Top Ten Tent Camping in the Carolinas

Big Creek Campground: Cove Creek, NC

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a reputation, somewhat undeserved, of being overcrowded. Sure, some places can seem a bit peopled, but if you know the right places to go, your limited time in the park can be a relaxing getaway. Big Creek Campground is one of those places. It is the Smokies' smallest campground and its sole tent-only campground. This walk-in campground is set deep in the woods adjacent to the pure mountain waters of Big Creek-so deep, in fact, that when you come to the campground parking area you'll wonder where the campground is. For your information, it's between the campground parking area and noisy Big Creek.

A small footpath leaves the parking area and loops the 12 campsites in the shade of tall hardwoods. Since it's a walk-in campground, you must tote your camping supplies anywhere from 100 to 300 feet. But after that, you'll be hearing only the intonations of Big Creek and smelling the wildflowers, rather than hearing an RV engine and smelling exhaust fumes.

Five of the sites are directly creekside. Each site is spacious enough to spread your gear about. The new tent pads are elevated and well drained. A somewhat sparse understory reduces privacy, but the intimate walk-in setup magnifies an atmosphere of camaraderie among fellow campers not necessarily found in larger drive-in campgrounds.

The campground comfort station borders the parking area. It houses flush toilets and a large sink with a cold-water faucet. Two other water spigots are situated along the footpath loop. A recycling bin is located in the parking area. A pay phone is located 1 mile back down the gravel road at the Big Creek Ranger Station. Try to bring in what you need, so that you don't have to spend a lot of time driving around for supplies (there's nothing nearby). That way you can spend your time enjoying the park.

The Big Creek Trail starts at the campground and traces an old railroad grade from the logging era. Cool off the old-fashioned way in one of the many swimming holes that pool between the white rapids of Big Creek. Gaze up the sides of the valley; the rock bluffs you see have sheltered Smokies' wayfarers for thousands of years. Hike 3.3 miles up Big Creek and find the tumbling cascades of Mouse Creek Falls. Falls often occur where a feeder creek enters a main stream. The main stream valley erodes faster than the side stream valley, creating a hanging side canyon and then a waterfall. Continue on to Walnut Bottoms at 5 miles. This area has historically had more man-bear encounters than anywhere in the park. Keep food out of tents, and keep all food locked in your trunk when away from camp, not in the seat of your car. Crestmont Logging Company once had a camp here in the early 1900s, but now the area has returned to its former splendor. Three other trails splinter from Walnut Bottoms if you wish to explore more.

How about a strenuous hike through old-growth forest to a mountaintop capped in a Canadian-type forest with a 360-degree view from a fire tower? It's 6 miles up the Baxter Creek Trail, but your efforts will be amply rewarded. Start at the Big Creek picnic area just below the campground and go for it. Or take the Mount Sterling Trail from Mount Sterling Gap on nearby NC 284. It's only 3 miles to the tower this way. Just up from the Big Creek Ranger Station is the Chestnut Branch Trail. It leads 2 miles to the highest and wildest section of the entire Appalachian Trail, which traverses the Smoky Mountains. The historic fire tower at Mount Cammerer is only 4 miles farther. Or loop back on the Appalachian Trail to Davenport Gap and road-walk a short piece back to the campground.

Big Creek is wilderness tent camping at its best. The walk-in setting is your first step into the natural world of the Smokies. The rest of your adventure is limited only by your desire to explore the 500,000 acres in Big Creek Campground's backyard.

Key Information

Address: Big Creek Campground, 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, TN 37738; (865) 436-1200;

Open: Mid-March to October

Sites: 12

Assignment: First come, first served; no reservations

Fee: $12 per night

Elevation: 1,700 feet


Pets: On leash only

Fires: In fire pits only

Alcohol: At campsite only

Vehicles: 30-foot trailer length limit

Other: No RVs or trailers

Getting There

From Cove Creek take I-40 west for 15 miles, crossing the Tennessee state line, to the Waterville Exit 451. Cross the Pigeon River and turn left to follow the Pigeon upstream. Come to an intersection 2.3 miles after crossing the Pigeon. Proceed forward through the intersection and soon enter the park. Pass the Big Creek Ranger Station and drive to the end of the gravel road and the campground after 3.5 miles.



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