There are few better traditions in the United States than taking to the road and pulling into a national park campground for a few nights of adventure. Of course, the parks can be crowded, so the best spots to pitch a tent are off the beaten trail, where they immerse you a bit deeper into the landscape and unique history that make these parks national treasures. Dig into our picks below and start planning your spring break and summer vacation now. —Doug Schnitzspahn
Tuweep, North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Photograph by Michele Falzone, Corbis Images
Best For: Getting away from it all
The Campground: It’s no new revelation that the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is far more low-key than the South Rim with all of its development and crowds. The good news is, that dynamic won’t change that much because the North Rim is so remote: It’s a 212-mile drive to the visitors center from the South Rim (or a 24-mile, 10,500-vertical-foot hike). Tuweep is even more remote than that. The nine-site campground requires drives of 61, 56, or 91 miles down dirt roads that require high-clearance vehicles and can be impassible in mud. Plus, the Park Service makes clear that this campground has “no water, gas, food, lodging, or phone.” But if that kind of isolation is what you want, you’ll be in the right place.
What's Out Your Door: The views from the campground itself are stunning enough, but drive out to the Toroweap Overlook, where the cliff edge drops 3,000 feet straight down to the Colorado River, and wander along the six-mile round-trip loop of the Tuckup Trail, which skirts the rim deep in the park’s backcountry.
Book It: Camping is by permit only (submit a permit request up to four months in advance), and campers must arrive before sunset.
Piñon Flats, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
Photograph by Braden Gunem, Getty Images
Best For: Feeling like a kid at a playground
The Campground: Few campgrounds sit so squarely in the middle of a park’s main attractions. Piñon Flats commands impressive views of North America’s tallest sand dunes, towering up to 750 feet high on one side, and the snowcapped peaks of Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo range, with summits topping out above 14,000 feet, on the other. Hit the campground at the right time in spring, and intermittent Medano Creek flows through right at your feet, carrying rushing snowmelt from the Sangres—and when it hits the sandy bottom near the campground, it rushes off in unpredictable directions, creating a labyrinth of rivulets that make for the best natural sandbox playground in the Rockies. Just be ready for the surge flow, a phenomenon that occurs when creek water dammed by the sand breaks free and rushes forth in waves that can be up to a foot high.
What's Out Your Door: It’s easy: Just wander from the campground into the 30-square-mile dune field. At roughly 750 feet above the valley floor (though the measurement varies as winds shift the sand), Star Dune is the tallest dune in North America and makes a good objective for hard-core hikers, but it can be just as much fun to simply wander and play. Or just bring some inner tubes and beach toys and play in Medano Creek.
Book It: Half (44) of the sites here are first come, first served. The other half can be reserved up to six months in advance of a visit during the summer season (May 4 through September 18). Group sites can also be reserved in advance for the summer season.
Wonder Lake, Denali National Park, Alaska
Photograph by Lynn Wegener, Corbis Images
Best For: The view
The Campground: Looking for a truly scenic spot to pitch a tent? The closest campground to the tallest peak in North America serves up a view right in the face of 20,310-foot Denali itself. Even better, 28-site Wonder Lake campground allows only tents, so no humming generators will disturb you while you sip your morning coffee and enjoy that view. You may be disturbed by the buzz of mosquitoes, however; they can be insidious here. But it’s worth the drive all the way to mile 85 on Denali Park Road simply to car camp in a site that is so deep in the wild.
What's Out Your Door: Beyond gazing at the hulking profile of Denali itself, fish for trout and grayling in Wonder Lake. The Wonder Lake trail heads from the campground into the surrounding wetlands, an ideal place for bird-watching—just bring your mosquito netting.
Book It: You’ll want to make reservations, which open on December 1 on the calendar year prior to your visit, at third-party site ReserveDenali.com.
Fruita, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Photograph by JTB Photo, Getty Images
Best For: Oasis seekers
The Campground: Capitol Reef flies a bit under the radar when it comes to Utah’s cornucopia of stunning sandstone-and-slot-canyon national parks. But Fruita Campground, named for the still maintained fruit orchards here that were first planted by settlers in the late 19th century, is a true oasis in this red-rock desert. Visit in spring to see the stunning contrast between the sandstone cliffs and cherry blossoms. Come when the fruit on the 3,000 trees is ripe and you can pick and eat it as you please within the orchards along the banks of the Fremont River.
