Occupying a huge swath of North Carolina just south of Bryson City, the Nantahala National Forest encompasses over a half-million acres of wilderness, with elevations ranging from 1,200 to more than 5,000 feet.
The Nantahala National Forest is the largest national forest in the state of North Carolina. It’s bigger than the more famous Pisgah National Forest, and slightly bigger than Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
Established in 1920, the forest is split into three ranger districts: Cheoah (the Cherokee word for “otter”), Nantahala (“land of the noonday sun”), and Tusquittee (“where the water dogs laugh”).
The wilderness of Nantahala, North Carolina, is replete with clean mountain creeks, early 20th-century lakes and reservoirs, and designated recreation areas.
The Nantahala National Forest features around 600 miles of hiking trails, many of which are also open to mountain biking and horseback riding.
Camping in Nantahala National Forest is also a huge part of the draw, as are water-based activities such as fishing, boating, and special swimming beaches
And we haven’t even gotten into the amazing collection of waterfalls you’ll find in the forest!
If you’re interested in a Nantahala camping trip, read on for our guide to an array of options from which to choose, from primitive backcountry camping to car camping and RV hookups.
Camping in Nantahala National Forest Guide
- Cable Cove Campground
- Cheoah Point Campground
- Horse Cove Campground
- Tsali Campground
- Ammons Branch Campground
- Balsam Lake Lodge
- Blue Valley Campground
- Hurricane Creek Horse & Primitive Campground
- Standing Indian Campground
- Van Hook Glade Campground
- Wine Spring Horse Camp
- Bristol Fields Horse Camp
- Jackrabbit Mountain Recreation Area
Cheoah Ranger District Campgrounds
1070 Massey Branch Road, Robbinsville, NC 28771 • 828-479-6431
The Cheoah Ranger District covers around 120,000 acres in the Graham and Swain counties of NC. Included in this section is the Cheoah Point Recreation Area, which has a designated swimming area on Santeetlah Lake.
The Appalachian Trail in North Carolina passes through this district, and is part of some 300 miles of Cheoah trail systems for Nantahala National Forest hiking.
The Cherohala Skyline is a great road trip for taking in vistas of the forest, and the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is one of the few spots in the east to see true old-growth forest that survived the logging era.
1. Cable Cove Campground
Location: NC 28N • Phone: 828-479-6431 • Official Website
Located less than five miles from the Fontana Dam, Cable Cove is more of a boat launch than a campground these days. It’s been shut down for a while now due to aging facilities.
The area still offers lake and pond fishing. There’s also an easy hiking trail, Cable Cove Nature Trail (1 mile), and a largely abandoned trail, the Cable Gap Trail, which may be impassible these days due to downed trees.
Nonetheless, Cable Cove is still listed on the National Forest Service website as a campground.
2. Cheoah Point Campground
Location: US 129 • Phone: 828-479-6431 • Official Website
Cheoah Point is a very convenient spot for campers looking to enjoy the Nantahala’s Santeetlah Lake.
Many of the campsites here have views of the lake, and the Cheoah Point Recreation Area is within walking distance of the campground.
The Cheoah Point Recreation Area has a beach, a nice picnic shelter, and a boat ramp. There’s also the Cheoah Trail, an easy 2.5-mile hike.
The Cheoah Point Campground is located within 10 miles of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and Cherohala Skyline.
3. Horse Cove Campground
Near Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest • Phone: 828-479-6431 • Official Website
Horse Cove Campground currently has some campsites open.
But due to a long-term water system issue, it’s into more of a primitive site, with a vault toilet and no running water.
However, it is located near the lake for bathing, and there’s a creek for purifying fresh drinking water.
The big draw for staying at Horse Cove is that it’s within walking distance of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.
The Cherohala Skyline is a couple of miles away, the Avery Branch Boat Ramp is a little over one mile, and the Cheoah Point Recreation Area is less than 10 miles away.
