There's no magic formula to finding the perfect national park campground. But with 59 parks to choose from spread across wildly different terrains, there's certainly one to suit every taste.
You might be the kind of traveler who values proximity to the action, who wants to roll out of your tent and be within immediate hiking distance of waterfalls, canyons, geysers and mountain trails. Or maybe you're heading to the parks with one very specific goal in mind: to catch a trout, to see a wolf, to spy a rare kind of bird only found in these parts, to summit the tallest mountain. Perhaps you're a more seasoned camper who has already checked off every national park bucket list item and simply wants to find seclusion, privacy, peace and quiet. Or, then again, maybe you're brand new to the world of camping and you wouldn't settle for anything less than the relative luxury of a newly renovated cabin or cottage.
The truth is, finding the best campgrounds is more of an art than a science. From Alaska to the Virgin Islands, Hawaii to Maine, we've collected some of our favorites. And we think we've hit the sweet spot-between rugged and comfortable, between off-the-beaten-path and accessible, between popular and underexplored.
One goal we always had in mind was to find those campgrounds that best deliver on the promise of the particular national park. If we're looking for a place to stay in the Grand Canyon, for example, we want canyon views. If we're pitching a tent in Denali, why not do so in the shadow of the park's namesake peak? And at a place like Hawaii Volcanoes, we want to be as close to the geological action as possible.
Be sure to tell us if we've missed one of your favorites. Or perhaps you're one of those happy campers who wants to keep your hidden gem truly hidden!
#9 Slough Creek Campground-Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park has never been the kind of place where you could get away from the crowds-it rightfully ranks as one of the most popular parks in the country. But Slough Creek Campground is a different beast: A nearly two-hour drive from Old Faithful and hidden 2.2 miles down an unpaved road, this 23-site campground is the park's smallest, located out in the Lamar Valley near the northeast entrance. Popular with fly-fishermen looking to snag cutthroat trout, the valley also offers some of the best wildlife viewing in the park, especially if you're in search of elusive wolves and grizzlies. $15/night, open May 15 to October 31, no reservations.
Credit: Shutterstock/Flickr/Grand Canyon NPS
North Rim Campground-Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
At 8,200 feet on the Kaibab Plateau and under a shade of ponderosa pines and aspens, this 90-site campground feels unlike anything you might find on the more popular South Rim, which receives 90% of the national park's visitor traffic. Up here, the weather's cooler, the amenities fewer and farther between and the vibe more intimate and insider-only. Best of all, unlike the South Rim's major campgrounds, this one actually offers campsites with direct canyon views: Sites 11, 14, 15, 16 and 18 overlook the Transept Canyon, well worth the small fee you'll pay for the premium location. $18-25/night, reservations can be made May 15 to October 15 at recreation.gov, walk-in October 16 to October 31.
Garden Key Campground-Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
The desert-island digs on Garden Key are the definition of "primitive"-remember, for example, to bring everything you'll need during your stay, including your own freshwater. But you won't mind a bit with these wild surroundings, which are reachable only by ferry, seaplane or private boat from Key West, some 70 miles away. Located in the shadow of nineteenth-century Fort Jefferson, the 10 beach campsites offer uninterrupted access to the park's famed coral reefs, with amazing snorkeling opportunities at South Swim Beach and among the ruins of the South Coaling Dock. $3/person/night, no reservations.