What's Out Your Door: The Waterpocket Fold and sandstone cliffs offer up a natural playground of hikes, rambles, and slot-canyons exploration. Climbing 1,672 feet, the nine-mile round-trip Rim Overlook and Navajo Knobs Trail looks out on the oasis of Fruita as well as the formations of the Waterpocket Fold, and it wanders into the unique white towers of Navajo Knobs. For a tight slot-canyon experience, head to the east side of the Waterpocket Fold and Burro Wash.
Book It: The park may be lesser known than many of Utah’s other gems, but it is quite popular, and the 64 tent sites and seven walk-in tent sites here fill up fast. You cannot make any reservations ahead of time.
Seawall, Acadia National Park, Maine
Photograph by John Greim, Getty Images
Best For: Ocean gazing
The Campground: While many U.S. national parks protect vast, wild landscapes, very few include people and culture inside that sweep. Acadia preserves the forests and rocky beaches of northern Maine, and those natural treasures include the history and culture of the towns on its borders too. Located on the other side of Mount Desert Island from the popular tourist town of Bar Harbor, the wooded Seawall campground is close to both the dramatic breakers of the Atlantic and the quiet town of Southwest Harbor, where yacht-builders still craft their boats.
What's Out Your Door: The eponymous Seawall, a natural rock wall that keeps the ocean at bay, is just a short walk away, and it’s the best place on the island to view the sunrise while you sip a coffee you made in camp. Or head to the nearby Wonderland Trail, a 1.4-mile loop that scans the ocean. If you are looking to head inland, make for the 1.2-mile Beech Mountain Trail, which skirts cliffs and looks down on Echo Lake before it summits at the fire tower on top of 839-foot Beech Mountain. Here, you’ll have an incredible view of the entire island and a wide stretch of the Atlantic. Road bikers will also appreciate the campground as a base for tours around the park.
Book It: Make reservations for the 214 sites here at Recreation.gov. The campground closes in early September for renovations.
Garden Key, Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Photograph by Stephen Frink, Aurora Images
Best For: Beach camping
The Campground: The small, ever shifting islands of the Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West, were first documented by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León. The best way to visit this refuge of coral reefs, blue waters, and tiny, deserted keys covered in mangroves? Take a ferry to Garden Key and pitch a tent at the campground. Sitting in the shadow of the unfinished Fort Jefferson, which the United States Navy began building in the mid-19th century, it’s a unique spot in the National Park System both because it’s located smack on an island beach and because it’s right in the shadow of the fort.
What's Out Your Door: You won’t find any of the tacky tourism and development that has ravaged many of Florida’s beaches. You will find outstanding snorkeling in the shallow waters just off Garden Key. The islands are also an ideal place for bird-watching: The Dry Tortugas is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail and the spring and summer nesting ground of tens of thousands of sooty terns. The terns nest on Bush Key, but you can watch them from Garden Key if you take along your binoculars. The park provides guided tours of the fort as well, or you can simply sit back on the white sands of the beach and relax.
Book It: The 10-site campground is first come, first served, but even if it’s full, the park guarantees a place to camp in the overflow area if you arrive fully equipped. You will, however, need to book ferry passage well ahead of time.
Namakanipaio, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Photograph by Grant Kaye, Aurora Photos
Best For: Volcanologists
The Campground: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is a living laboratory. Here you can witness the visceral power of the Earth forming the island of Hawaii, as its five active volcanoes continue to spew and flow earth-forming magma. The lord of them is 13,677-foot Mauna Loa—the highest mountain on the planet if measured from its underwater base to the summit, which lies within the borders of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Though still active, Mauna Loa has been relatively quiet compared to Kilauea, a 4,190-foot volcano also in the park that has been sending out lava flows since 1983. That ongoing eruption has wiped out towns and roads and created more than 500 acres of new land on Hawaii. Namakanipaio campground feels serene in the midst of that volcanic fury, however. Set high on the mountainside at 4,000 feet, the quiet campground offers tent sites as well 10 camper cabins maintained by the nearby private Volcano House Hotel, where you can sleep in a comfy bed.
