Looking for a no-cost camping option in the gorgeous, scenic state of North Carolina? You’re in luck! There are many wonderful, free camping spots scattered across the state’s four national forests and beautiful backcountry…so many, in fact, it can be hard to pick one that suits all your camping needs! Luckily, our free camping guide is here to help. We’ve rounded up some of the top-reviewed, best spots for free camping in North Carolina—read on to find the area that’s best for you and your family!
Free Camping in Western North Carolina
Much of the free camping to be found within the broad sweep of western North Carolina can be found in the Nantahala National Forest area—a sprawling, stunning woodland encompassing more than 500,000 acres, making it the largest of North Carolina’s four national forests! Within this landmark location’s gorgeous acreage, you’ll find many dispersed campgrounds in particular, which are primitive (no bathrooms or other amenities provided) set in designated locations…and best of all, most of them are free!
Harmon Den Dispersed Camping
First on our list of free camping in western North Carolina is Harmon Den! Located at the end of a gravel road not far from the Tennessee border and the edge of Great Smokey Mountains National Park, the Harmon Den Dispersed Camping site offers a primitive camping experience designed to preserve the local creek area, while still providing a great resource for campers from all over. Tents, RVs, and trailers are all welcomed here, and campers are encouraged to stay up to the 14-day limit at their dispersed campsite! (Note: Campers are asked to bring their own water, avoid washing in the creek, take out their trash, and bury all human waste and toilet paper.)
Ammons Branch Campground
This pack-in, pack-out campground is located inside Nantahala National Forest nearest to the city of Highlands, North Carolina, and is accessible and useable all year long (barring any fire or natural safety issues). In Ammon’s Branch, you’ll find free dispersed camping available along Bull Pen Road. This location provides four dispersed sites, each with picnic tables, lantern hangers, and a single shared pit toilet. No reservations are needed, and this location typically sees light use, making it a great option for campers looking for space and seclusion.
Fires Creek Recreation Area
Located about five miles from the city of Hayesville, the Fires Creek Recreation Area provides more than just a great, free camping experience! Campers at the remote Fires Creek location will also have access to some of the best trout fishing in the area, as well as great picnicking, hiking, and horseback riding opportunities along the 25-mile expanse of the Rim Trail in the backcountry area.
Inside Fires Creek, campers have their pick of two free camping options: Bristol Campground, which offers nine sites and a vault toilet and can accommodate equestrian campers; and Huskins Branch Hunters Camp, which boasts a more primitive camping experience. Drinking water is provided on site, and no reservations are needed at either of these campgrounds!
Ellicott Rock Wilderness
Right at the juncture of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, you’ll find the Ellicott Rock Wilderness, crossed by the National Wild and Scenic River and Chattooga Rivers—a fantastic place for campers interested in a more rugged outdoor experience! This area offers free primitive camping for individuals and groups up to 10 campers with no wheeled or motorized equipment in tow—only backpacking and primitive camping allowed in this pack in, pack out space! (Note: All campers are advised to bring along a compass and topographic map as they camp in and explore their way through this scenic wilderness.)
Blue Valley Dispersed Area
Last up for free camping in Western North Carolina is Blue Valley! This stunning slice of Nantahala National Forest is particularly popular with campers, many of whom consider it one of the top best spots for free camping in North Carolina! There are approximately 22 total dispersed sites available throughout the Blue Valley area, offering fire rings and picnic tables, as well as a communal pit toilet. These pack-in and pack-out sites are located near Wilson Lake, allowing campers to enjoy fishing, swimming, trail hiking, and wildlife viewing and birding in this stunning stretch of the North Carolina wilderness!
Free Camping in Central North Carolina
Home to the famous Uwharrie National Forest, central North Carolina offers a bevy of great options for free camping in the beauty that thrives at the heart of this state! One of North Carolina’s four great national forests, Uwharrie lies on 52,000 acres that include designated game lands for public hunting, trapping, and fishing—and for camping! There are so many beautiful, free, dispersed campsites where you can pitch a tent, park an RV or trailer, and enjoy the splendor that is central North Carolina from any one of its best spots for free camping!
Badin Horse Camp/The Old Horse Camp
Looking for a popular, free campsite that can accommodate both RV campers and equestrians? If so, then come and camp at the first destination for free camping in central North Carolina, Badin Horse Camp/The Old Horse Camp! This is a primitive camping spot located in an open field, specifically intended for self-contained RVs and Horse Trailers (Note: This campground includes tie-outs for horses. Alcohol is permitted at this site, and campers are required to take trash with them or leave it in the dumpster in Canebreak Horse Camp. There are no amenities offered at Badin Horse Camp/The Old Horse Camp).
