Chattanooga’s winter camping scene offers a range of possibilities

When it comes to winter vs. summer camping, in the Chattanooga area, you can have a foot in both camps.

Staff file photo / Penny Pohlmann and Jeff Gibson cook hot dogs over a campfire at Cloudland Canyon State Park.
Staff file photo / Penny Pohlmann and Jeff Gibson cook hot dogs over a campfire at Cloudland Canyon State Park.

Chattanooga was named the top trending winter destination by Tripadvisor in 2022.

The combination of holiday festivities and mild winter weather allows visitors to enjoy seasonal traditions alongside Chattanooga's natural beauties without getting too cold, says Hannah Hammon, public relations manager for Chattanooga Tourism Co.

"People get to bring out their winter clothes here, but it also allows for outdoor activities," she says.

Chattanooga has many campsites that stay open year-round, so visitors looking for winter camping can get their nature fix while remaining close to the city's holiday favorites, like the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum's Christmas dinner train ride. For visitors looking to avoid the holiday attractions and have a quieter winter visit, the city slows down in January but hosts the Lookout Wild Film Festival mid-month.

For visitors looking to stay close to the city (within a 15- to 25-minute drive), Harrison Bay State Park and Chester Frost Park, both on Chickamauga Lake, are popular, Hammon says. Prentice Cooper State Forest and Raccoon Mountain also offer sites close to the city.

Popular sites further from the city include Fall Creek Falls State Park, Cloudland Canyon State Park, Rock Island State Park and Chilhowee at Cherokee National Forest, she says.

Whether you're a couple looking for a remote camping getaway this winter or a family looking for a site with more amenities to entertain the kids, Hammon says that the Chattanooga area offers both.

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Hammon explains that Harrison Bay State Park is a great place for family campers to stay due to its close proximity to the city, space for large recreational vehicles and easy access to hiking, biking, boating, kayaking, canoeing and paddleboarding.

The site also includes a pool (for when the weather allows swimming) and a wildlife exhibit.

Ranger Matthew Vawter at Harrison Bay State Park says that out of the 162 sites the park has to offer, only 28 close in November and remain closed through the winter season.

Fall Creek Falls State Park is another family-friendly site, Hammon says. There's a ropes course, a playground, a swimming pool, golfing, fishing and other water sports that families with kids can participate in.

Romantic Getaway

According to Hammon, Prentice Cooper State Forest is a more "remote, primitive and private" campsite for couples looking for a romantic getaway. She says that hikers love the hundreds of miles of roads and trails — one of which overlooks the Tennessee River Gorge — and that they can also bike and go horseback riding there.

"It has some of the most beautiful views, which can make a very romantic scene," Hammon says.

Cloudland Canyon State Park has many family-friendly activities, and Hammon adds that it has cottages and yurts that can be a unique camping experience for couples, set with the romantic ambiance of the waterfalls the park has to offer. For couples who enjoy activities like disc golf and caving, the site offers both.

Nature Lovers

Chattanooga winters allow nature lovers to enjoy beautiful hiking views that they wouldn't otherwise see during other seasons, Hammon says. When the trees lose their leaves, visitors can see views from Chattanooga attractions like Point Park Battlefield on Lookout Mountain that aren't as clear when the foliage is at its peak.

At the Mullins Cove overlook at Prentice Cooper State Forest, Hammon says that the winter offers a clear view of the Cumberland Mountains. On Raccoon Mountain, Laurel Point has a great view of the surrounding bluffs and valleys, she adds.

When the occasional Tennessee snowfall occurs, Hammon notes that hikes where snowcaps are visible offer stunning views.

Ranger Vawter says that Harrison Bay State Park is a great place for birders to see migratory waterfowl and bald eagles that can be seen nesting in the winter. There are fewer snakes on trails in the winter as well, which can be a pull for people typically afraid to hike because of snakes, he says.

He notes that with the mild winter weather — although it can still be too cold to swim — the lakes rarely freeze, so campers can still kayak throughout the season.

(READ MORE: These are the best winter walking spots in Chattanooga)

Winter Gear

Vawter says that winter campers should keep in mind that their RV water lines could freeze in low temperatures. To avoid this issue, the park sells heated hoses that prevent this, or campers can fill up their water for the day and then disconnect their line when it gets cold to avoid damage.

Efficient electric heaters — as opposed to propane furnaces — inside RV campers or tents will heat space more effectively, as long as campers are mindful of carbon monoxide risks and avoid heaters that could emit toxic gas in an enclosed space, he explains.

Vawter says that he has seen an increase over the last few years in campers spending the winter holidays at the campsites and hosting their meals and gatherings there. In 2022, Hamilton County brought in 16 million visitors, Hammon adds.

"We as Chattanoogans really appreciate our outdoors," Hammon says. "We want people to come visit and experience our outdoors. Even if you go on the same trail numerous times throughout the year, it's going to change.

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