Unlike many national parks, the only lodging option within the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is to camp in one of their campgrounds.
Two of the largest campgrounds are found in the Tennessee side of the national park: Elkmont Campground and Cades Cove Campground. Both are great options with Ranger Programs and good accessibility to trails. Not sure which one is right for you? Here’s the breakdown:
Elkmont’s campsites seem a bit more private and the setting more remote with lots of trees and rhododendron. The Little River runs right through it creating a nice background noise when you fall asleep at night.
It’s also more centrally located to other points of interest in the park such as Metcalf Bottoms, Sugarlands Visitor Center, and Newfound Gap. Another bonus is that you can hop on the trolley to pop over to Gatlinburg for a meal. Although it’s the larger of the two campgrounds, it seems less crowded than Cades Cove.
Walk-in campsites for tent campers
More centrally located--closer to Newfound Gap if you’re interested in hikes like Alum Cave, Charlie’s Bunion, the Chimneys, Andrews Bald, etc.
An ice cream vending machine (my kids think it’s magical)
Reserve way ahead of time to get a river site
No showers, but Cades Cove doesn't have showers either
Cades Cove Campground
The best thing about Cades Cove Campground is not the campground itself but its amazing proximity to one of the most beautiful (and visited) areas of the park, which is both a positive and a negative.
It sits adjacent to the 11-mile, one-way loop road around Cades Cove which offers spectacular views, historic buildings, and wildlife-viewing opportunities. That being said, it attracts lots of cars and visitors to this area of the park.
Although it offers more amenities (horseback riding, bike rentals, General Store), the campground itself is not as nice as Elkmont as most sites are close together and offer little privacy. It seems better suited to RV camping.
Its location next to beautiful Cades Cove
Great sunrises and sunsets from Cades Cove (a photographer’s dream)
Bike rentals at the camp store. The 11 mile loop road is closed to cars Wednesday and Saturday mornings May-September until 10 am. This is really the only time you should consider biking it as it is too congested otherwise.
Visitor Center on site
Nice picnic area
Wildlife watching (deer, bears)
Lots of car traffic and people
More open-- not as much developed understory
Tucked away from other points of interest in the park
I would choose Elkmont for an overall great camping experience while visiting the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. This is my hands-down winner.
However, I would consider Cades Cove Campground for the added convenience of biking the loop without cars on a Wednesday or Saturday morning and photographing its amazing sunrises and sunsets.