Labor Day is the last hurrah of the traditional camping season. Everyone scrambles to find a campsite. However, I have a place for you that likely won’t be crowded and is within easy striking distance of Johnson City.
Round Mountain Campground stands in a seemingly forgotten corner of the Bald Mountains in the Cherokee National Forest. Those who find Round Mountain will relish the tranquil high-country campground so in tune with the woods it seems to have been constructed by Mother Nature.
Located at 3,000 feet, the camp is first come, first served. Each site has a tent pad, fire grate, lantern post, picnic table, and stand-up grill. The sites of Round Mountain are intermittently located on a single, thickly forested loop road bordered in moss.
Tall trees, including high-elevation species such as yellow birch and pin cherry, intermingle with white pine to provide a thick overhead canopy, shading all campers and the loop road. Junglesque growth of rhododendron on the forest floor buffers campers from one another. Noisy little streams cascade down the mountainside amid the brush.
Don’t plan on coming off Round Mountain until your stay is over. That 6-mile winding gravel road to and from civilization is a bear. Also, be certain to call ahead and verify that the campground is open if you plan to visit in early spring or late fall.
What to do? It is just a short distance from the campground to the Walnut Mountain Trail. It leads 1 mile to Rattlesnake Gap and another mile to the Appalachian Trail near the Walnut Mountain trail shelter. This particular hut is one of the original trail shelters built in Tennessee and has been standing for eight decades. Attractive scenery is a safe bet either way you turn on the AT from there.
The famed Max Patch is just a short drive away. Turn left out of the campground on FS 107, up to Lemon Gap and the North Carolina border. Veer right at Lemon Gap on FS 1182 and driving 3.5 miles farther, past a trout pond maintained by the Pisgah National Forest.
Ahead, Max Patch opens in all its glory. The 230-acre field was once part of a working farm; the field now supports only wildflowers, which bloom by the thousands in summer. A short walk to the grassy crest at 4,629 feet rewards you with a 360-degree view. To the south stands the Great Smoky Mountains. Mount Sterling, with its metal fire tower, and Mount Cammerer, with its distinctive stone tower, rise among the countless peaks. It seems as if you are in the very heart of the Southern Appalachians.
Round Mountain is one of my favorite local campgrounds. Between the quiet solitude and classic, high-country atmosphere of each campsite and the magnificence of Max Patch, this area exudes the best of Highland Dixie. After all, it is hard to go wrong combining the beauty of the Appalachians and the charm of the South.
To get there from Newport, take US 25/70 for 10 miles to TN 107 at Del Rio. Turn right on TN 107 and follow it for 5.8 miles. Turn left on gravel FS 107 (Round Mountain Road) as it climbs Round Mountain. After 6 miles, Round Mountain Campground will be on your left.