After spending the day wandering wooded paths, watching a family of deer leisurely grazing in a field of wild flowers, and dipping a toe or two in the frigid crystal clear creek, you curl up in a warm down sleeping bag next to a campfire to peer up at the glowing stars and enjoy a few (hundred) s’mores. Ahh, peace and quiet! You zip up into your tent for a few (mosquito-free) hours, and wake to the birds chirping and the faint hint of early morning sunlight. This is what camping is all about.
While camping itself is wonderful, getting there can sometimes be a challenge. For National Camping Week (and because summer is a perfect time to camp), we’ve done the digging for you. We've figured out where to camp, how much it costs, and what to look out for during your stay (we've also included lots of pretty pictures). Here are 26 stunningly gorgeous spots to head with your tent (and maybe a few good friends) for a few nights away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. (Oh, we've also organized the list by location, so if you're looking for a specific state or region, scroll down until you see what you need!)
Acadia National Park, Maine
Why It’s Cool: Maine is called “The Pine Tree State” for a reason: It’s covered in 17 million acres of forest. Plus, it has 6,000 lakes and ponds and 32,000 miles of rivers and streams. Basically, it’s a camper’s paradise. Located on Mount Desert Island, Acadia National Park makes the perfect camping destination for nature lovers of all skill levels. Looking for a unique experience? Hike to the top of Cadillac Mountain (the highest point along the east coast) just before sunrise and be the first person in the U.S. to say hello to Mr. Sun that morning.
Where to Camp: The park has two campgrounds: Blackwoods (closer to the island’s town center, Bar Harbor), and Seawall (which offers a more rustic, less touristy environment). While visitors can enjoy hiking throughout the entire park, camping is only allowed in these designated areas (backcountry enthusiasts, take note).
Watch Out For: Bears and coyotes are sighted on a semi-regular basis, while moose and bobcats are rare — but occasional — camp-mates.
When It’s Open: Park open year round. Most facilities and campgrounds close in the off-season, but Blackwoods campground is open year-round (permit required December – March).
Cost: $20 per vehicle entrance fee, valid for seven-days, from May through October. Annual passes available for $40. Campsite prices range from $10 to $20 depending on site and time of year. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/acad.
White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire
Why It’s Cool: If looking for a more rustic experience in the Northeast, the White Mountains are your best bet. The hiking’s pretty rugged in this section of the Appalachian range, but it’s worth it if you’re up for the challenge. The sights here are particularly stunning in the fall, when the foliage turns to all shades of red, orange, and yellow.
Where to Camp: While the forest does have 24 drive-in campgrounds (with a combined 800 campsites — wowza!), the eight walk-in state park campgrounds in the northern part of the state are really what camping’s all about. Some campsites require reservations; some don’t. Backcountry tent camping is also allowed (except in noted no-camping areas); there are also log lean-tos scattered throughout the forest (a small fee may apply).
Watch Out For: The occasional moose and possibly a bear or two.
When It’s Open: Forest accessible year round. Visitor center hours vary.
Cost: No entrance fee. Campsites vary from $16 to $22 per night. Backcountry tent camping is free, no permit required. Parking at a trailhead may require a permit; check signage at your chosen lot. For more information visit www.fs.usda.gov/whitemountain.
Green Mountain National Forest, Vermont
Why It’s Cool: The famous Long Trail is one of the biggest draws to the Green Mountain State, so try finding a camping spot close by to enjoy hiking a portion of the trail during your stay. Aside from being absolutely gorgeous, the trail is the oldest long-distance trail in the U.S.! It follows the ridge of the Green Mountains through Vermont from the Massachusetts border to Canada.
Where to Camp: The forest offers five developed campgrounds. There are no electrical hookups or dump stations, so arrive prepared. Campground accessibility varies by season. Dispersed or backcountry camping is allowed anywhere in the park unless specifically posted.
Watch Out For: The forest is made up of a mix of private, state, and federal land, so the rules can change from one trail to the next. Figure out where you’ll be heading before you leave, and make sure you know the deal for that specific area.
When It’s Open: Park accessible year round. Visitor center and campground accessibility vary by season, but one campground is always open all year.
Cost: Here’s the best part: No entrance fees, and most of the campsites are free, too. The Green Mountain Club maintains about 70 campsites along The Long Trail, all with a water source and privy, for which GMC caretakers will come by to charge a small fee during the summer and fall. For more information visit www.fs.usda.gov/greenmountain.
Pine Grove Furnace State Park, Pennsylvania
Why It’s Cool: Located in south-central PA, this scenic park sits at the northern tip of the Blue Ridge Mountains in an area known as South Mountain (confusing, we know). The Appalachian Trail, perhaps the most famous foot trail in the world, runs through the forest, which is home to the trail’s halfway point. While only 2,000 people attempt to hike the whole 2,186-mile trail each year (about a quarter actually finish), between two and three million people hike or walk a portion of it. Whether you do two miles or 20 miles, it’s still cool to say you’ve done it! Have some time after the hike? Check out the Appalachian Trail Museum.
Where to Camp: The forest has a mix of 70 tent and trailer sites (mostly rustic) available from late March to mid-December. Reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance. Backpacking and overnight hikes are not permitted.
Watch Out For: Pretty safe!
When It’s Open: Park open year round. Campgrounds open from April through December.
Cost: No entrance fee. Campsites range from $4–$5 per person, or $15–$17 per night. For more information visit www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks.
Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland
Why It’s Cool: If you love beaches, and you love camping, then this is the spot for you. Assateague is a barrier island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia that’s covered in sandy beaches, salt marches, forests, and costal bays. There’s even a community of wild horses (how exotic!). Enjoy relaxing on the 37 miles of beach or hiking by day, and buckle down your tent right by (err... a safe distance from) the crashing waves for a night under the stars.
Where to Camp: Camping is only allowed on the Maryland side of the island. There are two oceanside and four bayside camping areas available. October 16 through April 14, the sites are first-come first-served. Two campsites are also open for horse camping during this time. April 15 through October 15, reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance. Backcountry camping is allowed ($5 permit required), but it's only accessible by backpacking or water.
Watch Out For: Nothing too dangerous here — just stay away during hurricane season. Oh, and it’s not a great idea to approach the wild horses.
When It’s Open: Open year round; visitor center and ranger station hours fluctuate from season to season.
Cost: $15 per vehicle entrance fee, valid for seven-days. Annual passes also available for $30. Campsites range from $20 to $30 per night depending on season and location. For more information visit www.nps.gov/asis.
Why It’s Cool: Nearly 95 percent of the park is designated wilderness — that means no cars, no structures, no roads, and no electricity. After a night spent under the stars, take a hike up to Glacier Point, which overlooks the park’s famous Yosemite Valley, Half Dome (a rock structure revered among climbers), and the High Sierra peaks. The hike on Four Mile Trail from Yosemite Valley to the top of Glacier Point takes about 3-4 hours each way. If you’re looking for something a bit tougher, the Panorama Trail is about twice as long.
Where to Camp: There are 13 popular campgrounds scattered throughout the park, and those requiring reservations are usually full from about April – September. If you don’t have a reservation for summertime camping, there are seven campgrounds that operate on a first-come first-served basis. Backcountry camping is also allowed, but requires a free wilderness permit (which can be reserved ahead of time). Reservations are recommended.
Watch Out For: Black bears are common — follow appropriate food storage rules!
When It’s Open: Park open year round. Campgrounds vary by season.
Cost: $20 per vehicle entrance fee, valid for seven days. Campsites range from $5 to $20 per night. Wilderness permits are free and required for backcountry camping — there is a $5 per reservation plus $5 per person fee to reserve permits ahead of time. For more information visit www.nps.gov/yose.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Why It’s Cool: We know — camping in the desert doesn’t sound like so much fun (hello, sunburn). But the famous Joshua Tree National Park is oh so much more than just desert. The park actually sits at the intersection of two very different deserts: To the east is the low-lying Colorado Desert; to the west lies the slightly higher, cooler, wetter Mojave Desert (home to the park’s namesake, the Joshua tree). In addition to the deserts, the park also has ten mountain peaks higher than 5,000 feet in elevation. Need to get vertical? Joshua Tree is a popular rock-climbing destination (Just be sure you know what you’re doing first.)
Where to Camp: The park is home to nine established campgrounds. Some campsites require reservations for October through May. The rest of the sites are first come, first served year round. Backcountry camping is allowed, but campers must register in advance at a designated backcountry registration board.
Watch Out For: Coyotes and ravens. Store food in hard-sided containers to keep wildlife out! And don’t forget to bring enough water — it is a desert, after all.
When It’s Open: Park open year round. Visitor center and campground status vary by season.
Cost: $15 per vehicle entrance fee, valid for seven days. Annual passes are available and national passes are accepted. Campsites range from $10 to $15 per night. For more information visit www.nps.gov/jotr/.
Olympic National Park, Washington
Why It’s Cool: The coolest thing about this park? It contains three different ecosystems, including — wait for it — a rainforest. Head to the Quinault Rainforest (one of only three in the western hemisphere) to see the largest Sitka Spruce tree in the world. There’s a 30-mile road that loops through the rainforest, but we think hiking’s the better option. End your trip at Ruby Beach — where you can see the mountains, glaciers, and rainforests right from the shoreline — or at La Push, the northernmost beach in Washington, where you can see whales off the coast during migration season.
Where to Camp: The park has 16 National Park Service-operated campgrounds with a total of 910 sites. Availability varies from site to site, but there are some primitive sites open year-round. Backcountry camping is allowed, but a Wilderness Camping Permit ($5) is required (reservations are also sometimes required).
Watch Out For: Cougars, bobcats, and black bears. Follow food-storage guidelines, keep an eye on your surroundings, and hike with some buddies, if possible.
When It’s Open: Park is open year-round, though some campgrounds and roads close in winter.
Cost: $15 per vehicle entrance fee, valid for seven days. Annual passes and some national passes are also available and accepted. Established campgrounds range from $10 to $18 per night depending on season and location. Wilderness Camping Permit is required for backcountry camping: $5 plus $2 per person, per night. For more information visit www.nps.gov/olym.
Zion National Park, Utah
Why It’s Cool: Remember learning about the pioneers? Yeah, they walked the grounds of Zion (before it was a park). After spending the night in the woods, try hiking the Kolob Canyons in the northwest corner of the park. The five-mile and 14-mile trails make perfect four- or eight- hour trips. The longer trail takes you to Kolob Arch, one of the largest natural arches in the world. (There are also a bunch of backcountry campsites by the arch, and staying out there can make a great two-day backpacking trip.) If you’re traveling in the summer and lucky enough to win a permit in the permit lottery ($5), exploring The Subway of the park is an unparalleled experience. There are two ways to hike the deep valley and underground passageways, both strenuous, nine-ish mile routes. (Be warned — both trips are wet.)
Where to Camp: The park has three established campgrounds and during the summer, they are full every night. Wilderness permits are required for all overnight backpacking trips and can be issued the day before or day of your trip (or reserved up to three months in advance). Before embarking on a backcountry trip, be sure to read through the Zion wilderness guide.
When It’s Open: Open year round. Some services and facilities may reduce hours or close at some point during the year.
Cost: $25 per vehicle for a recreational use pass, valid for seven days. Annual and lifetime passes are also available. Wilderness permits are $10 to $20 depending on the size of the group. Campsites range in price from free to $20 per night, depending on the campground and location. For more information visit www.nps.gov/zion.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Why It’s Cool: The park’s probably known best for Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile road through the park’s interior that winds through the mountains — but that’s only fun if you’re in a car (and what fun is that, really?). For some fun on foot, try hiking the Many Glacier (there are a few trails to choose from, many of which offer spectacular views of alpine lakes). There’s also a campground at the glacier that accommodates both vehicles and primitive camping.
Where to Camp: There are 13 developed campgrounds with a combined 1,009 established sites. Most operate on a first-come first-served basis, except for three that require reservations. Backcountry camping is also allowed, but a backcountry permit is required and you may only camp in designated backcountry campgrounds. (See the Backcountry Guide for details.)
Watch Out For: Grizzly bears, black bears, and mountain lions. Store food and cooking equipment in a vehicle or hard-sided Intragency Grizzly Bear Committee-approved container, or in a food/storage locker, try to avoid hiking alone, and keep bear spray on hand.
When It’s Open: Park open year round. Visitor facilities open from late May through early September.
Cost: Entrance fees vary by season from $15 to $25 per car, valid for seven days. Annual and national passes are also available. Campsites vary from $10 to $23 per night during the summer season. For the summer months, backcountry permits are $5 per person (age 16+) per night, plus a $30 reservation processing fee (if reservation is made ahead of time). For more information visit www.nps.gov/glac.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Why It’s Cool: Located just north of famous Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Grand Teton is home to a number of impressive Rocky Mountain peaks. There are a ton of hiking trails ranging from easy to very strenuous, so you can choose your own fate based on how you’re feeling that day.
Where to Camp: There are five established campgrounds in the park (Of these, Signal Mountain earns enthusiastic reviews.). All backcountry camping requires a permit, which is free and available to walk-ins on a first-come first-served basis. (You may also be able to register online depending on the time of year, but it will cost you $25.)
Watch Out For: Black and grizzly bears. If you’re camping in the backcountry, you’re required to use a bear-proof canister for food storage.
When It’s Open: Park open year round. Visitor center hours vary by season, but one visitor center will always be open year-round.
Cost: $25 per vehicle entrance fee, valid for seven days. All entrance fees are valid at both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. In the winter (mid-December through April 30), there is a winter day-use fee of $5. Some national passes are also accepted. The five developed campgrounds in the park charge $20.50 per night per site. For more information visit www.nps.gov/grte.
Arches National Park, Utah
Why It’s Cool: It’s a red rock wonderland with over 2,000 natural stone arches. The park has a variety of easy, moderate, and long trails. One of the most popular, the Delicate Arch trail, takes you to the well-known arch by the same name (a photo op not to miss). There’s also the option to take a ranger-guided hike through the Fiery Furnace, an area of sandstone canyons with no marked trailheads (to go without a guide, you need a permit).
Where to Camp: The park has one developed campground, The Devils Garden Campground, and it has 50 campsites. Sites are usually reserved in advance during the busy season (March–October), but there are also campgrounds located outside the park and nearby. Arches is relatively small, and there’s little land for backpacking. To do so, you need a free permit, and you should know what you’re doing (be able to read a topographic map, identify safety hazards, etc.).
Watch Out For: There aren’t many wildlife concerns in this park, but heat and sun exhaustion are common problems. Carry enough water!
When It’s Open: Park is open year round. Visitor center is open every day except Christmas (hours change based on season).
Cost: $10 per vehicle entrance fee, valid for seven days. Annual passes also available. For more information visit www.nps.gov/arch.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Why It’s Cool: Do you really need a reason? It’s the freakin’ Grand Canyon. There are two main areas: The North Rim, and the South Rim. The South Rim is more popular, easier to get to, and busier. The North Rim is harder to get to, but offers a more secluded stay (and is actually in Utah). Both areas are gorgeous, so you really can’t go wrong. Hiking is one of the most popular activities, but it can be tough (and equally rewarding); know what you’re doing before setting off. Rafting trips are also very popular.
Where to Camp: There are three developed campgrounds in the park, two of which are available for reservations. Two are by the South Rim; the other is closer to the North Rim. Backcountry camping is also allowed with a permit ($10–$25).
Watch Out For: The heat. Carry plenty of water. There’s also a wide range of wildlife in the park — nothing too serious to worry about, but always remember to be aware of your surroundings (and watch where you step!).
When It’s Open: The South Rim is open year round, but some facilities will close during winter. The North Rim is open May 15 through mid-October. The two rims are about a 5-hour drive apart.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Why It’s Cool: The Rio Grande river runs right through Big Bend, so rafting, canoeing, and kayaking trips are common (and pretty amazing). The park is packed with hiking trails covering desert, mountain, and river terrain. One popular desert hike is the Devil’s Den, a moderate 5.6-mile trip along the rim of and down into a limestone slot canyon in the park’s northern region. Another beautiful hike is the Santa Elena Canyon trail — a moderate-difficulty, 1.7 mile round-trip hike that provides both top-down and bottom-up views of the canyon. Oh, and don’t forget to look up from your campsite at night — the park’s remote location provides gorgeous views of the night sky. A free permit is required for hiking in the backcountry.
Where to Camp: The park operates three developed campgrounds. Backcountry camping is allowed with a permit ($10; first-come, first-served), but camping is only allowed at one of the 42 designated backcountry sites or in a designated zone. Some sites are in the Chisos Mountains; others are roadside campsites scattered throughout the park. You have to choose your site when the permit is issued.
Watch Out For: Black bears and mountain lions.
When It’s Open: Park is open year round. Entrance fees and visitor center hours vary from season to season.
Cost: $20 per vehicle entrance fee, valid for seven days. Annual passes also available. Developed campgrounds cost $14 per site, per night and reservations are available. Backcountry campsites require a $10 permit. For more information visit www.nps.gov/bibe.
Carson National Forest, New Mexico
Why It’s Cool: No, New Mexico is not entirely desert. Carson National Forest offers relatively cool summer temperatures as well as a great environment for fishing, hunting, camping, and hiking. In the winter, there’s even enough snow for skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling. Hike the 16-mile round trip up to New Mexico’s highest peak, Mt. Wheeler, for a challenging but rewarding day hike.
Where to Camp: There are about 35 established campgrounds scattered throughout the park. Backcountry camping is also allowed pretty much anywhere in the forest (Check with the ranger station before heading out for any last-minute camping restrictions.). Langua Larga offers four campsites right on the water’s edge, and many good areas for dispersed camping (camping anywhere outside a developed campsite) a bit further from the lake.
Watch Out For: Nothing in particular. Just be aware of your surroundings!
When It’s Open: Forest is accessible year round. Campgrounds vary by season and location.
Cost: No entrance fee. Campsite prices range from free to $30, depending on location, time of year, and group size. For more information visit www.fs.usda.gov/carson.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Why It’s Cool: French trappers named this land “area mauvaises terres a traverser” in the 1800s. That translates to “bad lands to travel across”. Sure, it’s a tough climate — but it’s also absolutely beautiful. Between a variety of rock formations lie a mixture of tall- and short-grass prairies. Be on the lookout for fossils — the park has one of the most complete fossil accumulations in North America, providing a glimpse into the area’s ancient ecosystems. The park also provides amazing stargazing and even hosts an astronomy festival in early August! (Fun Fact: The Badland’s apocalypse-like setting has also served as the backdrop for many well-known movies, including Armageddon, Starship Troopers, and Dances with Wolves.)
Where to Camp: There are two campgrounds in the park, both open year round. Cedar Pass Campground has some amenities (running water, electricity, etc.). Sage Creek Campground is primitive (bison often wander through!) and free, but there’s no water on-site. Permits are not required for backcountry camping, but you do need to contact a park staff member for more info and register at one of the trailheads or campgrounds before heading out.
Watch Out For: Rattlesnakes and venomous spiders. Don’t get closer than 100 yards to a buffalo, either.
When It’s Open: Park open year round, as are both campgrounds.
Cost: $15 per vehicle entrance fee, valid for seven days. Annual and national passes also available. Campsites at Cedar Pass Campground are $16 per night per site; $28 per night per site with electrical hook-ups. Sage Creek campsites are free. For more information visit www.nps.gov/badl.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Why It’s Cool: This park offers something different for every season: The summer and spring are perfect for water activities; fall turns the park into a hiking paradise; and winter calls to cross-country skiers, snow-shoers and snowmobilers, and ice fishers. The park is comprised mostly of water, so for those entering the park without their own vessel, guided boat tours are a popular activity. There are also a wide variety of hiking trails accessible by both land and water.
Where to Camp: A permit is required for any overnight stay in the park. There are 220 free, designated campsites in the park, but all are accessible only by water and are first-come, first-served. Backcountry camping is also allowed anywhere in the park (unless otherwise stated).
Watch Out For: Black bears. Use proper food storage!
When It’s Open: Park is open year round; visitor center hours vary by season.
Cost: Entrance is free. There is a $10 per day fee for private boating. No charge or reservations for individual campsites, but a free permit is required. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/voya.
Ludington State Park, Michigan
Why It’s Cool: This park is sandwiched right between two lakes (Hamlin Lake and Lake Michigan) in western Michigan. There’s everything from sand dunes and shoreline to marshlands and forest, and there are eight separate hiking trails covering 21.5 miles throughout the park. Canoeing is also popular, and offers gorgeous, up-close views of the water.
Where to Camp: There are three established, modern campgrounds and one rustic campground. There are also 10 remote sites in a hike-in only campground. Campsite costs vary.
Watch Out For: Nothing too dangerous!
When It’s Open: Park open year round, but camping is only allowed mid-May to late November. In the summer, the park is closed (except to campers) at 10pm.
Cost: $11 entrance fee to purchase the required Michigan State Park Recreation Passport. For more information visit www.michigandnr.com/parksandtrails.
Peninsula State Park, Wisconsin
Why It’s Cool: There’s something for everyone at this park — from 18 holes of golf, to outdoor theatre, to peace and quiet in the good old outdoors. Eight miles of shoreline (right on Green Bay) call to water lovers, while miles of bike trails make for a more rigorous workout before spending the night under the stars.
Where to Camp: The park has five campgrounds with a mix of electric- and non-electric sites. Reservations are recommended and prices vary. Backcountry camping is not allowed.
Watch Out For: Nothing too dangerous.
When It’s Open: Park is open year round from 6am to 11pm (except for campers, who are obviously allowed to stay overnight).
Cost: A vehicle admission sticker is required for park entry. Daily stickers are available for $7–$10, annual stickers are available for $25 to $35. For more information, visit www.dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/peninsula/.
Ozark National Forest, Arkansas
Why It’s Cool: Fun fact: The Ozarks served as the setting for “Where the Red Fern Grows,” and the family featured in The Beverly Hillbillies are also from this region. There are more than 200 camping and picnic sites, nine swimming beaches, thousands of acres of lakes and steams, and 400 miles of trails in the 1.2 million acre forest. The 196-mile Ozark Highlands Trail is one of the best known. The caverns at Blanchard Springs are also a draw (open mid-March through October, 7 days per week, and Wednesday–Sunday from November through mid-March).
Where to Camp: The park offers space for everything from RV to tent camping thanks to 23 developed campgrounds (a combined 320 sites). Primitive camping is also allowed almost anywhere in the forest, unless there’s a sign stating otherwise.
Watch Out For: Mosquitos — especially in summer!
When It’s Open: Forest accessible year round. Some campsites are open year round as well; others are only open May through October.
Cost: No entrance fee. A number of campsites in the forest will charge a fee for camping, but many don’t. Camping fees can vary from $4 to $10 per night, per site. For more information visit www.fs.usda.gov/osfnf.
Everglades National Park, Florida
Why It’s Cool: This park is the third largest in the lower 48 states, covering 2,400 square miles. So, let’s just say you won’t get bored. There’s a wide range of hiking trails with heads near all of the park entrances and campgrounds, as well as ample opportunities for biking. There are also a ton of canoe and kayak trails to take you further into the park’s mangrove forests, freshwater marshes, and open Florida Bay (You can also take a multi-day canoe or kayak trip — just make sure you don’t accidently do that by getting lost). Once you’ve had enough of doing the work yourself, check out one of the tram or boat tours offered in the park.
Where to Camp: There are two drive-in campgrounds in the park (one of which, Long Pine Key Campground, will be closed for Summer 2013). Reservations are accepted at Flamingo Campground and are strongly recommended. Most backcountry sites (permit required, see more below) are only reachable by canoe, kayak, boat, or particularly adventurous hikers.
Watch Out For: The park does have exotic animals like alligators, crocodiles, pythons, and panthers, but encounters (especially with the last two) are uncommon. If you see an alligator or crocodile, stay at least 20 feet away and don’t try to feed or touch it.
When It’s Open: Park is open year round, though only two of the four entrances are open 24 hours per day.
Cost: $10 per vehicle entrance fee, valid for seven days. Annual passes available for $24. Campsite cost varies from $16 to $30 based on location. Permits are required for backcountry camping: April – November 16, wilderness permits are free; November 17 – April, they cost $10 per permit plus $2 per person, per night. For more information visit www.nps.gov/ever.
The Appalachian Highlands
Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina
Why It’s Cool: There are literally hundreds of different trails throughout the Hemlocks region, offering a diverse range of hikes and backpacking opportunities. Just an hour from Asheville, NC, The Pisgah Forest is sometimes called “Land of the Waterfalls” (we’ll let you guess why), so take a look at a map and pick a hiking trail at your comfort level to check out some of the wondrous falls. The forest also contains four long-distance trails, including portions of the Appalachian Trail and the Mountains to Sea Trail. The Art Loeb Trail is one of the toughest (30.1 miles) trails in the forest, but also one of the most popular. There are plenty of campsites along the trail, too, so it makes a great path for a weekend backpacking trip.
Watch Out For: Nothing in particular. Just be aware of your surroundings.
When It’s Open: Forest is accessible year around. Campground availability varies by season.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Why It’s Cool: Washington, DC area readers, get packin’: Just 75 miles from your metropolis is a perfect natural escape. The park contains 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, some trails leading to viewpoints or central features like waterfalls, and others just leading into quiet, peaceful wilderness. Regardless, there will be a hike you’ll enjoy. The eight-mile hike to Old Rag Mountain is the toughest route in the park (and also one of the most popular). If that’s a bit too ambitious, try hiking to and around one of the park’s many waterfalls.
Where to Camp: The park’s four campgrounds are open in spring, summer, and fall. Reservations at any site are recommended, but some first-come first-served spots may be available. Backcountry camping requires a free permit.
Watch Out For: Bears, snakes, and ticks. Use bear-proof trashcans and food storage containers, and check for ticks on the reg.
When It’s Open: Park open year round. Portions of road are closed during bad weather and at night during deer hunting season (mid-November through early January). Visitor services are typically open only from March through November.
Great Smokey Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Why It’s Cool: People have inhabited this area since the Paleo Indians in prehistoric times. Needless to say, the area’s steeped in history. More than 70 structures still remain from the prehistoric era, and the park now contains the largest collection of historic log buildings in the East. The park is also packed with waterfalls, all of which can be part of perfect day hikes. Attention, all tech-savvy campers: The Great Smokies also has a free mobile app available for iOS and Android!
Where to Camp: The park has 10 campgrounds, all with running water and toilets. Only one campground requires reservations; all the rest are first-come first-served. Cades Cove and Smokemont campgrounds are open year round. Backcountry camping is allowed, but a permit and advance reservations are required and you may only camp at designated backcountry campsites and shelters (also check out these backcountry rules and regs).
Watch Out For: Bears (lots of ‘em) and snakes. Many people carry bear spray when hiking for added safety. Also be sure to follow food storage rules. Very few snakebites occur, but the park is home to two species of venomous snakes.
When It’s Open: Park is open year round. Some roads, campgrounds, and visitor facilities close in winter.
Cost: Entrance to the park is free. Campsites range from $14– $23 per night. Reservations ($4 per person per night with a maximum charge of $20 per person) and permits are required for all overnight stays in the park’s backcountry. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/grsm.
Denali National Park, Alaska
Why It’s Cool: Six million acres of open land? Check. Unbelievable wildlife? Check. Hiking to please even the most experienced of outdoorspeople? Check. Basically, it doesn’t get cooler than Denali. The central draw to the park (especially for mountaineers) is Denali itself — otherwise known as Mt. McKinley, or “the great one”. The park offers hikes for pros and beginners alike. Most trails start near the visitor center and are considered easy to moderate in difficulty. A few trails start deeper in the park, beyond the first three miles of the access road.
Where to Camp: The park has six established campgrounds with a combined 291 sites, and also allows backcountry camping with a (free) permit. Riley Creek is the only campground reachable by car, and requires a minimum 3-night stay to reduce car traffic. The other two sites are only reachable by bus. One campground is also open year-round, and no fees are charged in winter. Reservations can be made starting December 1st for the following summer. Do your research before embarking on a backcountry camping trip to Denali — this trip is not for the inexperienced.
Watch Out For: Black and grizzly bears. Lots of them. Also, no fires allowed, so plan ahead.
When It’s Open: It really all depends on the weather in a given year. Generally the park is open to private vehicles starting in mid-April. Summer bus service begins May 20 and operates through the second Thursday after Labor Day each year (September 12 this year). The park sees the most visitors between mid-June and mid-August.
Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
Why It’s Cool: Glacier Bay National Park is actually mostly water, the bay itself serving as the passageway to the inner section of the park — which is (awesomely enough) a glacier. After spending the night under the stars, try cruising the bay on a tour, charter, or private boat. There aren’t any marked trails in the park, so backpacking is more strenuous here than elsewhere. Rafting one of the park’s two rivers is a great alternative that allows campers to easily tow supplies — but make sure you’re with someone who knows what they’re doing. Park rangers also lead a variety of tours and talks every day during the summer.
Where to Camp: The park has only one campground, in Bartlet Cove, which has outhouses, a warming shelter, and safe food storage. Camping permits are required for campgrounds and backcountry from May 1 through September 30. To receive the permit (and be issued a bear-resistant food container!), all campers must attend a short orientation at the visitor center before heading out. Permits are free.
When It’s Open: Park is open year round, but accessibility and services are very limited in winter. Visitor center is open from late May through early September.
Cost: No entrance fees for private visitors! Reservations are required for boating, camping, rafting, and other visitor services. Campground and wilderness reservations are not accepted or necessary, but a free permit is required. For rafting, fees, permits, and reservations. Boaters need permits during peak season. Camping permits are free. For more information visit www.nps.gov/glba.
So which park or forest strikes your fancy? If it’s one of the national parks listed (or if you want to visit more than one national park this year) there are a few things to consider. Annual, national passes are available and accepted at all national parks. There are also discounted passes for volunteers, seniors, and military service men and women. The national parks also have a few select free-admission days throughout the year. In 2013, those days are: Martin Luther King Jr. Day (January 21), National Park Week (April 22-26), National Park Service Birthday (August 25), National Public Lands Day (September 28), and Veterans Day Weekend (November 9-11). Happy camping!
Note: All cost and camping information is for individual, private, small groups — none for larger private or commercial groups. Those rules vary by park and more information is available on each park’s website.
Have you had the chance to visit any of these parks? Ever camped there? Share with us in the comments below or tweet the author @ksmorin to tell us about your experience!