Camping at Cades Cove – Campground Review

Last month, we took a long overdue family vacation; it had been over a year since our last trip. All of last summer’s vacation time and funds were used for moving halfway across the country. It was totally worth the sacrifice, though, as we love our new home, and it made this trip seem extra sweet!

Living in a different part of the country means that many new places are accessible to us by car. We fly every once in awhile, but the cost of five plane tickets and a rental car reduces the amount of fun activities we can afford. When we realized that Great Smoky Mountains National Park was only a six-hour drive, it rose to the top of our list. Initially, we thought of combining this trip with a visit to Mammoth Cave National Park, but we decided to save that for a long weekend later this summer.

Whenever we visit a National Park, we like to camp inside its boundaries. This allows us to experience the beauty of the park in its quiet morning and evening hours, without outside tourists. These campgrounds tend to attract respectful campers, in our experience, and the restrooms are typically clean. One thing to note is that most National Park campgrounds lack shower facilities, but there are usually businesses just outside the parks that provide showers for a fee. The park ranger stations can usually provide a list. If not, there are ways to keep clean that I’ll discuss in another post.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has ten developed campgrounds (with running water and flush toilets), but we knew we wanted to be on the western side for this trip so we could do some “civilized” sightseeing in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Both Cades Cove and Elkmont campgrounds have excellent reviews on various online forums, both are near trailheads for hikes, and neither have showers. I’m sure Elkmont is a wonderful place, but we decided on Cades Cove based on its bike-friendliness, historic sites on the loop road, and the possibility of a trail ride at the Cades Cove Riding Stables.

We booked five nights, arriving Tuesday and departing Sunday, so as to take advantage of the car-free hours on the Cades Cove Loop Road on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. We reserved site C-44 after looking at the available sites on campsitephotos.com, and it turned out to be a great location. We were equidistant from the camp store and one of the restrooms, and had a large, wooded parcel of land on one side. Like most sites in Cades Cove, there was a gravel driveway and a sandy, level tent pad (some sites have a paved driveway, and designated trailer sites may not provide a tent pad).

All sites have a fire pit with a flip-down grill grate, as well as a picnic table. The picnic tables are bolted down to cement pads, so they can not be moved, but do provide a level eating area.

The only bothersome thing about our site was the noise on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. Many vehicles parked in the camp store parking lot so that their passengers could take advantage of walking or biking the loop road without vehicle traffic. RVs idled in the lot starting around 6 a.m., and I think some of them may even have been running their generators. We wanted to wake up early to get out on our bikes, but would have preferred to do so in peace.

The wooded area next to us provided some interesting wildlife encounters. We saw two owls and one coyote from our campsite, and one night, around 1:00 a.m., there was a terrifying commotion in the woods. We heard snarling, whimpering, and thrashing in the brush. One animal clearly killed another, but we couldn’t determine what species were involved. Our fear that the animals would come crashing into our campsite made the struggle seem to last a long time, but in reality it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes long.

While we didn’t see any bears in the campground ourselves, we heard from other campers that some had sauntered right through their campsite while they were cooking dinner! These folks weren’t doing anything wrong, but it illustrates why there are strict rules regarding food in bear country. Campers are required to keep a clean campsite, with all food, cooking equipment and even scented candles stored inside a vehicle when not actively using them. I saw only one bear-proof locker, and it was between two hike-in sites.

A dishwashing sink is provided behind each restroom. I meant to take a picture, but forgot; they look like a laundry/utility sink. I often see people washing dishes in the restroom sinks or under the water spigots, and I suspect it’s because the campgrounds’ dishwashing sinks are not well-advertised. There was no hot water, so I opted to heat water on a camp stove and wash dishes at our campsite, but we carried all the graywater to the dishwashing sink afterward.

You don’t necessarily need to cook or eat at your campsite in Cades Cove, because the Cades Cove Trading Company provides prepared food, as well as groceries, camping supplies, souvenirs and bike rentals. If I had known how good the food would look, I would have packed a smaller cooler. The prices and selection were impressive.

Before we went, I knew there was a store but had no idea what the selection would be like, so I wanted to be sure to document it on my blog. I felt strange taking pictures in the store, though, so I snapped them very quickly, and not surprisingly, they aren’t very good! You can order food at the counter and serve yourself coffee or tea…

Or grab groceries from one of their refrigerated cases…

You can buy bundled firewood – $5 for logs, $6 for kindling – and bags of ice, which were around $3, if I remember correctly.

And if you’ve just completed a hike, or biked the 11-mile loop road, are recovering after riding a horse or just realized that there are no showers, you deserve an ice cream cone! No pictures because there wasn’t time; it’s soft-serve.

Check out all the supplies they have. Fans were really popular! We got so sweaty in the Tennessee heat that we imagined ourselves acting in the movie A Time to Kill.

There were also tons of souvenirs.

If you arrive before or after store hours, there are vending machines under a shelter.

If you’re like me and love getting weather updates, try your luck at the camp store. Wifi is not available, but the employees at the cash register have a computer and some of them will let you know the detailed forecast for the hours ahead. Others are less helpful; one just shrugged and told me to expect a thunderstorm every afternoon that time of year. Actually, that might have been the most accurate forecast!

Other than showers, the only thing we missed was cell service. If you are staying in Cades Cove and want to use your phone, the nearest place to do so is the tiny town of Townsend, Tennessee, (say that five times!) twenty minutes from the campground.

Overall, Cades Cove was a great basecamp for us to explore the Smokies, and at only $20/night for the campsite, we were able to divert our funds to some great activities. Check back soon if you’re interested in reading about our trail ride, hiking to Abrams Falls and Clingmans Dome, swimming in a creek, biking the Cades Cove Loop Road, exploring Tuckaleechee Caverns, riding an Alpine Coaster, visiting Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, and find out how we finally got a shower.

Do you have questions or stories about visiting Cades Cove? Let me know in the comment section!