Date of Travel: September 7-11, 2016
Total Cost Per Night: $65
Site: 9 (Full Hookup)
For decades we have be going to the Smoky Mountains, at least every couple years. It’s our closest national park, but that’s not the only reason we like to come here. This place is magical, serene, colorful and nostalgic. There are remnants of a different time of life around every corner. From log cabins to churches, moonshine stills to cattle pens, this place speaks of years gone by. It’s a special place and we were excited to be here again, this time in a camper.
While we have stayed in and around the Smokies for a long time, we had never stayed on the western side of the park. While most of the action happens around Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, and to a lesser degree, Cherokee, the western side of the park is a welcome escape from the busyness. Wears Valley and Townsend offer a more relaxed version of the Smokies and it just so happened that our main event was a half marathon taking place in Townsend. I was excited to be staying close to Cade’s Cove as this is one of our favorite places in the park.
As we’ve been exploring this year, we’ve stayed in every type of campground there is. We’ve dry camped in parking lots and national forest campgrounds, we’ve stayed in water only, electric only, water and electric sites and full hookups. Now, if I could have everything my little heart desires, I would pick a full hookup boondocking site overlooking a pristine lake reflecting a 14,000 rugged peak…oh, and I would be the only one there. But, we can’t have everything in life right? We have learned that we prefer national forest camping, to be tucked away in the woods, even if it means that we are dry camping. Well, for me to dry camp, I really prefer it to be in the 50s or so at night so we can open the windows or run the heater. I don’t like being hot when I sleep..at all! So, knowing that the temperatures would still potentially be in the 80s and 90s in early September we opted to find us some electricity.
As I was looking, there were pretty slim pickings on campgrounds in this area that had hookups. Don’t get me wrong, Elkmont is an amazing campground that’s not too far away, but I needed some air conditioning. So with few options available we settled on KOA. We had never stayed in a KOA, or any of the big name campgrounds for that matter. I was put off by the price, but you have to pay to play right? They were kind enough to give us a 10% off for me being a firefighter, so that was helpful. While I prefer to book online, the window for reserving online didn’t go far enough so I gave them a call. They were super friendly and after telling them I wanted to be river front, they worked with me to give me what they considered their best site available. We were traveling with my in-laws who also had a great experience booking with them for a cabin.
I just want to say, after being here for a few days and seeing some of the other campgrounds in the area (there are 4-5 within a couple of miles), I’m SO glad we stayed here. The other campgrounds seemed pretty sketchy from what I could see from the road. This place wasn’t perfect, but it was nice.
When we arrived, we nearly missed the entrance. Sure, there’s a HUGE billboard sign at the entrance, but still, the way the curb is and how the entrance is tucked just so, I kept almost missing it the entire 4 days we were there. Check-in was a breeze. After settling up our bill we were escorted out to our site (this was a first for us) and were assisted backing into our campsite. Throughout our stay here the KOA employees were super friendly and accommodating. There was one younger guy who was exceptionally outstanding. He even went into town to replace my in-laws box spring after they brought to his attention that it was sagging horribly. I know that this is what you would expect, but these days, the right thing doesn’t always happen and when you get good customer service it’s refreshing.
Ok, the campground. I knew that if we were going to go to the trouble to have full hookups and it wasn’t going to be cheap, we might as well spend the extra couple of bucks to be on the river. I asked for as much and they gave me site 9. Sites 9-15 all have patio platforms overlooking the river, which in theory are for sitting on. In reality, they make great places to corral all the junk you have like tubes, bikes, towels, etc. I was happy for our site compared to the other ones by us since we were kindof at an angle. It allowed us to see the river from our patio which was nice. The river at this spot is a dammed up area with some pretty deep water, at least 8-10 feet deep in some areas. The kids loved swimming and playing here (with our supervision of course) even after I told them we saw a snake swimming in the same area that they were playing in.
After touring the whole campground, I would’ve picked one of the water front sites on the other side of the park (sites 77-84 and 121-123) instead. While the water was dammed and deep by our site, the water 100-200 yards upstream was the bubbling, rocky river that the Smoky Mountains are known for. It was SO much prettier upstream. Along with how pretty the water was, the sites in this area of the campground are in heavy forest which is more of what I prefer. While our site was technically water front, we were still 30 yards away from the water. The water front sites on this side of the campground are right on the water, just steps away. You can sit in your lawn chair and just be mesmerized by the sights and sounds of the river bubbling by. My favorite site was 123 I think, though it was water/electric only and according to the map I’m not sure they would’ve allowed us to park there because of our size. It was huge though, easily enough room to park 3 campers and it was water front. All-in-all, my favorite campsites were 46-61 and 77-84.
One thing that KOA seems to do pretty well is to have things for the kids to do. The playground here was one of the coolest ones I’ve ever seen. They had actual tree trunks that they had carved out and built the whole playground around. While the kids had fun here, the real fun to be had was in the pool. We lucked out and had next door neighbors who had kids similar in age to ours and they all became close friends during our stay there. They spent hours and hours between the pool and the river swimming. KOA also offers things like movie night and tie-die t-shirts, crafts and hayrides. I think Micah rode the hayride at least 8-10 times. But the staff said they could ride as much as they wanted, they’d just quit when there were no more kids that wanted to ride. The campground is very bike friendly, but if you don’t have mountain bike tires, you’ll have a hard time since it’s all gravel. Just of note, there’s a bike trail that goes for miles through Townsend and towards Maryville that runs right past the campground. So if biking’s your thing, there’s good options here.
Some things you must do if you’re staying here are Cade’s Cove, Tuckaleechee Caverns and tubing down the river (you can start about 2 miles upriver at the turnoff for Cade’s Cove) to the campground. The water was pretty low but we still had a really good time. If you’re looking for good eating, Townsend isn’t really the place. The restaurant options are slim to none other than Apple Valley Country Cafe which was actually really good. If you need any nuts and bolts, there is an Ace Hardware in town (which I wish I knew about…I drove into Maryville twice for a plumbing emergency which I could’ve handled at the Ace!). There is also a Camping World about 40 minutes away near the Knoxville airport if you need any camper specific things.
Just wanted to mention the store. I don’t know how other KOAs are, but this one had a gas station right next to the park office that apparently KOA runs. Gas was overpriced compared to other local gas stations (but it is the last gas before the national park, or the first when you leave). Inside the gas station is the campground store. There are cheesy knick-knacks, a smattering of groceries and a few RV supplies. There is a small beer selection, milk, things like this. It felt very run down and flourescent. Nothing to write home about but at least they had something.
Ok, would I stay here again? Yeah, I think I would if we were in the same situation. I would pick a different site and would hope that the rates stayed at least as low as what I got (I saw they were up in the mid $80s in October). If the weather were right I would opt for Elkmont though. But for all the amenities and as much fun as the kids had, this campground really is a good place. Being right on the river and having a pool for the kids was a good fit for us this time around.