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The Best Camping in Tennessee

Tennessee offers a diverse array of attractions for the intrepid traveler: country, blues, and rock n’ roll, cocktails and barbeque, heaps of history, and, of course, an abundance of stunning natural beauty. With the Mississippi River to the west and the Appalachians to the east, there’s no shortage of unparalleled wonders to explore and equally excellent places to unpack your sleeping bag afterward. 

If you’re considering camping after a long day’s jaunt (which we highly recommend), you’ve got hundreds of campgrounds to choose from across this incredible state. To narrow it down a bit, here you’ll find recommendations for a variety of camping options to choose from for every occasion.

National Parks and Forests

Tennessee is home to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Cherokee National Forest, and the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, and is bordered by the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. This gives you unlimited options for spectacular adventures and wildlife encounters in some of the nation’s most beautiful natural areas.

However, it’s quite important to keep in mind the difference between forest, park, and recreational area, and what is deemed acceptable in each. The National Parks Service has all the information you may need to keep your actions legal and safe while visiting these areas. 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park 

Nestled along the Appalachian Mountains and teeming with diverse plants and animals, the Great Smoky Mountains is the number one most visited national park in the United States. And there are a number of campgrounds to choose from, both front-country and backcountry.

Cades Cove is by far the most recommended campsite in the park. The site is located in the northwest section of the park and boasts of a primitive feel with basic amenities like drinking water and flushing toilets. Cades Cove lies in a valley surrounded by mountains and contains the 11-mile Cades Cove loop. Camping is available year-round at Cades Cove and caters to both tent and RV campers. Reservations are required.

If you’re looking to avoid the hustle and bustle of one of the most popular campsites in the park, Cosby Campground offers visitors quieter sites that are both reservable and first come, first serve, restrooms, and sites for both tents and RVs. Located in the northeastern section of the park, the campground is open from April 3 to November 1st and is one of the few campgrounds in the park with direct access to the Appalachian Trail. 

Abram’s Creek Campground and Elkmont Campground are two other notable sites in the park. Abram’s Creek is a remote, tent-only campsite with access to multiple hiking trails including Cane Creek Trail, Little Bottoms Trail, and Rabbit Creek Trail — which leads to Cades Cove. And Elkmont Campground, the largest campground in the park, is located only eight miles from Gatlinburg and provides handicap accessible amenities. 

The Smoky Mountains National Park also offers a variety of backcountry campsites. All rules, regulations, and locations can be found here

It is important to note that the campgrounds in the Smoky Mountains National Park do not offer showers or hookups for RVs. 

Cherokee National Forest

Nestled in the southern foot of the Appalachian Mountains and divided by the Smoky Mountains National Park, the Cherokee National Forest offers campers and hikers an abundance of recreational activities. At 650,000 acres, the Cherokee National Forest is the largest tract of public land in Tennessee and is home to 20,000 species of flora and fauna. 

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There are over 20 different campgrounds throughout the Cherokee National Forest, each offering varying amenities like potable water, vault or flush toilets, pavilions, and/or electrical hookups for RVs. 

If you’re searching for a secluded, affordable campground hidden near the Tellico River, then Spivey Cove is a perfect choice. It is located in the southern section of the national forest, close to the Bald River Falls. At only $6.00 a night, this first come, first serve campground has 16 sites, vault toilets, campsites with firepits, and room for RVs. However, it should be noted that this campground does not open until the 1st of May. 

Backbone Rock Recreation Area in the northern section of the forest is another must-see. The historic spur ridge along Holston Mountain, now coined “The Shortest Tunnel in the World” by campers and motorists, was developed in 1901 to allow railroad access between Shady Valley and Damascus, VA. The campground consists of 8 reservable campsites, flush toilets, and a day-use area with access to hiking trails. Each campsite is $10.00 a night and the campground is open from the end of April to the middle of October. 

Dispersed camping is also permitted, without fee, in the Cherokee National Forest at designated areas. These areas include Citico Creek Area, French Broad River Area, and Tellico River Area. 

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area

The Big South Fork National River And Recreation Area has a multitude of outdoor activities to partake in — hiking, swimming, rock climbing, horseback riding, and paddling to name a few. They also have several options for camping. While a majority of these campgrounds are located in Kentucky, it’s worth noting that the Bandy Creek Campground is an ideal spot to stop if you’re south of the Kentucky border. 

