Even though temps have been pretty perfect the last few days, winter is coming. While our access to the great outdoors kept many of us from experiencing cabin fever these last few months, colder temps ahead could be challenging – especially if you’re a warm weather lover like me. But this winter, I’ve decided to embrace friluftsliv – a.k.a. the Scandanavian practice of embracing the outdoors in frigid weather – by working on my positive wintertime mindset. The New York Times explains it as the attitude that winter is full of exciting adventures, rather than something to dread. One of the things on my agenda? Cold weather camping.
For adventurers in the know, camping is an all-seasons activity. In WNC, many campgrounds close for the season in late fall, but there are still tons of places that stay open for campers ready to brave the cold.
So here’s our guide to a few of the best camping sites open during late fall + winter – plus some tips on how to stay warm and safe when temps are dropping. Bonus: A few of your cold-weather camping recommendations.
Camping in the late fall + winter is not for the inexperienced. If you’ve never done it before, you might try an easily accessible site not too far from hotels + other amenities, in case you need to end your trip early if the weather turns cold or you find yourself unprepared.
Here’s a starter checklist for camping in the cold. Get more tips here.
- Plenty of food + water. You’ll need a higher calorie intake to help you stay warm, and of course hydration is key.
- Good equipment, including a sturdy tent and a low-temp sleeping bag. Protip: It might be tempting to pull your sleeping bag over your head for warmth, but the resulting condensation could have the opposite effect.
- Warm clothes to layer – including base layers and even waterproof pants if you’ll be in the snow or rain. Note: Cotton doesn’t wick moisture effectively, and condensation could make you way colder, so choose wool and synthetic materials.
- Sturdy, waterproof shoes (or even snowshoes).
- A shovel for snow.
Reddit user @Kenilwort also advises “A lot of the usual spots become pretty limited in the winter because of the icy winds (e.g. Black Balsam, Blue Ridge Parkway in general, anything with a view).” If you do camp at a higher elevation, you’ll want to secure a spot where you’ll be shielded against the wind. And reader @lauralikesllamas says, “Many Hand warmers in the sleeping bag are a must to stay cozy!”
Most of these spots require reservations, so double-check their websites before you load up and head out. And always practice leave-no-trace camping.
Curtis Creek, Old Fort, NC
The campground is open year-round at the site of an old Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp. If you camp here, you’ll be treated to a night in old-growth forest surrounded by rushing streams. 25 campsites are available over three loops. Reader @chariman-cheeboppa says, “We like Curtis Creek in Old Fort. There’s a campground as well as sites. The dirt road it is on actually goes up and crosses the parkway where there is more camping available.”
Fontana Dam, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
It’s a bit of a drive at close to two hours from Asheville, but worth it for the views of Fontana Lake. People tend to head to trails of Newfound Gap Road, so you’re less likely to see crowds – especially in winter. Bonus: The Fontana Dam Shelter, nicknamed Fontana Dam Hilton, is known for being one of the nicest on the Appalachian Trail, with clean restrooms, picnic tables and access to hot showers at the Tennessee Valley Authority visitors’ center. If remote areas are your jam, this is the place for you.
Gorges State Park, Sapphire, NC
If icy waterfalls, rare species, and staggering rock walls + cliff faces are your thing, Gorges may be your place. This park is relatively new and offers year-round camping, with a campground as well as some primitive sites that must be reserved in advance. The 75,000-acre area also has plenty of hiking + backpacking trails.
“Gorges State Park has great primitive camping and backpacking trails.” – @Kenilwort
Max Patch, Madison County, NC
The grassy bald on the Appalachian Trail is a perfect place for taking in scenic views available in both the winter and spring. You must camp at least 200 feet away from the main trails. Try to get a spot near trees for shelter. It can get cold and windy quickly at Max Patch, with temps at least 10º below the temperature in Asheville. Protip: It’s an especially beautiful hike after a snowfall.
North Mills River, Pisgah National Forest
Normally a tunnel of green in the summer, the views open up once the leaves fall. The campground lies in the center of Pisgah National Forest, and has 13 primitive campground sites with fire rings, picnic tables, access to a pit toilet + trout fishing along the river.
Panthertown Valley, Nantahala National Forest
Great place for stargazing + backpacking. Known as the Yosemite of the East, Panthertown Valley is located in a remote area of Nantahala National Forest. This is the perfect place for campers who don’t need many amenities and simply want level, established campsites. Bring your own water and pack according to the weather. It is free to camp here and no permits are required.
Paris Mountain State Park, Greenville, SC
Another area established by the CCC, this park is big on both views + history. There are paved camping sites, as well as several trailside campsites around the North Lake Trail Loop. Activities like birdwatching, geocaching, and hiking are available in all seasons.
“Paris Mountain State Park (South Carolina) has about 39 sites, and you can’t miss Pretty Place...In my experience, this is actually a great time of year to head south towards Greenville and Spartanburg, which are generally a bit warmer and less windy.” – Kenilwort
Roan Mountain State Park, TN
Another favorite site on the Appalachian Trail, the park offers unparalleled views for miles in any direction. The pinnacle (literally) is Roan Mountain, sitting at 6,285 ft.
“I once saw the buildings in Charlotte from a crispy 3 degree sunrise on Roan mountain.” – @modulatedsarcasm
South Mountains State Park, Connelly Springs, NC
Fifty-five miles from Asheville, South Mountains offers family-friendly car camping and 48 miles of hiking trails, plus a 17-mile loop for mountain bikers that is extremely tough. There are 18 campsites with picnic tables + fire circles, as well as 20 backpacking sites with space to fit a two-person tent. Year-round trout fishing is available at the nearby Jacob Fork River. Bonus: One campsite is wheelchair accessible.
And, if you’re ready to go farther afield, @Kenilwort has one more suggestion – “Although not within an hour or two of Asheville, the Atlantic coast is especially stunning in the winter, and Cumberland Island (Georgia) allows for some camping.”