4. Tsali Campground
Location: NC 28 • Phone: 828-479-6431 • Official Website
The Tsali Recreation Area is open year-round, and the Tsali Campground is open from mid-April to the end of October.
There are several long hiking trails here that are open to mountain bikes and horses, including Right Loop (13.9 miles), Left Loop (11.9 miles), Mouse Branch Trail (8.7 miles), and Thompson Loop (7.3 miles).
The Tsali Campground has 42 first-come, first-served sites, many of which can accommodate small RVs but don’t have any hookups.
It also has flush toilets, hot showers, and drinking water. Nearby Fontana Lake offers great fishing and boating.
Nantahala National Forest Dispersed Camping (Cheoah Ranger District)
There are several dispersed camping sites within the Cheoah Ranger District. These require no reservation and can be used without a fee.
- Joyce Kilmer Road NCSR #1134
- Long Hungry FDR #2586
- Panther Creek FDR #2604B
- Pine Ridge Road NCSR #1147
- Santeetlah Creek FDR #81
- Santeetlah Lake
- Snowbird Backcountry Area
- Snowbird Creek
- Wolf Laurel Hunters Camp FDR #81F
Note that they don’t have bathrooms or amenities, and camping is only allowed in the designated area. For more information, call the Cheoah District Ranger Office: at 828-479-6431.
Nantahala District Campgrounds
90 Sloan Road • Franklin, NC 28734 • 828-524-6641
Encompassing 250,000 acres that span Macon, Swain, and Jackson counties, the Nantahala Ranger District is the largest of the three Nantahala National Forest districts.
It includes several exceptional recreation areas, including the Cullasaja Gorge and Mountain Waters Scenic Byway. It’s also home to Lake Nantahala and the Nantahala River.
There are lots of trails here, with hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding all offering loads of places to explore. Scenic drives are another big draw of this section.
5. Ammons Branch Campground
Bull Pen Road • Phone: 828-524-6441 • Official Website
The Ammons Branch Campground is really more like a small collection of closely located dispersed camping sites.
But it does have a few extra amenities, including a pit toilet. The four no-fee campsites also have picnic tables and lantern hangers.
The Ammons campsites are located a few miles outside of Highlands NC, and around 10 miles from Cashiers.
This is a great spot for seeing some of the best Nantahala National Forest waterfalls, like Dry Falls, Whitewater Falls, and Bust Your Butt Falls. The big hiking draw here is the Ellicott Rock Wilderness Trail.
READ MORE: The 30 Best Waterfalls Near Asheville NC
6. Balsam Lake Lodge
Not exactly a campground, but worthy of inclusion in this list, the Balsam Lake Lodge is available to rent for a couple hundred dollars a night and sleeps up to 20 people.
The lodge overlooks Balsam Lake, and has flush toilets, drinking water, a kitchen, and 16 twin beds.
There are three hiking trails, fishing piers, and a swimming area here. Boating and fishing are permitted, and even hunting is allowed during the season.
There are numerous Nantahala National Forest waterfalls and Pisgah National Forest waterfalls that are close enough to visit, and you could easily visit several in one day.
7. Blue Valley Campground
NC 28S • Phone: 828-524-6441 • Official Website
With 22 dispersed campsites, Blue Valley is a pack-in, pack-out campground with a few amenities.
There are shared pit toilets, and most sites have fire rings and picnic tables. There’s also a creek— the East Fork Overflow Creek—that runs by it.
Outdoor recreation opportunities close to the Blue Valley Campground include the Blue Valley Experimental Forest and Wilson Lakes.
8. Hurricane Creek Horse & Primitive Campground
FR 67 • Phone: 828-369-0442 • Official Website
This is a good site for accessing both horse and hiking trails, with big game and small game hunting in the seasons.
Fishing in the creeks and streams is permitted, and wildlife viewing is very good here as well.
This campground welcomes horseback riders, and has facilities to accommodate that. Campsites are first-come, first-served and cost just $6 per night.
The Hurricane Creek Campground has vault toilets and fire rings, as well as the creek nearby to help with water (no running water on-site).
