It would take you all day to drive from North Carolina’s mountains to the sea, a journey of 503 miles under skies of Carolina blue and through high peaks and Foothills, Piedmont and Coastal Plain before finally reaching the shore. And if you drove the coast—only 300 miles as the crow flies—it’s a days drive as you follow the undulating line where water meets land, passing swamps, marshes, pocosins, and the shallow sounds on our eastern edge.
But the reality is this: North Carolina—the Earth, even—is barely a speck, cosmically speaking.
Go outside on the darkest night and look up. Even in the brightest of our cities you’ll see stars and planets overhead, only a handful out of hundreds of billions of stars and planets, nebulae and galaxies all right there, all out of reach.
To get a real sense of the wonder that is the cosmos, you need to get away from the cities, away from lights, to a place where the sky is as dark as it gets. A place where the Milky Way can be as bright as a full moon. A place where the majesty of the heavens is laid bare before you. A place where you couldn’t count all the stars if you had all the nights of your life to try.
We’ve traveled the state from mountains to sea to find some of the best open-sky camping spots North Carolina has to offer. The list isn’t comprehensive—we’d like you to add your favorite to our list—but it’s a start. Read on to find a place where you can set up camp, lie back, and count the stars to your heart’s content.
Max Patch • Madison County near Hot Springs
In the mountains of North Carolina, you don’t have to climb very high to see the stars. In fact, one of the best spots for stargazing is Max Patch Mountain, a 4,629-foot bald summit on the North Carolina/Tennessee border called “the crown jewel of the Appalachian Trail.” The summit of Max Patch is a bald—essentially a mountaintop meadow—of more than 300 acres and, contrary to popular belief (and the practice of scofflaws), you can’t camp here; you’ll have to enjoy the stars picnic-style. So why’s it on the list? Because you can camp nearby at any marked campsite along Cold Springs Road (NFSR 148) or at any spot beside other gravel roads and a short stroll, hike, or drive will take you to Max Patch’s bald summit. Each of these sites will be primitive—no amenities, no water, bring what you need and pack everything out—but it’s no problem finding a site near the summit. And that’s where you’ll see more than stars; you’ll see poetry. More stars than you can imagine will hang just out of reach. If you plan your trip around the dark of the moon, the Milky Way will be almost bright enough to read by.
Cataloochee Valley • Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Cataloochee Valley is a gem set in the rugged crown of the Great Smoky Mountains, and once you navigate the winding gravel road leading you over the mountain and into the valley, you’ll see just why this is a perfect spot for stargazing. High peaks surround the valley, cutting out light pollution from every quarter, and overhead, the stars are unparalleled. The campground is wooded, offering only small slices of sky to see from your tent, but a short walk or two-minute drive will take you to wide fields filled with grazing and dozing elk and deer, and overhead, every star imaginable. With a decent set of binoculars or a telescope, you’ll be able to make out incredible celestial sights, from nebulas to galaxies to our local planets. And when you’ve had your fill, you have a cozy, semi-improved campground (level and clear tent pads, flush toilets and drinking water, but no showers) where you can rest your head. You need reservations at this campground (open mid-March through October), and during peak leaf season, they can be hard to come by, so make your reservations sooner rather than later.
The Chimneys • Linville Gorge
Think of The Chimneys as backcountry camping on a time budget. The hike in is short and well traveled, thanks to the paved road to the nearby Tablerock Picnic area, but you’ll be camping in the woods, meaning it takes less time to get into a wild place (which also makes it perfect for introducing new campers to a night in the woods). The Chimneys are popular with hikers, campers, and rock climbers, and while it can get busy on the weekends and around holidays, don’t let that discourage you from grabbing your tent and heading into the woods. Instead, let it motivate you to find the perfect secluded spot—a level place for your tent, open sky above, nothing but nature around you. The sky here is pretty great, with only a few points of light in the hills around and the faint glow of Morganton to the southeast, so you’ll have no problem getting lost in the stars. Camping here is all primitive in this hardwood forest, and you’ll need a permit from the U.S. Forest Service if you’re camping on weekends or holidays from May through October, but they’re easy to reserve or even walk up and obtain at the Grandfather Ranger District, 109 East Lawing Drive, Nebo, NC, or by calling (828) 652-2144.
Cheoah Point Campground • Lake Santeetlah near Robbinsville
On the shores of Lake Santeetlah deep in the western corner of the state, you can get a taste of what this country was like when the Cherokee were the only inhabitants. Camping at Cheoah Point can feel that way, especially when you’re looking west across the lake and the water’s as full of stars as the sky above. Very little light invades the night sky here, and the two-dozen tent and RV campsites afford excellent views of the sky, lake, and surrounding mountains. The best views are from the sites with the fewest trees, which is much of the lakeshore. If you can’t get one of those, don’t worry: the lake is only a few steps away and you can get those Milky Way views with little effort. The sites are improved, with a level pad for your tent or RV; potable water, hot showers, and flush toilets; and every site has a grill, fire ring, and picnic table. Reservations are recommended before you pack up the car and head west.
