10 of the best campgrounds in America
We all know the checklist: spacious skies, purple mountains majesties, a little peace and quiet. With millions of acres of wildlife, fresh air, and open skies beckoning, ours is an astonishingly varied land and we've never found a better way to take it all in than getting out and pitching a tent for a couple nights. We could fill a library trying to list all the various options for camping, and so instead we've pulled together a few of the most exceptional ones – whether it's the best place to see the sun rise, or dazzling stars at night, or to get in a skinny-dip in between.
Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park, Maine
Located on Mount Desert Island off the cost of Maine, Acadia is home to two campgrounds – the rustic Seawall and Blackwoods, which offers more comprehensive facilities (including pay showers). Either represents Maine at its best. They offer cool breezes, endless miles of pine, clear ponds and lakes, as well as extraordinary leaf peeping during fall. For those looking for a brisk hike in the wee hours of the morning, there awaits one of the more sublime experiences around: The chance to be the first person in the country to see the sun rise, atop Cadillac's summit, the highest point along the East Coast.
For soaking in a hot spring
We're of the mindset that nearly any natural hot spring is good for some therapeutic relaxation. But the soothing waters of Conundrum Hot Springs are a particular standout. The larger of the two springs naturally forms an infinity pool that frames the 14,000 foot peaks in the foreground, and hosts reflections of a crystalline sky when the water is still. To get there is an eight-mile hike in from the trailway entrance – the perfect way to earn your dip – and there are 16 camp sites in the woods a quarter mile before the springs (number six is closest, depending on whether you want privacy or proximity).
Though easily accessible by road, Mount Baldy, as it's affectionately referred to thanks to its tree-free summit, is high enough, dry enough and far enough away from civilization to offer breathtaking views of the heavens. While fully developed Forest Service campgrounds are available from 3,000 up to 9,000 feet year round, the best spot is a modest 4.5-mile hike to the summit to sleep under the stars and share the sky with the scientists at Whipple Observatory, host of Smithsonian astronomers, situated on nearby Mount Hopkins.
America's first national park should be a bucket list entry for everyone. In addition to its nearly three million majestic acres, it's home to more than half the world's hydrothermal features like geysers and hot springs. But it's also home to the most thrilling and extensive collection of wildlife in the continental U.S. From grizzlies and brown bears to elk and deer and bison and mountain lions and now even 300-plus wolves, there's truly nothing like it. There's more than 2,000 camp sites across several campgrounds, but our pick is the option to go backcountry. You'll need to get a permit and spots are limited (though you can reserve ahead of time). Be sure to follow best practices for camping and hiking in bear country, and remember to stifle the urge to mingle with the bison herds – more people are injured by them every year than ever have encounters with bears.
For a really long walk
The Long Trail, VT
Stretching 273-miles from the Canadian border down the ridge of the Green Mountains of Vermont to Massachusetts, The Long Trail is the oldest long-distance trail in the country (in fact the Appalachian trail was modeled after it). And peppered along its entire length are near endless options for day- to multi-day hikes. The ultimate experience is going the distance and relying on the series of primitive shelters along the way; the Green Mountain Club maintains 70 along the route that range from lodges to lean-tos. A popular route is to "walk with autumn," by starting at from the North in the fall and heading south, the idea being to catch trees precisely as their leaves turn.
For not getting away from it all
Say what you will about the notion of luxury camping,but for those who want to ease into the concept of taking on the great outdoors, or simply want to get a little closer to nature (but not too close), El Capitan is ideal. A 300-acre campsite with modest but worthy hiking trails just north of posh Santa Barbara, there's hard-walled cedar cabins or canvas-roofed safari tents, complete with running water and toilets. Should you want supplies, a cooked meal or, say, a copy of Men's Journal, the Canyon Market is on-site and even does cabin service.
For seeing wild horses
Though relatively unknown compared with marquee coastal hotspots in Florida and California, the mid-Atlantic offers hundreds of miles of white sand and decent surf, along with prime camping of every stripe. Assateague Island, off the coast where Virginia meets Maryland, has all of the signature elements of the area – access to salt marshes and estuaries by foot and boat, biking and hiking trails – but also happens to be home to one of the few herds of feral ponies in the world. There are plenty of camping options (though due to quirky federal and state laws only on the Maryland side of the island allows it), including six areas for backcountry camping. But reservations fill up quick when they come available annually, so try to book at least six months in advance.
For escaping the city
Quite possibly the wildest place to be within such close proximity to an urban center – just 30 minutes from Oakland – Sunol is all rolling verdant hills and chunky rock peaks. Adding to the charm of the sprawling, 28,000 acre expanse is that it's often populated by roaming, grass-munching cattle from local farmers. And lest you forget you're not just in some municipal park, there's, plenty of actual wildlife in the neighborhood, too, like golden eagles, black-tailed dear and occasionally even mountain lions. While Sunol's campsites are currently shuttered (you can still find plenty at Anthony Chabot or Del Valle Wilderness, which connect with Suno) there are backcountry sites year round, but a permit and five-day advance reservation are required.
For sleeping by the sea
Halfway down Florida's Overseas Highway that connects the Keys is Long Key, a 965-acre islet all but dedicated to nature lovers. There are 60 camp sites, all with beachfront views and access to hot and cold water, electricity and even vending machines. The hook though is what lies all around you, with direct access to some of the most gorgeous water around for canoeing and kayaking, snorkeling, fishing and some incredible birdwatching – Long Key is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail.