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The 15 Best Places to Camp in National Parks

This summer, check out the most spectacular spots to sleep under the stars in America's most beautiful outdoor spaces

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Couple camping on mountain top, prepare food and beverages next to tent
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Try camping in a national park

There’s something special about national park camping. In our digitally connected world, it’s more important than ever to unplug for a while and spend time in nature. Camping reconnects us to the natural world while quenching our thirst for adventure—and teaching valuable survival and life skills. And one of the best ways to do it is camping in national parks! It’s a great way to see the wilderness and appreciate the importance of national conservation efforts. Some parks even offer free camping—what could be better?

Whether you’re just learning about camping for beginners or you’re an expert on the best hiking trails and camping activities, national park camping has something to offer everyone. Don’t forget to learn what to know about national parks before you visit!

What are some tips for camping in national parks?

Make sure you do your research before you go! You always want to be sure you’re prepared for both daytime and nighttime temperatures, as well as any activities you plan to do, like hiking or fishing. Some campgrounds need to be reserved ahead of time, while others are first come, first served. Make sure you follow the proper procedures and have a backup plan in case your planned camping site fills up. Research the available amenities and all applicable rules about campfires, permits and equipment. Most important, respect the wildlife, leave no trace and have fun!
Slough Creek - Lamar Valley
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Slough Creek, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

From lodges and RV parks to tent sites and back-country camping, Yellowstone has every option available, depending on your idea of “roughing it.” For those who want more amenities (like, say, flush toilets) and proximity to Mammoth village, stay at the popular Mammoth Hot Springs site. But our pick is just-off-the-beaten-path: Slough Creek. It’s only two miles down a dirt road, but you’ll feel like it’s a world away. Still, there are picnic tables, fire pits, vault toilets and bear-proof food boxes.

Awesome views over Lamar Valley, fishing in the creek and some of the best wildlife-watching in the park (you may even hear wolves howling at night) make this a near-perfect site to bed down. You may get the chance to snap one of the most amazing wildlife photos in Yellowstone. But as the small campground only has 16 spots and is first come, first served, get there early in the morning, as it’s often full by 8 a.m.

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Surf at Seawall during low tide. Location: Acadia National Park, Maine. Photographed on March 12, 2019. The bird is probably an adult non-breeding great black-backed gull.

Seawall, Acadia National Park, Maine

Acadia represents the finest of the Pine Tree State’s natural beauty, with ocean vistas, rugged beaches and evergreen forests in abundance on Mount Desert Island. The most popular campground is Blackwoods, but we prefer the 200-site Seawall, located in a quieter coastal area of the island, close to hiking and biking trails. The ocean is just a short walk away from the wooded camp, and flush toilets, picnic tables and campfire rings are available.

Make reservations in advance, as spots fill up in summer. The park’s other two camping options are Schoodic Woods, which is less crowded but located on the mainland farther away from the main area of the park, and the remote Duck Harbor, reached only by boat. This is the best camping gear to take with you.

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Denali mountain and wonder lake at sunrise
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Wonder Lake, Denali National Park, Alaska

For a true American adventure, there’s no place like the wilds of Alaska. It’s hard to go wrong with any of the park’s six campgrounds, but our pick is the furthest from the entrance at mile 85, Wonder Lake. This 28-site, tents-only campground is the closest to Denali itself, the highest peak in North America, which towers over the site’s namesake lake. The campground is also a two-mile hike to Reflection Pond, for iconic, Insta-worthy shots of the mountain.

One of the secrets park rangers want you to know before your trip? Mosquitoes are fierce near the lake, so a head net is recommended. No fires are allowed, so be sure to bring a camp stove, but there are potable water and toilets. You can make reservations in advance, although campgrounds in Denali don’t always fill up.

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Tom Branch Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
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Deep Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

Located in two states, North Carolina and Tennessee, this Appalachian gem is the country’s most-visited national park. Even with the crowds, camping among the Smokies’ waterfalls, wildflowers, fireflies and historic buildings is a worthwhile excursion. Campground options range from the ultra-popular Cades Cove to the beautiful but hard-to-get-to Cataloochee.

