Top Ten Tent Camping in the Carolinas

Lake James State Park: Morganton, NC

Lake James is one of the cleanest, clearest lakes in the Carolinas. It also has some of the best views, as the high mountains of the Pisgah National Forest burst skyward beyond the water to the northwest. The fine waters of the Pisgah feed Lake James. The contemporary facilities reflect the park being one of North Carolina's newer public preserves.

The sign for Lake James State Park on I-40 says, "No RV Camping." I knew then it was a likely inclusion for this [list]. It's a good thing all the turns between the interstate and the state park were signed, otherwise finding the park would have been very difficult. The campground exceeded adequate and is actually ideal for tent campers. The nice bathhouse and two disabled-access campsites, campsites 19 and 20, are immediately adjacent to the walk-in parking area. A hilltop field backs the parking area, and a foot trail leads to the balance of the campsites.

The foot trail leads toward Lake James. Tulip trees and other hardwoods shade the peninsula jutting into the deeply colored water. Reach campsites 1, 2, and 3. These are on the perimeter of a small knob where the campground wood yard stands. Pine and locust trees shade these sites, two of which are cut into a hill.

Another trail circles down to the lake and the lakeside campsites. Campsite 4 is on a point overlooking the lake. Shortoff Mountain and Table Rock Mountain are easily visible in the distance. A wood fence borders the campsite along the lake, as it is a good 20 feet off a bluff down to the water. A walking trail continues to the rest of the campsites. Campsite 5 is long and narrow. Campsite 6 overlooks the lake and is shaded by pines. Campsite 7 is on the small side. Campsite 8 is highly coveted for its great views. Campsite 9 is 30 feet back from the lake and is cut into the mountainside.

Campsite 10 has numerous landscaping timbers that tier down to the lake itself, where a tiny beach overlooks a cove. Campsite 11 is back from the water a bit. Campsite 12 is directly on the cove. Campsite 13 is smallish and shaded by white pines. Campsite 14 is close to site 13. The water laps up to campsite 15. Campsite 16 is in a small flat. Campsite 17 is near an old foundation with steps leading to the lake. Campsite 18 is ideal for solitude seekers. It is back in the woods all by itself with a path leading to it and it alone.

Water spigots are adequately spaced throughout the area with few sites spaced over a large area. Trails lead back toward the campground bathhouse. This campground will fill during good weather weekends during late spring until Labor Day. Sites are available during the week anytime the campground is open.

Many campers use this as a base camp to explore western North Carolina, from Linville Gorge and the Blue Ridge Parkway to Asheville and the Biltmore Hotel. Other campers remain within the confines of the park. Others just hang around their campsite. These are good campsites.

Lake James is 6,510 acres of alluring water and has 150 miles of shoreline. The state park has 5 miles of shoreline. The swim beach is popular with tent campers during the summer. Expect the aqua to be a tad cooler than your average lake. Canoes are available for rent during the summer.

Those with boats will be launching at one of two nearby boat ramps to explore a few acres of water and a few miles of shoreline. The cool deep waters harbor largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, bream, and walleye. Hiking trails are a bit limited at this small state park. One trail leads half a mile to Sandy Cliff Overlook, where you can enjoy more of those lake and mountain vistas. A 1.5-mile path leads from the campground to Lake Channel Overlook. The Fox Den Trail is the park's longest at 2.2 miles. An information board at the walk-in parking area will get you oriented. Hopefully, you will orient yourself and your tent to the lake-view, walk-in tent sites at Lake James State Park.

Key Information

Address: Lake James State Park, P.O. Box 340, Nebo, NC 28761; (828) 652-5047;

Open: March 15 through November 30

Sites: 20

Assignment: First come, first served; no reservations

Fee: $12 per night

Elevation: 1,240 feet


Pets: On leash only

Fires: In fire rings only

Alcohol: Prohibited

Vehicles: None

Other: 14-day stay limit

Getting There

From Exit 90 on I-40 west of Morganton, leave north from the interstate, taking Fairview Road for 0.4 miles to Harmony Grove Road. Turn right on Harmony Grove Road and follow it for 2.1 miles to reach US 70. Turn left on US 70 west and follow it 0.2 miles to reach NC 126 east. Turn right on NC 126 east and follow it 2.7 miles to the state park, on your left.


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