A Great Smoky Mountains RV camping trip provides memories to last a lifetime, so if you’re looking for things to do, and the best places to stay in the Smoky Mountains, we’ll cover that all for you here.
In this article, you’ll find everything you need to know about Great Smoky Mountains RV camping, hiking in the Smokies, historical sightseeing in Cades Cove, Townsend, Tennessee lodging, Southern Appalachian cuisine, and visiting the Gateway to the Smokies – Gatlinburg.
If you’re looking for the best places to stay in the Smoky Mountains, it helps to get a lay of the land. Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the Tennessee – North Carolina border. There are four gateway towns where you can stay that lead into the national park.
On the Tennessee side are Townsend and Gatlinburg (and nearby Pigeon Forge).
On the North Carolina side are Cherokee and Bryson City.
To visit the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies”, choose a campground in Townsend, Tennessee. This location also makes for a good basecamp if you plan to spend a lot of time in Cades Cove.
Little Arrow Outdoor Resort
118 Stables Dr.
Townsend, TN 37882
Luxury outdoor resort with RV site lengths up to 90’ and full hook-ups. Luxury tents, cabins, tiny homes, and Airstreams. Onsite spa offering massage, body scrubs, manicures, pedicures, hot tub, and year-round pool.
If you’re more of a city person, you might choose to stay in Gatlinburg. There are plenty of shops, restaurants, and tourist attractions here.
Camp LeConte Luxury Outdoor Resort
1739 East Pkwy.
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Luxury outdoor resort in Gatlinburg with both pull-thru and back-in sites with full hook-ups. Also offering luxury tree houses, European safari tents, and 1960s retro campers. It’s a Gatlinburg trolley stop.
Bryson City Campground
On the North Carolina side of the park is Bryson City. If you’re up for tubing, kayaking, or whitewater rafting head here in the spring, summer, or fall. Campgrounds here may be closed in winter.
Deep Creek Tube Center & Campground (Open April – October)
1040 West Deep Creek Rd.
Bryson City, NC 28713
Seasonal campground offering on-site tubing, log cabins, modern cabins, and group lodging. RV sites include full hook-ups, and are either back-in or pull-thru.
Campground in Cherokee, NC
Also on the North Carolina side – and in the Qualla Boundary – is Cherokee. A stay in Cherokee will allow you quick access to Mingo Falls, and also offers many restaurants, shopping, and a casino.
Cherokee Riverfront RV Park
87 Big Cove Road
Cherokee, NC 28719
Cozy and small riverfront RV park with limited number of RV sites and RV rentals, also known for its frequent Elk sightings.
For a more primitive experience, you could also choose to stay at one of 10 Smoky Mountains campgrounds within the national park itself. Try out:
Cades Cove Campground
10042 Campground Dr.
Townsend, TN 37882
Cades Cove Campground is one of two open year-round in the park, and one of 10 frontcountry campgrounds found here. Sites can accommodate rigs up to 40’. There are no hookups or showers. However, there are flush toilets and potable water. A camp store is open seasonally.
The time of year you go will depend on what you want to do and see once you get there. The park is open year-round. There are no entrance fees at this national park, however new parking fees are being implemented.
If the blooming wildflowers are what you’re after, head there in spring. If you’re trying to avoid the crowds, don’t go in the summer months when the park is at its busiest.
The layers and layers of lush mountainsides and rolling hills against the backdrop of the sky are only amplified if you are able to visit the Great Smokies in the fall.
While winter in the park holds a beauty all its own, some of the popular drives (including Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail) and sites might be closed due to snow and ice.
While recent research is showing the area may have been inhabited as early as 8,000 B.C., the remnants of early settlers to the area in more recent centuries stand out in the sprawling landscape of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Mainly, their homes, churches, log cabins, and buildings are still there for visitors to the park to see and explore.
Before these settlers, Cherokee in the area had already established roots and a way of life that included homes, farming, political systems, towns, and trails. Today, the Eastern Band of Cherokee in the Qualla Boundary south of the park are descendants of those not forcibly removed in the 1830s.
In the early 1900s, loggers nearly wiped the forested area out and the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934 protected what remained.
Today, the National Park Service touts it as America’s most visited national park. The roots here run deep and the culture is diverse. The national park upholds an important job of protecting this part of Southern Appalachia.
Plan ample time for sightseeing. Once you get on a scenic drive, it could be a couple hours before you’re done.
Bring a remedy for carsickness, if you’re prone to it. The roads are long and winding with a lot of switchbacks, few guardrails, steep cliffs, hills, and mountains.
An RV GPS would be helpful here. There are a lot of Tennessee roads that you wouldn’t want to end up on with your rig, especially a big rig. Scout out spots in advance via car or truck, prior to taking your RV with you. We recommend using the RV Life Pro app.
Plan ahead with back-up maps. Cell phone service throughout the park is spotty.
Carry EPA registered bear spray with 1-2% capsaicin. Know what to do if you encounter a bear, as well as proper food storage to avoid attracting one to your campsite.
Leave your firewood at home. Unless it is heat-treated and USDA certified, plan on buying firewood in the area you will burn it, or from your campground host.
Not only should you know what to do if you encounter a bear, but more importantly, don’t do anything to attract them or disturb them in their environment.
You are just a visitor, this is where they live. If you’re heading into bear country, here’s what you need to know.
BE BEAR AWARE! In this video, learn what to do if you encounter one
In Great Smoky Mountains National Park you’ll find a lot of three things: not just bears, but also waterfalls, and scenic views. If you need help narrowing down what to see and do, here are five attractions to get you started.
