Staff Picks: Best National Park Campsites
There's something special about finding the ultimate campsite for your trip. Whether it's the majestic mountains, forested woods, or stony desert landscapes, that brings a certain allure. Set up camp for a memorable night at one of these ideal locations, which range from mountain views to a beach hideaway in the heart of Yosemite.
Rocky Mountain, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Welcome to some of the best-kept backpacker secrets. As soon as you leave Skyline Drive and the Appalachian Trail behind, you'll be at the corner of Shenandoah. The few hikers who risk the 2,741-foot Rocky Mountain normally take the 10-mile trip as a day-hike, but not you. Views of Rocky Mount and the Southern Shenandoah Wilderness are available from a solitary, remote campground built atop a granitoid boulder. Pitch your tent as close to the edge as you dare (there's just one obvious spot, but don't worry—not it's used very often). If you're still not convinced, there are other sites about a mile down the Gap Run Trail past the peak). Find the proper backrest on a lichen-covered ledge and settle in to watch the sunset over the Blue Ridge. Drive north on Skyline Drive to the trailhead just north of the Two Mile Run overlook. Before descending to a junction, continue a ridge through Oak Hickory Forest with scattered views for 2 miles. The peak, which is 800 feet away, is reached by taking a left turn. Due to fallen trees and foliage, hikers used to be able to see these sights from the road. The route, however, has been cleared, allowing you to enjoy excellent boating and tranquility worthy of a night's stay.
Moskey Basin, Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
To begin, a halo of dawn light reflects off the water. A loon's resonant lilt breaks the silence. From beneath the awning of a wooden lean-to, watch the rising sun color the aspens, paper birch, and mountain ash that surround the long inlet. A 3-mile stretch of water between Moskey Basin and the Rock Harbor Lighthouse will soon be bathed in soothing pink. Along the end of the natural rock ramp that extends down from your campsite, swans float past and river otters dive for trout and whitefish as the wilds awaken. While packing in the morning, keep your ears open and your eyes wide open for wolves howling or a final flash of green from the aurora borealis from the night before. To get to this slice of splendor from the Rock Harbor pier, hike southwest on the Tobin Trail for 3 miles, then turn left on the Mt. Franklin Trail. After a half-mile, turn right onto the Rock Harbor Trail and continue for another 4.2 miles. To get to Moskey Basin, which is 3.9 miles distant, turn right and then left at the next two crossroads. If you're an experienced boater who knows how to discern currents and deal with wind-built waves, paddle the 3 miles from Rock Harbor (it's the calmest early in the morning). You'll want to be well-rested for one of the best wake-up calls in the entire national park system, so plan to retire as darkness falls wherever you land.
(Source: The Mountains are Calling)
Sahale Glacier Camp, North Cascades National Park, Washington
It's tough to say whether the night skies or the summits of the North Cascades are more awe-inspiring. Enjoy unlimited views of both at the foot of the Sahale Glacier—at 7,400 feet, this is the highest campground on our list. With a nearly 360-degree panorama of jagged mountains and hanging glaciers, you'll get up close and personal with Magic Mountain, The Triplets, and Mix-up Peak while the 10,781-foot Baker and 9,131-foot Shuksan beckon in the distance. Views like these, of course, come at the price of being entirely exposed to the wind as it blasts through the rock and ice. The circular rock wall at your campsite comes in help here, providing just enough protection to keep you on solid ground. Ascend 35 switchbacks over 1,700 feet from the Cascade Pass trailhead until you reach the treeline. At mile 3.7, you'll come to a fork in the trail with the Sahale Arm Trail, which will lead you through a wildflower-filled meadow (and marmots). Swing left and continue for another 2 miles, circling a thousand feet over Doubtful Lake's jagged coastline. Listen for pikas' unique squeak as you clamber up the final 500 vertical feet to camp, and keep an eye out for the resident mountain goats while setting up your tent. As the sun sets behind Forbidden Peak, lean back in your chair and watch the stars emerge from the darkness.
(Source: Kirk Y.)
Benson Lake, Yosemite National Park, California
Swap the crowded Valley for nearly 1,500 feet of white sand at mile-long Benson Lake in the park's secluded northern backcountry. Set up your tent underneath a lodgepole tree, which provides lots of shade, before wading into the turquoise-blue lake. When you're done, stretch out and catch some sunshine on the Sierra Riviera. Observe river otters playing beneath the willow trees later in the day, while pelicans fish for brook and rainbow trout near the lake's mouth along Piute Creek. Finish it off with a bonfire as the sun sets behind the granite domes around the lake, including the 10,541-foot Piute Mountain to the northwest (restrictions allowed). To get here, travel 5.9 miles on the Robinson Creek Trail to the Peeler Lake Trail intersection. Turn left onto the Kerrick Creek Trail after 1.9 miles and continue until you reach mile 14.6 on the PCT. Follow this road for 3.6 miles until the Benson Lake turnoff. The lake will be reached in another .3 miles. Finally, a spot in Yosemite where you won't have to compete for the perfect spot to camp or walk as far along the coastline as you want.
(Source: Scott Mattoon)
Campsite 5, Zion National Park, Utah
You've never encountered a challenge quite like the one that Campsite 5 on the West Rim Trail presents. Do you set up your tent facing west, with a twilight vista of Phantom Valley and the white sandstone of pion-topped Incline Temple and Church Mesa? Do you want to face east for a dawn show that begins with oranges and pinks reflected off the sandstone in Zion Canyon? Never before have the indecisive enjoyed such a pleasant experience. Remove the fly from your tent (clear sky are preferable in the summer and fall) and watch the Milky Way and stars wrap themselves around you on all sides. Allow the Milky Way and stars to wrap themselves about you on all sides, whichever direction you want, by removing the fly from your tent (summer and fall are your best options for clear skies). Your hike will begin at the trailhead near Lava Point Lookout. After 1.6 miles, turn right at the Telephone Canyon Junction intersection. To get to the area, hike another mile, then unpack your belongings and soak in the views from all angles before setting up camp. There are no mistakes to be made in this situation.
(Source: Ken Lund)