Best Campgrounds in the Carolinas for Spring Break

Spring Break is upon us! While lots of families are driving east to the Outer Banks, Charleston, or Myrtle Beach, you can skip the expensive vacation or overcrowded beach trip and go camping in the Carolinas.

Here are six campgrounds in the Carolinas from the new edition of Best Tent Camping: The Carolinas by Johnny Molloy you can call home over spring break.

North Carolina

Pilot Mountain State Park Campground

CONTACT: 336-325-2355

OPEN: Mid-March–November

FEE: $10–$23

North Carolina has many special mountains, but when it comes to memorable and distinct landmarks, Pilot Mountain takes the cake. On the edge of the Piedmont, the mountain— named for its status as a way marker for all who passed through the area—rises from the surrounding lands to climax in a circular peak of nearly vertical rock walls with a wooded cap. The park is now a great destination for tent campers. Hiking and rock climbing are the primary pastimes here.

Weekdays are very quiet, and, surprisingly, Pilot Mountain fills only on holiday weekends. Any other time you should be able to get a site. You will be sharing the campground with young couples, families, the occasional rock climber, and other folks who come here to get a firsthand look at the unusual mountain.

New River State Park: Wagoner Access Road

CONTACT: 336-982-2587

OPEN: March–November

FEE: $9

North Carolina is known for its many rivers, some of which are so exceptional as to receive wild and scenic designation. The New River is one of these. Located in the most north-westerly portion of the state, the New River courses through the mountains, northbound for Virginia. 

Most folks who camp here like to paddle the river, but even if you’re not a boater, you can still have a good time. The mile-plus Fern Nature Trail circles the valley beside the campground. Add a mile and connect with the Running Cedar Trail. A pretty picnic area, once an apple orchard, lies adjacent to the camping area. The trees still produce fruit, attracting deer and humans alike in fall. A rapid drops just above the campground access, offering fishing opportunities and a decent little swimming hole below it. A large field below the parking area affords room for games and general running around.

Merchants Millpond State Park Campground

CONTACT: 252-357-1191

OPEN: Year-round

FEE: $15–$23

Merchants Millpond State Park is simply one of North Carolina’s finest tent-camping destinations. This quiet getaway in the northeastern part of the state tends to be overlooked because it has neither the glamour of the ocean nor the lure of the mountains; nevertheless, this coastal-plain jewel shines brightly. The actual Merchants Millpond is a mini– Okefenokee Swamp, a brooding wetland ecosystem ideal for paddling and fishing in the relaxing quiet that only nature can provide. The surrounding high ground has its appeal, too, with many hiking trails traveling the land. To top it off, the campground seems to have been designed for tent campers.

The park can also be explored by land. Several foot trails course through the woods and along the wetlands. One trail even has a campsite for backpackers. If you hike no other path, at least check out Cypress Point Trail, which makes a 0.25-mile loop along the edge of the millpond, overlooking the swamp from a boardwalk.

South Carolina

Keowee–Toxaway State Park Campground

CONTACT: 864-868-2605

OPEN: March–December

FEE: $9–$11; $16–$18 RV, depending on season

This area of South Carolina is aptly named the Cherokee Foothills. The Cherokee thrived here long before white settlers ever laid eyes on the land. South Carolina recognizes this, and Keowee–Toxaway tips a hat to indigenous culture in the natural setting of the Cherokee Foothills at this quiet, well-maintained state natural area.

Tent campers can enjoy the area by day and return to a great campground at night. It is situated on a well-wooded knoll that tastefully integrates campsites with the steep terrain using well-placed landscaping timbers. Shade is abundant beneath the canopy of hickories and oaks, though a relatively light understory somewhat diminishes privacy.

Poinsett State Park Campground

CONTACT: 803-494-8177

OPEN: Year-round

FEE: $12–$15; $16–$22 electric

Poinsett State Park has an interesting location. Set on an outlier of the Carolina Sand Hills, Poinsett is where the vegetation of the Lowcountry meets the vegetation of the Upstate, resulting in the overlapping of ecosystems—a place where Spanish moss hangs in trees that stand over blooming mountain-laurel bushes. The melding of nature’s finery results in a beautiful setting for a park, and an understanding of why this was an early addition to the South Carolina state park system, originally developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. Historic structures from the CCC era add charm to an already pretty place. Another plus in the location department is Poinsett’s proximity to Manchester State Forest, which effectively adds thousands of acres to the activity area, where hiking and mountain-biking trails abound. Add a camping loop used exclusively by tent aficionados, and you have a great outdoor destination in the Palmetto State.

Little Pee Dee State Park Campground

CONTACT: 843-774-8872

OPEN: Year-round

FEE: $9–$11 tent-only; $16–$20 others

Little Pee Dee State Park is one of those destinations that time seems to have passed by. The park exudes an atmosphere as slow moving as the Little Pee Dee River, for which it is named. A ranger confirmed that the park is indeed as relaxing and forgotten as it appears. In his 12 years there, he had seen the 50-site campground fill only twice. Many of the campers who do visit are folks from the Myrtle Beach area who want to escape the madness that sometimes envelops that tourist destination.

Tanya Twerdowsky
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