The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States averaging about 11 million visitors each year. That’s more than twice as much as the next most visited national park — The Grand Canyon — which sees some 4.6 million visitors
There are two peak seasons in the Smokies: mid-Summer (June 15 thru August 15) and the entire month of October. According to statistics provided by the National Park Service, during the mid-summer months, Smoky Mountains campgrounds host an average of 28,753 tent campers per month.
However, winter tent camping in the Smoky Mountains plummets to an average of 559 tent campers during December, January, and February. Though many people are intimidated by winter tent camping in the Smoky Mountains, some might argue that it’s perhaps one of the best times to camp in the park. Campgrounds are sparsely populated, so you’ll have your pick of the best sites. The trees have already lost their leaves making glorious views unobstructed. And if you’re lucky enough to visit after a recent snowfall, well, now that’s just something out of a storybook.
Campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The National Park Service maintains ten developed (front country) Smoky Mountains campgrounds: Elkmont, Cades Cove, Balsam Mountain, Abrams Creek, Smokemont, Deep Creek, Abrams Creek, Cataloochee, Cosby, and Look Rock. Each of these front country campgrounds has restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets. A fire grate and picnic table is available at each campsite.
However, if you’re visiting the Great Smoky Mountains in the winter, Cades Cove and Smokemont are the only front country campgrounds in the park that are open year-round. Several backcountry sites and shelters are scattered throughout the park and are available year-round. Just be sure to obtain a permit first.
Cades Cove Campground
Cades Cove is one of the most visited areas in the Smoky Mountains National Park. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, this beautiful cove is a magnet for those seeking to catch a glimpse of the park’s wildlife. White-tailed deer and turkeys
The Cherokee Indians used the Cades Cove area as a hunting ground for several centuries until it was settled by Europeans in 1821. Cades Cove, along with the rest of the Smoky Mountains, became protected in 1934 with the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Today, visitors can get a peek into the past when they drive or hike the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road, which is dotted with several historic log cabins and buildings dating back to the mid-nineteenth century.
The Cades Cove campground is open year-round with 162 sites available. Each site has a fire pit with a cooking grate, a tent pad, and picnic table. A few restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets are available at the campground. While you can make online reservations at Cades Cove during peak season, the campground is first-come, first-served during the off season.
Cades Cove is a little over an hour outside of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The nearest town to Cades Cove is Townsend and is located about nine miles away. Here, you can find gas stations and full-service grocery stores.
Popular Hikes Near Cades Cove
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses 522,427 acres (over 800 square miles) and has more than 850 miles of backcountry trails. Needless to say, you can’t explore everything over the course of a weekend. However, by strategically planning your hikes, you can maximize your hiking hours and minimize your driving time.
Here are a few of the most popular hikes in the Smokies near the Cades Cove Campground.
Distance from Cades Cove: approximately 5 miles
Find the Abrams Falls parking lot just after the #10 stop on Cades Cove Loop. The hike down to the beautiful 20-foot falls is 2.5 miles (5 miles round trip) and is rated as moderate in difficulty.
Distance from Cades Cove: approximately 37 miles
Reach these iconic bald peaks after a 2-mile hike (4 miles roundtrip). Though the last quarter mile of the trail leading to the peaks is gated off due to wildfire damage caused in 2016, visitors can see the Chimney Tops from a newly built observation deck. The trail is relatively short, but the last mile is very steep, with an elevation gain of almost 1,000 feet. Because of this, the trail is rated as difficult.
Distance from Cades Cove: approximately 38 miles
Hike 2.3 miles through old-growth hardwood forests to the Alum Cave Bluffs, an 80-foot concave bluff that towers overhead. From the bluffs, you can hike back down to the trailhead or hike an additional 2.5 miles to the summit of Mount LeConte. The trail is considered moderate in difficulty.
Though not as popular as Cades Cove, Smokemont Campground is the only other campground in the Great Smoky Mountains that is open during the winter season. Located about six miles north of Cherokee, North Carolina, you can enjoy picturesque mountain ranges and pristine mountain streams as the backdrop for your camping adventure.
