When it comes to camping in the outdoors, it really doesn't get much better than the national parks. Home to some of the country's grandest and most treasured natural landscapes, the national parks are simply loaded with gorgeous places to pitch a tent or hang a hammock beneath the stars. And if it's ease you're going for, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more convenient method than car camping.
With car camping, you can reap the same benefits of getting away from it all with a fraction of the hassle and way better food. Just pack the car with a tricked out sleeping system, fill the cooler (bring the good beer), and some good company. You'll be in the mobile lap of luxury. And some national parks are just too big not to have a car; you need to drive across and see all that the park has to offer (like the TWO deserts that converge in Joshua Tree National Park). Camping, road trips and the National Parks go together like red, white and blue. So, without further ado, here are some of our favorite great American parks to hit the road (and then then hay):
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
At over half a million acres, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park preserves some of the most beautiful forest lands in the East. The park straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, making it a convenient diversion for many East Coast road trips. While there are a number of beautiful campsites throughout this large park, the campground at Cades Cove is our pick for top car-camping destination.
As one of the most popular gateways to the park, Cades Cove will be crowded, especially in the warmer months. However, a trip to this area provides a fascinating window into the history of Appalachian culture and serves as basecamp for some of the best day hiking trips in the park.
From your campsite, explore some of the most famous park locations, such as Rocky Top, the inspiration for the well-known University of Tennessee fight song. While that’s a strenuous and fairly long day hike (nearly 14 miles), there are great short options as well. The five-mile hike into Abrams Falls is perfect for the entire family, and offers a nice swimming hole to cool off on a hot summer day. And then you can't forget about cycling the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop; the campground store even offers bike rentals if you don't have the space to bring your own.
2. Big Bend National Park
As the old song goes, “The stars at night / are big and bright / deep in the heart of Texas” and nowhere else in the Lone Star State is that more true than in Big Bend National Park. Big Bend was named as a dark-sky park by the International Dark-Sky Association in 2012, making it one of the few places in the United States that is almost completely free of artificial light pollution. You'll get blazing views of the Milky Way, thousands of stars and planets, satellites, shooting stars and even the faintly glowing clouds of distant nebulae.
Big Bend is open year-round, with the best camping opportunities in the cooler winter months. There are three established campgrounds in the park, each offering a different perspective. Rio Grande Village is the largest, with 100 sites (43 of which can be reserved) tucked in a cottonwood grove close to the Rio Grande River. Cottonwood Campground is a small 24 site first-come-first-serve area that sits in a shady retreat in the desert. And finally, there is Chisos Basin Campground, perched over 5,000 feet with 60 campsites, 26 of which can be reserved. Chisos has the best access to the hiking trails, including the Window Trail, one of the most popular in the park thanks to its access to scenic canyons and ancient rock formations.
Each campground in the park is a comfortable oasis to immerse yourself into the land. When the sun goes down, the artistry of the night sky illuminates the heavens, bathing the living desert in pale shades of blue and green interstellar light.
3. Glacier National Park
Known as the "Crown of the Continent," Glacier National Park is a 1-million acre land of soaring peaks, sparkling lakes, diverse and abundant wildlife, and of course tons of recreational opportunities, with over 700 miles of trails spiderwebbing throughout the park and no less than 13 different campgrounds featuring a whopping 1,000 sites—so you've got options to say the least!
The park is also so large that most people visit a section at a time, and could easily spend a whole vacation exploring each one. So, a car is essentially a must-have—especially when you throw into the mix the fact that Glacier is home to some mighty impressive roads. Going-to-the-Sun Road, for instance, is a 50-mile drive through the center of the park, and it’s arguably the most scenic road in the Continental U.S. and hits most of the popular spots.
The Many Glacier Campground is probably the most popular campground in the park. As such, sites tend to fill up very quickly. But if you're able to snag one, you're in for a real treat. The Many Glacier area is the heart of the park and is simply breathtaking. One of the most popular hikes here is to Grinnell Glacier. The 11-mile roundtrip starts at the Many Glacier Hotel and heads first to Lake Josephine, then through beautiful meadows to a steady 1,600-foot climb to the glacier viewpoint. Like most other places in the park, the scenery is breathtaking, but it’s also the chance to see a glacier before they all melt.
4. Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is the gold standard when it comes to America’s National Parks, thanks to its dreamscape of geothermal features and photogenic wildlife. Camping in the park can be an intimidating prospect because–let’s face it–you don’t want to miss anything! There are 12 established campgrounds in Yellowstone: 5 of which allow reservations (1,700 total sites) and 7 of which are first-come, first served (450 sites). The Yellowstone camping information website has all the information you’ll need, including a very handy chart showing at what time of the day the first-come, first-served sites fill up (in most cases, by about 6:45 am).
Reservations and planning ahead are a given for a place as busy as Yellowstone. If you’re coming from the northern side of the park in Montana, Mammoth Hot Springs Campground is one of the best locations to set up a tent near the namesake calcified, odiferous hot springs (and amazingly, it’s open year-round). Norris Campground is centrally located in the park near the Norris Basin, home to many hot springs and geothermal features. If you’re interested in the Yellowstone Lake area, Bridge Bay is your best choice. Madison Campground is the closest spot you’ll find near Old Faithful (about a 20 minute drive). And for the southern end of the park and the West Thumb Geyser Basin, check out Grant Village Campground.
5. Joshua Tree National Park
Probably due to its proximity to the Los Angeles culture machine, Joshua Tree National Park –or at least the namesake tree–has been uniquely influential on pop culture. Bands as diverse as the Eagles, U2, and Selena have recorded near the park. A single visit is enough to understand why this area inspires so much creativity. The cartoonish rock formations at Jumbo Rocks Campground contrast with the dramatic silhouettes of the eponymous Joshua trees. As one of the most popular campgrounds, you will want to show up early (well before sunset) to claim a campsite.
While the park is known worldwide as a rock climbing destination, there are plenty of activities for the entire family. If you’re new to rock climbing, there are guides available. The short but strenuous uphill hike to the top of Mount Ryan affords a 360-degree panoramic view of the entire park, and is highly recommended. A four wheel drive vehicle is required to complete the fascinating 18-mile Geology Motor Tour, an overview of the park’s diverse geological landscape. Don’t miss the brochure kiosk at the start of the tour.
Straddling the Colorado and Mojave deserts, Joshua Tree tends to have very predictable weather, with extreme fluctuations in temperatures from day to night typical of the desert. Be sure to research the conditions before you visit and pack plenty of water. The busy season for this park is opposite most national parks, with visitors flocking to the park in winter and spring, and avoiding the summer heat. If you can handle the heat, you’ll have Jumbo Rocks Campground nearly to yourself during the summer.
If you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, head north and visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.