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Nantahala National Forest Camping Guide

Nantahala National Forest is nestled in the middle of North Carolina valleys and gorges waiting for you to explore it.

Visitors to the forest enjoy camping, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, and more. Dive into the serenity of this natural forest, and you won’t be disappointed. It’s also one of the best locations on the east coast for free camping!

Keep reading to plan your Nantahala National Forest camping trip by learning the unique forest history, the best camping areas to set up camp, and must-do activities. You’re about to fall in love with Nantahala National Forest.

Cullasaja Falls in Nantahala National Forest.
Cullasaja Falls in Nantahala National Forest.

History of Nantahala National Forest

Nantahala National Forest was established in 1920 by President Woodrow Wilson because of its unique weather conditions and ties to Cherokee.

A portion of the forest is adjacent to the Cherokee Indian Reservation. The Cherokee and their ancestors have occupied this land for thousands of years.

The word Nanatahla means Land of the Noonday Sun in the Cherokee language. There are some areas of the forest where the sun reaches the top of the deep gorges only when the sun is at its highest point, around noon.

A spectacular view of the North Carolina mountains. Nantahala National Forest camping is full of beautiful scenery.
A stunning view in Nantahala National Forest.

Today, the Nantahala National Forest is managed by the US Forest Department and is the largest of four North Carolina national forests.

What to Expect

The Nantahala National Forest is located on the western boundary of Macon County, and the county seat is located nearby in Franklin, North Carolina. Franklin is best known for its antique shops, gem mining, art galleries, shopping opportunities, and places to eat.


Nantahala is the second-wettest region in the United States, following behind the Pacific Northwest. The forest showcases many elements of a temperate rainforest. A temperate rainforest contains many types of trees, unlike a tropical rainforest which typically only includes one or two types of trees.

You can expect high amounts of rain on your Nantahala National Forest camping trip, read our blog post on what you need to know about Camping in the Rain!

Camping News

Before your camping trip, check the National Forest website for updates concerning fire alerts, trail closures, and more. The National Forest Service issued a Bear Alert for Nantahala National Forest on June 2, 2022, which requests forest visitors remain on high alert.

Many campgrounds have closed in recent years due to aging facilities and water system issues.

Fall color along a road in Nantahala National Forest.
Fall color in Nantahala National Forest.

Three Districts

The Nantahala National Forest is made up of three districts all inspired by the Cherokee language: Nantahala National Ranger District, Cheoah Ranger District, and Tusquitee Ranger District. All three of these districts offer plenty of recreation and unique Nantahala National Forest camping experiences.

Nantahala Ranger District

The Nanatahla spans 250,000 acres across Macon, Jackson, and Swain counties. Franklin is the nearest city to this district. This district is also the only one of the three with RV camping available.

Cheoah Ranger District

Cheoah spans 120,500 acres across Graham and Swain counties. Major cities in the Cheoah Ranger District are Robbinsville and Asheville.

Tusquitee Ranger District

Tusquitee spans 158,900 acres at the southwestern tip of North Carolina across Cherokee and Clay counties. Murphy is the closest city to this district.

What to Bring

Bring the following items with you to make the most of your Nantahala National Forest camping trip in the second-wettest region in the United States:

Nantahala National Forest Camping

You have a plethora of choices to experience Nantahala National Forest camping to the fullest. The forest has free and paid camping areas that include cabin rentals, dispersed camping, campgrounds, RV spaces, and group camping.

A tent campsite on a foggy morning in the mountains.

Free Camping

These campgrounds are free and do not require a reservation. Visit the North Carolina Forest Service website for a complete list of dispersed locations available for free camping in Nantahala National Forest.

Ammons Branch

Ammons Branch is located in the Nantahala Ranger District and is featured as one of our top 13 places for Free Camping in North Carolina. Best of all, its four dispersed spots are available year-round, each with a picnic table, lantern hanger, and a shared pit toilet.

This is not a heavily traveled camping area, so you can unpack and enjoy privacy during your Nantahala National Forest camping trip 87.6 miles from Franklin, North Carolina.

Blue Valley Dispersed Camping

Blue Valley is located in the Nantahala Ranger District and has 22 dispersed sites that are available year-round first come, first serve. Wilson Lake is a 2.5 miles trail walk or bike ride away and is an excellent spot for fishing and swimming.

The dispersed campground sees light traffic and is a great place to enjoy privacy while Nantahala National Forest camping is only 28 miles from Franklin.