Besides the obvious hiking, there are several points of interest in Smokemont’s proximity. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, and Oconaluftee Indian Village are all within six miles of the campground. Smokemont’s nearness to Highway 441 also allows visitors to access other portions of the park with ease. The campground also features a riding stable. However, it typically closes for the season at the beginning of November.
Smokemont Campground has 137 campsites and three group campsites.
Popular Hikes Near Smokemont
Distance from Smokemont: approximately 10 miles
Check out the highest bald in the Smokies. Start out from the parking lot at Clingmans Dome and veer left onto the Forney Creek Trail to access the bald. The hike is 1.75 miles each way for a total distance of 3.75 miles hiked. The Forney Creek Trail is rated as moderate in difficulty. (Note that Clingman’s Dome Road is closed for the winter, so you will have to hike to the parking lot).
Smokemont Loop Trail
Distance from Smokemont: less than one mile
Though called a loop trail, this trail only forms a loop when combined with the Bradley Fork Trail. This very scenic trail follows the Bradley Fork Creek which later flows into the larger Oconaluftee River. The loop is a total of 6.1 miles and is rated moderate in difficulty.
Distance from Smokemont: approximately 15 miles
Hike the world-famous Appalachian Trail to a stone outcropping known as Charlie’s Bunion. From the top, the view is magnificent offering views of Mount LeConte, Mount Kephart, and Mount Guyot. The roundtrip distance of this hike is 8 miles (4 miles each way). The trail has a difficulty rating of strenuous.
Staying safe when winter tent camping in the Smoky Mountains
A fun trip can turn into a disaster if you’re not careful. Follow these safety tips to ensure that you stay safe when winter tent camping in the Smoky Mountains.
Be mindful of bear safety.
Contrary to popular belief, black bears are not true hibernators. Instead, they enter periods of long sleep. Though not very active during the winter months, black bears may leave their den if disturbed or on warm days.
If you see a bear, remember that as a visitor to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you are in the bear’s habitat — you are their guest. Follow bear safety rules to ensure the safety of both you and the bear. Also, be sure to store food in your car, preferably in the trunk, to deter any hungry bears from pillaging your campsite at night.
Pack several sources of light.
Days are a lot shorter during the winter, and sunset in the Smokies can occur as early as 5:20 PM. Be sure to pack at least two sources of light when hiking. Headlamps are preferable when hiking since they are hands-free. Even if you anticipate being back well before dark, some unforeseen even might throw you off schedule, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Don’t rely on cell phone service.
Cell phone service in the Smokies is non-existent and spotty at best. Don’t rely on it as a means of communication. If you are
Remove layers of clothing before you start sweating.
If you are winter tent camping in the Smoky Mountains, you’re definitely going to want to bundle up at night and as you set off for your first hike of the day in the morning. However, as the day warms up, remove layers before you start sweating.
Fabrics like cotton absorb moisture, and if they get wet from sweat, they will stick to your body and lower your body temperature. If your body temperature drops too low, you could get hypothermia. To avoid this, make sure that you wear the proper winter hiking attire, and remove clothing layers when you start getting hot.
Make sure you have a sleeping pad.
Sleeping pads are great year-round. They provide some insulation and keep you off of the hard ground. However, sleeping pads are essential during the winter. According to the second law of thermodynamics, heat flows naturally from an object with a higher temperature to an object with a lower temperature. In other words, heat from your body will be flowing into the ground, and you’ll get cold. Add some insulation, and get a sleeping pad.
Camping season doesn’t have to end when winter rolls around. In fact, wintertime is one of the best times to enjoy all that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has to offer. Pack up your tent, grab some hot chocolate, and head on out into the Smokies.
A very special thank you to the extremely gracious and talented individuals who allowed me to use their photographs in this post. To see more of their work or follow their adventures, visit their websites below.
One Lane Road Photography
Plug-It In Hikes