Posted by Karl Steinmeyer on February 14, 2016
You’ve got your tent. You’ve got your zero degree sleeping bag, maybe a pair of them that zip together if you’re traveling with that special someone. You’ve your sleeping mat, your camp stove, your water bottle, and even your freeze-dried food. You may also have your camping trailer packed up too. You’re completely prepared for a camping adventure, ready to sleep under the stars and relax by a warm campfire. There’s only one thing left to figure out.
Where to go?
Finding the right campsite isn’t just important. It’s everything. It can mean the difference between a trip of a lifetime or a regrettable experience that would have been better done in your own backyard. Have no fear. Help is here.
Let’s look at some of the best camping sites in the US. With a little more information the decision on where to pitch your tent could actually be as easy as 1,2,3. In no particular order, here are 26 of the best of the best.
1) Yosemite National Park, California
There’s a reason why Yosemite is one of the most popular National Parks in our country. It is simply awe-inspiring and what’s more most of the park is designated wilderness, which means no cars, no roads, no electricity, no nothing. There are 13 campgrounds throughout the park giving you a wide variety to choose from. Depending on the season reservations may be needed but at least 6 of the site operate on a first come first serve basis, meaning get there early! Backcountry camping requires a wilderness permit. Don’t worry it’s free.
2) Olympic National Park, Washington
If you want to see multiple ecosystems in one destination, Olympic National Park is the place for you. Mountains, glaciers, and even a rainforest are all part of this national treasure that sits along the northern coast of Washington state. Featuring a nearly 30-mile loop through the rainforest, this park is also home to the largest Sitka Spruce tree in the world. There are 16 campgrounds on the grounds with over 900 sites to choose from. Backcountry camping is allowed though a $5 permit is required. For those less inclined to tent camping there are rustic lodges available year round but make your reservations early. They fill up fast.
The thing about Zion is that it’s big. Really big. So big it takes your breath away. The sandstone cliffs of this unbelievable park are worth the trip alone but add in the varieties of plants and animals or the beautiful vistas and the real question is; why has it taken you so long to go there? There are hiking trails of all lengths and skill levels including the 14-mile trail that leads to Kolob Arch, which as natural arches go is the top of the heap. If you visit during the summer pay the extra $5 and check out the Subway, a tunnel sculpted by water erosion that is really something to see. The park has three main campgrounds that fill up quickly and don’t show up hoping for a last minute site, as Zion’s campgrounds are full every night of the warmer months. Overnight backpacking requires a wilderness permit, which can be issued on site or reserved ahead of time. It’s a good idea to check out the Zion Wilderness Guide before you go.
4) Joshua Tree National Park, California
Camping in Joshua Tree isn’t just an outdoor adventure; it is a rite of passage that all US citizens should complete. Joshua Tree is the gem of our National Park system and while desert camping might sound unappealing J-Tree is anything but. From the distinct plant life to the amazing rock climbing to just hanging out on huge boulders, Joshua Tree does not disappoint. The park has nine different campgrounds to choose from with most sites tucked privately in, around, or underneath the giant boulders that make up the landscape. Some sites require reservations but many are handled on a first come first serve basis. Backcountry camping is allowed but you must register ahead of time to do so. Carefull though, this is where the Babes Ride Out to every year.
5) Acadia National Park, Maine
Located on Mount Desert Island, Acadia may be the strongest argument in the East vs. West battle of the national parks. Cadillac Mountain, the highest point along the East Coast offers gorgeous vistas after a pleasant hike to the top. The park has two campgrounds: Blackwoods and Seawell. You are welcome to hike to anywhere in the park but these are the only approved camping sites. No backcountry camping is allowed.
Another feather in the East Coast’s cap would be Assateague where you can not only enjoy nearly 40 miles of beaches along with marshes, forests, and more. There’s even a herd of wild horses that swim and frolic throughout this barrier island. Camping is limited to two oceanside and four bayside camping areas. During the cooler months these sites are all first come first served but during the warmer months reservations are highly recommended. Backcountry camping is allowed with a $10 permit but is only accessible on foot or by boat.
7) Glacier National Park, Montana
Heading westward again we find this hiker’s paradise with hundreds of miles of trails that run through forests, over mountains, and into meadows. The famous Going-to-the-Sun Road is a 50-mile road that makes its way through the mountains and it’s worth the car ride. There are 13 campgrounds with over 1000 sites to choose from. Most are first come first serve but three require reservations. Backcountry camping is allowed but only in specified campsites and it requires a permit.
