If ever there’s a summer to road-trip between campsites in national parks, it’s this one. And while parks have seen record visitation in the past year, there’s plenty of space for everyone if you know where to look and plan ahead. We’re here to help on both fronts—read on for everything you need to know plan the ultimate NPS camping trip.
1. Piñon Flats, Great Sand Dunes, Colorado
Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes are the tallest in North America, and at Piñon Flats campground you can camp right at their base. Make a morning dash for the top of the 699-foot High Dune to beat the heat and revel in stunning views of the San Juan and Sangre De Cristo Mountains. Post-hike bonus: there are quite a few nearby hot springs, ranging from ultra-rustic to luxury. In warmer months, snowmelt from the mountains forms the shallow, meandering (and cold!) Medano Creek, a welcome place to cool off on a summer day. Don’t forget the inner tubes.
Essential Gear: Afternoon storms are common here, and wind can make the hike unbearable if you’re not prepared. Pack Wrangler’s Windbreaker or a pair of their Utility pants to keep you dry and protect your skin from the bite of blowing sand. Both are part of the All Terrain Gear (ATG) by Wrangler line—made for your next camping trip.
2. White Sands, New Mexico
White Sands is one of the nation’s newest national parks, and it may also be the most surreal. This massive gypsum dune field is almost as white as snow, making for painting-like sunsets and otherworldly walks on bright, cloudless days. You’d be forgiven for forgetting you’re not at a beach when you venture down its boardwalks. The park’s primitive backcountry campsites, a short and mild walk into the dune field, are currently closed, but they’re more than worthy of your bucket list, so check back frequently to stay on top of reopening.
3. Santa Rosa Island Beaches, Channel Islands National Park, California
Looking to feel far, far away? California’s Channel Islands are a three-hour boat ride or half-hour flight from the mainland, and there are no cars on any of them. Santa Rosa Island offers backcountry camping right on the beach from mid-August through December, after pupping season for the seals and sea lions that call the island home. Hike or kayak in to find a private spot on the beach and keep an eye out for dolphin pods, or reserve a site at an established campground on any of the park’s five islands year-round.
4. Mammoth Campground, Yellowstone National Park, Montana
If you want to camp among bison, geysers, and natural hot springs, there’s no better place than Yellowstone. The park has quite a few campgrounds, but Mammoth is the only one open year-round. And you’re in luck—there are still a few spots left in September. Before you leave, make a travel plan to avoid entering the park during its busiest hours, when entrance lines jam up the roads.
5. Gros Ventre Campground, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone’s lesser-known sister park has quite the range of camping options with striking views of the jagged Teton Range. Sites by the Gros Ventre River can be a prime place to spy wildlife, and you’ll be within an easy drive of the park’s best views and nearby dining without the buzz of lakeside sites. Want something even more hidden? A handful of spots on Jackson Lake islands, accessible only by water, can offer true solitude.
Essential Gear: ATG by Wrangler’s Thermal-Lined Flannel will keep you cozy for stargazing on Jackson’s chilly summer nights.
6. Ryan Campground, Joshua Tree National Park, California
Camp among the boulders and quirky Joshua trees this park is named for at the drive-in Ryan Campground, a small area with only 31 campsites—and ample availability for this summer. Joshua Tree has some of the best stargazing the west has to offer thanks to its clear weather and dry air, so plan ahead to visit on a new-moon night for the darkest skies.
7. Lewis Mountain Campground, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
The Appalachian Trail runs right through Shenandoah, a long and skinny park with stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains from its iconic Skyline Drive. There are ample places to camp here whether you’re arriving on foot or by car. You’re likely to find a little more peace and quiet at Lewis Mountain, which, with only 30 first-come, first-served sites, is the park’s smallest campground.
8. Backcountry Island Camping, Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Right on our northern border, Voyageurs is one of the few national parks where you stand a good chance of spotting the northern lights. You need a watercraft to reach the campsites here, and you can rent a canoe from the park if you don’t have one. For a multisport adventure, hike into a backcountry site once you paddle to shore.
9. Sage Creek Campground, Badlands, South Dakota
The Badlands are an otherworldly landscape, and the sunsets behind its rock formations can be mesmerizingly colorful. The larger Cedar Pass Campground accommodates RVs and offers views of the cliffs, but for a tucked-away zone apart from the crowds, you’ll want to steal away down an unpaved road to the primitive Sage Creek Campground. The handful of sites here are free—first come, first served, so plan to visit midweek for a better chance to snag one.
10. Dunewood Campground, Indiana Dunes, Indiana
In stark contrast with the dunes of the west, Indiana’s are actually lakeside. And sure, you can sandboard the dunes themselves, but you can surf the waves of Lake Michigan, too. Drive-in sites at the frontcountry Dunewood Campground offer easy access to all of the above—and hot showers.
11. Backcountry Camping at Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado
Colorado’s answer to the Grand Canyon is dramatic and wild. And against the odds, it still flies fairly far under the radar. Backpackers can take a short but gnarly hike down steep, unmaintained routes to camp by the Gunnison River in almost total solitude. Pack your fishing rod and catch a few brown trout for a fresh dinner. Just be sure to snag a fishing license before your trip.
12. Backcountry Camping, Wrangell–St. Elias, Alaska
Wrangell–St. Elias National Park is massive—larger than Switzerland, Yosemite, and Yellowstone combined—and stretches from the ocean to the tops of four mountain ranges with peaks over 18,000 feet tall. Translation: you’re not likely to stumble upon another hiker here. Instead of driving in—you can’t—book a base-camp hiking trip with St. Elias Mountain Guides. They’ll charter a flight to drop you and a guide at one of the park’s landing strips for a pristine campsite and hikes suitable for any skill level that you’d be hard-pressed to beat.
13. Lost Creek Campground, Crater Lake, Oregon
Crater Lake was formed thousands of years ago when a volcanic eruption collapsed a mountain, and to this day it’s a mind-boggling sight to behold. Camp within the park at the Lost Creek Campground, which offers a bit of seclusion with only 16 tent sites, available on a first-come, first-served basis.
14. Seawall Campground, Acadia National Park, Maine
New England’s favorite national park is the place to be during fall, when Acadia’s foliage explodes into red, yellow, and orange. Campsites at the park’s Seawall campground are open from late spring through early fall and are just a short walk away from ocean views.
15. Chisos Basin Campground, Big Bend National Park, Texas
Big Bend’s Chisos Basin Campground is in full view of the dramatic Casa Grande and Emory Peak. And even better: you’ll be right near the iconic Window View Trail, which offers dramatic views of the landscape through a gap in the mountains at sunset.
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