It’s easy to become convinced that you’ve seen it all. After enough time camping around the country, you may start to dismiss whole areas as “not worth the drive”. But if you know where to look, there are unique sights and experiences everywhere, from places you’ve already been to ones you’ve never even heard of.
That’s why we hand picked some of the most interesting and best-kept secrets in the country for this list. If you’re jaded and trying to find something new to do for your next trip out of town, look no further.
#1 – Second Beach, Olympic Nat’l Park, Washington
Second Beach is exactly what you picture when you think of the Pacific Northwest. An ancient forest of towering evergreens covered in moss and mushrooms rolls down the hills right to the edge of the sand. Tall, black rocks covered in barnacles and sea stars jut up out of the shallow water. Caves and inlets dot the cliffside above the shore. The wide, open beach stretches before you. And you can pitch your tent just about wherever you’d like. Yes, life does get this good.
Located at the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, Second Beach is an unceremoniously-named backcountry camping area run by the National Park Service. Camping here is simple enough, just pay a nominal fee at the ranger station, bring a bear canister, and hike the .7 mile trail from the parking area to the beach.
The main bit of logistics to deal with is that you do have to hike in, so you’ll need to carry all of your gear. All in all, it’s a small price to pay. Spending the night on Second Beach is the kind of experience you’ll never forget.
#2 – Stanley Lake Campground, Sawtooth Nat’l Forest, Idaho
Believe it or not, the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho are home to the largest federally-managed wilderness in the lower 48. The jagged, rocky peaks of the range are truly inspiring. And at Stanley Lake, you’ll have a front-row seat to it all.
There are plenty of hiking trails in the area, and the lake is open for both motorized and non-motorized boats. The forest is also full of natural hot springs, and you’re almost bound to see some amazing wildlife along the way. If Central Idaho is a blank spot on your map, you’re definitely overdue for a road trip.
#3 – South Rim Campground, Black Canyon of The Gunnison, Colorado
When you think Colorado, you probably think Rocky Mountain National Park. But there’s another, smaller park in Colorado with some unique spectacle of its own. The Black Canyon of The Gunnison is just what it sounds like – a massive canyon made up of imposing black rock faces thousands of feet high. You don’t get cliff walls like this too many places in the lower 48. Naturally, the best way to experience a view like this is from above.
That’s exactly why you should camp at the South Rim. The campground is situated right at the edge of the Black Canyon, allowing you to walk right up and peer over the edge. Trust us, the views are worth the pit in your stomach. Just make sure you hang on to the handrail.
#4 – Elk Island Backcountry Camping, Grand Teton Nat’l Park, Wyoming
Grand Teton is a must see for fans of wildlife, colossal mountains, and awesome hiking. But if you’re up for a totally different kind of adventure in Grand Teton, you can rent a kayak or canoe and explore the many small islands on Jackson Lake, the largest and deepest in the park. Even better, if you get a backcountry permit, you can actually camp on a few of them.
Probably the best of the options for island camping in Teton is Elk Island, which is a short paddle from the shore and gives outstanding views of the mountains. Be sure to get a permit in advance with the park and pack a bear canister for your food. Wildlife can, and do, swim across the lake to visit the island. If you make the trip, you won’t regret it. Forget about overcrowded drive-up campgrounds. This is the real way to see Grand Teton.
#5 – Alder Springs Campground, Willamette Nat’l Forest, Oregon
It isn’t hard to get to the heart of the deep-dark woods of Oregon. And once you get there, you may never want to come back. Alder Springs Campground is located just off the incredibly scenic McKenzie Highway, making for easy access. But don’t be fooled, it’s rarely ever full, despite how pristine the area is. You’ll most likely have the place to yourself, allowing you to absorb the quiet of the dense forest above you.
The campground is managed by the Forest Service and equipped with the usual amenities: pit toilets, potable water, fire rings, and picnic tables. There’s plenty to do in the area, too. Just down the road is an easy hike with a big payoff, the unforgettable Proxy Falls. Continuing up the highway will take you all the way over the Cascade Range, through ancient lava flows and a whole gradient of mountain ecosystems. Alder Springs is, without question, what Oregon is all about.