The Bandy Creek Campground is a developed campground between Oneida and Jamestown that offers 181 sites for both tents and RV camping. The campground is open year-round, and each campsite comes equipped with a fire pit, picnic table, and access to restrooms and showers. Each campsite ranges from $10 – $32 depending on a variety of factors including pass type, group or individual camping, and amp hookups. 

Backcountry camping is also permitted in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. Backcountry camping permits are required, however, there are no designated sites for use. If you’re considering paddling down the river, camping along the river flood plain is also permitted. All rules and regulations can be found here

State Parks

In Tennessee, you can find over 50 state parks with 1,300 miles of trails and 36 different campgrounds. Tennessee State Parks offer campers a wide variety of options for camping including tent, RV, group, primitive, and backcountry, and most are open year-round. Each state park provides travelers with different amenities ranging from minimalist — only a fire ring — in backcountry sites to cabins fully equipped with television, appliances, and a fireplace. 

Most Popular

Falls Creek Falls State Park is home to the immense, 256-ft Falls Creek Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in the eastern United States. This sprawling park has over 29,800 acres to explore along the Cumberland Plateau and has incorporated activities like education, adventure courses, golf courses, and rock climbing to enjoy. Falls Creek Falls has a variety of options to stay at, with over 222 campsites and 30 cabins in five different areas of the park. Developed campgrounds range from $15 – $32 and backcountry camping ranges from $8 – $12. 

Rock Island State Park is another exceptionally popular state park characterized by its unique location at the convergence of the Caney Fork, Collins, and Rocky Rivers. Check out the cascading Great Falls or explore the scenic overlooks of the Caney Fork Gorge. The park has nine hiking trails and is known for rock hopping and swimming. Campgrounds range from $21 – $35 depending on which campground you choose and each campsite comes equipped with a fire ring, grill, and picnic table. The main campground provides accommodation for RVs with electric and water hookups, restrooms, showers, and a dump station. Twenty of the park’s 60 sites are available year-round.

If you’re seeking soaring mountain peaks and untamed forest instead, then head over to Frozen Head State Park. This park is aptly named for its 3,324-ft mountain summit in the Cumberland Mountains — known for its majestic snow- or ice-covered peak in the winter. Here you’ll find 50 miles of hiking trails and 20 primitive campsites ranging from $8 – $35, depending on where you stay. No hookups are present at Frozen Head State Park, but drinking water, restrooms, and showers are available. All backcountry camping requires a permit.

Lake and River

Looking for the best spot to dock your boat, take a swim, or cast your line? Tennessee State Parks has dozens of places to choose from. Check out the “most picturesque lake in Tennessee” at the Tims Ford State Park, where you can camp in the park’s two campgrounds or on any of the six islands on the lake. Or, indulge in your adventurous spirit and float, kayak, or raft down the Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River on their class I, II, III, IV, or V rapids. The Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park offers 47 primitive campgrounds to choose from. 

If those don’t suit your fancy, there are plenty of other options, such as the Meeman-Shelby State Forest Park along the Mississippi River, Natchez State Park, or Cumberland Mountain State Park

Historical

Tennessee is the birthplace of many significant moments in our nation’s history and it’s a perfect place for history buffs and wartime enthusiasts. Set up camp in David Crockett’s namesake park or birthplace park, or the Sergeant Alvin C. York State Historic Park, celebrating one of the most decorated soldiers of World War I. Learn about Native American history and ceremony at historic Old Stone Fort and camp at one of the site’s 51 campsites for tents or RVs. Or, visit the oldest standing frame house in Tennessee at the Sycamore Shoals State Park and camp on the land where numerous historical events took place in the 18th century. 

Backcountry Camping

Aside from the numerous options for scenic backcountry camping in the national and state parks in Tennessee, Overmountain Shelter on the Appalachian Trail and Percy Priest Islands just outside of Nashville are definitely worth noting. 

