Numerous studies are providing data about how getting out of our routines, disconnecting from the daily grind, and taking time to explore the wonders of our National Parks impacts us as a species. Camping allows us to do all of these things, which provide a medium for essential decompression and resetting our natural rhythms. But the most popular or Banner parks in John Muir’s dream tend to come with a hefty admission price and overcrowding that is anything but peaceful. That’s why we’ve put together a list of the top ten best-kept secrets of the NPS for camping enthusiasts and those interested in trying it for the first time.
1. Great Sand Dunes Preserve
Located in Colorado, the tallest sand dunes in North America lounge amidst breathtaking scenery of mountains, greenery, and the flowing waters of Medano Creek. This national preserve offers campers a variety of locations in which to establish a base camp, whether they hike in or bring a vehicle. The whole family can enjoy splashing in the creek, trying their skill at dune surfing, or simply watching wildlife and taking in the natural splendor. The Pinon Flats campground is maintained by the NPS, but there are nine additional area campgrounds that charge a small fee for site use.
2. Chaco Culture National Historical Park
This archaeological wonder nestles deep in the high desert of northern New Mexico. One of only four Dark Sky Parks in North America, visitors are invited to linger overnight and witness the wonders of nature just as the Ancestral Puebloans who built Pueblo Alto and Pueblo Bonito did. Campers can enjoy days of hiking amidst the surreal, sere beauty of the Canyon, wildlife watching, and admiring the story of human occupation, which is written on the stones of Chaco. There are a host of camping options, including a formal NPS camp site, group camping and RV accommodations from which to choose, and the park is open year round, pending accessibility.
3. North Cascades National Park
The Cascade Mountains are an awesome representation of the Earth’s geological diversity. North Cascades is a diverse realm, offering visitors a multitude of biomes to experience—from moist, alpine forests to high altitude dry forests and sweeping vistas. That makes this park a unique point of interest for many visitors. While there are many academic visitors, the park’s diversity is attractive to those who simply wish to enjoy the serene beauty of nature. Lodges and guesthouses are typical of accommodations, but campers are welcome to backpack through the park, as long as they observe pertinent fire restrictions.
4. Isle Royale
The park occupies the whole of an island in Lake Superior, and is one of the secret delights of the region. In a year, it receives fewer visitors than does Yellowstone in a single day. Isle Royale is a treat for those who crave solitude and adventure, offering breathtaking scenery and wildlife watching. Backpackers and survivalists will delight in the rugged beauty and enjoy the chance to hone their outdoor skills. While the island does have a lodge for accommodation, hikers are welcome to explore the isolated landscape, scrupulously observing camp cleanliness rules.
5. Cuyahoga Valley
When one thinks of Ohio, the beauty of nature isn’t the first thing to come to mind. But hikers and nature lovers will be smitten with this gem of a park. Visit Beaver Marsh, a marvel of modern conservation efforts—created by reintroduced beavers, this beauty spot was once farmland before becoming a junkyard. The efforts of locals to clean and refurbish the area have been rewarded. Only a stone’s throw from the busy streets of Cleveland and Akron, this haven of natural peace is strictly protected. Visitors may camp at one of the many designated sites, but informal, “backcountry” camping is prohibited.
6. Great Basin
One of the harshest regions of the American West, the Great Basin is also a land of surprising diversity and ecological richness. Visitors to this spectacular park may view the oldest living tree in America—the Bristlecone Pine—journey into the depths of the Lehman Caves, or look up and into the Universe. This area has some of the darkest night skies in North America. Hiking through this rugged country is rewarding and renewing to all who visit. While there are a host of campsites in the park, the NPS does close many during the bitter winter months.
7. Ozark National Scenic Riverways
While this is the first river system protected by the National Park Service, one must not overlook the host of attractions this region offers to campers. The park shelters many clear, pure springs, cave systems, and a gently beautiful mountain landscape. The Ozarks are often overlooked by modern campers, but should not be missed by connoisseurs of outdoor wonder. The park also boasts both “frontcountry” campsites with features such as showers, toilets, and fire pits, as well as “backcountry” spots perfect for a rustic bivouac.
A secret jewel of the Deep South, this South Carolina preserve protects the last virgin hardwood stand in the Low Country. It’s also home to some astonishing biodiversity for both flora and fauna, which visitors will no doubt enjoy. As a wilderness preserve, it does not offer any lodges or guesthouses, but does serve as a wonderful opportunity for those who enjoy camping. While all overnight visitors are required to make advance reservations, the fee is small for the frontcountry sites and backcountry camping is free.
9. Grand Teton
Among all the National Parks, perhaps this one would capture John Muir’s eye most easily. The same will certainly be true for you as you catch your first glimpse of the rugged mountains rising over the plain. Ansel Adams photographed the Snake River and forever immortalized these picturesque peaks in the American imagination. But that iconic shot only hints at the biological and cultural diversity that awaits visitors. Six sites offer amenities to campers, two for RV campers, and a host of backcountry sites offer a truly rustic experience.
10. The Canyonlands
In the heart of Utah’s beautiful landscape lies a labyrinth. Once frequented by indigenous peoples for its sacred nature, expansion of the U.S. brought bandits seeking its secrecy. When you strike out on your adventure, you may feel an odd sense of déjà vu. The landscape is deeply reminiscent of a John Ford Western for good reason. While the NPS directs those in need of lodging or dining to nearby communities, there are two main campsites available for individuals with questing souls.
In the rush and bustle of modern life, we can often forget how extraordinary our country really is. And while it does mean taking time away from earning money or enjoying modern amusements, camping beneath the unblemished sky amidst stones or forests, springs or flowing streams, restores something that often runs dry within us. The beauty and wonder that awaits campers in the national parks system of the United States has no equivalent.