Summer is just around the corner, so we thought it was high time to offer our picks for embracing the great outdoors in 2017! There’s more than 59 official national parks on offer (many of which book out months in advance), along with hundreds of national monuments, seashores and preserves.
Annually, the parks system sees more than 325 million visitors. And for good reason. So what are you waiting for? Let’s go camping!
Chugach National Forest, Alaska
Not many people from the lower 48 make the trek to what Alaskans know is the last frontier, but those that do won’t soon forget it. Thirty percent of the most northern and most western national forest is covered by ice and a rich cross section of wildlife dwells within its borders. Timber wolves, caribou, grizzlies, a number of varieties of salmon, and the largest population of eagles found anywhere in the United States.
How to get there: Fly into Anchorage and rent a car. You can be at the edge of the Chugach in just under 2 hours.
Where to camp: We like Porcupine Campground. Reservations are recommended, though not required for summer camping: (1-877-444-6777). Reservations may be made 180 days prior to desired arrival dates (Memorial Day through Labor Day).
Monument Valley, Arizona and Utah
Counted among most majestic and iconic images of the American Southwest is Monument Valley, straddling the border between Arizona and Utah. These natural sandstone buttes (the largest of which stands 1,000 feet above the desert floor) lie within the borders of the Navajo Nation and are well worth a visit for campers on their way to either Arches National Park near Moab in Utah or the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
How to get there: Fly into Phoenix and rent a car. The drive will take you through Flagstaff, which is a great place to grab lunch or dinner en route.
Where to camp: You can find a list of rules and permits required on the Navajo Nation Parks site.
Isle Royale National Park, off the coast of Houghton, Michigan
If you’re looking for a remote island getaway, you could do a lot worse than Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Situated in the middle of Lake Superior, the island is a quiet respite from civilization where hikers, canoeists, scuba divers, and boating/kayaking enthusiasts can relax and enjoy the stunning scenery far from it all.
How to get there: Best to fly into Houghton’s regional airport; otherwise, Detroit is a 9-hour drive! We told you it was remote. Once you get there, ferries depart regularly from Houghton during the summer hours.
Where to camp: Camping permits are required but are free for small groups (under 6 people).
Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, Pacific County, Washington
As its site describes, Willapa is “for the birds.” Established in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the refuge exists to protect migrating birds and their habitats. The refuge has grown to encompass ecosystems that include salt marsh, muddy tidelands, forest, freshwater wetlands, streams, grasslands, coastal dunes, and beaches. 200 bird species and over 30 species of waterfowl now call Willapa home.
How to get there: Fly to Olympia, Washington, and rent a car.
Where to camp: The 20 first-come, first-served campsites are accessible only by boat here.
Willamette Valley, Oregon
This is our pick for camping novices. And why not? The Willamette Valley is a fantastic destination for wine aficionados and there’s loads of local hiking, cycling, and boating opportunities. We like to think you can ease yourself into the camping mindset surrounded by the waterfall goodness of Silver Falls State Park (10 falls connected by a single trail!)
How to get there: Most people will fly to Eugene and rent a car.
Where to camp: Since this is a “let’s ease into camping” destination, we recommend the slightly kitsch Vintages Trailer Resort. It’s a cozy, fun home base from which you can explore the beautiful countryside or the more than 300 wineries. And since it’s not exactly roughing it, you can test the rustic waters without going full force.
Glacier National Park, Montana
If you’re looking for a “go big or go home” style national park to visit, Glacier National Park is a solid pick. Biodiversity abounds, partially because the park can lay claim to being the headwaters for the Pacific, Atlantic, and Hudson Bay drainages. You might come across a pygmy shrew (the size of a dime) or a 500-pound elk. One million relatively undisturbed acres are home to a wide variety of creatures – 9 species of bats and the iconic grizzly (just for starters).
How to get there: Kalispell is the closest airport (just a half-hour from the park entrance), but a word to the wise: Those flights are the most expensive. Great Falls is a 2.5-hour drive, but usually offers better fares.
Where to camp: If you’re going to “go big,” you should plan for some real wilderness camping. The Kintla Lake Campground is the most remote frontcountry and car camping campground. It’s on the lovely Kintla Lake and is rarely booked full. First-come, first-served.
Oconee State Park, South Carolina There’s a lot of great state and national parks to explore in the South, and this is one of the more hidden gems of the region. Exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains has never been easier. Fishing and boating are popular activities, but feel free to just lie back under a tree and relax with a good book. It’s that kind of place. How to get there: The Oconee State Park is about 1.5 hours from Greenville, South Carolina.
Where to camp: Check out this link for fees and available campsites.
Great Smokey Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
Well, there’s more than one reason this is America’s most visited national park. Whether you’re interested in exploring the diverse flora and fauna, the cultural artifacts of Appalachia, iconic hiking trails, the changing of the leaves in the fall, or the synchronous firefly display in late May and early June, there’s so much beauty to experience year-round – a veritable feast for the senses.
How to get there: McGhee-Tyson Airport in Alcoa (just south of Knoxville) is a 45-minute drive from the Gatlinburg, TN, entrance to the park. Otherwise, you can access from Asheville, NC, which is an hour and 10 minutes away.
Where to camp: Cades Cove. It’s one of the more expensive camping areas at $17–20, but it’s open year round and one of the prettier areas to camp in the park.
Big Bend National Park, Brewster County, Texas
This might be our pick for most underrated park in the country. Hobbyists in the know will tell you Big Bend is one of the best places in the country to camp and stargaze. The remote location means it gets optimum darkness. Even their website touts “skies as dark as coal.” Come see for yourself!
How to get there: Big Bend is located in far west Texas right at the Mexico border, so getting there is quite the trick. Big Bend is 160 miles from the nearest airport in Midland/Odessa, Texas.
Where to camp: Big Bend has three developed campgrounds with paved access, all suitable for tent camping, trailers, and RVs: Rio Grande Village, Chisos Basin, and Cottonwood Campground. A campsite reservation system is available at www.ReserveUSA.com.
Check out our Summer Flights Page for more tips on when to buy flights for the best deals this summer!