Camping in Nantahala National Forest

Finally!! It’s January 19, 2021, and I am CAMPING! This is 3 months overdue, that’s when I made the official plan. I read about dispersed camping in Nantahala National Forest in October after being inspired to camp from the book: Camp. For the longest time, it seemed like every day I had off it was raining. And, well, I am off indefinitely while I look for another job. As crazy as it may sound, I think it is the perfect time for me to reconnect to nature. I was stuck and working for a company that does not align with my values and time was passing me by. The more time passed, the more resentful of my situation I became. I only intended on staying at the said company for a few months while I looked for something more attuned to my lifestyle, after all, it was a seasonal position.

Anyway, now I have my time back! The first thing I did was find a day to camp. With a plan already set from October, I packed my camping equipment and penciled in the first 0% chance of precipitation day in the forecast. There is just something about the vulnerability and being one with nature that makes me feel alive! It was 4 days past my final working day and over 10 months since I have felt alive.

Dragon US-129

stopped on 'The Dragon' scenic route on the way to go camping in the Nantahala National Forest. Pickles ready to get out.

I use the term plan lightly. My plan essentially lead me to the vicinity of where I would camp and the day in which I would go based on weather predictions and it being a weekday vs. weekend. While the site is a well-kept secret it is still popular enough from those who seek it that chances of me locking in on it for a weekend would is rare. Maybe not so rare in January, but I doubt I’d be able to secure it during peak season. Anyhow, other than the directions to the free camping in Nantahala National Forest- I hadn’t really mapped much else out.

We are still very much in the midst of a pandemic. I had no plan to stop to eat or for gas; I left my apartment after lunch and brought dinner and breakfast to make over a fire. This, I did check for. I made sure there was a fire pit at the site with a grill grid. Without my own grid to go over the flame, it was a necessity. This trip would take me less than 2 hours from home. I had no reason to stop anywhere, so I hadn’t checked my route for details.

The view at the top of the Dragon route US129. Somewhere on route to go camping in the Nantahala National Forest.

It ended up being a scenic route to include lookout points. It was beautiful in the winter- even bare and ‘dead’. I cannot imagine the beauty it boasts in the spring and fall! I hope to come back then; with shorts, a bikini, and an inner tube… or better yet a blow-up kayak. This route was gorgeous. The road is windy as it snakes through lakes, rivers, creeks, and mountains. The majority of my drive was on the ‘Dragon’.

The Nantahala National Forest

I am camping in the Nantahala National Forest at post #7. I have a lakefront spot- it is absolutely free and I am the only one here. The lake is named Santeetlah; meaning ‘blue waters’. And the mountains in the distance are called the Cheoah Mountains. If I had to guess, the names would be of Cherokee descent. That’s what I have found most of the East Coast to be, Native-American-wise. I am just over the TN/NC border in North Carolina. This lake is part of a dam to create hydropower and most of its shoreline is in the protected National Forest. Meaning, this land will never be overpopulated or too developed.

camping in the Nantahala National Forest- our private beach, post #7.

Camp post #7; Nantahala NF

tent and chair, setting up the camp in Nantahala National Forest

After I pitched my tent, I wandered around my new ‘home’. This site had 2 leveled spots for tents, a large picnic table with many names carved among the top, a fire pit, a grill, a hook-like stand (I assume to gut a fish), and a large beachfront. As I was getting my bearings, Pickles ran free like a mad man, errgh, dog. He loves to be wild and free. I soon found him swimming in the cold lake.

He eventually lead me down a small trail to an adjoining beachfront, no camping, where a large rock jutted out of the ground at a perfect 45-degree angle making a perfect seat. This would be my bathroom. Other campsites do have bathrooms- but I don’t mind doing it in the great outdoors! I only ever had to pee; of course, I did weigh out my poop options and I won’t get into the details here. If you do poop, you must either dig a 6+ inch hole and bury it, or pack it out. And if you bring TP, you HAVE to pack it out. For more information about pooping in the wild- click here.

Pack in Pack out

bear proof trash can at the lookout point on the way to camping in the Nantahala National Forest. There are lots on route but not at the campground.

While I was away on this walk I found tons of trash. Upon arrival, I hadn’t noticed all the trash. I went back to my car and found the trash picker I was given from the ‘Keep Knoxville Beautiful’ organization I volunteer with and an Evolution trash bag. I also grabbed a Trader Joe’s reusable grocery bag to make a ‘can’ to hold the bag. When I am out in the ‘wild’, even in my own neighborhood, I take ownership in protecting the environment from humans, camping in Nantahala National Forest was no different. This is quite simple and the “trash grabber” makes picking up trash 100% better than constantly bending and picking up small pieces of garbage that could be filthy- think pee-filled bottles. It also means I can actually get the stuff I see buried in prickly vines.

