We decided to celebrate the first weekend of October in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – CAMPING! And what a wonderful weekend of camping it was. My sister and I have five children among us, between the ages of 2-7, and they had the time of their lives. I’m so excited to share our experience with you!
There are so many choices when it comes to choosing a campground within the park. GSMNP has backcountry sites for those who wish to hike to their campground; frontcountry sites for camping near your car in a developed campground; group camping sites for larger groups; and even a horse camp! There are campgrounds located throughout the park, with several being close to their main entrances in Gatlinburg, TN and Cherokee, NC.
My family and my sister’s family set up our tents at one of the frontcountry sites — Smokemont Campground. Smokemont is located just within the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park on the Cherokee, NC side — which was about 3 hours from our house in Cobb County.
Sites and Facilities
I made our reservations a month in advance, and was able to find two tent camping sites next to each other for $20 a night each. I chose our sites based on the online map — securing sites that were close to a creek and a restroom facility (a must with a newly-potty-trained niece)!
Smokemont Campground is one of the campgrounds within the park that has spots for tents, pop-ups, and RVs — each given their own section. There is no electric or water hook-ups, but there are bathroom facilities that include a sink for washing dishes. There are no showers, and no cell service, but the check-in office has a phone for emergencies. (My sister asked to use it to let her husband know she’d arrived safely — and they were extremely accommodating!) Every tent campsite comes with a tent pad, parking spot, picnic table, fire ring with a grill attachment, and lantern pole.
Bears, Food and Fires
Smokemont Campground is a bear habitat, so storing your food and food prep items (including your cooler) inside your vehicle is a must. It is a rule that the park tells you is strictly enforced. All trash must be properly disposed of in the bear-proof dumpsters located around the camp.
The other strict rule at the camp concerned the firewood — it must be heat-treated and in its original packaging with a USDA or state department of agriculture seal. They sell this firewood at several places outside the park, but at Smokemont and a few other campgrounds, they also sell it at the camp for $6 a bundle. You are welcome to collect downed branches at the park to use for firewood as well.
Smokemont Nature Trail
Now, what made Smokemont so special for us and our children was the water! The Oconaluftee River and Bradley Fork converge within the camp, which was perfect for our crew. Located within the campground, there is an extra parking area near Loop B — and that is where you will see the beginning of the super kid-friendly Smokemont Nature Trail.
The trail begins with a series of log bridges that made our children feel like superstars. The kids were all brave enough to cross the bridges themselves (sometimes seeming too brave!), but it was also easy to hold a little one while crossing. The bridges led directly to a huge “beach” full of smooth stones. Once we discovered this place, we pretty much spent all of our extra time there! It was just a magical place to be, and a perfect place to let the kids run wild with their imaginations.
We hiked the 0.75 mile nature trail with all the kids — and it was wonderful. It was a good distance for them, and it’s a loop so it takes you right back to the stone beach. The kids were fascinated with all the mushrooms and flowers found along the trail, and they felt like big kids since it began by going uphill — and they could see the RVs down below! The trail did have a bit of a drop-off, so if you happen to have an especially active little one, I’d keep a pretty close eye on them here.
Even if we had never left our campground, we would’ve had so much to keep us busy! The trails, creek, bridges, and open areas for playing were just perfect for young families. With that said, we did explore some of the nearby sights!
Our first adventure was to hike up to Clingmans Dome. At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and in Tennessee. It is a very steep, half-mile walk up a paved path, but once you reach the observation tower you are rewarded with beautiful 360 views of the Smokies! This path is STEEP — but our kids totally did it with lots of snack bribes and frequent breaks. We also had a jogging stroller with a hand brake with us for the toddler in our group. Strollers are allowed, but there is a sign saying they’re discouraged. Without the hand brake on our stroller, I would’ve been nervous to take one. Our kids absolutely loved climbing the rocks along the path — and they had a great feeling of accomplishment once we reached the tower! The views were absolutely stunning, and I am so happy we did it.
Spuce-Fir Nature Trail
We followed up Clingmans Dome by stopping by a short trail that my husband and I just adore called Spuce-Fir Nature Trail. It is a tiny little trail, and very easy to miss, but definitely worth the stop. It is a beautiful and short 0.35 mile loop that takes you into a forest that looks like you’re in a completely different place. According to the pamphlet at the trailhead, a Spruce-fir forest is more like forests you would see in Maine or Canada, and is unique to high elevations in the southern Appalachians. It is so green — with many downed trees covered with moss — it makes for a stunning sight. Most parts of the trail are actually wooden boardwalks, making it a favorite for the kids.
(DIRECTIONS: Turn onto Clingmans Dome Road and drive another 2.7 miles to reach the parking area for the Spruce-Fir Nature Trail on the left side of the road. Just before reaching the parking area you’ll see a small sign on the right side of the road for “nature trail”, which will indicate the approach of the trailhead. The parking area just looks like one of the observation pull-offs with no actual “spaces.”)
A Bit of History
The other must-do on our list was the Oconaluftee Visitors Center and Mountain Farm Museum, which we originally passed on our way in. Just 2 miles north of Cherokee, this visitors center and farm is beautiful, and perfect for kids. So much to see, do, and learn about!
The visitors center itself has a few awesome exhibits that tell the story of life in the mountains, and the development of the national park — they even had the chair that President Franklin Roosevelt sat in when the park was dedicated! There is a short trail along the river right next to the center that leads to the Mountain Farm Museum, which is amazing.
The outdoor “museum” is a collection of log structures showing what farm life was like there. There’s a farmhouse, barn, apple house, corn crib, a small apple orchard, and the kids’ favorite — actual pigs to visit! It’s really a beautiful place to see.
Even More To See and Do
There were also other great adventures on our list, that we just couldn’t get to this time! Near the entrance to the park, is the end of the popular Blue Ridge Parkway with beautiful mountain overlooks, and picnic areas to take in the fall colors. My sister and her kids visited the very close Mingus Mill after we left, and she said the kids were fascinated and loved everything about it. And the town of Cherokee, NC — the headquarters for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation — is a popular tourist destination on its own, filled with Native American crafts, shops, and cultural exhibits.
Camping at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the most wonderful way to start off our fall season with the kids. We absolutely cannot wait to go back and explore more of what this amazing park has to offer. Our kids truly had the best time, and there is something about the memories you make camping with your kids that cannot be matched.
Full disclosure: we went to Disney World the weekend before this trip, but if you ask my kids what they did over their fall break, they will only say “CAMPING!” We loved how close all sorts of activities were to our campground, how well-maintained the sites were, how incredibly nice the staff was, and how absolutely amazing our location was to a lot of kid-friendly hikes and activities. It was a truly beautiful place to experience.