Spring Camping At Nantahala Forest

First Of Three Parts

Howard DuBose

North Carolina is a forested state, and as such is the home of four National Forests: Nantahala and Pisgah out west, Uwharrie in the middle, and Croatan on the coast. Some of the oldest trees in the eastern US are in NC, as well as the tallest mountain in the east. So, let’s go camping in one of the National Forests this spring.

The Nantahala National Forest covers a large swath of the NC mountains (516,000 acres). The rest is under the control of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway, Cherokee Indian Reservation and Pisgah National Forest. Some mountain land also is privately owned.

There is more than enough there for you to camp for years without repeating yourself. While there are only ten developed campgrounds, there are a total of 22 to choose from, depending on how much civilization you want. I am only going to talk about a few. Readers can look the rest up online.

In my long career as a whitewater paddler, my two favorite campgrounds around the Nantahala were Tsali and Appletree. Tsali is nice for several reasons: 1) it is near Bry­son City and the Nantahala River; 2) it is on Fontana Lake; 3) there are 41 mostly tent campsites with table/grill. All the sites are wooded. It is not set up for large RVs, but smaller ones can use it. There are no hook-ups.

So, if you are fishing or canoeing on Fon­tana Lake, it is great and if you are rafting or kayaking on the Nantahala River it is great. Tsali is open April thru October. There are water, showers, flush toilets. (Civilization). The boat launch is 300 meters from the campground and there are four nearby trails, 6 to 12 miles long, but must be shared on alternate days with mountain bikers. There are no reservations. Tsali is $15.00 a night.

Nantahala National Forest offers many acti­vities besides camping. The Nantahala Riv­er, named after the forest, or vice-versa, is one of the best beginner/exciting rafting rivers in NC. There are many commercial outfitters, or you can raft or canoe privately. Fishing is amazing, with the proper NC license, you can trout fish or lake fish. Several kinds of trout are found, and they stock some of the streams.

Fontana & Santeetlah Lakes abound with many different kinds of fish. There are over 60 miles of trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding in the forest, and the Appalachian Trail runs through it. So, plenty of hiking is available.
My other personal favorite campground, Appletree, is a group camp, so if your scout troop or church group wants to rough it a little, this is a good one. There was a recent fire in this area, so it may be closed some this spring, but keep it in mind for later. There are four sites at Appletree, 2 for 25 and 2 for 50. It is tent-only, and tenting is on large grassy fields. Each site has a shelter, fire ring, and water source, with the campground having flush toilets and a shower house. Our canoe club camped here for years in the 1980s so I have many happy memories. There are several nearly trout streams, 20 miles or so of loop­ing hiking trails and the campground itself is only 10 miles from Nantahala Lake. Res­er­va­tions are required, and call early. The phone number is 828-524-6441. Appletree is open April to October, as well.

As always, I like to talk about something less “outdoorsy” and more “touristy” for the family groups or less rugged folks who might still want to go camping in the NC mountains, with less adventure, but still interest. So, today, I suggest the Joyce Kilmer Mem­orial Forest and Cradle of Forestry Center. These are very close together, near Robbins­ville, NC, and just the thing. Joyce Kilmer, as many of us learned in elementary school, was a poet, killed in WW1, who wrote the poem “Trees”—“I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree” etc.…

The Kilmer Forest is one of the few re­maining stands of virgin hardwood forest still in existence. When our forefathers moved into NC, most of the state was covered with this sort of forest. What you see now is “new”. The forest is 3800 acres, but there are two short walking trails that will get you out of your car and allow you to experience these giant, 400-year old trees. The phone number is: 828-479-6431 and there is a website.

Nearby is the Cradle of Forestry, which is basically a large exhibit on how forestry was done in NC. The land, 87,000 acres was donated to NC by the Vanderbilt family (of Biltmore fame). There are paved trails, interactive exhibits, many other seasonal activities, as well as a café and gift shop. Phone number is: 828-877-3130. plus there is also a website. Both Kilmer & Cradle are open April to November.

Now, where to camp close by.

Horse Cove Campground has 18 sites, all tent or small RV, but no RV-only sites. There are no hook-ups. This is a bit more rustic than Tsali, but still not wilderness. The sites are all wooded have tables & grills. There is water in the campground, but not at each site. There are flush toilets, but no hot water in the showers. There is a Horse Cove hiking trail, and the streams have trout. Fishing is OK with license. There are no reservations, and the camp­ground is open April to October. Camping is $10.00 a night. Horse Cove is near Robbins­ville, and there are directions on the web.

Again, should your scout troop or church group want to camp a bit more rustically, in a group, the Rattler Ford Group Camp is also nearby. This is smaller than Appletree, with only four 25-person sites, but has many of the same facilities. Reservations are encouraged (828-479-6431). Rattler Ford is almost at the entrance to Joyce Kilmer, so you cannot camp much closer. There are no shelters, but several tables and a fire ring per site, as well as a BIG grill, drinking water. There are showers & flush toilets.

The campground is on Santeetlah Creek, a trout stream, but has no hook-ups or electricity. Tent camping only. It is wooded, but has a volleyball setup and horseshoe pits. It is 2.5 miles to the Lake Santeetlah boat ramp, where you can fish, canoe and do other watersports.

Now, today I have only written about the far western part of Nantahala National For­est, almost in Tennessee, which I think is the most interesting part. It is a spread out forest, and there is an area, with fewer facilities, near Highlands, NC, as well as some more near Franklin, and Wayah Bald. There is also Nan­tahala Forest near Murphy, NC. Just because I did not write about it is no reason not to go and try it for yourself. Explore. Find things.

There are websites, and the Forest main phone number is 828-275-4200. They can send you a map. There is too much for any one article. Next time I’ll be writing about the Croatan National Forest, on the coast, near Morehead City, NC. See ya then!!!