground, in this case usually near the restrooms. Trash is also stored in the car until we can take it to a bear-proof dumpster. If you leave a cooler or food out when you are away from camp, park rangers will confiscate it.
Can you Fish in the Campgrounds of Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Enjoy one of the last wild trout habitats in Eastern United States in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Several of the campgrounds sit near great creeks for trout fishing. Yum! I can taste dinner now. You can fish year-round anywhere in the park as long as you have a fishing license from North Carolina or Tennessee.
If you are not a resident of either state, I’d suggest you check out the prices and rules for each to decide which is the best choice for you. There’s a pretty big price difference for some folks.
You can pick it up either online or in many locations just outside the park.
Creel limits are generous enough to enjoy a really nice family dinner. Here’s the link to the Smoky Mountain National Park fishing rules. I think these are some of the simplest to follow that we’ve ever found.
Looking for ways to keep your kids engaged on your camping trip? Here’s over 40 of the Best Camping Gift Ideas for Kids. You will be sure to find gear and activities to thrill!
Front Country Drive In Campgrounds
Abrams Creek Campground is the perfect place to relax to the sound of the rippling creek alongside the campground. This remote campground is home to well-shaded sites perfect for tents and small campers (up to 12′).
Note it’s a long haul to the park’s main activities, so this may not be the right campground if you are planning to explore the whole park. There are also no sites here for medium to large RVs.
At 5,300 feet elevation, the views are amazing from Balsam Mountain Campground. The higher elevation makes it a perfect environment in the heat of summer due to the gift of cooler nights. Reports are that the sites are a little tight here. I guess that is the price to pay for the amazing location.
Primarily a tent campground, there are sites that will house RVs up to 24′. Balsam Mountain Campground is conveniently near the Blue Ridge Parkway but far from the main sections of GSMNP.
Big Creek Campground
With only 12 tent sites, this little campground sits right next to Big Creek. To camp here, you park in a central parking lot and carry your gear a short distance (100-300 feet) to your site. It seems like the perfect place to get away from it all!
Cades Cove Campground
Cades Cove Campground is a pretty traditional mix of RVs and tents. Tall trees shade the 164 campsites. There are no natural dividers between campsites, so you might feel a little close to your neighbors. There’s a wide variety of activities in the Cades Cove area which means you could have a great vacation and never leave this campground.
The most remote drive in Smoky Mountain National Park Camping can be found in the Cataloochee Valley. Here you’ll find 27 fairly large shaded campsites, many along a stream. This campground provides a lush home for tents and RVs up to 40′.
Located in the less-trafficked NorthEast corner of the park, Cosby Campground feels spacious by comparison to other campgrounds. We wandered in that direction on our third day in GSMNP with hopes of getting away from the crowds. It was a perfect choice and by far our favorite campground on this trip.
Cosby Campground is the tent camper’s dream, with 138 of its 157 sites designated for tents only.
Most of the campsites are shady and on the hillside. You’ll need to carry your tent and equipment 20-30 feet to get to the tent pad. Grab your firewood before you enter as there is not a camp store in Cosby Campground.
The only downside to this campground is that it is a long drive to other parts of the park. That’s why we stayed in more central campgrounds the other nights of our trip. However, it would be a great place to “chill” for a week.
Deep Creek Campground
Deep Creek Campground is a great kick-off point for visitors coming from the South. This is the only all First Come First Serve campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Most of the 92 campsites are well shaded, although many are rather small and close. Deep Creek that runs through the campground is a beautiful, fast-running creek where you’ll love falling asleep to the sounds of rushing water. You’ll find a tent-only section. Deep Creek Campground can handle RVs up to 26′.
Elkmont is the largest with 220 sites and probably the busiest of the Smoky Mountain National Park campgrounds. The central location is a perfect hub for enjoying many park areas. Campsites along the Little River are the first to go because they are gorgeous.
We spent our first night in Elkmont Campground, finding it quite comfortable. Although there is no natural barrier between campsites, the tent and RV sites are large enough that you don’t feel like you are sitting on top of each other. Elkmont can handle RVs up to 35′ and has a 20-site tent-only section.
Smokemont Campground is open all year round. This campground’s winter temperatures are fairly moderate, although it will still snow occasionally. We spent our last Smoky Mountain National Park camping night in Smokemont. Since it was April, only part of the campground was open.
The sites are fairly spacious and most are well shaded. The most popular spots are those right along the creek.
My personal opinion is that RV campers will really like this campground. There is a lot of shade with several loops that allow generators. Many of the sites have large parking spaces making it easy for RVs. On the other hand, Tent campers will find it OK but not their favorite, primarily because so many RVs love it. You might find yourself tucked in between RVs.
Group Camps in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
You’ll also find Group campsites at 7 of the Smoky Mountain Campgrounds, with a total of 21 sites. Group sites can be home to 7-30 campers, so they are a great opportunity to camp with your family or organization. I can picture a really great family camping weekend utilizing one of the group campgrounds! Group Camping is available in:
- Cades Cove
- Big Creek
- Deep Creek
Group campgrounds are tent only and have access to the same bathrooms and potable water as their regular campground sisters. You can make reservations for group campsites up to one year ahead on www.recreation.gov. You’ll find a separate listing for the group campgrounds.
Horse Camps in The Smoky Mountains
Great Smoky Mountains National Park also has 5 vehicle-accessible horse campgrounds. They are open from late May to late October. With over 800 miles of horse trails in the park, these camps are a great resource for horsemen. Horse camps require reservations.
Back Country Camping in Smoky Mountain National Park
Backpackers of all skill levels love Smoky Mountain National Park backcountry camping. All camping requires a reservation through the GSMNP backcountry office, including AT through-hikers.
What we found interesting is that there are backcountry campsites easily reachable with a short hike. So that image of someone hauling a 30-pound pack up and down mountains is only true if you want it to be. Here you can enjoy a simple backcountry camping night with a fairly easy walk in the park.
Check out our guides to camping in other National Parks:
This article was originally written January of 2019. It has been recently updated to reflect the most current information.