Trip planning: the Smokies in the Spring

Bugsy on lower Looking Glass Cliffs
Bugsy on lower Looking Glass Cliffs
Not the Smokies: Bugsy in the Blue Ridge Mountains of NC, adjacent to the Smokies

Expecting to travel this Spring with the current COVID-19 situation may be wishful thinking, but what better way to distract myself from the news than by dreaming about adventures? Before all this pandemic crap we were going to go to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in April. Hopefully even though we can’t go this Spring, this research will still come in handy at some point.

As of March 23 2020, all public areas in GSMNP are closed indefinitely, including campgrounds, due to COVID-19.

Trip goals:

  • First spend a couple days Airstream-camping and hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most-visited National Park in the US, and the largest in the East
  • Then move to a campground close to, but outside, the National Park where we can hike with Bugsy in a National Forest or State Park, since she’s not allowed on trails in the National Park (except Oconaluftee River Trail and Gatlinburg Trail)
  • (Then spend a night in Asheville on the way home because we love it there)

It sounds like we don’t want to pull the Airstream up and down and around US 441 / Newfound Gap Road, the 33-mile scenic drive through the park from the TN side to the NC side, so we’ll need to choose to be based for both portions of the trip on just one side and not split the trip between the two as we had originally planned. Bummer.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

GSMNP is roughly oval-shaped and straddles the border between North Carolina, to the south, and Tennessee, to the north. The park has three main entrances, near Gatlinburg TN, Townsend TN, and Cherokee NC. From Central VA, driving times to each of the entrances is about 5 hours. The scenic Newfound Gap Road through the park from the NC side to the TN side takes about an hour, but as previously mentioned, is not a fun drive with a trailer (I bet you when J reads this he’ll want to try it). Entrance to this National Park is free due to an agreement between the federal government and Tennessee when building US 441 through the park.

Campgrounds

airstream at gulpha gulch campground hot springs national park
Not the Smokies: Airstream Camping in Hot Springs National Park

There are no hookups at any of the ten campgrounds in GSMNP. Two campgrounds don’t allow RVs, and a few have size restrictions that exclude us (we’re 28 ft long). That leaves:

  • Cades Cove
  • Cataloochee (opens mid-June)
  • Elkmont
  • Smokemont

All of the above campgrounds are reservable online. Cataloochee has a sketchy, narrow, winding entrance road, so let’s throw it out. Now we’re down to three. Which should we choose?

Cades Cove

Cades Cove Campground is about a half hour from Townsend, on the Tennessee side. Cades Cove is a lush valley surrounded by mountains, and the campground is close to the start of the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop scenic drive. Reservations are required for all sites, of which 124 are RV-capable, and 80 big enough for 28 feet (like us) or longer. The campground is open year-round, has toilets, a dump station, nearby horseback riding, and a seasonal general store with bike rentals. Cades Cove is the most popular area of the National Park, and it seems traffic and activity around the campground reflect that.

Elkmont

Elkmont Campground is also on the Tennessee side, about a half hour from Gatlinburg. It’s the largest and busiest campground (but feels less crowded than Cades Cove?) in the National Park, with 160 reservable RV sites, of which 36 are suitable for a 28ft trailer. Several of those sites are riverfront on the Little River. This campground also has toilets and a seasonal general store, but no dump station. It’s closer to Newfound Gap Rd than Cades Cove Campground, and apparently has an ice cream vending machine!

Smokemont

Smokemont Campground is 15 minutes from Cherokee, on the North Carolina side of the park. It has toilets and a dump station, and 86 RV sites–make that 83 for the likes of us. Here we also have toilets and some riverfront sites, and it seems like this campground may be less busy than those on the TN side. Smokemont is adjacent to Newfound Gap Rd, which puts it closest to the hikes at the top of my list.

Hike

I tend to prefer hikes with big views to waterfall hikes, and that’s reflected in the list below. There are many waterfall hikes in GSMNP if that’s what you’re looking for.

Charlie’s Bunion is an unfortunately-named but amazing-looking moderate eight-mile hike with views, views, views. The trailhead is along Newfound Gap Road.

The hike to Andrews Bald, the highest grassy bald in the National Park, begins from the Clingmans Dome parking area. It’s 3.6 miles round-trip.

Chimney Tops is a strenuous four-mile hike with steep climbs and rock scrambles. Parking for this hike is also on Newfound Gap Road.

I have mixed feelings about summiting Mt LeConte via the Alum Cave Trail. The hike is an eleven-mile out-and-back giving you streams, forests, cliffs, views, and history. Sounds great, but: the Alum Cave Trail is the most popular hike in the park, so the first few miles may be very crowded. The LeConte Lodge is near the end of the hike, which became much more intriguing when I learned that it’s only accessible by hiking trail and it’s resupplied by llamas three times a week! The two best views near the forested Mt LeConte summit are less than a mile farther on, bringing the total distance to over 13 miles.

Clingmans Dome is the high point in the Smokies, in Tennessee, on the AT, and second only to Mt Mitchell in the eastern US. There’s an observation tower and a half-mile paved path, so it’s not really a hike, but we’ll pop up there to see the view.

