A state traditionally seen as part of the American Southeast, but often more in tune with the North Atlantic, North Carolina is a smooth blend of everything the East Coast has to offer, but something wholly of its own at the same time. Even the state’s nicknames leave one pondering what North Carolina is aiming for. The Tarheel State—what exactly is a Tarheel and do North Carolinians like the name? Or take the state’s other nickname, the Old North State—the state isn’t any older than “the North” and at the same time has consistently been a part of “the South” since the Civil War.
Regardless of nomenclature and allegiances, today North Carolina is one of the most beautiful states in which to camp east of the Mississippi. Its large size and diversity of ecosystems make for sand in your toes beach RVing, historical sightseeing, and rugged mountain camping alike. But with nearly 400 places to pitch a tent, where do you start?
Let’s find out!
The Best RV Camping in Western North Carolina
As the saying goes, the west is the best and what better place to start than the home of the Great Smoky Mountains and cultural mecca of Asheville in western North Carolina? Not to mention, should you be experiencing engine trouble, it’ll be much easier to drift eastward on the long, slow procession that leads one to the coast.
Even at its high elevation, the state is mild yearlong, with winters rarely seeing snow that midday sunshine can’t melt and summers hanging around in the mid-80s. Aside from being home to a national park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, countless quaint Main Streets cut through towns lining national forests and old-time farmlands abound. It is the literal definition of picturesque, or if it’s not, someone needs to shoot Merriam and his old pal Webster an email to update the dictionary.
Free Camping in Western North Carolina
Though autumn is perhaps the best time to visit this stretch of the Appalachians, with vivid colors erupting from grand hardwoods of all varieties, the fact that you’ll find more free camping than beneath a Seattle underpass in the area makes for as a good a reason to explore Western North Carolina year ’round as any.
In the Nantahala National Forest, south of Great Smoky Mountains, Santeetlah Lake offers rustic camping along the ruddy shores of a wooded lake, where your cell phone is likely to work as well as the water is clear and the typical trifecta of national forest camping–picnic tables, fire rings, and vault toilets–wait along the banks to make your camping all the more enjoyable.
The Nantahala is also home to Western NC’s second favorite free camping spot, Magazine Branch, another lakeside campground with similar amenities to Santeetlah, but arguably much more dramatic views. Just don’t expect any cell service as you creep deeper into the forest.
Heading east, just outside of Brevard and not terribly far from Asheville, NC, Wolf Ford Horse Camp is free camping intended for the equestrian crowd, but open to anyone who can make the only somewhat arduous, narrow dirt road through the forest. Note that the road is closed sporadically, and if several campers with horse trailers have already taken the spots, the rangers may not be overly enthusiastic about non-equestrians using the site. It’s best to call ahead (information on the Campendium listing) before making the trip.
Camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
We’ve written all about camping in and around the Smokies, but as for a quick refresher, Cataloochee Campground–directly in the park itself–is the current crowd favorite, where a cell phone-free, dry camping experience awaits you in a streamside, forested setting.
Two other campgrounds in the park, Smokemont and Elkmont, the latter technically being on the Tennessee tea sipping side of life, round out the opportunities to soak up as much of the winding roads through dramatic valleys and peaks that the Smokies have to offer.
The Best Full-Hookup Camping in Western North Carolina
When you want to plug the old toaster on wheels in, soak up the easy electric and unlimited water coming in and out, and find that full-on glamping experience that only full-hookups can provide, much of the best camping is found around beautiful, eclectic Asheville, North Carolina.
Fifteen minutes north of the city, Campfire Lodgings is a full-service RV park with sweeping views included (in the premium sites, anyway). Several sites back directly up to fenced-off cliffs with unobscured views of the layers upon layers of rolling splendor that give the Blue Ridge Mountains their name. Though it’ll run you $70 or more per night, once the fog rolls in and coats these hills it’ll be hard to argue that the experience wasn’t worth it.
For a more reasonable rate, but no less good views, Mama Gertie’s Hideaway in Swannanoa (basically a suburb of Asheville) still places you only twenty minutes or so outside of the city, but trends significantly more affordable with all of the same amenities of Campfire Lodgings–that is, laundry, showers, propane, and firewood available onsite.
If being as close to the city as possible is your primary goal, check out the less scenic (though perched immediately on the French Broad River, it’s not exactly a dump) and significantly louder (a highway towers overhead) Wilson’s Riverfront RV Park.
The Best RV Camping in Central North Carolina
Also known as “The Piedmont”, Central North Carolina is home to the big cities in the state. Charlotte rivals Jacksonville, Florida for the largest city in all of the Southeast, while Raleigh is the more charming, tree-lined streets version and also the state’s capital. Rounding out the big city Piedmont picture, Greensboro is where all freeways seem to align in North Carolina.
RV Camping in Charlotte, North Carolina
While it may not top most people’s lists of favorite camping destinations, when you want to explore the big city life that Charlotte has to offer–from theme parks to whitewater rafting, museums to the NASCAR Hall of Fame–several options promise to serve as excellent basecamps.
Ebenezer Park, with its spacious, level sites, many of which afford a view of Lake Wylie, is a popular place for those who want to explore Charlotte but are still interested in a more natural setting. This little slice of nature in a county park will put you up to an hour outside of downtown, though, so the beauty certainly comes at a price. Luckily, as full-hookups parks go, it’s reasonably priced and the area isn’t lacking in things to do all on its own, either.
