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  • Writer's pictureIsaac Oxford

Great Smoky Mountains: Tips for Visiting and Dispersed Camping

Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited National Park in the United States, and for a good reason! It's incredible vistas, scenic mountain roads, and incredible wildlife is in all honestly awe inspiring. 500,000+ acres of the National Park spreads about evenly between Tennessee and North Carolina, so you will always find something new to do each visit. The park is very accessible by vehicle, and there is no entrance fee, although you will need a paid parking tag if you park anywhere for more than 15 minutes.

Let's get to the bottom line right now, boondocking anywhere near or in the Great Smoky Mountains is practically impossible or illegal. There are overnight restrictions in all of the surrounding towns, including Gatlinburg and Sevierville, as well as no dispersed camping in the National Park boundaries unless you are backpacking. Police and park rangers patrol often, so avoid any hefty citations by following this boondocking guide for the Smoky Mountains. We all know you're trying to save as much money as possible taking the boondocking route so you can splurge at Dollywood, so this guide will highlight your possible boondocking options for the area.

If you are traveling towards park on Interstate 40, you will find your first and most reliable boondocking options when you take exit 407 towards Tennessee 66. As soon as you get off this exit, there is a Cracker Barrell Country Store and Restaurant on East Dumplin Valley Rd.

(GPS Coordinates: 35.9858469, -83.6039611)

RVs, vans, and camp trailers are all allowed to stay overnight at this location. Stay towards the back of the lot, there are about 6 designated RV parking spots. If your rig is small, try and park in the spots parallel to Stadium Drive to reserve the bigger spots for those who need them. This is a very popular boondocking spot because it is the closest to the Smoky Mountains. From here, you are 21 miles away from the Gatlinburg Welcome Center, the gateway into the park. Traffic along Tennessee 66 is heavy, so be prepared for a long arrival time before you even get into the park.

Another option directly off of exit 407 on Gateway Blvd is the brand new Buc-cee's in Kodak, their largest location in the world!

(GPS Coordinates: 35.9802101, -83.6048121)

This boondocking location would definitely be more suited for vehicles that can fit in a normal sized parking spot, such as car camping, vans, truck campers, or anything that's inconspicuous, for this Buc-cee's is not semi-truck friendly, and has no oversized parking spaces. This is common for Buc-cee's locations to not be big rig accomodating, so keep that in mind if traveling in a massive class A RV that parking anywhere besides at the fuel pumps will be challenging. Most likely you won't be self-contained if you are choosing this boondocking option, but you're in luck because this location is open 24/7 and will experience some of the cleanest bathrooms you will use on your entire roadtrip.

Unfortunately, these are your only safe options for a free boondocking experience in the Smokies. If you are planning on tent camping in the backcountry of the National Park, note that there are many rules and regulations you must follow before you just park your car at a trailhead and get out there. According to the NPS, failure to follow regulations can result in a $5,000 fine and/or 6 months in jail for each violation. The NPS highlights everything you need to know on their website, I have included the link at the bottom of this page so you can stay well-informed.

Another topic I touched on is the parking tag that is required to park anywhere in the NPS boundaries. There is no entrance station for the Great Smoky Mountains, so if you are just passing through on a scenic drive, you're in the clear and will not need to purchase a parking tag. But, parking anywhere along the roadside, in designated lots, or at trailheads for more than 15 minutes will require a parking tag. America The Beautiful passes will NOT be accepted as the parking tag. A parking tag will also not reserve you a spot in the park. Parking lots at trailheads fill very early, even on weekdays, and if you're in an RV it's going to be even trickier. There are often dirt pulloffs within a few miles of where the trailheads even begin that can accommodate large RVs, but even then sometimes those pulloffs fill up too. This National Park is extremely popular, so plan to get a very early bird start to visit the most popular trails and attractions.

Notable places we visited during our time in the Smoky Mountains were the town of Gatlinburg, the Clingmans Dome hike, Smokemont Campground, and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Gatlinburg is subject to some of the worst overtourism we have ever seen, and I would recommend just stopping there to pick up a parking tag at the Welcome Center and take the bypass around downtown. If you want to avoid the massive crowds and support a small Native American village instead, visit Cherokee, NC on the other side of the park. Clingmans Dome is a beautiful hike, and you can make a great loop out of it by taking the Appalachian Trail back to the parking lot. We managed to squeeze in a spot along the road with our 32 foot rig close to the trailhead, but this switchback style road has many dirt pullouts that can better accommodate large RVs. The Smokemont Campground is an inexpenisve rustic campground to stay at in the park and is located right by horse stables if you're interested in taking a horseback tour of the park. There are restrooms and a dump station here, but no showers or cell service. The Oconaluftee Visitor Center is right down the road, and has free wifi and public restrooms. This is a great place to learn and view wild elk, and talk to park rangers about any other questions you may have during your visit!

With all that being said, make sure to do some more of your own research before your visit to the Great Smoky Mountains. There is a multitude of exciting activities to do and see. Tread lightly and respect the environment, for this a very spiritualy important place for locals and visitors. Always remember to follow local, tribal, and National Park rules during your visit, and Leave No Trace during your boondocking excursions. I've included the links with more information related to the post down below. Have fun, stay safe, and get out there!

Great Smoky Mountains backcountry camping:

Parking Tag information:

Viewing Elk:

Visiting Cherokee, NC:

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