The Best National Park Campgrounds (According To Us)

The Belle Fourche Campground in Devils Tower National Monument and the Sheep Creek Campground in Kings Canyon National Park are two of the top 10 campgrounds in the National Park System, according to Traveler's lodging experts, David and Kay Scott.

We are frequently asked about our favorite national park lodges, but only infrequently asked our favorite national park campgrounds. Actually, neither of us can remember the last time anyone asked about the campgrounds even though we have spent many more nights camping in the national parks than staying in the lodges.

The majority of summers during our first three decades of marriage were spent camping in the national parks. And we did so in a series of four VW campers, the first of which was so underpowered it was unable to make the minimum speed limit heading west against the wind on a Wyoming interstate.

We’ve spent cozy VW nights at Acadia, Everglades, Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, Olympic, Glacier, Canyonlands, Lassen Volcanic, Rocky Mountain, Crater Lake, Great Sand Dunes, Grand Canyon, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Arches, and more. Spending three months each summer in a VW bus is the gold standard for checking the oft-repeated vow “….. for better, for worse.”

Developing some type of overall ranking for national park lodges is a subjective task because everyone has differing opinions regarding factors that are most important. For example, should cost be a consideration? If so, to what degree?

However, elements of campground desirability tend to be more homogeneous. Most of us probably have preferences for a peaceful environment, beautiful scenery, spacious sites offering a degree of privacy, availability of drinkable water and, for females, flush toilets. Showers, of course, are a nice addition. Cost isn’t a differentiating factor for national park campgrounds because rates span a relatively narrow range. If you are a senior, so much the better.

So, here are some of our favorite campgrounds. We are listing only those that are accessible via a typical family vehicle. Therefore, no hike-in or backcountry campgrounds are included. We know many of you prefer wilderness camping, but that can be the subject of an article by a younger Traveler reader not currently on Medicare.

Belle Fourche Campground (Devils Tower National Monument) - This is perhaps our favorite among all national park campgrounds Located in a grove of cottonwood trees (unfortunately, lack of water is causing the trees to look pretty shabby) the campground is seldom crowded. Most campers depart relatively early in the morning after staying only one night. Thus, we nearly always have the campground to ourselves throughout most of the day. A number of campsites offer excellent views of Devils Tower. A trail leads from the campground through a prairie dog town to the visitor center at the base of the tower. Another meanders along the Belle Fourche River.

Two Medicine Campground (Glacier National Park) - A great location to appreciate this wonderful park without the crowds. Located about 13 miles from East Glacier, the campground is near peaceful Two Medicine Lake and a camp store that was constructed as a chalet by the Northern Pacific Railroad. Many of the nearly 100 sites provide shade while a shuttle offers transportation to locations along the east side of the park. Red Bus tours also make a stop here.

Kalaloch Campground (Olympic National Park) - It would be difficult to find a campground with a more spectacular setting than this relatively large unit (170 sites) that sits on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The driftwood covered beach below offers a world-class place to stroll, and dozing off with the sounds of circling gulls and the ocean’s roar isn’t a bad way to spend part of a lazy afternoon. Fog, mist, and wind are frequent visitors to the Washington coast, but this is all part of the coastal experience. Kalaloch Lodge is a short walk north so a warm restaurant with hot coffee isn’t far from your campsite. During our first drive to Kalaloch many years ago, the fog in the distance was so thick that we were certain a major forest fire was in progress.

Signal Mountain Campground (Grand Teton National Park) - Situated in a grove of fir and spruce trees, Signal Mountain is an ideal location from which to explore the Jackson Lake and Jenny Lake areas of Grand Teton National Park. Even with nearly 100 sites, the campground fills very early from June through August. Groceries, supplies, and meals are nearby at Signal Mountain Lodge. Although views of the mountains and lake are not available from all campsites, a short walk will reveal some of the most spectacular scenery found anywhere in the country.