Do you really need an explanation for this one? It’s the Granddaddy of all our national parks and for good reason. Interested in hiking to the bottom? Wear good shoes and take your time, the trails can be very challenging but there are campsites at the midpoint and the bottom. Reservations are necessary. There are three other campgrounds available and they say reservations are only required for two but given the popularity of this park it’s probably not a bad idea to plan ahead. Backcountry camping is allowed with a permit.
Don’t let the name frighten you. Stunning scenery dotted with large rock formations and grassy prairies the Badlands are anything but bad. A fossil collector’s dream, Badlands is host to one of the most complete fossil accumulations on the continent. There are two campgrounds to choose from: Cedar Pass and Sage Creek. The former offers some amenities while the latter is primitive. Backcountry camping is permitted without a permit but you are required to register before departing. A smart thing to do.
Heading south we find this not-so-little National Forest that’s home to multiple swimming beaches, thousands of acres of water, and over 400 miles of hiking trails, including the Ozark Highlands Trail. At 218-miles in length the Highlands Trail is the longest and best known of the many trails in the forest. A trip to Blanchard Springs to explore the living caves is also a must-do. With over 23 campgrounds combining for over 300 sites the Ozarks can handle just about anything you want. Primitive camping is allowed all over the forest meaning the number of places to pitch your tent are almost endless.
Staying in the South we find the third largest park in the lower 48. In addition to camping, hiking, and biking the Everglades are also home to fantastic canoeing and kayaking throughout the mangrove forest and freshwater marshes. Guided tours can help you get up close and personal with a wide variety of animals including alligators, crocodiles, dolphins, manatees, and if you’re lucky the endangered Florida panther. There are two campgrounds accessible by car, Reservations are not required but recommended. With a $10 permit backcountry camping is an option though most sites are only reachable by water.
Just a short drive from Washington, DC Shenandoah National Park is the perfect getaway from big city living. With over 500 miles of hiking trails leading to all types of wilderness and varying elevations, you are sure to find something to suit your needs. Shenandoah is also home to a large section of the Appalachian Trail and it’s normal to see weary hikers emerge from the forest for their first shower in quite some time. There’s also the famous Skyline Drive, a 105-mile driving road that bisects the park letting you witness all its splendor in one afternoon. There are four campgrounds that usually recommend reservations but a first come first serve spot is often available. Backcountry camping requires a free permit.
13) Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
In the heart of the Smoky Mountains lies this gem of a park that not only provides beautiful vistas but supplies homes for an enormous variety of plants and animals. There are over 30 species of Salamanders alone! With over 70 prehistoric structures, dozens of waterfalls, and the largest collection of historic log buildings in the Eastern US, the Great Smoky Mountains are sure to have something for everybody. There are 10 campgrounds to choose from, only one of which requires reservations, and backcountry camping is allowed at designated sites with a permit and advanced registration.
Leaving the lower 48 for a moment we find ourselves in Alaska where things are, you know, big. As in six million acres of national park big. Denali is an absolutely enormous park with Mount McKinley as its crown jewel. As the largest peak in North America, McKinley draws mountaineers and climbers from all over the world. Don’t worry if you’re less adventurous. Denali sports hundreds of trails of varying lengths and skill level so there’s sure to be something for everyone up there. The park has six campgrounds to choose from and backcountry camping is allowed with a free permit. Be sure to do your research before marching off into the park. The climate and terrain make Denali a park requiring a bit more experience.
Staying in Alaska we have Glacier Bay, which is essentially a glacier. Given the icy conditions guided tours are suggested but there are a wide variety to choose from. Take a boat through the bay or raft up one of the park’s two rivers, either way the views are outstanding and the environment unique. The park has only one campground located in Bartlet Cove. Outhouses, warming shelters, and food storage facilities are provided. A free permit is required for camping anywhere in the park.
Leaving Alaska and heading to the Northern Mid-West region we find Voyageurs in Minnesota. Perfect for all seasons, Voyageurs offers activities ranging from swimming, boating, and fishing during the warmer months to hiking in the fall and snowy sports in the winter. Given that so much of the park is water it is recommending to BYOB (Bring Your Own Boat). Don’t worry. You can rent one or sign up for a guided boat tour but make sure to reserve seats in advance. There are 220 designated campsites but all of them can only be reached by boat. It is first come first serve. Backcountry camping is allowed anywhere in the park.