To get as close to town as possible, Elmore Mobile Home and RV Park is a far cry from natural splendor but affords you that close-to-the-action RV park camping that exploring a city is all about.
Another fun option, whether you have kids in tow or are just a kid at heart, is Carowinds Camp Wilderness Resort, which–while perhaps being wild in theme only–puts you directly within the Carowinds theme park facilities.
Should you choose to spend more time in the trees than sightseeing, McDowell Nature Preserve can provide exactly that camping experience, while still placing you within the city limits.
RV Camping in Raleigh, North Carolina
The state’s capital is surrounded by RV camping, with more natural settings focused on the northern and western sides of town, and full-hookup, private RV park camping along the city’s southeastern boundaries.
A little over thirty minutes west of town, Jordan Lake State Recreation Area hosts several campgrounds, most with water and electric hookups. North of town, Falls Lake State Recreation Area has fewer options, but similar amenities and both are all about those outdoor, waterbound activities one typically finds at any location deemed a “recreation area.”
The North Carolina State Fairgrounds provide full-hookups camping, in town, as long as your particular list of qualms doesn’t include camping in a large open field.
RV Camping in Greensboro, North Carolina
Another mild metropolis in the Tarheel State known for its historical museums and a big waterpark, Greensboro’s camping options are a bit more limited than its larger sister cities.
Hagan Stone, a county park, is water and electric only, with a nice playground and some wooded sites. Oak Hollow Family Campground, a bit further out, provides similar amenities but tosses in a sewer connection and lakefront real estate to boot.
The Best RV Camping in Coastal North Carolina
Is your engine still purring along? Tired of city camping and longing for some Atlantic Ocean awesomeness? North Carolina’s coastline is full of camping experiences of all types, including the fabled, impossible to find free camping near the Atlantic!
Perhaps best known for the Outer Banks, there’s more to explore on the coast of the Old North State.
Before we dive into all of the beauty of camping on the beach here, though, we should note what a pleasure, right, and privilege we have in this nation with all of our public lands, many of which are free to camp within. Unlike most rights though, this one can be taken away and the pleasure and privilege parts destroyed along with it if we all don’t take care of these lands.
Take Siddie Fields, for example. This waterfront slice of the Croatan National Forest once offered free camping for tenters and RVs alike…until it was revoked due to people overstaying their 14 day welcome and leaving too much trash behind. It only takes a moment to toss your cans and wrappers in a trash bin. Even spending 30 minutes picking up garbage and packing it out to the nearest dumpster is well worth it when you consider how valuable an epic view, the breeze between the trees and a free spot to call home for the night truly are.
Free Camping on the North Carolina Coast
Several free camping spots live on the southeast corner of the state, the best of which is wide open beach camping on Cape Lookout National Seashore. Four-wheel drive is recommended, and likely downright necessary, particularly given the reality that the ocean obeys the moon and as the tides change, so does the available amount of sand by which you can comfortably camp without becoming the next hashtag-shipwrecked meme on Instagram.
The Absolute Best Camping on the Coast of North Carolina
You’ve hauled up and down the Smokies, navigated the Piedmont’s freeways, and even had a taste of some free camping on the coast. Now that the exploration is done, it’s time to find that perfect campsite to while away those long summer days. Only steps from–if not directly on–the beach, some of the most relaxing, stunning camping on the East Coast awaits in North Carolina.
South of Wilmington, Carolina Beach State Park is as grand a spot to camp as its name is presumptuous. Though it’s a state park with a very “camping in the woods” feel, it’s a full-hookup establishment. Also to note, despite its name, the setting is not immediately close to the water, and indeed closer to Cape Fear than the Atlantic, which is across US 421 and about two miles from the campground itself.
In the Croatan National Forest, two of the coast’s best-rated campgrounds offer electric hookups, including Cedar Point and Flanner Beach-Neuse River Campground, with the latter being particularly on the beach.
Back to the Outer Banks, though, while at first glance it appears that there’s more camping on this stretch of inlet than in the rest of the entire known universe, not all camping is equal of course.
Within Cape Hatteras National Seashore, two of the best campgrounds the Outer Banks has to offer wait longingly for your next beach camping excursion. Being a national park (seashore, specifically, but you get the driftwood-framed picture), one might know what to expect. Dramatic sunrises drape the Atlantic as wildlife frolic in the distance. Sites at Frisco Campground offer either a view of the ocean or more secluded spots near the dunes, while the open, grassy sites at Oregon Inlet are a short walk to the beach, and some sites even have water and electric hookups now. As to private camping, Cape Hatteras KOA may be the best Kampground of America there is, and has all of the amenities of a nicer KOA–jump pads, a pool complex (including double water slides and a hot tub), all the sewer pipe connections one might need for sale in the store and, of course, an ice cream social. The fun doesn’t come close to stopping there, so if you’re towing the kids along with the trailer (or even your dog), this might prove exactly the type of camping experience on the Carolina Coast you’re looking for.
Given its affinity to beachcombers and thru-hikers alike, North Carolina is not only a place for massive exploration on its own, its a great launching point for visiting neighboring states to enjoy the Blue Ridge Mountains in Georgia, historic Charleston, South Carolina, country music’s Nashville, Tennessee and all of the American history-riddled states to the north. No need to stop with these recommendations alone, though, Campendium is full of places to explore in the Old North State.