Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited park in the U.S. Many have been delighted by the endless silhouettes of mountain ridges, verdant woodlands, and abundant wildlife. Of course, the local culture and history, along with the array of recreational opportunities, only add to the park’s popularity. If you’ve fallen in love with the Smokies, the good news is that you can find similar camping destinations across the U.S.
Stretching across the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a bucket-list destination for many travelers. Some, however, end up a little underwhelmed by the experience. Some expect bigger mountains; others expect fewer traffic jams; and some aren’t fans of the hot, humid summers. Despite these drawbacks, the Smokies hold a special spot in many hearts.
If you’re looking for a camping alternative to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, consider these destinations:
Camping Alternative to Great Smoky Mountains Combining Family Fun and Natural Beauty
While the hills and valleys of the Ozarks aren’t quite as dramatic as the Smokies, the two regions share many similarities—in both landscape and culture. The Ozark Mountains top out around 2,500 feet, whereas the highest point in the Smokies surpasses 6,600 feet.
The cultural similarities make sense, as many early settlers in the Ozarks came from Tennessee and the surrounding region, bringing the Appalachian culture westward to lands that may have felt familiar. This connection lives on in some of the music of the Ozarks, where folksy tunes are played on fiddles, banjos, and dulcimers.
Outdoor recreation in the Ozarks mirrors what you might enjoy in the Smokies. Echo Bluff State Park and Roaring River State Park provide prime grounds for hiking and fishing, and the Ozark National Scenic Riverways region showcases some of Missouri’s clearest rivers. For many Ozarkians, a summertime float trip is a pinnacle experience. Picturesque mills and large, opal blue springs are hidden in the verdant hills. If you enjoy the Townsend, Tennessee, side of the Smokies more than Gatlinburg, then visit the Eastern Missouri Ozarks.
Where the Smokies have Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, the Ozarks have Branson, Missouri. These tourist towns pride themselves on having over-the-top family entertainment options, even offering dueling theme parks. Are you Team Silver Dollar City or Team Dollywood? Alongside the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! museums, go-kart tracks, and outlet malls, both areas serve up plenty of fudge and souvenir t-shirts.
Part of what makes tourist towns like Gatlinburg and Branson so popular is this mix of family fun and natural beauty, offering something for everyone. Similar combinations of nature and attractions are also found in locations like Myrtle Beach and Wisconsin Dells (combined with a trip to Wisconsin’s scenic Door County).
Where to camp:
Camping Alternatives to Great Smoky Mountains in the Northeast
If you found yourself loving the Smokies but wishing there were fewer people, you might enjoy Upstate New York’s Adirondacks region. While a popular destination, visitors are spread over 6 million acres, compared to Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s more than 522,000 acres.
The Adirondacks region is 12 times the size of GSMNP; deciding to visit is the easy part—choosing a place to stay is harder. Many visitors use the charming town of Lake Placid as a base camp. While it does have some touristy highlights, it’s certainly tamer than Gatlinburg. Host of the 1980 Winter Olympics, Lake Placid offers interesting sports sites to explore. For more family attractions, consider Lake George as a home base. Here you can entertain the kids with mini-golf and theme parks alongside the recreation found in the woods and waters.
Like the Smokies, the Adirondacks offer outdoor adventure in spades. Hiking trails lead to waterfalls and mountain vistas. Where the Smokies have the Newfound Gap Road and the Cades Cove Loop, the Adirondacks have the High Peaks Byway and the Lakes to Locks Passage. A scenic drive is a perfect way to explore this area, especially when the fall colors explode.
In addition to dispersed camping on state and national forest lands and state park campgrounds, the Adirondacks region is home to several beloved RV parks, offering a range of experiences from rustic to resort.
Where to camp:
Camping Alternatives to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the Surrounding Region
While the national park is a focal point of the Smokies region, the entire area is full of natural wonders, stretching from the park boundaries following the rolling ridges through several states and mountain ranges. Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, North Carolina’s Hanging Rock State Park, and West Virginia’s Blackwater Falls State Park are just a few top contenders, all featuring landscapes with a Smoky Mountains vibe.
For another national park experience with rollicking outdoor adventures, consider New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Designated a national river in 1978, the New River is notable for its epic scenery, cutting a winding pathway through the Appalachian Mountains. The range’s longest, deepest gorge is a destination for whitewater rafting and rock climbing—big rapids, big peaks, and big bridges are all found in the region.
The New River Gorge Bridge is an icon, with a graceful steel arc seeming to float in the skies above the deep valley. Once a year, BASE jumpers gather for Bridge Day, with more than 400 people making the leap, an 876-foot plummet to the waters below. If bridge jumping isn’t your idea of fun, you’ll also find fishing, hiking, and scenic driving across the region, much like in the Smokies.
Since the area wasn’t officially designated a national park until 2020, the New River Gorge region doesn’t have as much tourist development around it as some more established parks do (which may be a plus, depending on your preferences). You’ll find primitive camping within the park, or, campers may use Fayetteville or Beckley, West Virginia, as home bases to find developed campgrounds and local breweries and restaurants.
Where to camp: