Traveler Tales: Cherokee National Forest

Exploring our Nation's National Forests
Jess Lawson's photo of Cherokee National Forest from an overlook

I don’t know if I have the right words to describe the pristine beauty of the Cherokee National Forest. Although this place is not a secret to locals and bordering states, it manages to maintain its seclusion and remain less crowded and commercialized than its neighbor to the west, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

About Cherokee National Forest

Cherokee National Forest in eastern Tennessee is a magnificent woodland oasis for any nature enthusiast. Six hundred fifty-thousand acres of this forest, which are divided into northern and southern sections by the Great Smoky Mountains, stretch through Tennessee and connect to national forests in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. This is this state’s largest slice of public land, and therefore, a wide selection of dispersed camping spots can be found across the region.

It is also the home of the Ocoee River which hosted the 1996 Olympic Whitewater Competition and is a popular area for kayaking and rafting. Visitors can choose to extend their stay between 30 developed campgrounds or enjoy a meal and an entire day surrounded by nature and water at a wide variety of picnic areas. 

My Campsite  

I chose to camp in Parksville Lake RV Campground due to its proximity to the river, several beach lakes, and its water and electric hookups. I loved the campground so much that when my reserved days finally transpired, I grabbed one of the only available first-come-first-serve sites and stayed a few days longer.

My first campsite was in a coveted spot, shaded and surrounded by trees. My campervan door opened up to a view overlooking a stream where I could easily escape the heat and cool off in the water beneath the shade of trees. There were a few other spots that were located by the stream, but mine had the easiest access to it. I eagerly set up my hammock by tying it to a pole and a nearby tree trunk, and enjoyed many peaceful moments reading my book, taking a nap, or relishing the moment as the sun went down.

Jess Lawson sitting outside of her camper van at her campsite in Cherokee National Forest

Activities to Explore 

Every day I discovered something new and found it very easy to connect with the environment. It felt more and more like home, and after experiencing a full day of outdoor adventures, I extended my stay just a little longer.

I loved cooking outside on my camping stove and eating my meals by the stream. I also had so much fun riding my bike around and hiking to new places, of course. I had too many trails to choose from, 700 in total, but I narrowed it down to five: Lake Mckamy, Azalea Trail, Lowry Falls, Benton Falls, and, my favorite, Rainbow Falls. 

Scenic overlooks also provided opportunities to capture panoramic views and photographs. I found myself stopping every ten minutes and jumping out of my van to take in the expansive landscapes. I was also never too hot because I could go to the beach and jump in a lake or river and go for a paddle. 

Though it did rain a lot while I was there, it made my hiking experience that much better. I even went ziplining and soaked in some pools between rocks in the Ocoee River. There was never a shortage of things for me to do and see, and I felt a little sad when I left for my next destination. But I know I will be returning soon with my camper van because, like the mountains, whitewater rafting is calling my name.

The UAS bridge over the Ocoee River from Jess Lawson

Class B Camper Vans

Commonly known as camper vans, Class B motorhomes are compact, yet still feature a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. Class B motorhomes are small, streamlined and ready to roll. Nimble and more fuel-efficient than Class C motorhomes, Class B vans offer living space best suited for small groups. Most Class Bs do not come with slideouts, yet they still offer luxurious amenities like galley kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms.

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