Manzanita Lake Campground (Lassen Volcanic National Park) - This large campground (179 sites) has been a favorite since our first visit in the mid-1970s. In a pine forest at 6,000 feet, the cool summer temperatures are a welcome relief for travelers who have driven up from the hot and dry Central Valley. The giant sugar pines drop cones so large they could stagger Mike Tyson if he ever decides to camp here. A path circling Manzanita Lake leads to Loomis Museum and its exhibits that document the 1914-1917 volcanic eruptions here. Bring a canoe or inflatable raft and enjoy a quiet morning paddling the lake.

Fruita Campground (Capitol Reef National Park) - One of the most unusual and enjoyable campgrounds found in any national park, Fruita is set amid an orchard maintained by the National Park Service. We haven‘t camped here for some time, but we have pleasant memories of picking apricots, apples, and cherries, the latter of which were eaten with such abandon that we both got sick. The National Park Service description of the campground as “an oasis within a desert” is spot on. We camped here one Fourth of July and drove down the road to the small town of Torrey to take in the holiday parade.

Sentinel Campground (Kings Canyon National Park) - Sentinel is one of four campgrounds in the Cedar Grove area of the park. Actually, any of the four would be on our favorites list because we consider Cedar Grove such a great place to camp, but Sentinel is closest to Cedar Grove Lodge with a small market and dining area. The campground sits along the Middle Fork of the Kings River that can really roar in the spring and early summer.

Chisos Basin Campground (Big Bend National Park) - Surrounded by high cliffs, this 60-site campground is in an area that offers hiking, beautiful night skies, and a chance to see some javelina - a strange-looking pig-like mammal - chow down on a cactus or two. The campground isn’t far from Chisos Mountains Lodge which offers a market and restaurant. One night while camping here we heard a commotion from a nearby campsite. It turned out that a skunk had gotten into a tent. The commotion was from the human occupants, not the skunk.

Rocky Knob Campground (Blue Ridge Parkway) - We have generally considered the Blue Ridge Parkway to have some of the National Park Service’s most pleasant campgrounds. In fact, it is difficult to choose which is best among the nine that are along this 469-mile drive. Rocky Knob Campground at milepost 161 is certainly near the top of the list, in part because it is only 9 miles from Mabry Mill and its excellent breakfast biscuits. Some campsites are in the deep woods while others are more open. An attractive picnic area is next to the campground.

Juniper Campground (Theodore Roosevelt National Park) - Located in the badlands of western North Dakota, this national park has always been one of our favorites. We prefer the smaller Juniper Campground in the park’s north unit to Cottonwood Campground in the more popular south unit. Juniper Campground sits beside the Little Missouri River in an especially scenic area of the badlands. This unit of the park is more distant from the interstate and receives fewer visitors. A visit to the small town of Medora near the south unit is a must.

So what do you think, Travelers? What additions would you make to this list?

Comments

Jumbo Rocks in Joshua Tree NP. Rounded boulders, bizarre yucca trees and the sun creeping up from the horizon. No water though, so you have to bring everthing with you.

Split Mountain Campground at Dinosaur National Monument! It's only open to individual campers in the winter (groups only in the summer) but it's located at the base of Split Mountain right next to the Green River and has access to the beautiful Green River Trail, which is especially captivating when the Aspens are changing in the fall. My favorite place :)

A-Loop at Norris in Yellowstone. Early morning there is nothing short of awesome -- especially if the fog rolls in.

Flamingo at Everglades! 'Nuff said.

Anonymous:
Flamingo at Everglades! 'Nuff said.
I passed through Flamingo Campground when it was free in late summer. There were apparently no checkin procedures at the time. One simply found a spot and camped there. I saw a single tent up and no RVs. The reason was pretty clear. There had been a tropical storm passing through about a week earlier. I guess they figure if you're willing to risk having to pack up because of a hurricane, they might as well make it free.

I didn't particularly think it was that great. It was almost all grass with no shade. Some of the loops were next to palm trees with almost no shade.

