Some of my most vivid childhood memories come from camping with my dad on Ocracoke Island every summer. Most of those memories are wonderful, but many of them include sweating all night when the Outer Banks breeze decides, for some reason, to cease (I would not recommend having sunburn in a tent … ever); violent summer storms and soaking wet sleeping bags; and incredibly frustrating no-see-ums — a bug that certainly doesn’t care a lick about bug spray.
That’s why I’m so excited about the arrival of fall: There is simply no better time to head to a campground in North Carolina. Summer is wonderful, but autumn means every region of our state is a joy to pitch a tent in. So I’ve rounded up six of my favorites — including Ocracoke Campground! And don’t worry, there’s no backpacking through the wilderness required; at these spots, it couldn’t be easier to plan a last-minute trip to the great outdoors. Ready for an escape?
Mount Pisgah Campground
Surrounded by a dense hardwood forest at more than 5,000 feet in elevation, this 126-site campground — one of the most popular on the Blue Ridge Parkway — offers easy access to popular trailheads with incredible views. (Be sure to check out Fryingpan Mountain Lookout Tower and the Shut-In Trail, a 16-mile trail that’s part of a longer route that George Washington Vanderbilt created in the 1800s while building the Biltmore Estate.) After a long hike, fuel up at the neighboring Pisgah Inn restaurant, known for its stunning views. Then, cozy up at your campsite. Sites feature fire rings and picnic tables, and the campground has showers, flush toilets, potable water, and even a country store. Reservations are recommended since weekends can be busy — especially during leaf-peeping season. However, dozens of sites are reserved for first-come, first-serve. Keep your eyes peeled for black bears! Milepost 408.6 Blue Ridge Parkway Canton, NC 28716
At the Mount Pisgah Campground, you can enjoy incredible views from Fryingpan Mountain Lookout Tower. photograph by Eifel Kreutz/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Cheoah Point Campground
On the shores of Lake Santeetlah within Nantahala National Forest, 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 feature a level pad for your tent, camper, or RV; potable water, hot showers, and flush toilets; and every site has a grill, fire ring, and picnic table. 1373 Thunderbird Mountain Road Robbinsville, NC 28771
While camping at Cheoah Point, you can get a feel for what this country was like when the Cherokee were the only inhabitants — especially when you’re looking west across the lake. photograph by USFS
Jordan Lake State Recreation Area
To escape the Triangle’s city lights, head to this Apex oasis where you can lay a blanket on one of its seven beaches — and pick from more than 1,000 campsites at multiple access points. All the campgrounds feature restrooms, showers, and potable water, and each site contains a picnic table, a charcoal grill, and a lantern holder. Spend a day hiking along 14 miles of trails surrounding the lake while you search for our nation’s most recognizable bird: the bald eagle. In warmer months, nearly 60 of these magnificent birds of prey make the lake their home. Pick a campsite close enough to the shore of this 14,000-acre reservoir — one with a view of the water through the tall pines — and you can fall asleep to the sound of water lapping against the red-clay beach. 280 State Park Road Apex, NC 27523
At Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, you can pick a campsite with water views. photograph by Licec/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Kerr Lake State Recreation Area
North of Raleigh, Kerr Lake straddles the state line with Virginia, and along the shores of this 50,000-acre man-made reservoir, you’ll find campsites with perfect lake views. There are seven camping areas with multiple sites on the North Carolina side of Kerr Lake, but two campgrounds stand out: County Line and Kimball Point. Both campgrounds feature improved campsites — designated level tent pads; restrooms, showers, and potable water; picnic tables, fire rings, and grills — making them perfect for novice or young campers. Many of the sites are wooded (to provide shade), which also means a little extra privacy. Settle in at a campsite on the water’s edge — or you can always take a short walk to one of the many points and picnic spots along the shoreline. Don’t forget to keep an eye — and an ear! — out for birds: look for great blue herons and egrets along the shore, and at night, listen for barred, screech, and great-horned owls. 269 Glass House Road Henderson, NC 27537
Fall asleep to the crash of the waves at this 136-site Outer Banks campground located on Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Though it’s just a short drive from Ocracoke village, it feels a world away. Every site (they’re all drive-in) offers campers a quick walk to the beach, but the very best options are the ones right below the dunes, where you’ll have a built-in path and a more secluded, private feel. Although this wide-open island campground features picnic tables, charcoal grills, potable water, (cold) showers, and restrooms, there’s no real shade, so be sure to come prepared. The perks? Stunning stargazing after the sun sets, and the magical opportunity to see the moonlight on the waves. Another plus: Sandy sites mean a softer place to rest your head at night — even if you do need longer stakes for tent camping. Oh, and don’t forget that mosquito repellent! You’re headed to a barrier island in North Carolina — what did you expect? In the summer, be sure to make reservations ahead of time. 4352 Irvin Garrish Highway Ocracoke, NC 27960
At Ocracoke Campground, every site offers campers a quick walk to the beach, but the very best options are the ones right below the dunes, where you’ll have a built-in path and a more secluded feel. photograph by Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Goose Creek State Park
Large stands of pine and live oaks draped with Spanish moss frame the trails and wetland boardwalks of this park, located in an area once home to the Tuscarora Indians, royal governors, Blackbeard, and, later, subsistence farmers. There are two camping areas here — a primitive tent campground and a loop for campers and RVs — but every site has a level tent pad, a fire ring with a charcoal grill, a picnic table, a lantern hook, and easy access to the park’s trails. Take a hike along the Goose Creek Trail to the Pamlico riverfront, a two-mile stroll along natural surfaces and boardwalks that starts at the campground, and look for birds and other wildlife as you pass through black gum and cypress swamps. This park features restrooms and potable water, plus a bathhouse with hot showers. But you can always choose to go swimming in the Pamlico instead. Just be sure to apologize to whoever shares your tent. 2190 Camp Leach Road Washington, NC 27889
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