When Jarrett and I first visited the Great Smoky Mountains on our honeymoon we rented one of those little cabins tucked into the wooded mountainside on the northern end of the park. But ever since, we have talked about returning to this beautiful part of the country with our camper and exploring more of the region. With our 15th anniversary approaching, we decided this was the perfect year to make a return visit.
For camping and RVing families, there are lots of locations on the north and south end of the park to camp, as well as plentiful options within the national park itself. Since our three-week RV adventure would later take us along the Blue Ridge Parkway, we opted to stay near the southern end of the park at River Valley Campground in Cherokee, N.C. Located just 10 minutes from the Great Smoky Mountains’ Oconaluftee Visitors Center, River Valley Campground offered easy convenience with private campground amenities at affordable rates.
River Valley Campground is located on the Cherokee Indian Reservation. It is a private campground, and as such does not offer large sprawling sites like we have found at most state parks or national park service campgrounds. Parts of the campground are very crowded, but the strip of river-side sites in section A and B offer more space and beautiful ambiance. We enjoyed falling asleep each night to the gentle thunder of the water. And our kids loved being able to play in the shallow waters of the river. Each morning and evening fishermen waded out into the waters to cast lines.
Some of the nicest river sites were in Loop B and included: B15 (your camper door would open to the river side); B1 (a wide site almost right across from the bathrooms); B4, B5, and B10 through B14.
In the non-riverside camping area of Loop B, B42 was a nice pull-through, gravel/grass site.
Here’s a picture of B1:
We neglected to note which sites these are, but the picture gives you an idea of the type of sites along the river:
Due to the crowded environment in the concrete pad area of Loop A, we don’t have any recommendations, but there are beautiful riverside sites in Loop A too. Some of those sites were not very long, however, and thus they would be better suited for tenters and shorter campers.
A view of the concrete-pad sites:
Our site A11 worked out fine for us, but it was very close to our neighbors on the picnic side (you can see the gravel of the next site just to the left of our picnic table in the picture below). We’d pick a different site next time. But considering it was a full hook-up site with cable and wifi, we thought it was an affordable stay: $204.05 for four nights for a family of 5. (The basic site rate is only for three people and the campground charges an additional $3 per person per night.)
An important note: At the time of our stay, the campground did not take credit cards or out of town checks. When we made our reservation we sent a deposit check (you can not reserve online), but the balance at the time of our stay had to be paid in cash.
The bathrooms were spacious and clean.
River Valley is lean on kid-friendly amenities. The campground does not have a playground or pool, which was a definite downside for our kids, although there was a small game room. We had an excellent Wi-Fi connection during our stay and we did some loads of clothes at the huge laundry room.
On our honeymoon 15 years ago we explored the northern end of the Great Smoky Mountains from our cabin near Gatlinburg, so this time we wanted to base camp on the southern end. From River Valley Campground it was only a 10 minute drive to the Smokies’ Oconaluftee Visitors Center. However, getting to other parts of the Smoky Mountains National Park (such as Clingmans Dome, Cades Cove, and Gatlinburg) requires more drive time, so if you camp in Cherokee, just make sure you plan accordingly.
The weather was beautiful during our stay, so we made the most of the three days we had to spend exploring the park. We spent one day in Cades Cove driving the loop and that’s where we spotted several bears and cubs–including one mama with three little ones. It’s a popular spot due to the bear sightings, and we’ve heard that during peak times, it can take HOURS to complete the loop because of stop and go traffic.
We pulled over to check out a couple historic churches and buildings within Cades Cove, too, including one church where you can play an old piano that sounds more like a harpsichord these days.
We got a little hiking in by going up to see Clingmans Dome and later Laurel Falls. Clingmans Dome is quite an incline, and it required a lot of encouragement to get our youngest all the way to the top.
We had fun taking some cool shots up at the top of Clingmans too 🙂 :
Laurel Falls was a great hike for families. Go early in the day if you can because it gets crowded as the day goes on–and there’s not a lot of room up at the falls.
On one of our drives back and forth through the park, we stopped at Newfound Gap to recreate a picture Jarrett and I took on our honeymoon 15 years ago:
Jarrett loves driving “off-the-beaten-path” so on our final day in the Smokies we decided to explore the Heintooga Round Bottom Road (also called the Heintooga Ridge Road on the Smoky Mountains NPS map), which is a one-way, primitive access road. We only saw about five other cars during our approximate two-hour drive, so if you are looking for a place to get away from the crowds, this is a good option. At the access point, there is a bathroom and picnic area–but from that point there are no facilities until you exit. Our two-wheel drive van did fine on the gravel road, but you can not drive fast (we were probably going no more than 15 mph) due to the pot holes, rivets, and curves. We didn’t see a lot of wildlife that day, although there was a point where a ruffled grouse chased me around the van. That’s a story for another day though.
We had a wonderful time touring the Great Smoky Mountains. The region is so vast that three days was only a sampler of all there is to explore. Have you visited the Smoky Mountains? If so, where did you camp, and what were your favorites places to explore?