9. Standing Indian Campground
One of only a few Nantahala National Forest campgrounds that allow advance reservations, the Standing Indian Campground has 84 sites (including some for RVs), 33 of which can be reserved.
The campground’s facilities include flush toilets, showers, and drinking water.
Standing Indian Basin has world-class hiking. The nearby Nantahala river has whitewater rafting on offer, and the collection of creeks and streams is renowned for great trout fishing.
It’s surrounded by 5,000-foot peaks, so there are great vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains all around.
10. Van Hook Glade Campground
Also accepting reservations, the Van Hook Glade Campground is perfect for those looking to have a quiet, laidback adventure with some of the creature comforts (like flush toilets and picnic tables).
There are 18, well-spaced sites here, with Cliffside Lake very close by.
Without leaving the immediate area, there are six hiking trails, picnicking spots, a swimming area, and fishing.
The town of Highlands NC is only a few miles away, as are Dry Falls and Whitewater Falls.
11. Wine Spring Horse Camp
Location: FS 711 • Phone: 828-524-6441 x 410 • Official Website Info
Advance reservations are required for this small, 6-site horse camp with primitive amenities (i.e. a vault bathroom, but no running water).
This Nantahala campground is mostly used as a quick overnight stop for those on long horseback riding trips.
It has a campfire ring, as well as a place for riders to tether their horses.
READ MORE: The 15 Best NC Wineries to Visit
Nantahala National Forest Dispersed Camping (Nantahala District)
There are several other dispersed camping sites (aside from Ammons Branch, Blue Valley, and Hurricane Creek) in the Nantahala District. These require no reservation, and can be used without a fee.
- Chattooga Wild and Scenic River (which extends south into Clayton GA)
- Ellicott Rock Wilderness
- Panthertown Valley Backcountry Area
None of them have bathrooms or amenities, and camping is only allowed in the designated area. For more information, call the Nantahala District Ranger Office: at 828-524-6641.
Tusquitee District Campgrounds
123 Woodland Drive • Murphy, NC 28906 • 828-837-5152
Tusquittee Ranger District is just under 160,000 acres of wilderness spread across Cherokee and Clay counties.
It features two rivers—the Hiwassee and the Valley—and three gorgeous mountain lakes. So if you’re looking for water-based recreation in Nantahala National Forest, this is the perfect spot.
There are two major recreation areas in Tusquittee, Jackrabbit Mountain and Hanging Dog.
Each offers mountain biking and hiking trails, as well as lake access for boating and fishing. Chatuge Lake in Jackrabbit Mountain has a swimming area as well.
12. Bristol Fields Horse Camp
Location: FR 340 • Phone: 828-837-5152 • Official Website
Part of a widely dispersed network of Nantahala National Forest horse camps, Bristol Fields Horse Camp has vault toilets.
It’s located on Fire Creek to provide access to fresh water, and there a tether poles for the horses.
Again, this is mostly just a stop for equestrian riders on long trips.
13. Jackrabbit Mountain Recreation Area
Camping in the Nantahala National Forest’s western reaches is mostly at Jackrabbit Mountain Recreation Area.
It has a big Nantahala campground of 100 sites located on a peninsula of Lake Chatuge. The facilities here include flush toilets, showers, picnic shelters, and a boat ramp.
Motorized boats are permitted on this lake, including jet skis. There’s also a swimming area, plenty of fishing, and 130 miles of shoreline.
The area’s many hiking trails include the 12.5-mile Jackrabbit Mountain Loop, which can be done as a reasonable, albeit epic day hike.
Nantahala National Forest Dispersed Camping (Tusquitee District)
There’s just one dispersed camping area in the Tusquitee District.
The Fire Creek Recreation Area requires no reservation, and can be used without a fee.
They don’t have bathrooms or amenities there, and camping is only allowed in the designated area. For more information, call the Tusquitee District Ranger Office: at 828-837-5152. -by Jonathon Engels; lead photo via Canva