Top Ten Tent Camping in the Carolinas

Merchants Mill Pound State Park: Sunbury, NC

Merchants Millpond State Park is simply one of North Carolina's finest tent camping destinations. This quiet getaway in the northeastern state is overlooked because it has neither the glamour of the ocean nor the lure of the mountains; nevertheless this coastal-plain park shines brightly. The actual Merchants Millpond is a "mini Okefenokee Swamp," offering a brooding, wetland ecosystem ideal for canoeing 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.

As with all park facilities here, the campground is appealing and well maintained. The campground is laid out in a classic loop with a mere 20 campsites. Overhead, loblolly pines tower above red and white oaks, maples, and thick understory brush such as myrtle oak. Pine needles carpet the forest floor, and shade is abundant. Elevated tent pads, filled with sand, allow for easy staking of your tent and quick drainage in case of rain. The campsites are located far from one another, which added with the thick woods, makes for maximum privacy. Most sites are on the outside of the loop, but here, every site is a winner, no matter where it is located. Small trails lead to the center of the loop where a modern bathhouse lies. Most sites can accommodate a large tent and screen shelter, if you so desire. Spring and fall are the best time to visit Merchants Millpond. Summer can be hot and buggy. Late March through April and mid-October are the busiest times, though campsites are available just about any weekend. Winter is quiet. Park gates are locked every evening until morning light, making for maximum camper safety. An emergency phone at the ranger station allows quick departure, as a park ranger lives on-site.

Bennetts Creek was dammed over 180 years ago, forming Merchants Millpond. The elevated pond provided waterpower to operate a gristmill and later a sawmill in Gates County. The 760-acre pond, ringed with cypress and gum trees, is filled with fish and other wildlife. Lassiter Swamp occupies the upper reaches of Bennetts Creek and the millpond. Canoes are available for rent at very reasonable prices, to tour the swamp or for casting a line to catch bream, crappie, or largemouth bass. Only electric motors are allowed on the lake, making it a quiet retreat to nature. There are even backcountry canoe campsites for the adventurous. Check at the park office for canoe rental information.

The park can also be explored by land. Several foot trails course through the woods and along the wetlands. One trail even has a backpacker's campsite. If you hike no other path, at least check out the Cypress Point Trail. Cypress Point Trail makes a quarter-mile loop along the edge of the millpond, overlooking the swamp from a boardwalk. The Coleman Trail extends for 2 miles. It also offers good views of the millpond and travels through several habitats. This is a good birding trail, especially during spring and fall migrations. The Lassiter Trail is the master path of the park. You can pick it up directly from the campground via a 0.4-mile spur trail. Make the 5-mile loop by passing along the north side of the millpond and along Lassiter Swamp. A park fire road cuts the loop in half. Park programs are held on weekends and will help inform you about this special swath of the coastal plain, which plainly, you should not miss.

Campers usually end up finding a site to suit them. Do some driving around in the campground once you get here. No matter your location in this large campground, a bathhouse and water spigot are close by. Frisco will fill on major holidays and a few other assorted perfect weather weekends in summer. Otherwise, you should be able to get a campsite.

Key Information

Address: Merchants Millpond State Park, 71 US Highway 158E, Gatesville, NC 27938; (252) 357-1191;

Open: Year-round

Sites: 20

Assignment: First come, first served; no reservations

Fee: $12 per night

Elevation: 25 feet


Pets: On leash only

Fires: In fire rings only

Alcohol: Prohibited

Vehicles: Two per site

Other: 14-day stay limit in 30-day period

Getting There

From Exit 173 on I-95, drive east on US 158 for 61 miles to the park, located on your right, west of Sunbury.


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