If you want a taste of the Appalachian Trail combined with the simplicity of an overnighter, make your way to Overmountain Shelter. Part of the Roan Highlands, this campsite can be reached 5.5 miles from the Carver Gap Parking Area. Here, you’ll find the iconic farmhouse-turned-AT shelter, popular amongst through-hikers of the AT. This old barn is unfortunately currently deemed unsafe to sleep inside, but there’s plenty of space to throw up a tent or hammock in the surrounding area. At the site, you’ll also find a toilet, fire pit, and picnic tables. If you’re looking for a solid structure to sleep under, the ATC recommends the Stan Murray Shelter two miles south. 

Another popular spot for the adventurous is Percy Priest Island camping. Percy Priest Lake has several islands that are accessible by boat, kayak, paddleboard, or any other form of water travel. Park your car at any of the marinas or put-in spots ranging from free to $8, and make your way to one of the islands for the night. Permits are not required for any of the islands, but be sure to check for a white post marked with a tent symbol deeming the island open for camping. 

Glamping

When it comes to glamping, Tennessee has some truly magical alternatives to tent or RV camping. Whether you’re looking for a romantic getaway, or just opting for a more comfortable and creative camping experience, these glamping options are a great way to experience all of the nature Tennessee has to offer. 

Just outside the Smoky Mountains, you’ll find an adorable campground owned and operated by the Nicely family offering retro campers, safari tents, and luxury treehouses to stay in. Camp LeConte is a luxury resort with a summer camp vibe that provides all the amenities you may need. Here you’ll find free wifi and outlets, bathhouses, a heated pool, and even a trolley service to downtown Gatlinburg. There’s also a variety of activities to do in the area, like rafting, climbing, and ziplining. 

If you’re looking for more of a “cabin in the woods” experience, Camp Grits Little Black Cabin is the perfect balance between rustic and glamp. The 12×12 off-grid tiny house is located on a residential property in Cosby, Tennessee, just outside the Smokies. The cabin comes equipped with a Norwegian wood stove, a kitchen with a propane stove and running rainwater to do dishes, a sleeping loft, and solar-powered lights. There’s a private compost toilet outhouse and firepit, and a shared bathhouse (shared with guests from their tipi and camper stays). 

And for a truly unique stay, Forest Gully Farms allows campers to stay underground in sustainable structures that bear a striking resemblance to hobbit houses. There’s a two-night minimum to sleep at this 15-acre farm, but your rental includes two small bedroom huts and a third kitchen/dining hut, plus private access to the bathhouse. The huts come with air conditioning and heating units, and the bathhouse has fresh spring drinking water and laundry facilities. The farm also offers foraging tours and hiking. 

Free Camping 

There are several free places to camp in Tennessee that offer campers a cheaper, more private experience. Each of these sites is first come, first serve and site-specific, but are worth checking out, budget-conscious or not.  

The Prentice Cooper State Forest offers two designated camping sites in southeastern Tennessee on the breathtaking Tennessee River Gorge. The forest itself is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, located just 10 miles west of Chatanooga. Here you’ll find hiking trails, beautiful bluff overlooks, and opportunities for climbing and mountain biking. These sites, Davis Pond and Hunter’s Check Station, are primitive sites with vault toilets and campfire rings. Backpackers may also use campsites along the trails. Note: Davis Pond must be accessed by nightfall and it is suggested to check scheduled hunting dates before planning your trip to any of the sites. 

Another favorite is the Meriwether Lewis Campground, part of the historic Meriwether Lewis National Monument where the famous explorer is buried. You’ll find this campground along the Natchez State Parkway at milepost 385.9. The 32-site campground has restrooms, picnic tables, exhibits, and trails, and can be used on a first come, first serve basis. There are no hookups here, but it can accommodate small RVs with back-in and pull-through sites. This campsite is known for fantastic camping, regardless of its free nature, and fills up frequently in the spring and fall, especially during holiday weekends. 

And, if you find yourself in the Cherokee National Forest, be sure to take a drive through the winding Paint Creek Corridor. Situated on Forest Road #41 between Paint Creek Campground and the French Broad River, you’ll find a number of designated dispersed camping sites along the corridor parallelling Paint Creek. These sites are free and have access to vault toilets. The area is popular for trout fishing, but there are also opportunities for hiking and beautiful scenic overlooks to observe Kelly and Dudley Falls. 

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