Top Ten National Park Campgrounds
The Great Smoky Mountains is famously our most popular national park. It's also a car camping paradise. Worm your way into these rugged, convoluted mountains and you'll find 900 miles of superlative trails, tracts of old-growth forest, views of undulating mountain ridges draped in hazy-blue, "smoky" tendrils of fog, and vivid reminders of the folkways of the Appalachians' early pioneers. Great Smoky Mountains National Park protects one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, a place that supports more than 4,000 species of plants, 130 trees, 65 mammals, 230 birds, and more species of salamanders than are found anywhere else on earth. There are 10 campgrounds spread throughout the Smokies. They are as varied as the diverse ecosystems of the park. There are no campgrounds with electrical hookups or showers here, and that makes the overall camping lean toward tenters and others who prefer a more rustic experience. The range in campground size is enormous, from the massive Elkmont to the tiny Big Creek. Likewise, campers who like the high country can enjoy Balsam Mountain at 5,000 feet or Abrams Creek, which hovers around 1,000 feet. Only Cades Cove, Elkmont and Smokemont offer reservations - the rest are first come, first served. The following is an overview of each Smokies campground. Look Rock This campground is on the far western edge of the park, in pine-oak woods, 2,600 feet high on Chilhowee Mountain. It rarely fills and has no immediate nearby activities that can be engaged in without getting in the car, other than a little road biking. It is quiet, and is a campground of last resort if Cades Cove is full. Solitude lovers and RVs will like here. The nearest place for outdoor activities is Abrams Creek. Abrams Creek This is also the far western edge of the park, in a streamside forest of hemlock and white pine. It is small, rustic and favored by locals. Campers can walk from their tent and go fishing in Abrams Creek. Hiking trails abound in the area and even when full, it is still quiet. It can get hot here on mid-summer days. That is when campers go tubing or swimming in the long, lazy pools of Abrams Creek. Cades Cove This year-round family campground is always full on summer weekends and busy during the week. The shady sites are a little close and with so many campers in a given area, it has a go-go feel. And campers do go, mostly around in circles on their bicycles, pedaling the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road. Upper Abrams Creek and Forge Creek offer angling and hiking trails spur off from numerous places in the cove. A camp store rents bikes for those who don't have their own. Elkmont is the largest campground in the park, spread along the banks of the Little River beneath tall woods. It is favored by tent campers but attracts campers of every stripe. It has a quieter atmosphere than Cades Cove, despite its size. Hiking, fishing and relaxing are the three top activities here. It is the nearest campground to the tourist town of Gatlinburg, for those who prefer more developed fun. Cosby is an unheralded, underused gem of the Smokies. It is very big, but rarely even half full, save for summer holidays, meaning solitude is guaranteed. There was once a community in this mountain cove - now the community is lucky campers who have many trails nearby. Waterfalls, overlooks, a restored wood-and-stone fire tower and old growth trees are a hike away. Big Creek Big Creek is an intimate, walk-in tent-only campground set on the banks of Big Creek in a thick forest. Campsites are widely separated. Active campers stay here in this quiet locale, away from busy park areas and nearby tourist towns. Instead, they are faced with challenging hiking opportunities, fishing in Big Creek or swimming in the deep holes of the stream. Weekends can fill, but are variable. This is this is the smallest campground in the park, but is worth taking a chance on getting a campsite. The Cataloochee Valley is much like Cades Cove, open with historic structures and surrounded by high mountains - but without the crowds, especially RVs. It is accessible only by dirt road, cutting way down on traffic. And being at the parks east end makes it all the less used. And the setting - along babbling Cataloochee Creek with tall white pines for a roof - makes this smaller campground worth the extra drive. Bicycling the valley roads is increasing in popularity and touring the old buildings is a history lesson. Cataloochee Creek and its tributaries are storied fishing waters. The hiking is limited only by your leg power. Balsam Mountain The Smoky Mountains are the southern limit for the Canadian-type spruce-fir forest, much like that in Canada. And Balsam Mountain lies in these spruce-fir woods at 5,300 feet on a narrow ridge. The campsites are a little close together, but campers usually won't have anyone beside them, in this serene swath of the Smokies abutting the Qualla Cherokee Indian Reservation. There is one hiking trail adjacent to the campground, but other activities require getting in the car. However, the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway offers scenic access to other areas of the park. Smokemont is fairly large and lies near the North Carolina gateway town of Cherokee. The year-round campground is attractive in itself, with a rustic atmosphere in a heavily wooded flat beside the Oconaluftee River. Hiking and fishing opportunities can be enjoyed from the campground and Newfound Gap Road avails access to the tourist town of Cherokee and the natural attractions inside the park. Deep Creek Deep Creek lies nearby the sleepy Southern mountain town of Bryson City. It is medium sized, family oriented and at first glance, tubing seems to be the most popular activity, at least among the kids. The waters of Deep Creek are actually known more for their trout fishing than tubing. Summer weekends will fill at this medium sized campground. However, some serious woods are just a walk away. An interesting area is the "Road to Nowhere." It is leaves Bryson City and cuts west into watersheds near Fontana Lake. Many hiking and fishing and solitude opportunities abound from this dead end road.
Just the Facts
Route: Glacier to Artist Point on WA 542.
Length: 24 miles (one hour)
Season: Summer to early fall.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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