Hike to Grotto Falls
This 2.6 mile out-and-back trail is rated moderate and boasts plenty of greenery along the way through an old-growth Hemlock forest. The reward at the end is 25-foot high Grotto Falls, with its own unique feature: you can walk behind the water.
Drive Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
To get to the parking area for Grotto Falls, you’ll find yourself driving Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This scenic drive is closed in winter. Visit in the spring, summer, or fall to soak in all the beauty of the national park from your car. The road is narrow, one-way, long, and winding. Along this path, observe structures from bygone eras, dense forests, and beautiful cascades.
Take a leisurely drive on Cades Cove Loop Road
There’s nothing quick about this one. Plan at least 2-6 hours for driving Cades Cove Loop Road. This 11-mile drive is one lane, one-way and takes you through Cades Cove, where a community thrived for more than 100 years. Get out and stretch your legs at any of the many sites to see along the way. It’s also a prime area to view wildlife. Approximately two million people travel this road each year.
Walk in the woods to the Oliver Cabin
The oldest log home in Cades Cove is one of the first structures you’ll come across on this scenic drive. It’s the John Oliver cabin. You can access it through a short walk in the woods from a small parking area. There is also a paved path to the property. Once there, you can walk inside and get a glimpse at what life in the early 1800s in Cades Cove was like.
Climb Clingmans Dome
A steep, half-mile paved path takes you to the top of Clingmans Dome Observation Tower. It’s the highest point in the national park. Since the Appalachian Trail crosses it, it is also the highest point on the AT. The view up there is spectacular – spanning over 100-mile visibility on a clear day. The road to the tower is closed in winter.
If you’re new to Southern Appalachian cuisine, you’re in for a treat in Townsend. It is here that you’ll find a culinary and craft beverage experience that has been turned into an art. Blue cheese ice cream anyone? (Trust me, it’s delish!)
For the foodies among us, there are a few places you won’t want to miss. And if you’re a bourbon fan, you’ll be happy to know about a brand new tasting room and restaurant in the area.
Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro
Chef Jeff Carter is the Executive Chef at Dancing Bear and returns to the Bistro and Lodge, bringing with him a refined touch on Southern Appalachian cuisine. While foodies are just discovering this branch of Southern cooking, Dancing Bear touts the cuisine as aptly named “older than the hills”.
In the dishes at Dancing Bear, you’ll find a delicate balance of flavors that are both complicated, and comforting all at the same time. They use ingredients from the surrounding areas, supporting local communities, as well as a farm-to-table dining experience.
Down the hill from Dancing Bear is Dancing Bean. A perfect place to grab your morning coffee and a quick bite to eat. Or stay a bit and lounge fireside or on the outdoor deck. Dancing Bean proudly roasts their coffees in-house.
Situated near The Dancing Bean Coffee House and as a part of Apple Valley Mountain Village, you’ll find Apple Valley Cafe – a great place to grab a classic breakfast, Southern comfort food, or a sandwich to take with you for the day.
Peaceful Side Social Brewery + Craft Kitchen
Stay and visit a while on their open air patio, or indoors if you prefer. It’s here you’ll find farm-to-counter fare or what they refer to as “purposeful brews”. With each purchase, you can round up your total, and PSS will match and donate the proceeds to helping preserve this area of the Smokies. Their menu includes craft beer from the area, as well as places a little further away. You can dine on salads, sandwiches, hearty main dishes, or gourmet roundbreads.
Newly opened in May 2022, Company Distilling is Master Distiller Jeff Arnett’s new dream – after leaving his dream job at Jack Daniels to start his own brand. He’s the only distiller who has ever left that job and started his own brand. You can be among the first to experience Company Distilling’s new tasting room and restaurant, open in 2022 in Townsend, right around the corner from Little Arrow Outdoor Resort. This is straight bourbon whiskey finished with maple wood, made just the way they’ve always wanted.
Other Townsend, Tennessee Area Attractions
If you have more than just a weekend and want to extend your stay, here are some other things to add to your itinerary.
Hiking Smoky Mountains trails while you’re in the national park can be one of the most rewarding experiences while you’re here. More than 100 waterfalls and cascades grace Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here are some of the most popular hikes to waterfalls, the corresponding height of each, length of trail, and difficulty level.
Abrams Falls | 20 ft | 5 miles roundtrip | Moderate
Grotto Falls | 25 ft | 2.6 miles roundtrip | Moderate
Hen Wallow Falls | 90 ft | 4.4 miles roundtrip | Moderate
Indian Creek and Toms Branch Falls | 25 ft, 60 ft | 1.6 mile roundtrip | Easy
Juney Whank Falls | 90 ft | 0.8 mile | Moderate
Laurel Falls | 80 ft | 2.6 miles roundtrip | Moderate
Mingo Falls | 120 ft | 0.4 mile | Moderate
Mouse Creek Falls | 45 ft | 4 miles roundtrip | Moderate
Rainbow Falls | 80 ft | 5.4 miles roundtrip | Moderate
Ramsey Cascades | 100 ft | 8 miles roundtrip | Strenuous
While the Smokies might be your ultimate destination, visit Gatlinburg for unique experiences including:
With all of the things that there are to see and do in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it is no wonder that it is one of the best places to visit in the USA.
Different versions of this article were originally published in Issue #17 of Rootless Living magazine and Issue #4 of RV Today magazine. RV Today magazine was invited to the Peaceful Side of the Smokies by the Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority.
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