Tennessee is a state best known for bourbon and country music but outside of the bigger cities it is a land of mountains, rivers and forests. The east side of the state is home to a strip of the Appalachian Mountains so rugged hikes and big views are on the menu for those brave enough to lace up their boots. Those same namesake mountains also mean Tennessee is home to a few hundreds miles of the Appalachian Trail.
There are many natural wonders around the state that make for great locations for campgrounds. From National Parks and State Parks to wilderness areas and private campsites, you will have your pick of both RV, tent and primitive backcountry camping spots. Whether you are out with your family for a fun weekend or looking to hit the trails for a rugged mountain experience you can find what you are looking for in Tennessee.
What to Know About Camping in Tennessee
Tennessee has both serviced sites that you have to pay for and primitive campsites that may or may not be free. Serviced sites can have fresh drinking water, bathrooms, showers, picnic tables, fire pit, and electrical hookups along with amenities such as a store, firewood and recreational activities. Most national and state parks have paid campsites that you can book in advance. This is recommended especially on holiday weekends during the Summer and Fall.
Primitive sites are just a campsite in the woods. You may have a firepit and an outhouse but you will need to bring your water or a way to process safe drinking water. These sites often require a hike to get to them but there are some areas in Tennessee that offer drive-in primitive sites. Primitive campsites can be found in national and state forests as well as designated wilderness areas. These will tend to fall under the management of the Forestry Service or Bureau of Land Management so check their sites for rules and regulations regarding primitive camping. With most primitive sites it is first come first serve so if you head out as early as you can to guarantee you get a spot.
Best Time of Year to Camp in Tennessee
Being in the southeast, Tennessee tends to see milder winters and hot humid summers compared to a more northerly destination like Maine.
Even the coldest months will tend to be above freezing during the day but there can be heavy snowfall at higher elevations in the mountains. This can lead to some of the mountain destinations like Great Smoky Mountain National Park to have limited access due to road conditions.
Spring and fall will give you the best conditions for strenuous activities as it isn’t too hot or cold. Summer can get quite hot (Average High of 89 degrees Fahrenheit in July) and feels even hotter due to the humidity. This is perfect for water sports such as paddling but if you are hiking or cycling be careful to avoid overheating and drink lots to stay hydrated.
Best Places To Camp In Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The park is home to some of the tallest mountains east of the Mississippi River. Whether you are into just chilling at your campsite or looking for a more active pursuit like hiking or biking you will find a number of campgrounds within the national park to act as your homebase.
The Appalachian Trail (AT) passes through the park so you can get a taste of what thru hikers experience if only on a small scale. With either a challenging hike or a short drive you can summit Clingman’s Dome which is on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. This mountain is the tallest on the Appalachian Trail and the highest in the Eastern United States.
You have both front country car camping and backcountry camping options in the park. Since it is a popular destination you have to have a permit to camp which you should book ahead to guarantee a spot.
There are 4 great campgrounds within the park on the Tennessee side: Abram’s Falls, Cades Cove, Elkmont, and Cosby campgrounds spread through the park from south to north. Each is nestled in the mountains with easy drive-in access but a remote feel that makes you feel like you are lost in the wilderness.
The drive-in campsites have a picnic table and fire pit. There are flush toilets and clean drinking water but the park doesn’t have showers.
There are over 800 kilometers of trails in the park including a stretch of the AT so there are hundreds of backcountry campsites and shelters you can hike to. You will need to book a permit ahead of time for any backcountry camping.
Cherokee and Nantahala National Forest
If the national park is too touristy for your liking you can visit the Cherokee National Forest which borders the National Park to the north or Nantahala which connects to the south side.
These national forests are home to over 40 campgrounds which can handle anything from tents up to RVs. Depending on the individual campground the services vary from primitive camping with outhouses to full service RV sites with hookups. These campgrounds are paid sites and should be booked in advance to guarantee a spot.
Our favorite is the Horse Creek Recreation Area, a small campground that is nestled in a hardwood forest beside the bubbling creek. The cost is only $10 per night and it is a nice mix of nature with a few modern amenities, namely a shower and flush toilets. The limit is 5 people per site so a 6 person tent is a perfect option, giving you lots of extra room. Check out this review of the best 6 person tents if you are in need of a new shelter.