Our pick is the midsize, 92-site Deep Creek, farther from the main roads but only three miles from charming Bryson City, North Carolina, for supplies. Deep Creek also offers short hikes to picturesque waterfalls, and mountain biking is allowed in the area. All campgrounds in the park have flush toilets, fire grates and picnic tables, but note, Deep Creek campground doesn’t take reservations. These are the best gifts for campers.

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Grand Canyon National Park, Indian Garden, Bright Angel Trail
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Bright Angel, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Despite its huge size, the Grand Canyon can get pretty crowded in summer, especially along the South Rim, where 90% of the park’s visitors go. Two main campgrounds are located there, with another on the less-visited North Rim. But what if you could have a totally unique camping experience within the canyon itself?

Believe it or not, you can. Bright Angel is the only established campground at the bottom of the canyon, half a mile from the Colorado River along the cooling waters of Bright Angel Creek, in which campers can wade, fish and listen to its babbling music. Water, picnic tables and toilets are available, but permits are required and can be difficult to obtain. And of course, getting there means you must hike, use a mule or take a river-rafting trip—but those who do are rewarded with one of the life-changing travel experiences you can only have in America.

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Lower Yosemite Falls at winter - Yosemite National Park, California, USA
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Lower Pines, Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite Valley is arguably the most scenic area of the park, which also means it’s the most crowded. But since the location really can’t be beat, among the valley’s four campgrounds we recommend Lower Pines. Unlike the bigger Upper Pines, smaller Lower Pines offers 60 sites nestled along Merced River, with striking views of the Half Dome rock formation. You can walk from the campground to hiking trails, and it’s close to Half Dome Village (formerly called Curry Village).

All valley campgrounds have drinking water and flush toilets and can accommodate RVs; to get a spot at the best RV parks, reserve your site in advance. Fans of Oscar-winner Free Solo might also want to check out Camp 4, the legendary base for rock climbers in Yosemite Valley.

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Dry Tortugas National Park
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Garden Key, Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

For luxury camping, beach lovers can’t miss the white sands and crystal-clear water right outside your tent at this spectacular Sunshine State campground 70 miles off Key West. Hop a ferry to sleep on the beach in the shadow of 19-century Fort Jefferson, then take a morning swim for amazing snorkeling. Bird-watchers will enjoy scoping out the island, part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. Campers can also bring kayaks to enjoy a paddle in the shallows.

Visitors need to reserve their spot on the ferry to get there (usually months in advance, especially during the busy winter season), but once on the island, you’re guaranteed a campsite. Picnic tables, composting toilets and grills are provided; campers need to bring in their own water and carry out all garbage.

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Mountains in Glacier National Park in Montana, USA.
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Many Glacier, Glacier National Park, Montana

Many Glacier attracts many people, so get there early or book a reservation in advance. This 103-site forested campground is popular for a reason: It’s close to some of the park’s best hiking trails, overlooking mountains and lakes, has high opportunity for viewing wildlife, including bear and moose, and is within walking distance of the restaurant at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, for those nights when camp food just isn’t cutting it.

Spend evenings listening to ranger talks at the campground’s amphitheater or nearby Many Glacier Hotel. Flush toilets, picnic tables and drinking water are available; RV owners should check that their vehicles can fit at the sites. And if you’re into RV camping, check out the best types of RVs for your adventures.

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Any campsite, Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

Water lovers need to plan a trip to this little-visited national park, 40% of which is a labyrinth of lakes and interconnected waterways. But camping here is only accessed by boat, so visitors must either bring their own or rent a watercraft. The best thing about the campsites is that they are completely spread out—some on their own private island—so once you arrive at your spot, you’re totally alone.

Bring your kayak for peaceful paddles, or your fishing rod for top-notch angling. Explore the park by water as the 18th-century French voyageurs did, or hike on land—either way, keep an eye out for bald eagles. You can also rent a houseboat and “camp” on the water. Permits are required for houseboats and campsites, which are each equipped with a vaulted toilet, picnic table, bear-proof lockers and a fire ring with cooking grate. Don’t forget to learn about the National Park Pass before you go!

