Relax, recharge and explore the Smokies at Under Canvas luxury camping resort.
by Cathy Martin
There’s something uniquely soothing about falling asleep at night and waking up in the morning to the sounds of the forest — a gentle rolling stream, the wind in the trees, birds singing at daybreak. It’s part of camping’s allure.
Now imagine waking to this relaxing symphony of sounds while snugly tucked in a plush, comfy bed, a crackling fire in the wood stove to keep you toasty. Such is the experience at Under Canvas Great Smoky Mountains, a luxury camping resort on 182 acres about 10 miles from Gatlinburg, Tenn.
Luxury camping, or glamping, is having a moment, as urbanites seek driving-distance getaways away from the crowds. Under Canvas was an early pioneer of the trend when it debuted its first glamping experience in Montana in 2009. Today, there are seven Under Canvas resorts, each bordering a national park or memorial, including the Grand Canyon, Zion and Glacier. New camps at Acadia National Park (Maine) and Lake Powell (Utah) are set to debut in spring 2021.
Under Canvas Great Smoky Mountains became the resort’s first East Coast location when it opened in 2018.
There’s a good reason why the Smokies, which straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee border, is the most-visited national park: Its 500,000 acres of wilderness boast 2,100 miles of streams and rivers, more than 1,500 wildflower species, waterfalls galore, and more than 800 miles of hiking trails.
Autumn just might be the perfect time to visit: The first three weeks of October is typically peak season for colorful fall foliage, according to Under Canvas General Manager Andy Chafe.
When you go camping, remembering to pack everything you’ll need for even a short trip can be overwhelming. Fortunately at Under Canvas, practically all that you’ll need during your stay is provided.
When arriving at the resort, you’ll check in at the main lobby tent, a 24-hour hub that’s the center for most camp activities. Breakfast and dinner are served here, and complimentary coffee and tea is available all day long.
Whether you’re traveling as a couple, with family or with friends, the resort offers a myriad of luxury tents to choose from, spaced comfortably apart so you don’t feel like you’re eavesdropping on your neighbors. Tents are designed with rustic wood floors, neutral decor and private covered porches for sipping morning coffee or a cold beer after a long hike. Each is equipped with a woodburning stove and all the firewood you’ll need. Linens and towels are provided, along with EO plant-based soaps and shampoos.
Deluxe tents have king-sized beds and private en suite bathrooms with showers. For more space, you can opt for a suite, with or without an adjacent “kids’ tent” — an adorable miniature version with two twin beds that’s just a few steps away. To fall asleep while gazing at the night sky, book a “Stargazer” tent with a viewing window above the bed. The more economical “Safari” tents are located a short walk to a shared bath house, with individual suites with showers and sinks. For the most privacy, request one of the four tents embedded in the woods at the back of the property, perched high above the ground for a treehouse-like vibe.
The goal at Under Canvas is to truly unplug: There’s no Wi-Fi, and there are no electrical outlets in the tents, but there are LED lanterns with USB plugs for charging cell phones. For those who might need to check in with the outside world at a moment’s notice, it’s important to note that the camp is a bit remote, and service can be spotty.
One of the best perks about staying at Under Canvas is the onsite dining for breakfast and dinner. The menus boast a variety of well-prepared dishes, often incorporating locally sourced ingredients.
Breakfast selections include steel-cut oatmeal, a yogurt parfait with fresh berries — a great grab-and-go choice if you’re hitting the trails early — and a hot daily special.
The dinner menu includes shareables such as a charcuterie plate and house-made hummus, salads, burgers and sandwiches. A grilled chicken bowl is a healthy option served in a hearty portion: Herb-marinated chicken breast and sauteed veggies over rice and quinoa is brightened by a zesty green goddess dressing. A small selection of craft beers and wines are available, and there’s a kids’ menu as well.
Order at the counter and settle in at one of the outside tables under string lights as you recount the day’s adventures. After dinner, cozy up to the campfire and enjoy complimentary s’mores before turning in for the night.
Hiking is perhaps the most accessible way to witness the wonders of the Smokies, with miles of trails of varying levels of difficulty. The Grotto Falls Trail takes you on a 2.6-mile round-trip hike to a 25-foot waterfall. Alum Cave, accessible via a 5-mile round-trip trail, is actually an 80-foot bluff that’s more akin to formations you might find out west than in the southern Appalachians. For a full-day activity, a strenuous workout and a bucket-list adventure, continue hiking past the cave to the summit of Mount LeConte, one of the highest peaks in the Smokies. It’s a steep ascent, but the views along the way are worth the climb, and at the summit there’s a lodge selling sack lunches and baked goods — a llama train brings provisions up the mountain three times a week during spring, summer and fall.
If spending a day on the water sounds like fun, Nantahala Outdoor Center, the original Bryson City river outfitter, has an outpost on the Pigeon River for whitewater rafting trips geared for both novices and intermediates. NOC also has a massive outfitters store in nearby Gatlinburg, where you can stock up on clothing and gear for whatever adventures you have planned.
With advance notice, the staff at Under Canvas will assist with booking reservations for guided hikes, rafting, jeep tours, helicopter tours and more.
Back at the campground, lawn games such as bean-bag toss, volleyball and horseshoes have been limited due to the pandemic. But two nights a week, regional musicians entertain guests as part of the resort’s Acoustic Campfire Music Series. The fall calendar includes Nashville up-and-comers Temecula Road and singer-songwriters Troy Cartwright and Emily Earle.
Given the vastness of the Great Smokies, you’ll have to spend a little time in the car to get from one activity to another. But if you’re an outdoor enthusiast who doesn’t want to abandon all the comforts of home, Under Canvas might be a perfect base camp for all your mountain adventures. SP
Under Canvas Great Smoky Mountains is located near Pigeon Forge, Tenn., less than a 4-hour drive from Charlotte. The resort closes for the season on Nov. 30 and reopens on April 21, 2021. Visit undercanvas.com to learn more.
Featured image by Paul Joyner