We have camped at Flamingo on a couple of occasions, each time having been eaten alive by mosquitos. We prefer the Long Pine Campground a short distance inside the entrance station at the north end of the park. The campground isn't as nice as the one at Flamingo, but the mosquito population is a fraction of that encountered near Florida Bay. Plus, Long Pine is a pleasant bicycle ride away from both the visitor center and Royal Palm, one of the best locations in the park. Visit this park in November or December, after the summer heat and before the winter crowd that arrives after Christmas.

I wondered if Kalaloch was going to be mentioned. I really liked it. We reserved one of the interior sites. They're well spaced in a really nice forested area. The temperature was "just right" during late summer.

The best views are at the oceanside loops, where the sites aren't set up for tents. There's pretty much no place to set up a tent. It's all parking pads surrounded by brush except for small clearings for the picnic tables and fire rings. Anyways, I don't know if tents would be a good idea with all the wind. In any case, there's public access to the beach, and I remember maybe 100 people were at the public beach area to watch the sunset.

The only downside was that there's pretty much no public shower facilities in the area. The closest place I can think of would be Sol Duc Hot Springs (something like $4 just to use the showers) which is way, way out there. I saw a kid in swim trunks getting doused by his father with cold water at one of the water grates in lieu of a real shower.

31 miles north of Kalaloch is Bogachiel state park where you can get a hot shower! It's always worked well for me, and Bogachiel has a nice trail to hike to boot! More bang for your adventure out west!

The first one that came to mind when seeing the title was Two Medicine as Glacier. My family took many trips to Glacier when I was growing up and we always camped at Two Medicine. I can remember seeing my first bear at the falls at the top of the lake there.

Another favorite is Staircase at Olympic, more accessible for weekend camping from the Seattle metro area than driving all the way around to Kalaloch (not that Kalaloch isn't awesome though).

I definitely second Belle Fourche and Chisos Basin from the author's list, and Split Mountain from Sarah, and I'd add:

Devil's Garden Campground from Arches NP: while usually full, the setting amidst the sandstone fins and the nearby Skyline Arch make it pretty unique, and several arches are only a short hike away.

Bonita Canyon CG, Chiricahua NM: great little gem tucked away in a great park.

Twelvemile Beach CG, Pictured Rocks NL: I just really enjoyed the setting on the shore of Lake Superior.

Some notable campgrounds for the solitude seekers:

Hovenweep NM Campground: I once had it completely to myself for a night, creating one of the oddest evening programs I ever attended.

Natural Bridges NM Campground: I've camped here a number of times, the last being the most memorable: stopped there on the return trip of an Arches/Canyonlands Spring Break outing, then at home 5 days later found out they were closing the campground due to detecting the bubonic plague in a dead mouse!

Lava Flow CG, Craters of the Moon NM: Something about camping in the middle of the lava is just cool. It's also a good stopping off point for me on my way to/from Yellowstone/Grand Teton.

Possibly my all-time favorite NPS campground is Indian Well CG, Lava Beds NM. I keep returning here over and over. It's almost never crowded, always a good evening program, and the view of the cinder cones sloping off to the Klamath Basin is a great backdrop for a relaxing evening after exploring lava tubes and hiking the Schonchin Butte Trail.

My favorite Park is Isle Royal National Park .

White Wolf Campground high up on the Tioga Road in Yosemite. It's a top-of-the-world type of experience. Sometimes it's hard to believe that it's in the same park as the Ahwahnee Hotel. We've encountered black bears and a frozen water jug every time we've camped here, which adds to the atmosphere.

PS - it would be great to start a list of the best campgrounds in Canadian national parks.

The campground at Cedar Breaks National Monument is one of the unknown gems of the NPS family. At the height of the summer when it is sweltering in Zion and not exactly all that cool at Bryce, it is going to be cool and comfortable at Cedar Breaks, where the all time high in the summer during the day is in the mid 80s. And, you can walk from the campground out into the meadows to enjoy some of the best wildflower displays in the country. Most of the summer, when Zion and Bryce are crowded, you can be almost sure of finding a camp site at Cedar Breaks.

Balsam Mountain Campground at Great Smoky Mountains - away from the crowds with great hiking oppurtunties.