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Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado, USA
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Piñon Flats, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

The only campground within this one-of-a-kind park is like a giant sandbox or a landlocked beach. The views are also unparalleled: 750-foot sand dunes, the tallest in North America, and the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Visitors of all ages can enjoy sand-boarding and sand sledding; the clear skies and open space also make it a great place for stargazing and night hiking.

A popular time to visit is late May and early June, when Medano Creek is at peak flow from melting snows in the mountains above, turning the sand into a playground of rivulets perfect for splashing, skim-boarding and floating around in. Campsites can be reserved in advance during high season; drinking water, toilets, picnic tables and fire grates are available. The site says dogs are allowed, so it’s a great place to try camping with pets.

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Arches National Park in Utah
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Devils Garden, Arches National Park, Utah

With its “Mighty Five” national parks, Utah is a camping paradise. But to camp directly under the red rocks and among desert flora, score a reservation to Arches’s only campground, Devils Garden (book up to six months in advance). The campground is easily accessible and close to trails and the park’s namesake sandstone arches, yet with only 51 sites it doesn’t feel overcrowded.

Flush toilets, drinking water, picnic tables and fire rings are provided, and two campsites are ADA accessible. One of the best camping hacks for this location is that sunset evening programs are led by rangers in the campground’s amphitheater.

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Aerial view of the crater of the Mauna Loa volcano on Big Island, Hawaii
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Nāmakanipaio, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

Where else can you camp near two active volcanoes? Although most of this Big Island park closed in May 2018 due to increased volcanic activity, a huge recovery effort means this year’s visitors can continue to enjoy the park. Currently, without its prior lava glow, the park now presents an other-worldly landscape as evidence of its ever-evolving terrain.

Nāmakanipaio campground, one of only two inside the park, offers tent camping or tiny cabins, which visitors might want to take advantage of, given that the park is chilly and wet—this isn’t the Hawaii of 85-degree sunshine and beaches. Campers can also take advantage of the historic Volcano House hotel down the road, which offers Wi-Fi, restaurants and dramatic views.

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A Hike to The Window One October Morning
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Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park, Texas

From canyons and mountains to desert and rivers, this go-big-or-go-home national park has it all—and with an uptick in visitors recently, campsites are becoming more in-demand. Chisos Basin has 26 reservable spots (out of 60 total) in addition to an unbeatable location under imposing peaks and rock formations. The campground is close to some of the park’s best trails and sights, including the stunning panoramic vista through the mountains called the Window, while still being close to the visitor’s center, general store and restaurant. Flush toilets, drinking water, picnic tables, grills and food storage lockers are available.

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Mt. Shuksan reflected in Picture lake at North Cascades National Park, Washington, USA
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Colonial Creek South Loop, North Cascades National Park, Washington

This is one of the practically secret national parks you’ll want to visit. For a true Pacific Northwest wilderness experience, head to North Cascades, less than three hours from Seattle. Not as popular as Olympic National Park (which does have one of the best beaches in the United States), this hidden gem benefits from fewer tourists. Snag one of the spots on the shores of turquoise Diablo Lake with a reservation at Colonial Creek‘s 94-site South Loop. Explore awesome trails right from the campground, and there’s also a boat dock and fishing pier. Drinking water, flush toilets, picnic tables and campfire rings are provided.

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Big Meadow - Skyline Drive
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Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

The west may lay claim to the most striking mountains, but it’s hard to beat the gentle, rolling landscape of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The park also features one of America’s most scenic roads, Skyline Drive, from which all of the park’s four main campgrounds can be easily accessed. Big Meadows‘s proximity to trails, three waterfalls, a visitors’ center and a lodge with restaurant, plus the natural beauty of the meadow itself, make this our top pick. Reservations are available six months in advance at this 200-plus-site campground; modern facilities include flush toilets and showers. Just a short drive from Washington, D.C., Shenandoah is also one of the mini family vacations that won’t break the bank.

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Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a regular contributor to RD.com’s Culture and Travel sections. She also writes about health and wellness, parenting and pregnancy. Previously editor-in-chief of Twist magazine, Donvito has also written for Parade Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Parents Magazine online, among others. Her work was selected by author Elizabeth Gilbert to be included in the anthology Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir. She earned a BA in English and History from Rutgers University.