Top Ten Tent Camping in the Carolinas

Balsam Mountain Campground: Cherokee, NC

The rare spruce-fir forests that cloak the highest elevations of the Smokies are among the primary reasons the Smoky Mountains were designated a national park. Covering 13,000 of the park's 500,000 acres, this is the southern limit of this relic of the ice age. Over 10,000 years ago, when glaciers covered much of the United States, a forest much more reminiscent of those in Canada today migrated south. When the glaciers retreated, this forest survived on the highest points of the Smokies, creating an "island" forest of red spruce and Fraser fir trees.

So what does this have to do with tent camping? Well, it just so happens that Balsam Mountain Campground is located in a swath of this rare forest. So, not only does Balsam Mountain offer the highest tent camping within the confines of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it also offers campers a chance to experience this remarkable forest first hand

Balsam Mountain Campground was set up not long after the inception of the National Park in 1934. Back then, very few visitors drove or pulled oversized campers on the narrow winding roads. The vast majority tent camped. So when the Balsam Mountain campground was set up, builders had tent campers in mind. Today, we can camp in the fine tradition of the first park visitors.

Balsam Mountain Campground is layed out in a classic loop and sits on a rib ridge between the headwaters of Flat Creek and Bunches Creek. Past the entrance station, campsites are set along the main road.

You will immediately notice the campsites small size, a historic element of Balsam Mountain that discourages most of today's RV campers. But, even with the small sites relatively close together, you will find ample privacy, because the campground rarely fills.

Keeping south on the main road, come to a loop. Campsites are spread along this loop among the fir and spruce trees. The ground slopes off steeply away from the road, resulting in some unlevel sites. With a little scouting, however, you will find a good site among the evergreens.

Balsam Mountain is off the beaten national park path. In fact, the road leading to Balsam Mountain connects to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which then connects to the main body of the National Park. There is only one trail in the nearby area, but it is a winner: Flat Creek. Leave the Heintooga Picnic Area on this path and enjoy a magnificent view of the main Smokies crest before descending to the perched watershed of Flat Creek. Cruise through an attractive, high-elevation forest before reaching the side trail to Flat Creek Falls, a steep and narrow cascade. Backtrack or continue past the falls to cross Bunches Creek and reach Balsam Mountain Road.

Balsam Mountain Road is just one of many interesting forest drives in the immediate area. Balsam Mountain Road leads 8 miles to the Blue Ridge Parkway—the granddaddy of all scenic roads in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, with recreation opportunities to both the north and south. A more rustic forest drive leaves Heintooga Picnic Area on a gravel road and runs north along Balsam Mountain before descending into Straight Fork valley to emerge at the nearby Qualla Cherokee Indian Reservation. There are several hiking trails along the way, including Palmer Creek Trail, which descends into a beautiful richly forested valley; or the Hyatt Ridge Trail, which, along with the Beech Gap Trail, makes for a rewarding high-country loop hike of 8 miles. Anglers can fish for trout on Straight Fork, or enjoy many of the stream and pond fishing opportunities on the reservation. The nearby town of Cherokee has your typical Smokies' tourist traps as well as camping supplies.

Key Information

Address: Balsam Mountain Campground, 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, TN 37738; (865) 436-1200;

Open: Mid-May to late September

Sites: 46

Assignment: First come, first served; no reservations

Fee: $14 per night

Elevation: 5,300 feet


Pets: On leash only

Fires: In fire grates only

Alcohol: At campsite only

Vehicles: 30-foot trailer length limit

Other: 7-day stay limit

Getting There

From the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, take Newfound Gap Road for 0.5 miles south to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Turn left onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and follow it for 10.8 miles to Heintooga Ridge Road. Turn left on Heintooga Ridge Road and drive 8 miles to Balsam Mountain campground, on your left.



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