I’ll include Oconaluftee River Trail and Gatlinburg Trail since they’re the only Bugsy-friendly hikes in the National Park, but they don’t sound terribly exciting otherwise. They both follow rivers and are open to bikes. The Gatlinburg Trail is 3.9 mile total out-and-back from the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg on the TN side of Newfound Gap Road. The Oconaluftee River Trail is also an out-and-back, totaling three miles, from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee on the NC side of Newfound Gap Road.

Outside the National Park

Tennessee Side

dog sleeping at riverpark campground jonesborough
Camping several years ago in Jonesborough

Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg is the biggest and busiest of the towns we’re considering. It’s full of shops and restaurants (and lots of flashy chain restaurants) and tourist attractions like the SkyLift and the Space Needle and mini-golf and roller coasters and a bunch of cheeseball shows. It could be awful, or it could be fun. Twin Creek RV Resort, with two creeks and the National Park in its backyard, is a four-minute drive from downtown Gatlinburg. The town has two breweries (and a couple wineries and distilleries): Gatlinburg Brewing Co serves beer and pizza, and Smoky Mountain Brewery–the oldest craft brewery in East TN–is a brewpub with four locations in eastern Tennessee.

Hikes near Gatlinburg:

  • The dog-friendly Gatlinburg Trail, mentioned above, has a trailhead in Gatlinburg
  • Um… all the trails in the Gatlinburg area seem to be in the National Park, and the whole point of the portion of the trip where we stay outside the park is to take Bugsy hiking.

Townsend

Tiny Townsend bills itself as “the peaceful side of the smokies,” which seems odd to me since it’s close to bonkers Dollywood. Possibly the most interesting attraction in Townsend is the Tuckaleechee Caverns, which includes the tallest subterranean waterfall in the Eastern US. Downtown Townsend has a collection of homey cafes and a beer garden in a former church (which is possibly the second-most interesting attraction in Townsend). Little River Campground is in the middle of the action, a couple blocks from the Townsend Trail, a paved bike path along the main drag.

Hikes near Townsend:

  • Townsend gives us easier access to the Cades Cove section of the National Park. It looks gorgeous and is an area we’d be happy to explore… but is not Bugsy-compatible.

Jonesborough

Jonesborough is Tennessee’s oldest town and has a lovely preserved Main Street. We spent a couple days in Jonesborough four years ago and loved our campground and the hiking–but we never actually made it into the downtown area. It was too hard to ignore the call of White Duck Tacos in nearby Johnson City. Jonesborough has a brewery, Depot Street Brewing, and a couple of potentially interesting restaurants including a burrito joint and a crepe place. And White Duck Tacos down the road.

Hikes near Jonesborough:

There are a zillion options in Cherokee National Forest, such as

Dandridge

Dandridge is Tennessee’s second oldest town, and it too has a historic downtown, centered around the shores of Douglas Lake. Dandridge Brewing Company brews beer and coffee, served with pub food and occasional live music. There are several RV camping options along the lake west of town, but nothing jumps out at me from the restaurant scene, no offense. Here’s one thing I would want to do if I stayed in Dandridge: visit the Bush’s Beans Visitor Center.

Hikes near Dandridge:

Tellico Plains

Tellico Plains seems like a quaint little town, but there are no good RV camping options nearby. Southwest of the National Park, it’s near Cherokee National Forest which has lots of dog-friendly hiking opportunities.

North Carolina Side

downtown sylva
In NC, but not on this list: Sylva

Bryson City

We’ve had an eyeball on Bryson City for a while: it has a cute downtown, nearby hiking, and two breweries. Big Bear’s RV Park, located a mile from downtown, has full hookups and some creeksite campsites. The two breweries, Nantahala and Mountain Layers, seem cool. Mountain Layers has a rooftop patio with river and mountain views, and Nantahala has a local-food burger bar a couple doors down. (Now that I’m looking at their site, I see that we’ve been to the Sylva outpost…)

Hikes near Bryson City:

Franklin

Franklin–supposedly known as the “gem capital of the world” (really?)–looks like a smaller Bryson City with a sweet little downtown, hiking aplenty, and two breweries. Downtown RV Park has ten wooded full-hookup sites walking distance to downtown. Of interest to me is the Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum in the old jail. The breweries are Lazy Hiker Brewing, also with an outpost in Sylva, and Currahee Brewing Co. Lazy Hiker has a resident food truck serving fish tacos!

Hikes near Franklin:

Highlands

Highlands reminds me a little of a mini-Blowing Rock. It’s a posh golf resort town with upscale shops and restaurants, and a fancy five-site RV campground four blocks from downtown. Satulah Mountain Brewery is the only brewery, but Highlands has more drinking options overall than Bryson City or Franklin. We visited years ago when family lived in the area, and maybe it warrants a return trip.

Hikes near Highlands:

Bugsy by Silver Lake Utah
Not the Smokies. This trail is near Park City, Utah 🙂

Which locations do you think are the winners?

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