For East Coast campers and RVers, the Mississippi River is like the gates of the Promised Land. Once you cross that divide, wide-open spaces begin to prevail and public land becomes more bountiful.
A quick glance at a U.S. Interstate system map illustrates this point -- on the East Coast, we're always within an hour of a four-or-more lane thoroughfare that gets us where we're going quickly.
Thanks in part to the nature of our infrastructure and public land allocation, the West is chock-full of BLM and National Forest land where free camping abounds. In the Southeast, finding a free (or close to it) place to park your RV for the night requires a bit more legwork. Fortunately, the region has an abundance of beautiful places to explore. To get out there without paying hotel prices just to park for the night, start with these favorite spots.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
The South's newest National Park (and South Carolina's only one) is recent only in designation. The Congaree Swamp is thousands of years old, boasting many of the largest remaining old-growth cypress and tupelo trees in the world.
Unlike many of its other National Park counterparts, Congaree requires no entrance fee. A primitive campground on a high bluff over the swamp is within a mile of the parking lot and visitor center, and RVs are welcome to park in the overnight 'After Hours' parking for hikers and paddlers heading out into the swamp for a day or two. The park constitutes over 25,000 acres, all of which are actually open to primitive camping. Even if you plan to stay in your RV, just check in at the visitor center for a free primitive camping permit.
There is no water or electrical hookup, but it's only a short hike into the forest to fire rings and picnic tables. Bathroom facilities are open during daylight hours. Where else can you RV camp in a National Park for free?
Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee
Outside of Smoky Mountain National Park, the mountains stay relatively the same while the prices for camping decrease dramatically. In the Cherokee National Forest, a primitive RV site at the Horse Creek Recreation Area runs just $10 a night, with picnic tables, showers, toilets and drinking water on hand. The site is nestled alongside Horse Creek, where anglers can cast for trout and hikers can set off on longer expeditions to vistas and waterfalls.
Campers willing to rough it a bit more can find ample primitive sites elsewhere in Cherokee National Forest that don't charge a fee. RVs capable of driving a mile on a dirt road can reach the Clarks Creek Campground, where there is no fee and no facilities, but plenty of serenity and quiet solitude with nature.
Rocky Springs, Mississippi
Mississippi's own little version of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Natchez Trace Parkway, runs diagonally across the state from northeast to southwest. Near its upper terminus, at mile marker 54, sits Rocky Springs Campground, a free RV campground with drinking water and toilets.
The site was once home to a bustling small town situated around its namesake spring, and the ruins of the dried up spring remain. There's also a ten-mile hiking trail that follows the old Natchez Trace trade route, and the small Owen Creek Waterfall in close proximity, a rare treat in the relatively flat state of Mississippi.
Ichetucknee Springs, Florida
Although Ichetucknee Springs Campground has raised their rates to $24 a night for RVs due to high electricity costs in Florida, a primitive site without power is still $10. They're included here because of the sheer striking beauty of their surroundings. It's no wonder that Ponce de Leon went searching for the Fountain of Youth in Florida. Ichetucknee bubbles up clear and blue from the earth, forming a six-mile river that's perfect for tubing or kayaking. Along the way, you'll see fish, river otters and plenty of deer. The water is so clear that it's like having a glass-bottomed boat as you float down the river in a tube (which they rent out at the campground).
Three Forks (Ellijay), Georgia
Just a little over an hour from Atlanta, you can lose yourself completely in the woods and mountains of north Georgia. In the Blue Ridge Wildlife Management Area near the town of Ellijay, the Three Forks camping area offers abundant free camping for RVs and tent campers willing to head a few miles down gravel roads. Wide pull-off spots line Noontootla Creek. Although there are no facilities, there's also no charge to pull off the road and make yourself at home next to a rambling brook for as long as two weeks.
For dedicated RV explorers, these are just a handful of ideas to get you started. The South is full of amazing natural places to explore, and -- with a bit of legwork -- cheap places to park for the night (or week) while you enjoy your Southern style vacation.
About the Author
John Egan is managing editor of www.InsuranceQuotes.com, a popular insurance website that provides online services to consumers seeking insurance knowledge and savings on their car insurance policies.I