Snowbird Creek

Looking for a good spot for boondocking? Look no further than Snowbird Creek, located in the Cheoah Ranger District, 20 miles from Robbinsville. Space is limited at Snowbird Creek, but this little gem is a great place to stop and fish or take a hike away from the hustle and bustle of a campground for free.

A remote tent campsite in the mountains under the stars at night.

Paid Camping

All of these campsites require a fee to camp. Visit the National Forests in North Carolina website for information about current fees in place and more information about Nantahala National Forest camping spots. To make reservations, visit the Recreation.Gov website.

Cheoah Point

Cheoah Point, located in the Cheoah Ranger District, is open from April 1 through October 31, although its boat ramp is open year-round. Reservations for cabins, tents, and RVs can be made online.

The campground, 49.8 miles from Franklin and 7.3 miles from Robbinsville, is located next to Santeetlah Lake and has been developed for picnicking, swimming, fishing, and boating. The nearby Wauchecha Bald Trail accesses the Appalachian Trail.

Horse Cove

Horse Cove Campground is located close to the entrance of Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in the Cheoah District, 56.4 miles from Franklin and 12.4 miles from Robbinsville.

The eight primitive sites are open year-round, although most of the campground is closed indefinitely due to a water system problem. The open sites have access to a vault toilet, but there is no running water. Campers also have access to a creek.

Hurricane Creek

Hurricane Creek Horse and Primitive Campground is located in the Nantahala Ranger District, 19.1 miles from Franklin. This Nantahala National Forest camping area offers primitive camping for hikers and horseback riders on a first-come, first-serve basis.

This is also a popular spot for hunters because the surrounding areas are famous for game hunting. Fire rings and vault toilets are also available.

A tent campsite in a wooded forest setting at sunrise.

Standing Indian

Standing Indian Campground is located in the Nantahala Ranger District, 17 miles from Franklin. The campground is an idyllic location for RVers or tent campers surrounded by 5,000-foot peaks and natural streams with easy access to the Appalachian Trail. Reservations can be made online.

Van Hook Glade

Van Hook Glade Campground is located in the Nantahala Ranger District, 14.7 miles from Franklin, and is a quiet campground along the Cullasaja Gorge on Cliffside Lake. An enchanting 75-foot waterfall is nearby.

Campers enjoy fishing and swimming at this Nantahala National Forest camping location. The campground is equipped with flush toilets and modern showers.

The campground is operated by FIND Outdoors, a North Carolina-based nonprofit whose mission is to provide exceptional outdoor experiences on public land.

Fun Activities at Nantahala National Forest

A walking path behind Dry Falls waterfall in Nantahala National Forest.
Dry Falls waterfall in Nantahala National Forest.


Adventure awaits you while camping in Nantahala National Forest with over 1700 miles of trails available. If you like waterfalls, then you’ll love discovering them on your hikes.

Learn more about all the great options for day hiking and backpacking on your Nantahala National Forest camping trip.


Nantahala National Forest is a horse-friendly place, so bring your horse or visit the Nantahala Village Riding Stables to ride horses.

Game Fishing and Hunting

A view of the blue water of Lake Santeelah surrounded by trees on a sunny day in the Nantahala National Forest.
Lake Santeelah in Nantahala National Forest.

Hunting and angling are popular in the Nantahala National Forest. Anglers are required to have a fishing license and need to contact Wildlife Resources Commissions with questions regarding licensing.

Water Activities

White water river rafting and kayaking are popular in the Nantahala National Forest, especially in the Nantahala River Gorge, which is where the Freestyle Kayaking World Championships took place in 2013.

Wildlife and Vegetation

A box turtle on a creek bed in Nantahala National Forest.

Nantahala National Forest is home to a variety of wildlife, including white-tail deer, bobcats, river otters, beavers, porcupines, mountain lions, and black bears. You will also find more than 300 species of vertebrae animals that call the forest home.

The forest is also home to nearly 1,900 varieties of plants and 130 varieties of trees. Forest tree communities range from dry yellow pines to cove and mountain oak to northern hardwoods.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is one of the largest old-growth tree areas on the East Coast. This section of Nantahala National Forest was dedicated to poet Joyce Kilmer, who was famous for the poem Trees and killed in action during World War I.

Plan Your Nantahala National Forest Camping Trip Today!

Looking Glass Falls in Nantahala National Forest.
Looking Glass Falls in Nantahala National Forest.

Now you’re prepared for an amazing Nantahala National Forest camping trip!

If you’re looking for more amazing places to camp in the Tar Heel State, check out our recommendations for the 30 Best Places for Camping in North Carolina.