Pickle was mostly a good boy except when I was unpacking the car and he was insistent on walking down the middle of the street. This campsite is close to US-129 but it’s not the road he was walking down. It is close enough that you can hear the cars drive by… but it’s also not busy enough of a road to have many cars going by- if that makes sense. I think on the street he was walking down, I saw at most 5 cars the entire time we were there. Either way, I don’t want P getting used to walking in the streets. He wears a bear bell so I can always hear him. I was constantly calling for him until we were settled and I was cleaning the site. After the entire site was clean, including the nearby beach, it was time for dinner.


My absolute favorite part of camping is the campfire. I take pride in my ability to build a fire. Without any sort of fuel or pre-soaked wood, I built a large fire. Lucky for me, there were old logs left at the campsite! Some already had been charred but were dry. I did not bring any wood. I only brought with me a compactible handsaw in hopes to find fallen branches or washed-up logs, dried out. There was a branch, many sticks, and dry grass. I built my fire in the pit to keep us warm while I thought I would use the grill to build a small flame for cooking. Well, my skills didn’t get me that far.

I ended up waiting a while for the fire to burn enough that I could smash the logs down with the attached steel grill piece. Then I got to cooking rice in a glass Pyrex pot. Going from boil to simmer was tricky, but with a bit of movement, I mastered the perfect jasmine rice. Alongside the rice, I cooked sweet and sour chicken in an 8inch Wagner cast iron.

Later that Night

Dinner was great! It wasn’t a typical campfire dinner but it was delicious. After dinner, Pickle continued to run wild and I began setting up the inside of the tent. Lastly, I put the collected trash, and all the food items, including things like Chapstick, in the car. There were no bear-safe lockers at the campsite. I forgot to mention, I had service here. I was able to listen to music and podcasts while I was doing all the things. This made it somewhat more comforting but also less of the off-grid experience I was seeking. Nevertheless, I made the most of it. I wound down that night by the campfire. I listened to my favorite songs and danced in the dark.

dusk, camping in the Nantahala National forest, post #7.

Everything seemed so surreal and perfect. Pickle and I waited out the fire and watched as the embers glowed a bright orange. Have you seen this? Watching embers in the night as they gasp for air is mesmerizing. Then we snuggled in the tent. Me in my new Big Agnes 0degree sleeping bag (I got for my Birthday) and P nuzzled on his homemade bed from yours truly. I sewed a wool blanket together, filled with an old Queen-sized goose-down insert I had. And then I covered him with a camp blanket for extra measure. He was dry from the lake at this point.

Sleeping in the Wild

Pickle camping in the Nantahala National Forest. He was warm, but wanted to cuddle- too muddy for me!

Pickle fell asleep rather quickly. I listened to a Podcast. It was still early. The downfall of camping in winter. Around 9 pm we heard some people laughing and ‘woo-ing’. I figured it was maybe some local kids or maybe other campers from a nearby paid camping site. They sounded close though! It kind of freaked me out but Pickles stood alert and we unzipped the tent and didn’t see anything but the lake under the moon’s glow. I was at peace and there were no more sounds. I turned off the podcast and just laid there ready to fall asleep.

Eventually, I did.

Camping in Nantahala National Forest

Camp post #7 on the Santeetlah lakeside was picturesque. It was perfect in so many ways… except it had no wind barriers. I knew there was wind in the forecast but it didn’t seem like much. The forecast mentioned 5-10mph winds. And maybe that’s all it was, but it felt like 30-40 mph winds. The entire tent was being thrashed around. Pickles was terrified. The tent was lifting on his side, then the top would cave in. I started thinking about the tree branches above us. Begrudgingly, I sat up slowly and began putting all my things away. I ran P to the car and continued to pack up the tent. It was a mess. I ended up just disassembling the tent and throwing my metal chair on top of it for the night. We spent the next 4 hours sleeping in the car.

The wind felt like nothing in there; the car didn’t even budge. We soon woke up to a gorgeous sunrise. I was exhausted because my sleep was interrupted. I debated making coffee. One of the absolute best parts of camping is making the morning coffee before going on a hike. However, we didn’t have any hiking plans. This was just a trip to get out in nature and to acclimate P to the lifestyle. He did well. Instead of coffee, I went on a quick bathroom break and checked the weather. It was going to be a gorgeous day, but the wind was not going to let up. We packed the tent haphazardly into the car. I would later sort the mess out at my apartment.

First day camping in the Nantahala National Forest; after picking up the trash at both beaches. Camp post #7.

Off we went. Pickle and I got back in the car, warmed up, and went home. It was a great night camping in Nantahala National Forest. We are looking forward to another quick getaway!

If you are looking to get away- check out my Gas Tank Getaway series here!

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