By Jessica Mozo
For many families, summer means it’s time to pack up the tents, coolers and sleeping bags and head for the great outdoors. And the beauty of Tennessee is that no matter which part of the state you live in, there’s bound to be a scenic, well-equipped place to camp nearby.
East Tennessee Camping
Tennessee has 37 state parks that offer camping, and there are also mountains of camping opportunities (pardon the pun) within the awe-inspiring Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Elkmont Campground, the park’s largest campground, is also the closest to Gatlinburg’s amenities.
“Elkmont is great for camping and families because there are so many ranger-led activities as well as trout fishing and beautiful hiking trails,” says Tim Cruze, a park ranger at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “Kids can bring their bikes, and it’s a safe, family atmosphere. You’re less than an hour from Cades Cove and just 15 minutes from Gatlinburg. It’s a good place to get away from the hustle and bustle of life and get back to our roots.”
Until the 1920s, Elkmont was an actual town with a post office, general store and a church. The logging community became a popular summer resort getaway for affluent East Tennesseans with the building of the Wonderland Hotel in 1911 and an influx of vacation homes. The Wonderland Hotel closed in 1992 and has since been dismantled, but several abandoned vacation homes remain at Elkmont, testifying to the historic town’s role in bringing some of the first tourism to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Today, accommodations at Elkmont are much more primitive than they were in the town’s heyday.
“There are 220 campsites and restrooms at Elkmont, but for showers, you have to go into Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge,” Cruze says.
But the back-to-nature campground has its advantages – campers often catch glimpses of black bears, owls, deer and foxes, and a river runs directly through the campground.
“There’s nothing like the sound of natural running water, especially in the evenings,” Cruze says. “And there are plenty of beautiful trails, like the Little River Trail, which connects to other trails. You can go two or three miles and find the remnants of a railroad logging bridge.”
The Sinks Hiking Trail, less than five miles from Elkmont, is a huge tourist attraction in the summer. Campers can also attend ranger talks at Elkmont’s amphitheater or ranger-led night hikes.
“We stop at campsites and invite people, and we also list ranger-led activities in the free Smokies Guide newspaper,” Cruze says. “The night hikes are nice because there are cooler temps and less traffic in the evenings when everyone’s settling in and fixing supper. You can get one-on-one with a ranger and talk about natural resources.”
Middle Tennessee Camping
Though many of Tennessee’s popular campsites are within the Great Smoky Mountains, there are plenty of other excellent choices across the state. Fall Creek Falls in Pikeville boasts the highest waterfall in the eastern United States and is blessed with thundering cascades, jaw-dropping gorges, gentle trickling streams and lush green foliage. It’s easy to see why Southern Living magazine readers voted Fall Creek Falls the best state park in the Southeast.
“Fall Creek Falls has everything – it’s the total package,” says Lesa Guy, administrative assistant to the park manager. “There’s hiking, horseback riding, natural beauty, an 18-hole golf course, swimming, a lake and a restaurant.”
The variety of accommodations at Fall Creek Falls include cabins, villas, lodges, campsites and an inn.
“There are full hookups available with water, sewer and 50-amp electric service, and we have bath houses with hot showers,” Guy says. “There are trails connecting to the campgrounds, and our 345-acre lake is used for fishing, paddleboats, canoes and kayaks. We also have mountain biking trails, tennis, basketball, sand volleyball, softball fields and an Olympic-size pool.”
Campers can take advantage of lots of educational programs at Fall Creek Falls, too. The kids might enjoy making a pinecone birdfeeder, while the teens and adults might like to take a ranger-led cave trip exploring one of the park’s two caves.
“There are pontoon boat rides, ranger-led hiking and biking tours, and guided hikes to the base of the falls,” Guy says. “Program schedules are made every week, and guests can call the nature center to find out what’s going on.”
West Tennessee Camping
In Millington, Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park is one of several camping destinations and provides cabins and 49 campsites equipped with tables, grills, and electric and water hookups. The park is home to deer, turkey, beaver and 200 species of birds. Visitors can learn about wildlife at the Meeman Museum and Nature Center, which includes a fish aquarium, a live snake exhibit, a stuffed animal exhibit, a touch table and a Native American exhibit, and there are special programs on live birds of prey, reptiles, making bird feeders and homemade ice cream, deep swamp canoe trips and pontoon boat rides.
What’s your favorite Tennessee campground? Let us know in the comments!
Fire Up the Campfire
Depending on who packed the cooler, camping meals can range from GORP and PB&J to fancier fare such the kabobs made by Elkmont camper Chris Crooke. He prepared a creative campfire-friendly variation of our Beef and Mushroom Kabobs. Just marinate the beef cubes ahead of time, and bring along some cubed pineapple, new potatoes and any other fruits or veggies to replace the mushrooms.