Butner Lake WMA
Open annually during hunting season, the free Butner Lake campground is located at the end of a .2 mile dirt road and boasts between 6 to 15 campsites; RVs are allowed at a maximum length of 30 feet. Typically a private, quieter, and low-trafficked campground, this area is perfect for hunters, hikers, and wildlife enthusiasts. It offers no amenities, but does have low cell service, making this a fantastic opportunity to unplug from daily life and enjoy a peaceful retreat into nature while free camping in North Carolina!
Basin Creek Campground
Perched between Stone Mountain State Park and Thurmond Chatham Game Land, the Basin Creek Campground is a great, free option for campers looking to lay down their roots near water and with access to nearby activities such as hiking, hunting, fishing, horseback riding trails, and more! Basin Creek Campground is geared mostly toward hunters, is open from May through August, and allows campers to stay up to 14 consecutive nights. Beautiful and secluded, this is a great option for hiking or horseback riding on the marked trails, fishing in the well-stocked creek, game hunting, or simply enjoying a peaceful slice of nature!
Art Lilley Campground
Last but not least on our list of free camping in central North Carolina is Art Lilley Campground! Another great pick inside the Uwharrie National Forest, the Art Lilley Campground is a primitive, dispersed campground that’s popular with many campers who have visited the area! Great for tent, trailer, or RV camping, this location is open from April 1 through December 15 on a first-come, first-served basis. There are no reservations needed, and the campground does not offer designated sites, hookups, or water on location; however, there is a vault toilet available for campers to use.
(Note: While there is no fee to camp at Art Lilley, a valid trail pass is required for OHVs).
Free Camping in Eastern North Carolina
Along the eastern coast of North Carolina, you’ll find some fantastic free camping, particularly in the boundaries of Croatan National Forest—another of the four gorgeous national forests located across the state.
In Croatan’s beautiful 160,000 acre spread, you’ll encounter pine trees, bogs, raised swamps, and more—all bordered by tidal rivers and the Bogue Sound. Resplendent with diverse wildlife and perfect for canoeing and fishing, this is a great area for water-loving campers in particular, who don’t mind some primitive conditions as they soak up the best that nature has to offer!
First up for free camping in eastern North Carolina is Catfish Lake. For the water-loving campers out there, Catfish Lake is a great option to settle in for your free camping adventure! Along the shores of Catfish Lake, you’ll find a small boat ramp for the flat bottomed boats that are best on the shallow lake, as well as some dispersed camping available. This is a primitive camping site without amenities, but it’s a fantastic location to pitch a tent, enjoy the beauty of nature, soak up the stars, and do some fishing, boating, and relaxing on the lakeshore!
Long Point Boat Launch
Located at the end of a lovely, scenic drive through pine forests to the coast, this primitive lakeside camping site offers no amenities but has fantastic access to the water for fishing and boating from the shallow boat launch. There is camping and fishing available all year round, and this location sees light use on average, making it an absolutely fantastic place for a waterfront getaway. RVs and tents are both welcomed, and campers are encouraged to bring a canoe or kayak to enjoy the fun of the water as well as the beauty of the land!
Great Lake Boat Launch
Another great option for boaters, the Great Lake Boat Launch is located near the water, offers fishing, hunting, and wildlife viewing opportunities, and has access to restrooms and a boat ramp. High clearance vehicles are recommended due to some shifting in the terrain as hurricanes and other storms pass by, but this is a great, reclusive spot for campers who love the water to retreat into the scenery of the Croatan National Forest, fish for yellow bullhead, fliars, yellow perch, and black crappie, and enjoy time out on the water!
Holly Shelter Game Land
Last on our list of free camping in eastern North Carolina, Holly Shelter Game Land is a public hunting location that offers camping during specific times of the year. This terrific camping spot is located near US 17, not far from Surf City, and boasts opportunities for hiking, hunting, and wildlife viewing.
Campers can enjoy the comforts of RV camping or pitch a tent for a more rustic experience in the scenic game land as it opens for the camping season; this is a great location for campers who want to enjoy the outdoors but still be close to the fringes of bustling, everyday North Carolina life! (Note: It’s recommended that campers call ahead to ensure that the campground is open during the designated time they’re planning their trip.)
Wrapping Up Free Camping in North Carolina
We hope you found this guide helpful, and that now you’re feeling excited, prepared, and looking forward to visiting some of the best spots for free camping in North Carolina! Let us know which spot you’re most looking forward to experiencing on your camping adventures in the comments below!
Looking for more North Carolina camping? Check out our recommendations here:
- About the Author
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Renee Dugan is a lifelong writer, professional editor, and lover of the great outdoors.
A Midwest girl born and raised, Renee has always enjoyed the deep, life-giving inspiration that connection with nature brings.
In addition to channeling the awe of outdoor life into her prolific novel-writing career, she currently enjoys sharing it with her son and spreading knowledge of safe, fun outdoor life with Beyond the Tent readers and anyone she can help face-to-face.
Renee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org