#6 – Boundary Waters Canoe Camping, Minnesota
Minnesota is known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”, but even that’s an understatement. All told there are 11,842 lakes in the state. Up near the Canadian border, the lakes become so dense and interconnected that you can spend weeks on end paddling a canoe around them. The Minnesota Boundary Waters contain 1,100 of the state’s lakes, and over 1,500 miles of canoe routes.
What does this mean to you? The ultimate choose-your-own-adventure across some of the most beautiful, remote country in the United States. And a million possibilities for great camping, to boot. You can bring your own boat or find a guide locally and forget all the planning. It’s that simple. Just hundreds of miles of open land and pristine water to explore at any pace you like. Total freedom.
#7 – Lake Eaton, Adirondack Mountains, New York
Upstate New York was the birthplace of public land, beginning with the Adirondack Mountains. Come find out what inspired one of the best ideas ever to come out of the US. The Adirondacks are a lush, rolling range pocked with beautiful lakes and teeming with wildlife. There are a myriad of options for camping in the area, but if you’ve never been and want to get a feel for the Adirondacks, check out Lake Eaton.
The campground is easily accessible via a main road and features lots of conveniences, including a camp store, dump station, and hot showers. You can whittle away the hours paddling around the lake, fishing, swimming, and taking in the scenery. Who knew there was this much wide, open space anywhere on the East Coast?
#8 – Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Outer Banks, North Carolina
How does a road trip over the open ocean sound? Impossible? Maybe not. If you drive across the Outer Banks of North Carolina, you’ll practically feel like you’re floating over the water.
The outer banks are a thin strip of land that sits far east away from the coast of North Carolina, running almost the entire length of the state north-south. It comprises several narrow islands and a long peninsula off the mainland. You can drive almost the entirety of the Outer Banks, though you’ll have to ferry between islands in a few places. You can even camp while you’re at it.
The best option for camping in the Outer Banks is definitely Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which runs wider of the mainland, providing views of open ocean on either side. The area is rich with amazing wildlife – reptiles, birds, and sea critters are all abundant along the cape. You can visit historical lighthouses and miles upon miles of beach, all while surrounded on all sides by open ocean. This is definitely not the kind of experience you get every other day.
#9 – Upper Lehman Creek Campground, Great Basin National Park, Nevada
If you’re planning a trip out West, you probably wouldn’t think of Nevada as a picturesque destination. But maybe you should reconsider. One of the most under-appreciated national parks in the country, Great Basin National Park is home to stunning caves, peaks, and some of the best stargazing on earth. As it says on posters for Great Basin, “half the park is after dark”. Also on display are some of the oldest trees on earth, gnarled and photogenic bristlecone pines.
One of the best places to camp in the park is Upper Lehman Creek, both for the splendid natural backdrop and proximity to Lehman Cave. The campground is open all year. Depending on the year, visiting Great Basin in the winter can be a viable escape from the cold. Once you visit Great Basin, you’ll find yourself daydreaming about the “middle of nowhere”.
#10 – Exit Glacier Campground, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
Kenai Fjords is not for the faint of heart. The trek to Alaska alone is enough to keep most folks well enough away, not to mention the cold, the bears, and the extreme isolation. But the payoff of seeing the biggest of the big that the US has to offer is worth 100% of the effort.
At Kenai Fjords National Park, you can see glaciers roll out of some of the most imposing peaks on earth – directly into the ocean. This meeting of dramatic forces of nature is what draws people from around the world to witness the majesty of Alaska. And of course, you can camp here as well.
Exit Glacier Campground is situated right at the apex of it all. The campground is small and walk-in only, ensuring lots of room to yourself. The Exit Glacier may as well be the end of the earth. Make yourself at home.
You’ll Never Know If You Don’t Try
Take an opportunity to step outside of the norm. Pick a place outside your comfort zone, outside your mental map, and go for it. Chances are, there will be something waiting for you that will be well worth the trip. You just can’t say until you pack up the car and head out.