“Well, you really picked a winner!” said Bob, the host at Grand Canyon National Park’s North Rim Campground, after I had serendipitously wandered onto site 14. And he’s right. Site 14 has plenty of space and is close to the bathrooms—but not too close. Best of all, it extends right up to the edge of a side canyon, providing a private view across to the Grand Canyon. I spent hours watching the setting or rising sun change the color of the canyon’s rock layers from pink to purple to chocolate, cup of morning coffee or glass of evening wine in hand.
It stands to reason that not all of the tens of thousands of campsites in the United States will be winners. Many are little more than dusty, soulless patches of sun-parched earth with a falling-down fire ring, a picnic table with one bench, and a view of the bathrooms. (The National Park Service is promising vast improvements to its campgrounds as part of a sprucing-up before its centennial, in 2016.) However, some real stunners are out there if you know where to look. I know because I recently spent more than two years traveling and camping my way around the country.
Another great find: the campground in Oregon’s Memaloose State Park, which has big, shady, grassy sites right on the banks of the Columbia River. Set up your temporary home here and you’ll have great views of the Columbia River Gorge, plus access to ample wild blackberry vines and some of the best windsurfing in the country. Many of the sites come with hammock-ready trees.
The camping platforms over a gorgeous gator-and-migratory-bird-filled swamp in Georgia, meanwhile, provide an unusual and enthralling experience for nature lovers. Then there’s the campground in South Dakota’s Badlands National Park that has its own resident herd of majestic buffalo. Watch them roam—and take in a world-class sunset, with the dying light spreading across the seemingly-endless grassy prairies, creating shifting shadows and dancing color changes. Who could resist?
The answer to that question is not many. This means you won’t be alone in trying to book a spot—especially after the September debut of Ken Burns’s documentary about the National Park system, America’s Best Idea. NPS officials “expect a dramatic increase in park visitation,” particularly in the spring of 2010.
So reserve as early as you can wherever reservations are accepted. For the first-come-first-served locations, arrive by 11 a.m. (a lot of campgrounds set checkout times between 10 and 12, which means many folks will be vacating their sites around 11). Ask for the specific site you want, since many parks honor such requests. Don’t have a clue which one is best? Log on to the park’s website and see if there’s a campground map.
Just be prepared to take what you can get should your dream spot already be taken. In most cases, it’ll be worth a trip in its own right.
White River Campground
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
The Site: Right on the banks of the White River, this campground affords amazing views of Mount Rainier (at least, whenever the clouds deign to part). Beg, borrow, or steal your way into site D29 for the best vantage point. White River is also the closest campground (12 miles away) to Sunrise Point—at 6,400 feet, the best place to watch the morning colors wash over Mount Rainier and its snow-capped neighbors.
The Basics: 112 sites; running water, flush toilets, and fire rings (a local man even cruises the campground twice a day selling firewood from the back of his truck); no RVs; $12 per night per site; no reservations.
Jedediah Smith Campground
Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park, California
The Site: The stately coastal redwoods here are so densely packed that precious few trails or roads have been cut through the forest. Thankfully, the park staff carved out a campground in the middle of a grove, which brings shade and beauty to every site. The best one? Site 3, which is wooded, spacious, and atmospheric. After you set up, walk the short but sweet Stout Grove Trail loop, which winds through a pristine forest of impossibly tall and ancient trees.
The Basics: 89 sites; picnic tables, fire rings, flush toilets; tents and small RVs only (no hookups); $20 per night per site, which covers entry to any state park in the region for the following 24 hours; reserve up to seven months in advance at parks.ca.gov or (800) 444-7275.
The Site: Camping on the beach is always beautiful; it’s even better when one of the world’s largest barrier reef systems is right outside your tent. After a starry night, stumble a few feet into the calm, clear water and treat yourself to a fish-filled snorkel. Even the trip from Key West is gorgeous; the Yankee Freedom II National Park Shuttle takes you on a 2-hour, 70-mile journey punctuated by turtle and dolphin sightings.
The Basics: Ten sites; picnic tables, grills, no water, composting toilets; take all trash out with you; no RVs; $3 per night per site per person; reserve at (305) 242-7700. Yankee Freedom II: $180 round-trip per adult camper, including breakfast and lunch onboard; reserve at yankeefreedom.com or (800) 322-0013.
The Site: The Grand Canyon’s all about views, of course, and this campground serves them up on a tectonic plate. The best spots? Numbers 11, 14, 15, 16, and 18, which are also large enough to afford plenty of privacy. And you’ll be right on the trail to Bright Angel Point, which offers even more breathtaking views down Bright Angel Canyon. Go for sunrise.
The Basics: 80 sites; picnic tables, fire rings, flush toilets, running water, shower and laundry facilities; tents and RVs (no hookups); $18/$25 for the rim-side sites; reserve up to six months in advance (recommended) at recreation.gov or (877) 444-6777.
The Site: Set among moss-covered trees right on the edge of whale-filled Bartlett Cove, the spots in this walk-in campground look like they jumped out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination. Each has a water view and is within walking distance of the dock, where wildlife- and glacier-viewing boat tours of Glacier Bay depart.
The Basics: 35 sites; shared bear-proof food shelters, shared fire pit with firewood, shared warming hut, no water, vaulted toilets; no RVs; free; no reservations.
Sage Creek Primitive Campground
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The Site: Bison—whole herds of them—regularly wander through this campground on the west side of Sage Creek’s North Unit. Sunset turns the surrounding mixed-grass prairie land (one of America’s largest protected tracts) golden yellow. At dusk, listen for the howls of the once-exterminated swift fox.
The Basics: 15 sites; covered picnic tables, no running water (park rangers will usually let you fill up with water at their entry stations before you set up camp), pit toilets; no open fires; tents and small RVs only (no hookups); no fee and no reservations.
Chaco Culture National Historic Site, New Mexico
The Site: This artifact-filled historic area is known for its intact Pueblo Indian ruins, but the sights don’t end when you enter the campground. Many campsites back right up to a large butte that features ancient petroglyphs and the remains of a cliff dwelling.
The Basics: 47 sites; picnic tables, fire rings, some with tent pads, no potable water, pit toilets; tents and RVs under 30’ only (no hookups); $10 per site per night; no reservations. Note: Gallo is currently closed for repairs and is expected to reopen in late fall of 2009.
The Site: No matter where you end up in this quiet and shady campground you’ll have access to huge stands of wild blackberry vines and some of the country’s best windsurfing. But reserve well in advance to snag spots A47, A49, A51, A53, A55, A57, and A59, all of which sidle right up to the Columbia River in the gorgeous Columbia River Gorge. Shooting stars are also a common occurrence, so bring s’mores fixings to accompany your nightly sky watching.
The Basics: 110 sites; fire rings, picnic tables, showers, flush toilets; tents and RVs (with hookups); $16–$20 for RVs, $12–$16 for tents; reserve by calling (800) 452-5687.
Arch Rock Campground
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
The Site: The deep red color of the sandstone makes it absolutely clear where the name of this park, just 55 miles from Las Vegas, came from. The eye candy continues at the Arch Rock Campground (which is quieter, less exposed, and more dramatic than Atlatl, the park’s other campground). Sites are set between sandstone formations that have been artfully eroded by the elements. Head to the upper loop for optimal privacy.
The Basics: 29 sites; covered picnic tables, water, fire rings, new vaulted toilets; small RVs only (no hookups); $14 per night per site, which includes the park’s $6 per car entry fee; no reservations.
Image © Eric Mohl
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia
The Site: Camping in the middle of a swamp requires a bit more infrastructure than sleeping on dry ground, so this 438,000-acre refuge built platforms. Sure, they’re just above the alligator-filled water, but the gators never bother anyone—really. The partially roofed paddle-in platforms, which are more like wall-less cabins than campsites, also act as a kind of wildlife blind, giving you an up close and personal look at the 233 species of birds that live in or migrate through the refuge. Because the refuge limits reservations to just one group per site, this is also one of the most private camping options in the country.
The Basics: Six shelters plus three camping sites on dry land; all sites have composting toilets but no fresh water; no RVs; $10 per person per day plus $20 per day for a two-man canoe; reserve up to two months in advance (recommended) at (912) 496-3331.
Image © Ron Poutney
The Site: This shady and serene oasis in the desert landscape (trees!) may be this area’s main draw. But it also puts you just one mile away from the Wire Pass trailhead, which winds through a gorgeous slot canyon of rock and sand formations. The campground is also at an elevation of more than 5,000 feet, which helps mitigate the area’s heat.
The Basics: Four sites; covered picnic tables, fire pits, vaulted toilets, no water; take all trash out with you; no RVs; no fee; no reservations.
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