The Southeast is brimming with spectacular places to camp along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, hugging the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, and at many points in-between. What set the sites below apart are their locations within prize recreation areas, seclusion, pristine surroundings—or some combination of the three.
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia
Nothing reminds you of your tenuous place on the food chain like a paddling adventure in the Okefenokee Swamp of southern Georgia, where alligators roam (and feed). There are 14 impeccably marked flatwater canoe trails within the 400,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge open to daring explorers. The best camping is found on its 12 wooden platform shelters (permit required), which stand on stilts a few feet above the water, where you can safely spend the night and savor the pristine, prehistoric surroundings among the croaking frogs and food-hunting waterfowl. It’s best to go before summer, so you can avoid the hot days, and sparrow-sized mosquitoes. If you’d prefer to go with a guide, Okefenokee Adventures' runs trips.
Devils Fork State Park, South Carolina
Although most outdoor lovers flock to South Carolina’s spectacular Atlantic Coast, the upstate foothills go blissfully overlooked. Devils Fork State Park overlaps with Sumter National Forest in the northwest, bordering blue, trout-filled Lake Jocassee. Day visitors come to hike the waterfall trails, or linger by the water’s edge, but at night on one of the 13 boat-in backcountry campsites on the northern shoreline beneath Musterground Mountain, you feel like the park is yours alone. Rates are $18 a night.
Tsali Campground, North Carolina
Overshadowed by the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park, tiny Tsali Recreation Area in Western North Carolina is hidden treasure as a camping destination—except among the cadre of hard core mountain bikers lured by its famous 42 miles of trails. The 42-site campground, operated by the Nantahala National Forest lie along a stream bed by the trailhead, and a short walk to Fontana Lake ($14 a night).
Shell Key, Florida
Just when you think coastal Florida is overdeveloped enough, you blink and see even more golf courses, high rises, strip malls, and gated communities sprouting up. One of the rare, precious exceptions is 180-acre, 2.5-mile-long Shell Key on the Gulf Coast, north of the mouth of Tampa Bay. The park—operated by Pinellas County—is accessible only by boat, meaning the number of people able to enjoy the sunset on the untouched beach is limited to a scant few. The northern half of the island is a bird sanctuary that’s off-limits to humans, and camping on the beach is by permit only (cost is free) to limit crowds. Avoid weekends during warmer weather, when groups of boats anchor offshore.