Is It Safe to Camp in the Smoky Mountains? A Local Weighs In

the campground at cades cove

It is generally safe to camp in the Smoky Mountains, but there are a few things to know before you go (photos by Bill Burris/TheSmokies.com)

The Smoky Mountains are generally considered to be safe, but that doesn’t mean they are without danger

I’ve been around these mountains too long to fear them. After 30 years, a body tends to be comfortable with its surroundings. And so, when people ask if the mountains are safe, I say of course they are. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any dangers. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be respectful and smart of the mountains and the critters who live there. It doesn’t mean that people don’t get hurt in the mountains every year. 

Statistically speaking, camping in the Smokies is a safe activity. There are relatively few incidents of serious injuries related to camping in the mountains. That doesn’t mean bad things can’t happen, but it does mean they’re not likely. 

campsites at the cades cove campground
The Cades Code Campground is a popular spot in the Smokies (photo by Bill Burris/TheSmokies.com)

Are the Smoky Mountains safe? 

Yes. I’d take my kids up into the mountains and go camping tomorrow without a worry. Each year thousands – if not 10s of thousands of people – go and spend a few nights or more in the mountains without incident. They come and have a great time and go home without being bothered by a bear or a fellow camper or whatever possible danger lurks in the mountains. 

But even if you encounter a wild animal, it’s not necessarily dangerous. Last year, my cousin and her family spent a few nights in a camper in Elkmont. One of the nights a bear came sniffing around but they’d taken the right precautions and other than a few minutes of tight puckering in the camper, they were fine. So, was her camping trip dangerous? No. I suppose it could have been if they’d reacted rashly or not been properly prepared. However, they were smart and safe and had a great trip. 

My biggest concern in camping in the mountains is the other campers. Like anywhere you go in this life, you don’t have control over what your neighbors are doing or who they are. If you have an issue with a fellow camper. Deescalate and detach from the situation as calmly and coolly as possible. Get to the ranger station and let them handle it. 

“It’s wise to be smart, follow suggested guidelines and don’t be a doofus.”

– John Gullion, Contributor, TheSmokies.com
dog at cades cove campground
A family walks along a road at Cades Cove Campground (photo by Bill Burris/TheSmokies.com)

5 best places to camp

From a safety standpoint, I would say the designated camping areas like Elkmont or Cades Cove are preferable. You can get permits and reservations for backcountry camping. I won’t say I’m afraid of backcountry camping, but the remoteness does raise more issues. It’s harder to get help if needed when you’re deep in the mountains. There’s nothing to say it’s unsafe but I don’t want to be that far out of touch and away from my car overnight. 

As far as the registered campgrounds, I prefer Elkmont to Cades Cove. The Cades Cove campground is a little crowded to feel like actual camping to me. It feels more like I’ve joined a small village of tents and RVs. Cades Cove’s proximity to the Cove and other things to do is cool, but I also kind of like the weird history of Elkmont. 

Oconaluftee Island, Boys Wading in Water
Smokemont Campground is close to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, where these youngsters are enjoying the water (photo by Kirby Russell/TheSmokies.com)

My favorite though, is probably the Look Rock Campground near the Foothills Parkway in Southern Blount County. What can I say? I’m getting a little older and the idea of electric and water hookups is pretty appealing. Look Rock is the only campground in the National Park to offer electric and water hookups and there’s only a limited number of those.

I’m also partial to Smokemont which is close to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in North Carolina. I just like the area as it’s frequented by elk and I can remember the days before elk were reintroduced. I just still think it’s cool as heck whenever I see one.  

In terms of amenities, each campground offers restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets. Each campsite has a fire grate and picnic table. Per the NPS, Cades Cove, Elkmont, and Smokemont campgrounds have 5-amp electric outlets for medical equipment use only.

a picnic table
Be sure to heed all food storage rules when camping (photo by Bill Burris/TheSmokies.com)

Tips, cost and reservation info

I mean, just like life, general safety tip No. 1 is don’t be stupid. The park isn’t a place to party or get wild. Don’t bother the other campers. If you are hiking, make sure someone knows where you are. Also, don’t go off into the woods at night. 

Follow all food storage regulations which isn’t a tip so much as it’s the law. Store all food and equipment used to prepare the food in a sealed vehicle – preferably the trunk. If you don’t have a place to store food, some of the campgrounds have a limited number of food storage lockers. Dispose of garbage quickly and in the dumpsters provided. Keep your pets on a leash and off the trails. Pets are prohibited and almost all Smoky Mountain trails

Also, it does cost to camp in the Smokies, and reservations are required. You can visit www.recreation.gov to make a reservation or call 1-877-444-6777. Online reservations can be made 24 hours a day. Reservations by phone can be made between 10 am and 10 pm EST.

Statistically, camping in the Smokies is a very safe activity. There are relatively few incidents of campers being injured while in the mountains. It’s wise to be smart, follow suggested guidelines and don’t be a doofus. But generally speaking, the drive to your campsite is significantly more dangerous than your time spent camping. 

Are you planning a trip to the Smoky Mountains? Be sure to check out our coupons page for area promos.

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