Camping in the Deep South

Exploring the backcountry

Story + Photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw

Primeval swamps that pulse with the strange din of nocturnal life. Canopies of tall, swaying pines silhouetted against the stars. White sand beaches glowing in the moonlight. Meteor showers over rolling ranges of dark hills. Rustling trees, gurgling creeks, trilling frogs, and gently lapping waves that lull you to sleep after a long day of adventure. These are some of the unforgettable experiences you can have camping in the Deep South. But with the abundant hazards and nuisances of the region—deadly snakes, hordes of insects, extreme heat, trackless waterways — it’s good to know where to go and when. Here are a few of our favorite spots, which won’t disappoint anyone looking for a taste of the truly wild South. 

Congaree Swamp

Central South Carolina

Camping notes: This national park contains the largest expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the country. Here you can see behemoth bald cypress trees mirrored in blackwater, which gets its distinctive sweet-tea hue from the slow brewing of vegetation along its lazy course. The park has both hiking and canoe trails, allowing you to delve into this ancient habitat in the way in which you are most comfortable. Canoeists and kayakers can camp in the backcountry by obtaining a free permit and selecting any suitable site at least 100 feet away from the principal creeks. Those desiring a more land-based experience can stay in either of two “front country” campgrounds, one of which is walk-in only, and neither of which accommodates RVs. The best times to go are spring when wildflower blooms and the new greens of the trees are positively radiant, and fall when foliage turns and cool temps offer welcome relief. Those who can’t stand any bugs or snakes whatsoever should go only in winter. 

Tall Trees Reflected on Waters Edge, Cedar Creek Congaree National Park, Cypress and Loblolly Pine

Big Cypress, the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands

South Florida

Camping notes: It’s astounding the level of remoteness you can find just a few miles out of Miami. Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park and the tropical seas beyond comprise a swath of wilderness that will challenge even the most seasoned explorer. You can plan a kayaking trip into Ten Thousand Islands, risking sudden squalls, to pitch a tent on your own private beach among the mangroves. You can string a hammock in one of the “chickees” scattered throughout the Everglades, which are wooden platforms named after the traditional, open palm-thatch huts of the Seminoles. Or you can barrel down the gravel roads of Big Cypress in an off-road vehicle to one of the primitive campgrounds you’ll share with gators, snapping turtles and maybe even a Florida panther. Definitely go in winter. 

Camping in the Ten Thousand Islands in the Everglades
Ten Thousand Islands

William B. Bankhead National Forest

North Alabama 

Camping notes: This well-kept secret in North Alabama consists of quiet forests, gentle rock formations, abundant waterfalls and caves, plus the Sipsey Fork, Alabama’s only designated national wild and scenic river. Fall is a beautiful time to go, when colored leaves flutter down into a carpet, and sunny days still heat up enough to warrant a swimming hole. The Sipsey Wilderness offers dispersed camping along its many miles of trails, while several recreation areas in the Bankhead feature drive-up camping. Be sure to visit Kinlock Shelter, a cave that has been used as a ceremonial site by Native Americans from antiquity through today; faint remains of petroglyphs are still visible on the walls. 

Beautiful Caney Creek Falls in the William B Bankhead National Forest of Alabama

Linville Gorge

Western North Carolina 

Camping notes: This 12-mile-long, 2,000-foot-deep canyon in the Blue Ridge Mountains is a rugged wilderness full of waterfalls, sheer cliffs, black bears and boulders tumbled about like toys. It’s the perfect playground for people who like scrambling, creeking, rock-hopping and other backcountry pastimes. Dispersed camping is available with a permit for backpackers who want to explore the gorge’s 40 miles of trails, which range from easy ambles in search of waterfalls to brutal summit hikes that on a clear day yield views as far off as Charlotte’s skyline. There is also the Linville Falls Campground with tent and RV sites for those who don’t want to work so hard. Summer is the best time to be in the mountains, but the shoulder seasons of late spring and early fall will help you avoid the crowds. 

Linville Falls, Plunge Basin, North Carolina.


Southern Georgia 

Camping notes: The largest blackwater swamp in North America offers the chance to disappear into a remote, watery world that has little use for humans. Here the pitch-black nights mean exceptional star-gazing, and half the inhabitants are nocturnal — frogs, owls, foxes, crickets, whippoorwills — so the fun begins after the sun goes down. There also are an estimated 12,000 alligators in the Okefenokee, so you’ll have some interesting bedfellows. Deep within the interior, seven overnight shelters on wooden platforms and two islands with high ground provide campsites for intrepid paddlers (permit required). Suggested itineraries for trips of 1-4 days can be found on the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge webpage. The Stephen C. Foster State Park also has a traditional campground and cabins for rent. Go in cool weather when the moon is in its dark phase for optimal views of the Milky Way.

Landscape in the Okefenokee swamp with bald cypress trees (Taxodium distichum), Georgia, USA

Horn Island

Jackson County, Mississippi 

Camping notes: On the highly developed Gulf Coast, a few remote barrier islands designated as wilderness areas offer visitors the chance for total immersion in nature. Horn Island has no facilities, services or communications whatsoever — but it does have white sand beaches, solitude, abundant wildlife and millions of migratory birds stopping over on their fly routes. Mississippi artist Walter Anderson made numerous trips to Horn Island to create his brilliant watercolors of the flora and fauna, often living under his skiff for weeks at a time, and once even weathering a Category 5 hurricane by lashing himself to a tree. The only way to reach Horn, and several others in Gulf Islands National Seashore, is by boat. Passage can be chartered through local operators. Avoid warmer months when the bugs are brutal.

Ocean sunset from Horn Island of the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi

Similar Posts