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The Best In Tent Camping
Tennessee 2nd edition
This updated and revised tent camping guide offers the 50 best tent camping destinations in Tennessee, from the Smoky Mountains to the mighty Mississippi, from the Land Between The Lakes to the raging Ocoee River, from the cliffs of the Big South Fork to the winding roads of the Natchez Trace.
This book was researched over several years. Learning about Tennessee was easy for the Volunteer State native, but even so Johnny found new places to visit and add to this book.
Tennessee is one of the oldest states west of the Appalachian Mountains. Settled by men such as William Blount and James Winchester, the Volunteer State is steeped in American history, from the settler’s gathering to form a state at Sycamore Shoals to Meriwether Lewis untimely death on the Natchez Trace to the Civil War’s Fort Pillow. Pioneers traveled on rough overland trails and along rivers, used for passage through the vast forests that thrived in their interiors. These high, rich mountains, including the Appalachians and the Cumberland Plateau, still form a rampart to settlement and now offer preserved destinations. Farther west are the floodplains and shores of the Cumberland, Tennessee rivers, with their own unique forests and animal life. The Mississippi River forms the state’s western border and has it lowest elevations.
Today tent campers can enjoy these parcels, each pieces of distinct regions of Tennessee. In West Tennessee, you can explore the surprisingly hilly terrain of Big Hill Pond, on the Mississippi border, or the bluffs and riverine forests of Meeman-Shelby State Park. Middle Tennessee is the land of unique cedar glades where unusual plants and animals still thrive and where the water falls from the western Cumberland Plateau. This is also lake country, where reservoirs built to prevent disastrous flooding now are recreation destinations, such as Center Hill and Percy Priest Lake. East Tennessee has the highest of the high, including the crest of the Appalachians, where elevations in the Smoky Mountains exceed 6,000 feet. The campgrounds in the Cumberland Mountains offer rock bluffs overlooking gorges cut by water and time, and unique arches and caves.
Dennis Cove Campground
Appalachian Trail near Dennis Cove
4400 Unicoi Drive, Unicoi, TN 37692
U.S. Forest Service
(423) 638-4109; www.fs.fed.us/r8/cherokee
May through September
Each site has
Picnic table, fire ring, tent pad, lantern post
First come, first served, no reservation
Self-registration on site
Water spigot, flush toilet
At campsites only
$10 per night
Restrictions – Pets
On leash only
Restrictions – Fires
In fire rings only
Restrictions – Alcoholic beverages
At campsites only
Restrictions – Vehicles
Two vehicles per site
Restrictions – Other
14-day stay limit
Laurel Fork Valley is your cool headquarters for this getaway.
To get there
From Hampton drive north on US 321 for 0.8 mile. Watch carefully for the sign with the picture of a tent on it on the road’s right. Turn right there. It’s the unmarked Dennis Cove Road. Climb away from Hampton for 3.9 twisting, turning miles. Dennis Cove Campground will be on your right.
Camp here and enjoy the delightful national forest that surrounds the fine campground. It can be busy on weekends, but no busier than other national forest campgrounds. There are fishing and hiking opportunities at Dennis Cove that will help you recoup some of the investment you made in these public lands. They are, after all, your lands to enjoy. The intimate campground is set in a small flat alongside Laurel Fork. A steep, sloped ridge and thickly wooded creek hem in the campground. There is no mistake, you are deep in the bosom of the Southern Appalachians. The bellwether of eastern mountain beauty, the Appalachian Trail, runs near here and is easily accessed from the campground itself.
As you pull into the campground, a small, grassy glade provides sunlight in this deeply forested cove. This area was timbered in the 1920s and has recovered nicely. A teardrop-shaped loop holds 13 of the 16 campsites. The first two sites abut the glade. Two other sites lie inside the loop, which has a grassy area of its own. The next three sites on the outside of the loop are heavily shaded by hemlock trees. Then the loop swings around to the four most popular sites, situated alongside gurgling Laurel Fork. The understory is denser here, owing to the abundance of rhododendron, which thrives in the cool, moist environs of Appalachian streams. Two more sites are widely spaced on the outside of the gravel road as it completes the loop. Hardwoods mix with a few white pines in these flat sites.
Three other sites lie across the gravel road leading to the loop. These sites, large by any campground standard, are carved out of the steep hill bordering Dennis Cove. Each site is separated by woodland. If it has rained lately, as it often does here, these spots are your best bet for a dry campsite.
Three water spigots are evenly dispersed about the loop. Just turn the handle and the water’s yours. A small comfort station, with one flush toilet for each sex, is 100 feet off the loop away from the campground entrance. Moss growing on the stones scattered about the area is evidence that this campground has been around a long time; however, it is revamped periodically. Before my visit, the loop road was freshly graveled and the fire rings were rebuilt. Explore your surroundings after you’ve set up camp. The waterfall enthusiast has three destinations within walking distance. Walk back toward Hampton half a mile and soon you’ll see a creek coming in on the left. Follow the old, 0.8-mile trail, often tread by Dennis Cove campers, up to Coon Den Falls. If you continue beyond the falls, you can access the AT. Turn left and climb along White Rocks Mountain to Moreland Gap trail shelter. Back down a little farther on Forest Road 50 toward Hampton you’ll find more Appalachian Trail. Leave directly from FS 50 and follow the old railroad grade into the Laurel Fork Gorge and the Pond Mountain Wilderness. Rock outcrops and a riverine environment lead you to Laurel Falls. If you keep going, you’ll end up in Maine. Forest Trail #39 leaves from the campground and follows Laurel Fork into the high country. This trail crosses Laurel Fork several times as it leads to Laurel Falls upstream. This trail is popular with fishermen, who match wits with the secretive brown trout that inhabit Laurel Fork. The Lacy Trap Trail, which leaves Laurel Fork in a field, leads to the AT and offers a great loop hike I have enjoyed. The recreational opportunities available near Dennis Cove are limited only by your desire. The 6,000-acre Pond Mountain Wilderness is close by, as is mountain-rimmed Watauga Lake. So find some time and head on over.