The FREE, Lesser-Know Campsites in Tennessee (2024)

Although landlocked in the southeastern United States, the Volunteer State does have many dispersed camping opportunities for those on a budget. With 56 state parks,15 state forests, 2 national forests and not forgetting the Great Smokies, there are plentiful of camping to be found.

For hikers, the Appalachian Trail also traverses through the state with its highest point, the Clingmans Dome (6,643ft) located inside Tennessee.

On this page, we will go into detail about each site with information on how to find them, what amenities they offer, although most of them are primitive.

Where to camp for free in Tennessee?

  • Cherokee National Forest is 1 of 2 national forests in Tennessee (the other being Land Between the Lakes), covering an area of approximately 655,598 acres. Dispersed camping can be found around the Citico Creek, French Broad River, and Tellico River area.
  • State forests. There are 15 state forests in Tennessee with 7 of them on the eastern side. The most popular state forest is undoubtedly the Natchez Trace Parkway located in Henderson County in the west.
  • Watts Bar Reservoir was built between 1939 to 1942 as a hydroelectric dam on the Tennesse River. There are 5 power stations along the river stretch, generating 196 megawatts of electricity. Dispersed campsites can be found at Rhea Springs Recreation Area and Jackson Island.

Paint Creek Corridor, Cherokee National Forest

Paint Creek Corridor is situated within the Cherokee National Forest. This area has a warm water fishing pond, several trails for day hikes, and overlooks to observe the stunning Dudley and Kelly Falls. Alternatively, you can take a scenic drive around the area to enjoy the stunning nature views.

Take note that dispersed camping is allowed only on designated sites and alcoholic beverages are not allowed in this area. The area has vaulted toilets.

Citico Creek Area, Cherokee National Forest

The Citico Creek Area is more than 20,000 acres wide and provides plenty of camping sites for campers looking for solitude and a backcountry camping experience. The campsites are adjacent to the Citico Creek and you can easily catch trouts, small-mouth bass, and catfish on the creek.

For those who are not into fishing, other popular activities here include bike riding or simply following one of the many trails here for a short day hike.

Tellico River Area, Cherokee National Forest

The Tellico River Area is a large remote backcountry with over 30,000 acres of land which guarantees plenty of privacy and solitude. It is part of the larger Cherokee National Forest and thus offers plenty of dispersed camping opportunities.

Generally, you can camp anywhere but not within 100 feet of water, trails, parking lots, roads, and any developed recreation areas. Some of the best sites are along the river where you can fish for brook, brown, rainbow trouts and have them over a campfire dinner.

Meriwether Lewis Campground, Natchez Trace Parkway

The Meriwether Lewis Campground is a favorite among history and nature enthusiasts as it offers the chance to learn about the Natchez Trace and the legacy of the campground’s namesake.

The Meriwether Lewis Campground is one of three campgrounds nestled inside the boundaries of the Natchez Trace Parkway, and it has 32 secluded sites within the forested environment. Each campsite comes with its own picnic table and fire ring.

There are flush toilets with running water, but no showers available here.
For hikers, there are several trails around the area for a short day hike to explore the surroundings.

Rhea Springs Recreation Area, Watts Bar Reservoir

The Rhea Springs Recreation Area was built by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as part of a hydroelectric power station on the Piney River. The recreation area is on Watts Bar Reservoir, where campers can fish or go boating and swimming.

The campsites are plentiful, here and they’re spaced far enough to offer you some privacy especially during the summer. The campsite has fire rings, picnic tables, and a bathhouse for your convenience.

Jackson Island Campground, Watts Bar Reservoir

The Jackson Island Campground is located across the Watts Bar Reservoir from Rhea Springs Recreation Area. Although this area looks more rustic, there are vault toilets available for use.

The ground is not quite level and thus smaller vehicles might not be ideal especially when it’s wet. The campsites are shaded and the surrounding trees provide plenty of privacy. Camping generators are allowed but be sure to keep the noise at a minimum especially at night.

Holleman’s Bend Camping Area

The Holleman’s Bend Horse Camp was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers and is just an hour’s drive from Nashville. If you’re seeking a short and peaceful getaway not far from Nashville’s busy life, Holleman’s Bend may be the place for you.

There is a small boat ramp here and fishing along the Cumberland River is not uncommon. The campsites are located at the parking lot leading to the boat ramp.

This peaceful retreat along the lakeshore will be ideal for smaller RV’s and tent campers alike.

Big Creek Primitive Campground

As the name implies, the Big Creek Primitive Campground is a big land area, but the campsites are small. Located along Big Creek, there are 6 primitive campsites scattered along the creek, giving campers plenty of privacy. This campground is big on nature, but small on campsite sizes.

It is located 2 hours’ drive from Chattanooga and getting there could be a chore for some. The gravel roads leading to the campsite are narrow with plenty of switchbacks to navigate. But once there, you will start to appreciate the beauty of this remote location.

There are no amenities nor cell coverage here. So you will need to be fully sustainable either with a solar paneel or camp generators.

Amanda Williams

Amanda Williams is a writer, plant-nerd, and outdoor enthusiast. She has traveled extensively, around the U.S., throughout Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Everywhere she treks, she takes time to enjoy the outdoors. John Muir is her hero. She aspires to inspire people to live better as he did.

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