After we announced we were leaving RVA, a close friend in HIB told me she and her family were taking a southeastern road trip in August that included two nights in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and asked if we wanted to camp with them. Of course I was more than happy to make the drive, not just to see friends I knew we would be missing terribly by then, but also to see the Smokies. Jordi gave the names of a few campgrounds they were considering, and we settled on Balsam Mountain, due to its higher elevation, and the promise that it would be less occupied than the other GSMNP campgrounds.
The first thing you notice about this campground, is the fog. At 5,310′ elevation, it sits comfortably in the clouds–or at least it did while we were there, and it was present the whole time we were at the campground.
Our plan was to try and share one site between both families. However, when I got there with my kids, it was obvious the tent pad was not large enough even for two small tents, and as rest of the site was very hilly I chose to book the site next to hers. Between the intense fog that kept a layer of dampness all over the ground, and the promise of rain at night, I wanted us in our six person tent rather than my “two person” bivvy style backpacking tent.
The campground itself–or what we could see of it through the fog–is very lovely. And the fog and cooler weather gave it an eerie, late October feel that all of our kids really enjoyed. The elevation is high enough to have coniferous trees mixed in with the hardwoods, and despite the crowds on the trails lower on the mountains, there were hardly any other people at Balsam Mountain. Our sites were very near the entrance and just a couple of sites down from the campground hosts, and aside from them we only had one other occupied site nearby. We were also near bathrooms with flush toilets and a solar light for after dark, as well as a separate dishwashing station. On a future trip I would definitely choose a site further back in the loop, but considering the utter lack of privacy our location allowed, between the fog and the low occupancy, we still had the impression of having the place to ourselves.
Positive elements of this campground:
- Low occupancy, even during one of the busiest weeks of summer.
- Temperatures around 15 degrees lower than at the foot of the mountain–a welcome escape from the 90 degrees temps of the south in late August.
- Varying privacy of sites–we stayed in sites 38 and 39 which were right on the road and right next to the camp hosts, however on exploring the rest of the loop, there are sites that step down from the road and offer more room for kids to run around, and “walk-in” sites only a few dozen yards from the parking area, but without separate driveways per site.
- A trailhead at the campground. We did not end up hiking this due to the fog and how close to dark it was when we got to camp each night, but it allegedly has incredible sunset views, and is easy for all skill levels.
Negative elements of this campground:
- Small tent pads. Our Coleman Evanston 6 *barely* fit; I was not able to stake down one corner because it hung just over the edge of the wooden barrier.
- “Helicopter” campground hosts. A bear sighting was reported right around the time we arrived, and it led to the hosts being far more involved in the supervision of our children than either family was comfortable with. Particularly when one of the hosts tried to use fear as a method of keeping Jordi’s three-year-old from leaving the campsite. I understand their concern, and they probably thought we were not taking the bear threat seriously (we were), but few things annoy me more than having to helicopter my children because I’m worried about other adults interfering.
- Everything is damp. I don’t know how seasonal this is; this campground is closed November-April, and earlier in the summer may be drier, but be prepared for your stuff to get wet. We also had torrential rain our second night there.
Overall Family Friendly Rating: 4/5. Families who are not used to rugged spaces may find Balsam Mountain intimidating because of its isolation and the presence of wildlife, but I think that makes this an excellent place to give small kids a touch of backcountry while keeping the comforts of car camping. I hope that our experience with the campground hosts is not common; we got there late Sunday and spent most of Monday exploring the lower parts of GSMNP, but I got the feeling that either Jordi or I would have ended up unleashing our inner Mama Bears had we stayed up there during the day, just to remind the hosts who the actual parents were. The only other element of this campground that would make it hard for kids was just how damp it was. The fog was incredible, but keeping clothes/diapers/toys dry is more important with very young kids than if you were just there with teenagers/other adults. Fortunately as it is car camping we just kept anything we didn’t want to get wet in the cars.
Of note: this was my first camping trip with kids where I went the entire time without Billy, and I had absolutely no issue at this campground. There are very few environmental hazards other than wildlife, so as long as you follow proper food storage procedures and make sure the kids are within sight, this is a great place to let them explore.