The diversity of Tennessee’s wilderness makes it an underrated destination for dispersed camping. From the Appalachian Mountains, to dense forests, stunning waterfalls, and pristine river valleys, the state has an exceptional amount of public land perfect for exploring.
We’ve compiled our eight favorite places to pitch your tent or park your trailer for free in the state in this guide. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know to plan your next free, dispersed camping trip in Tennessee.
Tennessee Dispersed Camping Guide
- The Best Dispersed Camping Areas in Tennessee
Find Your Next Dispersed Campsite
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The Best Dispersed Campsites in Tennessee
The list below (in no particular order) includes what we think are the eight best dispersed camping areas in Tennessee to check out.
In addition, the map below shows all of the campsite locations, with detailed descriptions following.
What to Bring
You shouldn’t expect any amenities when dispersed camping in Tennessee so you’ll need to come prepared to be self-sufficient.
- Coleman Camping Stove – This classic piece of gear is perfect for cooking up deluxe campsite dinners.
- Portable water container – Many of these sites lack a dedicated potable water source, so we recommend bringing a large refillable container.
- Cooler – Keeping food and drinks cool is critical when camping. We can’t recommend Yeti enough!
- Map – We prefer downloadable GPS maps via the Gaia GPS app. You can get 20% off your annual membership here.
Our dispersed camping checklist has everything you need.
Want to know the essentials for your next camping trip?
Our dispersed camping checklist has all the camping essentials plus specific items for dispersed camping.
Set in an isolated corner of Cherokee National Forest near the border with North Carolina you’ll find the Citico Creek Dispersed Camping area. There are 14 designated dispersed campsites along the river just off of Citico Road that are all first-come, first-served.
Although the sites are dedicated, this is true dispersed camping with no amenities or facilities available. This means you’ll need to practice Leave No Trace principles and leave your site in better shape than you found it.
The drive in can be long, but the rewards when you arrive at your site are well worth it. Each of the campsites are private, with great spacing between them making this a quiet and tranquil place to spend the night.
Crowds: Busy, especially during the summer.
The Meriweather Lewis Campground might just be the best free campground in the Southeast. Located on the Natchez Trace Parkway and maintained by the National Park Service, the campground has 32 free, first-come, first-served campsites.
You won’t get many amenities here, but you will have restrooms as well as a drinking water source available. There are tons of excellent hikes nearby and campers rave about how stunning the surrounding wilderness is during the fall months.
Arrive early if you plan to try and secure a site during busy summer weekends as the campground will definitely fill up. Please also help do your part to keep this incredible campground FREE by packing out all of your waste and leaving the campground in great condition for the next group.
For free, dispersed camping near Chattanooga look no further than Prentice Cooper State Forest. This popular forest has two campgrounds that provide free, primitive campsites on a first-come, first-served basis, described below:
- Hunter’s Check Station Camping Area: As you’d expect, this is a popular campsite for hunters during the fall season. This is a smaller, quieter campsite with just a handful of sites as well as a vault toilet.
- Davis Pond Camping Area: The more popular of the two camping areas in Prentice Cooper State Forest, Davis Pond is set in a wonderful location in the southern part of the forest near the Tennessee River. Facilities are basic, but adequate.
Regardless of which camping area you choose, you’ll find miles and miles of hiking, ATV, and off-road trails to explore here. It can get a bit noisy from motorbikes and ATVs, but for those who don’t mind these are some of the best free camping areas in the state.
Jackson Island Dispersed Camping
If you’re looking for lakefront free camping in Tennessee then look no further than the sites at Jackson Island. Located on the south end of Watts Bar Lake, these free campsites are located on Tennessee Valley Authority land. While not on an actual island, the campsites are located on a long and narrow peninsula that juts out into the lake, assuring that nearly every site has water front access.
As another bonus, you’re just a short drive from the town of Spring City, which has most amentieis you might need. Boating and fishing are the main attractions for campers here, so be sure to bring all of your watersport gear!
An important note for potential campers at Jackson Island is to please Leave No Trace and clean up your site thoroughly. There have been more and more reports of excessive trash in the area, so please do your part to leave the area better than you found it.
Low Gap – Cherokee National Forest
Low Gap is the perfect dispersed camping area for those looking to get off the beaten path and explore deep within Cherokee National Forest. The camping area has a handful of campsites cleared from the thick forest, located high on a ridge road. You’ll want a vehicle with decent clearance to get here as the road is quite rough.
Those who do make it will be rewarded with a sense of solitude that is hard to find in the rest of the state. This is primitive camping with no services, although a few of the campsites do have picnic tables available. The main attraction in the surrounding area is the miles of hiking and biking trails traversing Cherokee National Forest.
Cordell Hull Lake Horse Camping
Located on the banks of the Cordell Hull Lake along the Cumberland River, the Cordell Hull Lake Horse camping area is a convenient place to spend the night, especially for those looking to explore the surrounding trails. About a 1.5 hour drive from Nashville, this is a popular area for boating, hiking, and of course horseback riding.
The camping area is a large clearing designed to host horse trailers, although all are welcome to camp here. The site is free and is first-come, first-served.
During weekends you can expect it to get a bit busy with folks coming to ride the nearby trails, but it tends to be very quiet during the week. Check out the video below to get a good sense of what camping here is all about:
Big Creek Primitive Camping Area
The Big Creek Primitive Camping Area is located in Cherokee National Forest, about 2 hours east of Chattanooga and just north of the Georgia border. There are approximately 7 campsites here, most of which can accommodate multiple vehicles and tents. Set at the confluence of Big Creek and the Peter Camp Branch, this is a serene place to spend the night.
Although primitive in nature, most of the campsites do have a fire ring. However, you won’t find any water source (other than the creeks) and there are no restrooms available.
The camping area is just over 8 miles in along Forest Service Road 221 from Highway 64. FSR 221 is gravel, but should be passable by most vehicles. Once at the camping area, there are several excellent hiking routes in the immediate vicinity.
If you fast forward to the end of the video below you’ll get a quick overview of the camping area:
The Lost Creek Campground in Cherokee National Forest is a former developed site that the USFS has decided to cease up keep on and remove all camping fees. Part of the reason is the remote location of this campground, which is set deep within the National Forest. That makes getting there a bit of a hassle, but rewards those who make the trip with solitude unmatched by many of camping areas in Tennessee.
There is no potable water available here, but you will find a basic vault toilet. There are approximately a dozen campsites here, with the best sites located adjacent to the river.
Given that the campground is no longer maintained, please practice Leave No Trace principles and pack out all of your trash. Recent reports from campers say the litter situation is getting worse, so do your part to leave the campground in better shape than you found it.
Leave No Trace Principles & Dispersed Camping
One of the most important considerations when dispersed camping is to follow Leave No Trace principles. This will minimize your impact and ensure your campsite can be enjoyed by future visitors. Here are the seven principles of Leave No Trace camping:
- Plan Ahead & Prepare: Have an idea of where you’d like to camp and always be sure you are camping in an area that permits dispersed camping.
- Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces: Never camp on fragile ground or create a new campsite.
- Dispose of waste properly: Pack out all of your trash and bury human waste away from water sources. Ideally, carry out human waste or use a portable toilet.
- Leave what you find: Never take anything from your campsite. Other than trash of course!
- Minimize campfire impacts: Never create new fire rings and only have fires if permitted.
- Respect Wildlife: Properly store food at all times and be aware of the area’s wildlife.
- Be considerate of Other Visitors: Pack out your trash, don’t be loud, and leave your campsite in better condition than you found it.
Have a great trip!
That’s it! We hope we’ve provided all of the information you need to plan a great free, dispersed camping trip in Tennessee.
Be sure to let us know in the comments below if you have any questions and be sure to tell us about your trip!
Looking for more dispersed camping content? Don’t forget to check out our other state-specific dispersed camping guides: