Camping TipsTravel

Top 10 National Parks for Camping

America’s National Parks have a legendary place in our country’s history and identity. If you’re looking for a place to camp, it’s hard to beat the dramatic scenery and recreational opportunities these parks offer. There are now 61 national parks scattered across the country from the rugged Pacific and Atlantic coastlines to all the mountains, deserts, forests, and lakes in between. (The newest national park—Indiana Dunes National Park—was established just this year.)

Nearly all national parks require a daily or weekly entrance fee that’s paid upon entering the park and camping reservations are now made exclusively online. (Although many campgrounds at various parks are first-come, first served.) If you plan on visiting multiple national parks within the same year, you might want to purchase an annual pass that’s good at all parks.

The right park for your camping trip depends a lot on individual needs and tastes, but in our experience, here are ten of the best national parks for camping.

Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado)

The indisputable gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park is the friendly town of Estes Park. With a stunning mountain backdrop and resident elk herd (in the late summer and fall you’ll spot them wandering the local golf course), it’s the perfect launching point for your national park adventure.

Camping:

There are five campgrounds within the park’s boundaries: Aspen Glen, Glacier Basin, Long’s Peak, Timber Creek, and Moraine Park. The latter is the only campground that’s open year-round.

Recreation:

Hiking options abound in this park but the most popular trails are very crowded during the summer season. Be prepared to park-and-ride within the park and take a shuttle to your trailhead.

Insider Tip:

September and October mean cooler temps but also fewer crowds. Plan a trip in early October to catch the changing aspens.

Yosemite National Park (California)

A favorite of national park champion Teddy Roosevelt, Yosemite has a storied past. (It’s also the setting for this year’s Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo if you’d like a sneak peek at its celebrated valley and peaks El Capitan and Half Dome.) Expect incredible waterfalls, beautiful vistas, and probably a few bears.

Camping:

With most national parks, it’s important to make camping reservations far in advance. This is especially true of Yosemite’s popular campgrounds. There are 13 total campgrounds, but only 7 accept reservations.

Recreation:

Yosemite’s varied geography means a variety of recreational opportunities from hiking and fishing to biking and big-wall climbing.

Insider Tip:

Due to unpredictable seasonal weather, half of Yosemite’s campgrounds have variable opening and closing dates each season. Check out this chart to see the average opening and closing dates.

Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming)

Yellowstone has the distinction of being the country’s very first national park (established in 1872). The park’s biggest draw by far is its otherworldly hot springs and geysers (there are more than 500). But it’s also rich in wildlife including bison, wolves, grizzly bears, and antelope.

Camping:

Yellowstone has a dozen campgrounds and accepts reservations at five of them. (There are more than 2,000 campsites within the park from RV sites to a network of backcountry sites.)

Recreation:

Among the standard national park activities like hiking and biking, Yellowstone also offers guided tours whether you’re looking for a fishing guide or a photography tour.

Insider Tip:

Old Faithful, the park’s most famous geyser, is it’s biggest star. Avoid crowds by getting up early to see it or stopping by late in the day.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina & Tennessee)

This national park has long been the busiest with 11 million visitors each year. (It’s within a day’s drive for one-third of the U.S. population.) Not only is it accessible from a few large cities, it’s fabled mountains offer an abundance of recreational activities and wildlife viewing.

Camping:

The park has 10 developed campgrounds (complete with running water and flush toilets), backcountry campsites, 7 group campgrounds, and 5 horse camps.

Recreation:

The Smokies are known for their waterfalls, so take a hike, horseback ride, or scenic drive to find them. There’s also fishing, biking, and historic sites within the park.

Insider Tip:

Cades Cove Loop is a popular scenic drive but for a less busy tour through the park, take a drive through the Cataloochee Valley.

Voyageurs National Park (Minnesota)

In the far northern reaches of Minnesota lies this remote—but beautiful—national park. Filled with freshwater lakes, more than 40% of the park is water. No surprise that it’s best enjoyed by canoe or houseboat.

Camping:

The campsites within the park are only accessible by boat. There are 270 developed visitor-use sites available and all require an advance permit.

Recreation:

There are a number of hiking trails in the park, but with this many lakes, the best outdoor activities will be out on the water.

Insider Tip:

If you’re not ready to commit to backcountry camping, there are still ways to see this park. Voyageurs has three visitor centers that offer boat tours into the park.

Indiana Dunes National Park (Indiana)

After decades as a designated National Lakeshore, Indiana Dunes became the country’s 61st national park in February 2019. The 15,000-acre park runs along the sandy shoreline of southern Lake Michigan and includes dunes, wetlands, forests, and prairies.

Camping:

So far there’s just a single campground (Dunewood Campground) at this national park and all 66 sites are first-come, first-served.

Recreation:

There are more than 50 miles of hiking trails in the park and for the truly adventurous, there are miles of sandy beach and the opportunity for an icy dip in one of the Great Lakes.

Insider Tip:

Experienced paddlers can launch a kayak from anywhere along the beach and paddle along the newly designated Lake Michigan Water Trail.

Acadia National Park (Maine)

Most of Acadia’s 40,000 acres are on Maine’s Mount Desert Island and along the Atlantic’s rocky coastline. One of the park’s most unique features are its historic carriage roads (a network of roads built in the early 20th-century and funded by John D. Rockefeller). Today the carriage roads are closed to motor vehicle use and can be used by hikers, cyclists, and—of course—carriages.

Camping:

There are 3 main campgrounds plus a group game, horse camp, and backcountry sites.

Recreation:

Hikers and cyclists can enjoy the 45 miles of crushed stone carriage roads along with additional trails throughout the park. Climbing, swimming, and tidepooling are also popular park activities.

Insider Tip:

To avoid traffic issues and congestion, try parking your car and using the Island Explorer bus system to get around the park.

Olympic National Park (Washington)

Whether you’re looking for windswept coastlines, mountains, or old-growth forests, you’ll find all three at Olympic National Park. This million-acre park fronts the Pacific Ocean and covers both a rainforest and mountain range.

Camping:

There are 14 campgrounds to choose from but only two (Kalaloch and Sol Duc) accept reservations in the summer.

Recreation:

There are plentiful hiking and fishing opportunities throughout the park. Some of its can’t-miss features are the tidepools at Kalaloch’s Beach 4 and Mora’s Hole-in-the-Wall.

Insider Tip:

The incredible Hoh Rain Forest is one of the last temperature rainforests in the United States. It receives more than 12 feet of rain each year resulting in a stunningly lush and green landscape.

Canyonlands National Park (Utah)

Utah has an impressive 5 national parks. While the more popular Arches and Bryce Canyon are certainly worth a look, don’t miss the more remote Canyonlands. The park—true to its name—is a maze of canyons and dramatic desert scenery. Camping here is primitive but a true wilderness experience.

Camping:

There are just two campgrounds, Island in the Sky and The Needles, and only the latter has drinking water. (If you camp at Island in the Sky, you can get drinking water at the visitor center.)

Recreation:

Hiking, climbing, and backcountry camping are all popular activities at the park.

Insider Tip:

Canyonlands is one of the best places for stargazing in the country. Far away from light pollution and with low humidity, it’s known for having the darkest skies in the U.S.

Glacier National Park (Montana)

If hiking is your outdoor activity of choice, Glacier has more than 700 miles of trails waiting to be explored. When you tire of that, take a drive on the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road or take in a view of one of the park’s incredible lakes and mountains.

Camping:

The park has 13 campgrounds and most of them are first-come, first-served. The exceptions are Fish Creek, St. Mary, Many Glacier, and Apgar. River camping is also allowed in designated areas (with a permit) along the Flathead River.

Recreation:

With an abundance of lakes, fishing and boating are popular activities along with hiking and biking.

Insider Tip:

For a somewhat easy—but beautiful—hike, take the trail to St. Mary’s Waterfall.

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