Kerr Lake State Recreation Area • North Carolina-Virginia State Line, north of the Triangle
Kerr Lake straddles the state line with Virginia north of Raleigh, and along the shores of this 50,000-acre man-made reservoir you’ll find campgrounds with some of the best stargazing of the upper Piedmont. There are tent-camping areas with multiple sites on the North Carolina side of Kerr Lake, but two campgrounds stand out for their starry potential: County Line and Kimball Point. Both campgrounds feature improved campsites—designated level tent pads; restrooms, showers, and potable water available; picnic tables, fire rings, and grills—making them perfect for novice or young campers. The best sky view is north, looking into Virginia across the expanse of Kerr Lake. Many of the sites are wooded (to provide shade), so to get the best views from your tent, grab a campsite on the shore, or you can take a short walk to one of the many points and picnic spots along the shoreline.
Jones Lake State Park • Bladen County near Elizabethtown
Many believe that the Carolina Bays—shallow, oval-shaped lakes oriented on a northwest-southeast line—were caused by an astronomical event. Camping by one such bay at Jones Lake State Park and taking in the sights of the stars above reflected on the still water below, you’ll have time to ponder this theory or come up with one of your own. The primary campground here has a bathhouse and potable water, as well as a fire ring and grill, picnic table and level tent pad, and the group site (good for up to 35 guests) is similarly outfitted. Campsites are wooded and partially wooded, giving you a look at the sky above, but for the best view, stroll down to the water’s edge. Time your campsite reservation with the dark of the moon or with a meteor shower or other celestial happening to make the most of your trip.
Masonboro Island • Near Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach
Camping on Masonboro Island Reserve, a thin, 8.4-mile-long barrier island just a short paddle or boat ride from Wrightsville Beach, is bucket-list stuff. The island, an estuarine research reserve, is utterly undeveloped and boat-accessible only, which means plenty of room to spread out and find a private campsite, surf spot, or patch of sand. While Masonboro isn’t totally free from light pollution—face east for the darkest skies—on clear nights, you can lie down on the dunes or in your tent and see the best star show in town. On camping trips to Masonboro, I’ve seen the Milky Way, meteors, and satellites, and many plan trips to the island that coincide with annual meteor showers.
Masonboro is totally primitive, so if you camp here, you’ll need to bring everything with you—water, extra water, sunblock, your tent and food supplies, fire materials—and take everything with you when you go. When you set up camp, use obvious campsites and don’t disturb the dune vegetation. Several coves provide spots for paddling in or for anchoring a powerboat, or you can arrange for a ferry to shuttle you back and forth. Camping is free and no permit is required.
Portsmouth Island Portsmouth Island • Cape Lookout National Seashore, Northern End
Portsmouth Village, on Portsmouth Island at the northernmost tip of Cape Lookout National Seashore, was once a thriving shipping port and now it’s a ghost town. In fact, all 56 miles of the Cape Lookout National Seashore is a ghost town save for horses, crabs, campers, and a handful of National Park employees, which makes it perfect for camping on the beach. It also means dark skies and superb stargazing. You’ll need to take a ferry over to Portsmouth Village and explore a little before setting off down the beach for a campsite. With no real light pollution to worry about, you’ll have a virtually horizon-to-horizon star field spread over your campsite. There are no designated campsites here other than these rules—don’t camp on the dunes, within 100 feet of structures or shelters, or in Portsmouth Village—so it’s primitive camping all the way. Bring everything you need, plus extra water; it gets hot as there’s no shade except what your tent or tarp provides, but it’s the beach, so you can always take a dip when you need to cool off. If you want a campfire (build fires only below the high-tide line, please), bring wood. There are no fees for camping and no permits required (unless you’re in a group of 25 or more); the only thing you need to arrange is parking on the mainland and your ferry to and from the national seashore.
Shackleford Banks • Cape Lookout National Seashore
You can camp anywhere along Cape Lookout National Seashore, and while pitching your tent in the shadow of the lighthouse is tempting (and beautiful) and camping in the middle of the 56-mile seashore will give you a secluded look at the stars better than any planetarium, Shackleford Banks is a prime spot. Why? Because it offers both magnificent skies to the south and east, and you’ll be camping with the Banker Ponies that call Shackleford home. No permits are required (unless you’re in a group of 25 or more) and camping rules are few—use Leave No Trace principles, stay off the dunes, don’t camp within 100 feet of structures, and no dogs (they’ll disturb the horses)—so long as you’re responsible. It’s primitive camping, so no water, restrooms, or showers, and you’ll need to bring everything with you. The chances are good that you’ll spot the Banker Ponies while you’re there; if you do, feel free to take photos of the horses, but refrain from getting close to them or their young.
Frisco Campground • Cape Hatteras National Seashore near Frisco and Hatteras
With little development around, the Frisco Campground on Cape Hatteras National Seashore offers the best of a beach vacation: sun, surf, sand, and stars (oh, and the convenience of Hatteras just a few miles away). Reserve a spot here to enjoy your days in the water and your nights stretched out on the sand watching the stars wheel above you. It’s plenty dark here, and if you’re a night sky photographer, you can get some remarkable pictures. But even without a camera, you’ll carry these sights with you for a lifetime. Bring your binoculars or telescope and a star chart (or star chart app) to make the most of the view. This campground is totally exposed—no trees, no shade—but each site does have a grill, picnic table, and level tent pad, and there is potable water at the bath house as well as restrooms and showers.