Think camping is just sitting around grilling hot dogs, testing the latest in chaise lounge technology and never straying more than an arm’s length from the cooler?
Not that it can’t be (nor that that’s a bad thing). But in North Carolina, camping can be about so much more. Think of these campsites inside our state parks as base camps to a range of adventures, whether you're going with friends, family or seeking a serene getaway with your significant other.
1 Eno River State Park
1 Eno River State ParkDurhamSee on map
If you fancy yourself a backcountry explorer, you’ll be intrigued by Eno River State Park in Durham, where backcountry sites are as close as a quarter-mile and no more than 2 miles from your car. The relatively short distance is ideal if you have young children in tow. The three primitive campsites – two at the Fews Ford Access and one at the Cole Mill Access – let you escape the buzz of generators and blare of boomboxes for a peaceful urban evening. It’s an uncommon slice of wilderness in the heart of the Triangle.
2 Merchants Millpond State Park
2 Merchants Millpond State ParkGatesvilleSee on map
For the Lewis & Clark types desiring to paddle deep into wild country, there’s Merchants Millpond State Park in Gatesville. On the fringe of the Great Dismal Swamp, where paddling to the three canoe campsites is 4.5 miles or less, passage through the cypress and tupelo-pocked 760-acre former millpond will transport you to another time. You can even rent a canoe on site.
Mountains Close to Cities
Everyone loves the idea of camping in the mountains. Not everyone loves the uncertain reality of mountain weather and the sometimes challenging drives to get there. Not a problem when you consider North Carolina has “mountains” near its population centers in the central region of the state.
3 Hanging Rock State Park
3 Hanging Rock State ParkDanburySee on map
Hanging Rock State Park may top out at just 2,579 feet, but that’s 1,300 feet above the surrounding countryside, sufficient to provide panoramic views from atop craggy Hanging Rock and Moore’s Knob, and elevation enough to give swimmers in the park’s 12-acre lake a bracing jolt, even on a hot day. There’s rock climbing and waterfall viewing, and canoeing and kayaking on the mountain-like Dan River bordering the park, located in Danbury, about 20 miles north of Winston-Salem. The 73-site campground, great for groups large and small, offers quick access to all.
4 Pilot Mountain State Park
4 Pilot Mountain State ParkPinnacleSee on map
Hanging Rock anchors the east end of the ancient Sauratown Mountain chain; at the west end, some 25 miles distant, sits Pilot Mountain State Park. Pilot Mountain is the most popular climbing destination in the Piedmont, with dozens of 1-pitch routes appealing to climbers of varying levels. Fish the Yadkin River, challenge yourself to a hike up to 2,420-foot Big Pinnacle on the 3-mile Grindstone Trail, or circumnavigate the base of the mountain on a 6-plus-mile hike. Enjoy great views of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west from the Ledge Springs Trail.
5 Morrow Mountain State Park
5 Morrow Mountain State ParkAlbemarleSee on map
At one point, the Uwharrie Mountains reached elevations of 20,000 feet. Then geologic aging set in. Today, the range barely tops 1,000 feet. But that’s more than enough elevation to offer challenging hikes from your campsite at Morrow Mountain State Park in Albemarle. There’s fishing and paddling as well, but the big summertime attraction is swimming in the Civilian Conservation Corps swimming pool, a cement pond with a throwback stone bathhouse surrounded by mature forest.
Water, Water Everywhere
6 Kerr Lake State Recreation Area
6 Kerr Lake State Recreation AreaHendersonSee on map
Got campers on your hands who insist on water? Kerr Lake State Recreation Area near Henderson is all about water. Five campgrounds on the 50,000-acre lake all provide access to the lake (two, Nutbush and Satterwhite Point, are open year-round). Take your bass boat in search of striped bass, largemouth bass, white perch, crappie and catfish; take your sailboat out to capitalize on the prevailing winds. While Satterwhite Point is the main swimming beach, swimmers have a multitude of options along the lake’s shoreline.
7 New River State Park
7 New River State ParkLaurel SpringsSee on map
New River State Park in Laurel Springs, in the northern mountains, is a linear park meandering along one of the oldest rivers in the land. Canoeing and kayaking, with local rentals and shuttles available, is popular at this designated National Wild and Scenic River. And there are numerous access points along the way. You’ll find trout in the tributaries feeding the New (rainbow and browns are stocked), rockfish migrate upstream in the spring behind the shad, and muskellunge is also stocked downstream from the U.S. Highway 221 bridge.
Meat-Eating Plants and a Park in Still-Life
8 Carolina Beach State Park
8 Carolina Beach State ParkCarolina BeachSee on map
Pursuit of camping often leads to unique destinations. At Carolina Beach State Park, you can hike a forested, 60-foot dune that once served as a Civil War lookout, then pass, carefully, through terrain populated by the carnivorous Venus flytrap. While there’s much to do in the park, you can also walk a mile to the other side of the peninsula and explore more typical beach experiences in Carolina Beach and Kure Beach.
9 Stone Mountain State Park
9 Stone Mountain State ParkRoaring GapSee on map
From the campground at Stone Mountain State Park, hike on more than 18 miles of trail, fish on 20 miles of designated trout streams, climb the 600-foot granite dome, go horseback riding or delve into the human past of an area where living off the land was the way of life. The Hutchinson Homestead, a restored mid-1800s mountain farm, and the long-abandoned stills remain in the park.
North Carolina State Parks offer a variety nature activities, but this also includes potential hazards. Take care, be safe and enjoy.