There’s no way around the crowds, as Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park in the U.S. Mid-week in early June, the lines to get into the visitor centers will stretch out the door. Don’t show up to any of the popular trailheads after 8 a.m. and expect to get a parking spot—especially if you’re driving a larger rig. Even the harder-to-reach trailheads can be packed. Note that in 2023, there will be parking fees instated for visitors.
If possible, plan your trip for the off-season, or prepare yourself for long lines and busy trails. Visiting GSMNP is worth the inconveniences, with stunning scenery and fun, challenging hikes.
Cades Cove’s 11-mile Scenic Loop is one of the park’s most popular attractions. The one-way, single-lane loop takes visitors past abandoned cabins and a church. It’s also one of the best places in the park to see a black bear. During one visit, I saw five, including a mama and two cubs grazing in a meadow about 100 yards away. Be sure to bring a bike or a comfy pair of shoes; from May to September, the loop is closed to motor-vehicle traffic, so walkers and bikers can experience it without stopping traffic.
Laurel Falls is a short 3-mile out-and-back hike on a gently sloped, paved path. The trail is crowded at most times, including early morning and late afternoon. Luckily, there are other waterfall hikes in the park, including the strenuous 8-mile walk to Ramsey Cascades. Drivers of larger rigs might want to avoid it; the trailhead is located down fairly narrow gravel roads, and getting out of the trailhead parking area can be tricky, even in a Class B. You’ll also need to avoid Grotto and Rainbow Falls on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which prohibits RVs.
My favorite hike is Chimney Tops, which is a must-do if you’re in shape for it (or willing to take frequent breaks). Believe the signs that warn about the steep grade; when I reached the top of the 1.75-mile uphill, my legs burned and I was drenched in sweat. Note that the final quarter-mile section is currently closed due to erosion caused by a recent wildfire, but the view of the ridgeline from the current terminus is still spectacular.
The hike up to the Clingmans Dome observation tower is only a half-mile walk up a wide paved path, but it ascends straight up at a hefty grade. You can catch your breath on benches and boulders located along the trail, and the view from the top makes the effort worthwhile. Even if it’s a cloudy day, be patient. The wind will likely blow the clouds away long enough to snap a few photographs.
Finally, drive the Newfound Gap Road and take advantage of the photo pull offs.
How to Get There by RV
The main entrance into the park is through the Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg gateway to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Cherokee, North Carolina (from the south), and Townsend, Tennessee (from the northwest), are the two other primary, and more understated, entrances. Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are typical tourist towns filled with souvenir stores, restaurants, and flashy attractions.
Both towns can be a welcome change of pace for kids if they need a break from the park. They also offer alternative campground options for RVers. Just be prepared to deal with plenty of people and traffic.
Where to Camp
The Cades Cove Campground, like the other RV-accommodating campgrounds in the park, is quiet with plenty of shade and no hookups. Sites aren’t exceptionally large, but do come with the standard fire ring, picnic table, and charcoal grill. It’s one of the most popular spots to stay in the park, so reserve early.
Pigeon Forge Landing RV Resort is a new RV resort located near the town’s main strip. If you like to fish, spring for one of the waterfront sites. A coin laundry and a small camp store are located on-site as well.