While you may envision New Mexico as a vast desert, it is actually quite lush in this national forest. Cooler summer temperatures make it a great place for hunting, fishing, hiking, and camping. Come winter you can strap on your cross-country skis or snowshoes and trudge up to Mt. Wheeler, the state’s highest peak. There are a multitude of camping areas throughout the park and backcountry camping is allowed as well.
Another national treasure Arches is home to some of the most beautiful rock formations imaginable and some that seem too fantastic to be natural. The red rocks stand as an incredible backdrop for the thousands of stone arches scattered throughout the park. A wide variety of trails at varying skill level let you get up close and personal with some of the most famous structures. The Devil’s Garden Campground provides the only designated campsites in the park. With only 50 sites available it is important to reserve in advance. Backcountry camping is allowed with a free permit.
Situated on the northern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains Pine Grove State Park features the famous Appalachian Trail’s halfway point. For those not dedicated enough to hike the entire length the Appalachian Trail offers all kinds of noteworthy sections and points of interest. Millions of people walk some portion of the trail each year and many of them do so right in Pine Grove Furnace. There are roughly 65 campsites available in the warmer part of the year but backcountry camping is not allowed.
The Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns, and the hike down to it, are quite simply the most amazing underground experiences you’ll ever have. As if the enormous cave structures and giant open underground spaces aren’t enough if you arrive during the summer you can witness the Bat Flight Program, an evening experience where you witness hundreds of thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats fly out of the cave to spend the night searching for food. While there is no lodging provided at Carlsbad, backcountry camping is allowed with a free permit.
On the Northern edge of the Appalachian Mountains this national forest provides challenging hikes to witness dazzling views, especially in the fall when the trees begin to turn. Leaf peeping doesn’t get any better than this. There are over 800 campsites at 24 different campgrounds plus an additional eight “walk-in” campgrounds on the northern side. Some require reservations. Backcountry camping is allowed in most areas and for a small fee you may use any of a number of log lean-tos around the forest.
Hiking. Hiking. Hiking. That’s what Grand Teton is all about. Hundreds of trails ranging from easy to very difficult take people to all parts of the Rocky Mountains and lakes that lie within the park. There are five campgrounds in the park that operate on a first come first serve basis. Backcountry camping requires a free permit.
A river runs through it. In this case that river is the Rio Grande and taking an excursion on its waters is an incredible way to see this park. Kayaking, canoeing, and rafting trips are all available and doable. For the drier folks in your party there are plenty of hiking trails through a wide variety of terrain to keep them occupied. Devil’s Den and Santa Elena Canyon trail being two standouts. There are three campgrounds and the occasional primitive roadside campsite can be found throughout the park.
Golf, volleyball, boating, swimming. This park sounds more like a resort than a national park. Fear not, Peninsula State Park has plenty of hiking and scenery to please the rugged crowd. Sitting right on Green Bay, Peninsula is also home to all sorts of water sports ranging from fishing to boating. There are five campgrounds to choose from. Reservations are recommended. Backcountry camping is not allowed.
Never heard of Lava Beds? You’re not alone but this little gem should make it onto anybody’s list of places to see before they die. Volcanic activity over the past 500,000 years has created over 700 tube shaped caves many of which are open for exploration. Ranging from a few hundred feet to over two miles in length these caves provide hours of underground hiking fun. There is one campground on site, Indian Well Campground, and it is first come first serve except for one group site, which may be reserved in advance.
Tallest trees on Earth? Yeah they’re here and they are incredible. You simply cannot understand the size of these trees until you are standing directly underneath one. It is staggering. But Redwoods National Park is much more than just giant trees. There is also 40 miles of protected coastline, vast prairies, and raging river ways. Redwoods should not be missed. There are over 300 campsites spread across four main campgrounds in and around the park. Backcountry camping is allowed and there are an additional eight designated backcountry camps spread across nearly 200 miles of trails.
Wave-like dunes of gypsum sand are the centerpieces of this amazing park in New Mexico. The enormous white sand dunes cover 275 square miles of desert making it the world’s largest gypsum dune field. Make sure to bring or rent a sled because sand sledding might be one of the best sports you’ll ever try. After a hot day on the “slopes” retire to your tent at one of only ten primitive backcountry campsites scattered throughout the dunes. All sites require a small fee and are on a first come first serve basis. Sites may only be reached via a 1-mile hike.
Print it, copy it, hang it on the wall and check them all off as you go!