What's Out Your Door: It’s just a short drive to the trails that explore the tumultuous landscape of the Kilauea caldera and a view on the inner workings and land-building processes of the volcano itself. The four-mile Kilauea Iki loop begins in verdant rain forest full of birdsong and ends up on the blasted floor of the crater, site of a 1959 eruption that sent a plume of lava 1,900 feet into the sky.
Book It: The 16 tent campsites here are first come, first served, but the Volcano House will rent you a tent and other camping equipment and set it up and take it down for you if you don’t have one. The camper cabins must be booked ahead of time through Volcano House. (Note: The campground is currently closed for maintenance but is scheduled to reopen in April.)
Camp 4, Yosemite National Park, California
Photograph by Josh Miller, Aurora Images
Best For: Beginning your career as a big-wall climber
The Campground: There may be no other campground in all of the National Park System that has such a fine reputation for rule breaking and risky vision. After all, Camp 4 was the place in the 1960s where Yosemite climbing icons, including Warren Harding, Tom Frost, Royal Robbins, and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, plotted before putting up classic lines on El Capitan, Half Dome, and other rock faces throughout the valley. And many of the early climbers more or less flouted the Park Service rangers and ended up living in Camp 4. Those trespasses have been forgiven, however, and the campground was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 for its role in the development of the sport and culture of climbing. It’s still a hot spot for climbers from all over the planet, and the 35 walk-in sites at Camp 4 may be the best place to begin your career as a big-wall legend.
What's Out Your Door: Camp 4 is where many climbers honed their rock movement skills (and in the process created the sport of bouldering itself) on test pieces such as Midnight Lightning (V8), a hard problem put up by Ron Kauk in the 1970s and easily identified by the lightning bolt drawn right on the rock in chalk. It’s also the birthplace of slacklining, and you can show off your balance here with the best. If you want to get away from the scene, take a big 7.2-mile round-trip hike up 2,700 vertical feet from camp to the top of Yosemite Falls.
Book It: All the sites are open year-round—walk-in; tent-only; and first come, first served. The park is vigilant about enforcing its stay limit of 30 nights, which is shortened to 14 nights from May 1 through September 1.
Houseboat, Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Photograph by Christian Heeb, Aurora Photos
Best For: Floating
The Campground: Few things are better than a campground that floats—and that is exactly what you can do in Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park, which is adjacent to the better-known Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and can be accessed only by boat. Consisting of four interconnected lakes and the isolated land of the Kabetogama Peninsula, the park allows motorized boat travel, which is banned in the Boundary Waters. Renting a houseboat from a local outfitter may dampen the wilderness experience but allows for the possibility of exploring the park while retreating to a warm bed at night.
What's Out Your Door: The fishing here is world-class; you could land brag-worthy smallmouth bass, walleye, and pike. Bring along a kayak or canoe and get away from your motorized camp for a bit. After all, the park was named for the early European fur traders (voyageurs in French) who paddled these waters—with no floating houses to retreat to in the evenings.
Book It: Many companies outside of the park will rent houseboats and provide guided trips into the park. Houseboaters must obtain overnight permits (visit Recreation.gov). Houseboats can move around the park at will but must camp at designated houseboat sites or at least 200 yards from designated sites and structures.
Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Photograph by David Nevala, Aurora Photos
Best For: Escaping the crowds
The Campground: Most of Yellowstone’s campgrounds feel like small cities, but not Slough Creek. Tucked two miles down a dirt road, the 23-site gem feels more like something you would find on remote national forest land than in the United States’ popular first national park. There are no generators humming through the night here, but the park does supply basic services and food storage boxes to keep campers (and the park’s famed grizzlies) safe. It’s an idyllic retreat in a park that’s best known for pileups of cars full of visitors gawking at wildlife from the roadside.
What's Out Your Door: Slough Creek is perfectly located on the edge of the wide-open Lamar Valley, where the first packs of wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in the 1990s. And there’s a fine trout stream right on the banks of Slough Creek. With wolf packs on the prowl, bison and elk in the valley’s expansive meadows, and the occasional grizzly romping through, it’s the ideal place to bring a spotting scope and a fly rod and immerse yourself in the quiet wonders of the place.
Book It: There’s only one problem with Slough Creek: Since it’s small and popular, it can be tough to find a spot here since all spots are first come, first served. Try to get here in the morning after breakfast when campers are packing up and leaving.