The picnic pavilion was built during the Great Depression and gives a rustic feel to the site. The location lends itself to much lower traffic than any of the campgrounds in the national park making for relaxing time.
Outside of the paid campground, national forests are also full of free camping options that let you experience more solitude and nature as you will tend to be away from other people. The forest service refers to this as dispersed camping and there are a few guidelines you need to follow. Your chosen campsite must be at least 100 feet from roads, trailheads, parking lots, water, and developed recreation areas.
While we’ve mentioned the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park it would be remiss from looking more in depth. Between the sections completely in Tennessee and the length that follows the border between North Carolina, there are almost 300 miles of the trail in the state.
Except for the section that passes through Great Smoky Mountains National Park which requires a permit, the rest of the trail is free to camp on. You can do an overnighter on the weekend or section hike as much as you like camping all along the way.
The AT has prepared campsites roughly every 10 miles that are free to use on a first come, first serve basis. Most of the sites have an open front shelter that is there for anyone one to use. You just have to lay out your sleeping pad and sleeping bag. Be ready to share though as the shelters house up to 8 people.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail is a great experience in Tennessee as it has many of the tallest mountains in the southern section. The high point is summiting Clingman’s Dome, which will have your mixing with the people who drove to the top, astounded that anyone would have the energy to do it on foot.
Harrison Bay State Park
Moving away from the mountains in the east we head down south to Harrison Bay State Park. Located just north of Chattanooga, the park is around Harrison Bay on the Tennessee River. This is a watersports haven for boating, paddling and fishing. There is even a golf course attached to the park for those whose main outdoor activity involves more greens and less forest.
They offer both serviced RV sites and tent sites all located near the water. Harrison Bay is a great place to bring the whole family as you can enjoy the water or walk around the shore. The hiking trails are moderate so even the kids can enjoy a walk in the woods without it being too strenuous.
The marina has a free public boat launch for power boats while you can put your kayak or canoe in just about anywhere. If you don’t have your own boat they rent kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddle boards by the hour. Bring your heavy duty camp chair to sit around the campfire and enjoy a cold beer while telling stories of your day on the river or the fish that got away.
Natchez Trace State Park Campground
Moving west we come upon the Natchez Trace State Park. Named after the trail that acted as an early highway from the Nashville area to Southern Mississippi, the park hosts serviced RV sites, drive-in tent sites and backcountry camping. This mix offers up something for everyone.
There are even cabins for rent if you have some family members who like their wilderness with all the amenities of home.
In addition to hiking, paddling, swimming, and fishing, the park has both an archery and shooting range. The archery range is open to all during daylight hours but the shooting range needs a permit that you can get at the office.
For the horse riding enthusiast they have the wrangler campground which has access to horse stalls in addition to a full service campsite. There are over 250 miles of multi-use trails that are open to hikers, cyclists and equestrians.
Cell reception is spotty so it makes a great place to disconnect from technology. There is very little light pollution in the area so nights are very dark with an amazing view of the stars if the sky is clear.
Walls of Jericho Campground
Right on the Alabama/Tennessee border is a unique rock formation called the Walls of Jericho. The limestone has eroded to leave a natural amphitheater and steep canyons. You can either hike to explore or enjoy a leisurely horseback ridge on the designated trail. The Wall of Jericho is within a wilderness management area and is part of 20,000 acres of preservation land.
There are two primitive campsites near the Walls of Jericho. This means you will need to bring everything you need including a way to process safe drinking water. The first site is at the end of the trailhead parking lot and the other is hiked down the valley. There are a total of around 20 sites between the two areas. It is free to camp here and the sites are available on a first come first serve basis.
The Bottom Line
Tennessee is a land of wild mountains and forests interspersed with modern cities and towns. This makes it easy to access many of the camping spots. If you are coming from any of the major urban centers there is a camping option that is just a short drive away. The combination of mountains and rivers offer up adventures for the thrill seekers and idyllic getaways for those looking to destress. When you are planning your next camping trip, put Tennessee on the top of your list, especially if you live in the Eastern United States.
Last Updated on April 21, 2022