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Cherokee National Forest Camping Guide

Cherokee National Forest is the largest tract of public land in Tennessee, with over 650,000 acres of forest. This beautiful scenic forest is so large (stretching from Chattanooga to Bristol, Tennessee) that most people don’t even realize they’re inside it!

Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about Cherokee National Forest camping, including recreational activities and wildlife you might see.

A view of Bald River Falls is an attraction for Cherokee National Forest camping.
Bald River Falls.


With headquarters in Cleveland, Tennessee, the forest is contained within the state borders and adjoins national forest land in surrounding states. The Great Smokey Mountains National Park divides the Cherokee National Forest into northern and southern sections.

The forest was established in 1920 and was named for Indigenous peoples who called the area home and used the area for hunting and gathering until 1838.

Before the area was established as public land and became a national forest, loggers stripped most of the area bare and then abandoned their posts, thankfully before the entire forest was razed.

The Civilian Conservation Corps came to the rescue in 1936, planting thousands of trees that became what is now the Cherokee National Forest.

In 1960, the Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act was passed and declared that the purpose of Cherokee National Forest should be for wildlife and fish purposes, as well as for timber and outdoor recreation.

The national forest is also home to the Ocoee River, the site of the Olympic Whitewater events in 1996.

Cherokee National Forest Camping Guide

A camping chair set up near a campfire at sunset.

Cherokee National Forest features 30 developed campgrounds and many options for primitive camping.

The forest also contains multiple picnicking areas, seven whitewater rivers, two scenic byways to enjoy a scenic drive through the mountains and backcountry, and over 700 miles of trails.

Fees and Recreation Requirements

Cherokee National Forest requires guests to have a daily or annual National Forest pass to access boat launches, beaches, and other recreational areas.

A daily pass allows guests access to all areas of the forest, including recreational areas, but only for the day specified during your purchase.

An annual pass is probably a better fit for you if you plan to return often. The annual pass allows guests unlimited entry into the forest for a year after purchase.

Developed Camping

Cherokee National Forest camping is easy with 30 established campgrounds throughout the park.

These highly developed campgrounds feature different amenities, so be sure to research which campground will best fit your needs.

Safely storing food and beverages in bear-proof containers or locked vehicles is a requirement when camping in Cherokee National Forest.

Primitive Camping

If you prefer a more off-the-grid experience while camping at Cherokee National Forest, you’re in luck!

Primitive camping is allowed throughout the park unless otherwise stated. No camping is allowed within 100 feet of developed recreation areas, water, or trails.

No amenities, like toilets, will be nearby when camping in dispersed areas. You’ll also need to leave the area the way it was found at the end of your camping trip — so whatever you packed in, pack out!

Donley Cabin Camping

A view of the Donley Cabin in the Cherokee National Forest.
The Donley Cabin.

The Donley Cabin is situated in Tellico Plains, near the southern portion of the Cherokee National Forest.

For a reasonable fee, this primitive cabin can be yours for camping with no more than six guests for up to three nights.

How primitive is the cabin? There’s no running water or electricity, and there’s an outhouse with a vault toilet in the back. But if you’re up for the adventure, this cabin will take you back to your roots and help you connect with nature!

The Donley Cabin must be reserved in advance by at least one day but up to a year.

RV Camping

RV camping in Cherokee National Forest is available at several campgrounds in the park.

You will find large sites equipped for an RV, but only a few of these campsites have electrical hookups. If you prefer off-the-grid RV camping in the forest, the sites without hookups are perfect for you!

Campgrounds in Cherokee National Forest with RV hookups are Indian Boundary Recreation Area, Chilhowee Recreation Area, and Parksville Lake Campground.

Cherokee National Forest Recreation


Pets are allowed in most areas of the park, but you should check with the district office to make sure nothing has changed before setting out on a camping trip to Cherokee National Forest.

If you take your pet hiking on the trails with you, they will need to be leashed at all times.

Pets are not allowed on beaches or in swimming areas.


A wooded hiking trail in the mountains of Tennessee.

With over 700 miles of trails cut through the Cherokee National Forest, there is no shortage of places to hike! Most of these trails are non-motorized and dedicated to hiking and horseback riding.

Two of the best hiking trails found in the forest are the Bald Mountain Zone and the Hiwassee River Zone.

The Bald Mountain Zone leads hikers to a breathtakingly beautiful 60-foot, fan-shaped waterfall, which is one of the best waterfalls in the entire state of Tennessee.

The Hiwassee River Zone is home to parts of the Benton Mackaye Trail and the John Muir National Recreation Trail.


Spend the day fishing in the streams and rivers stocked with trout that cut their way through the rugged mountains in the Cherokee National Forest.

The most popular spots for trout fishing are Beaverdam Creek, Tellico River, Citico Creek, and Paint Creek.

Wade into the water, fish on the shoreline, or launch a boat into the rivers for your chance to catch some of the best rainbow trout in the area.

Water Activities

A dock on Watauga Lake in the Cherokee National Forest.
Watauga Lake.

Cherokee National Forest is home to some of the best whitewater paddling destinations in the southeast! The two best rivers for whitewater paddling in the forest are the Ocoee and the Hiwassee Rivers.

These rivers are also popular destinations for kayaking, inner tubing, rafting, and stand-up paddleboarding, with thousands of guests flocking to them each summer for watersports.

While most of the shorelines are undeveloped and rocky, there are several boat launches along South Holston Lake, Watuaga Lake, and Parksville Lake for motorized boat access.

There are multiple swimming areas, with sandy beaches perfect for a dip in the cool waters on a hot day! A few of the most popular swimming areas are Watuaga Lake Area, Big Frog Area, and Ocoee River Area


You’ll find many picnic areas throughout the forest, including within the campgrounds and most swimming areas.

Plants and Wildlife

Spring color in Cherokee National Forest.

With over 650,000 acres of national forest, it is no surprise that the area has a giant variety of flora and fauna!

There are over 20,000 plants and animals within the forest grounds, some of which are considered endangered. This is why it is the mission of locals to protect and preserve the environment.

Abundant wildlife, including 43 species of mammal, 154 species of fish, 262 species of birds, and 55 species of amphibians, call the Cherokee National Forest home.

If you’re lucky, you’ll spot one of the rare wildlife species, such as the peregrine falcon, the eastern hellbender, and the Yonahlossee salamander, while Cherokee National Forest camping!

Closeup of a brown and red Yonahlosee salamanger.
A Yonahlossee salamander.

Spend your morning bird watching or immersing yourself in nature in other ways, like taking a scenic drive through the mountains to observe the native wildlife.

Watch the sunset or sunrise from the hiking trails cut through the mountains, peacefully co-existing with the resident wildlife.

Plan Your Cherokee National Forest Camping Trip!

A beautiful sunrise in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.

From whitewater paddling and swimming to hiking along miles of trails in the forest, there are activities for everyone to enjoy when camping at Cherokee National Forest.

For more ideas for your camping expeditions, check out our other guides on National Forest Camping.