There are literally hundreds of hotels, motels, cabins, bed & Breakfasts, and campgrounds all around the national park. However, nothing beats the experience of actually staying on the trails of the Great Smoky Mountains. There is something magical about waking up to sunrise in your sleeping bag at one of the trail shelters or unzipping your tent to observe the wildlife around you while everything seems still before the rush of the day’s crowds envelope you.
Until recently, it was free to stay overnight inside the park. This year, however, they began to charge. Though some were upset by the change, we have to remember just how underfunded the entire national park system actually is. Money is needed to maintain and fix shelter sights and campsites that get very worn down over time and with repeated use (and sometimes abuse). They also have to pay the people we affectionately call ridge-runners that walk the trails checking permits and safety issues in the park (among other things). This is necessary to make sure that those that have reserved a spot are not kicked out by people that have simply shown up, people are not staying in illegal campsites that could damage the environment, and that no illegal or unsafe activity is occurring (like chopping down healthy trees for firewood).
This brings me to my next point. How and where you can camp in the Smokies is dictated by rules and regulations that are among the most stringent in the national park system. Unlike many other places, you cannot “cowboy” camp or pitch a tent wherever you like. There are designated shelters and campsites that you MUST stay in if you want to stay in the national park. At shelters, you cannot pitch a tent beside it. You have to stay IN the shelter. The only exemption to this is if the shelters are full when you arrive. Occasionally shelters will overflow, especially on the Appalachian Trail during the spring months. During this time only is it allowed to tent. There are places that fires are allowed and places they are not. Most shelters and campsites have fire pits ready for you. DO NOT start a fire outside of these areas. Also, as I already mentioned, you cannot cut down healthy trees for firewood. You need to find downed limbs and tree branches to use. In the Smokies, with the amount of weather we receive, you should have little time finding what you need.
In the past staying at a backcountry campsite or shelter was generally as easy as filling out a form at any ranger station and going on your way. You could easily do this the same day of your hike. It is not difficult now, but it is slightly more complicated. You can make your reservations online now. The fee is $4 per person, per night (with a max fee of $20 per person if staying more than five nights. The max you can stay is 7 nights). Once you have made the reservation, your permit is good for 7 days from the date you state you will be arriving. Also, you can make reservations up to 30 days in advance. Something else to be aware of is that you cannot have a group larger than 8 people. Some shelters and campsites have even smaller limits, and a few will allow you to have a group up to 12. It is always a good idea to check out the specifics of the place you want to camp well in advance. Finally, be aware that campsites can close due to weather, bear activity in the area, or refurbishment. It is always wise to check your plans before you depart to make sure everything is a go.
The numbers of campsites change as some are closed permanently or temporarily, but there are roughly 75 open sites as of this writing. They are spread all over the park, so there is always one close to where you are hiking. The main point I want to really stress is that wherever you camp, be aware of the rules and regulations. Some of this stuff is obvious. No graffiti, no fishing, no fires outside of fire pits. Some of it you will want to read over. The penalty if you are found to be disregarding any of these rules is up to $5,000 in fines for EACH violation and up to 6 months in jail. I can tell you for sure that park staff will be around to check. I have had my permit checked four different times during the nights. Don’t risk it doing something that will get you into trouble. I know that rules usually seem like overkill, but they are in place for a reason.
Some last points to ponder. There are no showers in the backcountry. However, there are places in each town around the smokies that you can get a shower when you get down from the mountain. Be sure to pack out your trash and any food you have left. The reason there are bear/wildlife problems at some shelters and campsites is because inconsiderate people leave trash/food laying around or try to burn it. There are cables in trees at most campsites and shelters to hang your food from animals (including bears) during the night. USE THEM. If your site does not have cables, bring rope to tie your food up from a tree. You don’t want a black bear pawing your tent in the middle of the night for the Snickers bar you have inside.
There is no experience like staying IN the mountains. I recommend that everyone tries it at least once.