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March 31, 2020 3 min read

Believe it or not, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park in the country. We know; we were surprised too. You’d think Grand Canyon or Yosemite would be #1, but this gorgeous stretch of wilderness on the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains welcomes over 11 million visitors every year. Part of the draw is how accessible the iconic features of the park area. You can pretty much drive to the top of Clingmans Dome, and a cruise through Newfound Gap is a must-do if you’re traveling on four wheels. But if you want to experience the rugged, off-the-beaten-path spirit of the National Park, you’re going to want to steer clear of the visitor centers and explore the edges of the park.

The Best Off-The-Beaten-Path Campgrounds

To help you out, we’ve compiled a handful of campsites around the park worth checking out if you want to avoid the crowds. Just remind yourself; you aren’t being antisocial, you’re going on an adventure! Keep in mind that some require reservations, which you can do here.

Cosby Creek (157 Sites - Reservation Only)

Even though Cosby Creek boasts the third highest number of available sites, its secluded location in the northeast corner means it isn’t the first choice of the throngs of people flocking to the visitor center 30 minutes to the west. Just because it’s set away from busy Gatlinburg doesn’t mean you have to venture without creature comforts, though. The rustic mountain town of Cosby is just five miles up the road, so you can stock up on snacks, gas, and anything else you run out of during your stay (you can never have too many novelty keyrings).

Cataloochee (27 Sites - Reservation Only)

Though this is a popular destination for visitors coming from the east, the low number of available sites makes it feel more like a backcountry retreat. Right outside the campground, you’ll find an extensive trail system that, at times, feels like you have the entire park to yourself (aside from a few horses here or there. Watch out for road apples). The Caldwell Fork Trail and Rough Fork Trail—the two major trails accessible from the campground—will deliver views rivaling the outlooks the park has become famous for, all without needing to box out other tourists for the perfect Instagram shot.

Abrams Creek Campground (16 Sites - First Come, First Served)

Located on the far western edge of the park, this tiny campground is a day-hikers dream. From the campground, you can build your own loop hike by stitching together sections of the Rabbit Creek Trail, Little Bottoms Trail, and Hannah Mountain Trail. This site also serves a scenic route to one of the parks most popular destinations; Abrams Falls. You’ll be able to skip the traffic coming from the Cades Cove Visitor center while still being able to take in one of the best features of the park. Let’s keep this one our little secret, okay?

Forney Creek Trail (Backcountry Sites 68-71 - First Come, First Served)

Only accessible as an offshoot from the Appalachian Trail, getting to these campgrounds will have you rubbing elbows with thru-hikers just a few days into their 2,190 mile trek north to Maine. And that’s only early in the season. Later in the summer, you’ll pretty much have these trails to yourself, save for a few north-south App trail hikers (and those folks are hardcore; give them a beer, sit back, and enjoy their stories). To get to these sites, park at the Clingmans Dome parking lot and hike south down the Forney Creek Trail. You’ll need a backcountry permit to stay the night, and as always, pack out what you pack in.

If there is one thing that all of our choices have in common, it's that they steer clear of Gatlinburg, Newfound Gap, or any of the other iconic hotspots in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. America’s most popular National Park is 100% worth visiting, and with a little strategy, you can make a peak season trip feel like a private excursion into the wilderness. If you do make it there this summer, let us know on Instagram @gorumpl and show off your perfect campsite!