1. Backcountry/Boondocking sites (Big Bend National Park)
Big Bend is a huge national park, with several good campsites for trailers, included our shady site in Rio Grande that provided some shelter from the 104 degree heat. But one special thing in Big Bend we have yet to see at another National Park are designated boondock sites for RVs. Essentially, these are backcountry camping sites that are accessible by car (“Primitive Roadside Camping”). This means there are a dozen or so scenic spots scattered around this huge park where you can pull your trailer off-road — and provided you make it down the gravel side roads with trailer intact — you find yourself completely alone under the shadows of the Chiso Mountains.
Its an amazing feeling, to have that vast nature for your own backyard enjoyment, without the sound and light pollution of other people’s generators, campfires, flashlights, and shadows looming from giant fifth-wheels. Best of all, it’s cheap. A $12 flat fee for 14 days of camping is a far better deal than the campgrounds, with million-dollar views to boot. One note is that these backcountry sites are not reservable – you have to book the site the day before camping, in person, at the backcountry office after you arrive at Big Bend. But the process is quick, easy, and they even have a handy picture book that show you specifications of the sites (including the condition of the road) so you can boondock with ease. Amazing!
[Tip: We picked Paint Gap 1 because it was relatively easy to get to in the Airstream, but still 2 miles from the road with great views of Chiso Basin.]
Hot Springs National Park itself is surrounded by the resort town of Hot Springs, so the small campground at the top of the hill feels more like camping in a city park than the wilderness. For a little more peace and space, we discovered the wonders of the campgrounds at Lake Ouachita National Forest. It’s a large, well-spaced out campsite where many sites have water access and/or a view of the lake, and our full-hook up site was among a bunch of newly renovated ones set in a circle of 6-8 on small peninsulas. Each has a level gravel pad (and oddly, protective railings) set right at the edge of the lake providing marvelous sunset views.
As a bonus, there are nice trails in the forest, the woods were full of dogwood flowers , and there is a marina with rental boats and tackle for the fishermen out there. With super classy facilities, a short scenic drive to the Hot Springs, and waking up to unfettered views of this peaceful lake made this Arkansas park a surprise favorite.
Acadia, for all it’s spectacular beauty, is still a park with a long human/tourist history, and the high volumes of visitors combined with private properties and a never-ending stream of cars make the campgrounds by Bar Harbor busy places. The Schoodic Woods portion of the park is a not-short drive away (45 mins from Bar Harbor), but feels almost a world away in its calm isolation. The campground is almost brand new (opened in 2016 – this blog post by Technomadia goes into more detail), and the trailer sites in Loop B are almost all large pull-throughs with electric (!) and water (!) with plenty of space and trees between sites. It’s very rare to get water and electric at a national park, so that alone was a treat. The tent sites in Loop A are even more beautiful, tucked away among older, thicker woods with plenty of privacy and quiet. The limit is supposedly 24ft, but our 26-footer would have fit into most of that loop with no problems. Moreover, the bathrooms and facilities are all brand new and beautiful, also rare in an older national park.
But the best part really is access to Schoodic Peninsula, an isolated slice of the park most people visiting Acadia never get to. The scenic drive is spectacular and empty enough that we were willing to bike it sans bike lane, and the new bike trails were modeled on the wide crushed gravel carriage roads of the Bar Harbor side without the crowds.
Frazier Point is a gorgeous spot to watch the ocean and sunset in peaceful silence, and not a shabby spot to grill yet another lobster. It was so peaceful out by Schoodic that it felt like we were in a separate National Park, albeit with easy access to Acadia (and lobsters. I admit, I’m obsessed).
[Tip: In my opinion, B05, B13 and B31 are the best sites with most privacy in the electric loop.]
Shenandoah lacks the dramatic scenery of some of the famous parks out West, but it’s a lovely park for a quick escape from the hustle of DC and surrounding cities and suburbs. The campgrounds there are quite massive, and the quality really depends on the loops you’re in. At Big Meadows, there are hundreds of sites. At the top loop, some are lucky to be on the hilltop and would have amazing views of the valley below, but the other sites at that end are under old growth trees, with little privacy, grass, or shade. The trick at Big Meadows, unless you get one of the sites with views off the mountain in Loop E, would be to scout out the best of the first-come first-serve sites (like many parks, there is a mix of reservable and first-come sites – see the campground map for more detail).
We had a site reserved, but swapped it for a first-come site that was a gem of a spot, blessed with a small cherry blossom tree and a lush green yard, ringed by wildflowers and often visited by deer. It was a perfect spot to hang a hammock, play the guitar, enjoy the smells of summer. Big enough too, to host two families of friends that visited and their little ones. Big Meadows just proves to me that many times campsite happiness depends on the site you get, not the campground you’re in.
[Note: Loop E (especially E175-187 had the best views off the mountain. But for walk-ups, Loop C can’t be beat and we loved site C129]
The two National Parks located in the Florida Keys – Biscayne and Dry Tortugas – do not have campsites, as they’re both mostly ocean and required a boat to access. So this is a little bit of a cheat, but camping on the Keys was so amazing I’ll just sneak it in. The Keys are a chain of islands that mark the top of the enormous reef that stretches from Miami to the Gulf (the world’s third largest barrier reef, actually). To maximize water access for its residents, many of the keys have an intricate network of canals built in, so more people can get a slice of waterfront property. Including RV folk. Our little slice of heaven was part of a large RV park where more than half the site were right on the water. From our windows we could watch the sunrise off the horizon, jump into and climb out of the warm waters, with a bonus fish-gutting table in case we were lucky enough to catch dinner. Full-hookups are a standard in Florida (is it the heat? The high numbers of RV-ers?) so for a week, we got to live a life of luxury on this tropic paradise.
There isn’t a bad campsite on the Keys as long as it’s on the water. We were too slow on booking to get them, but all the state parks on the keys looked amazing. Bahia Honda Park’s sites were all right off the white sand beaches and turquoise waters of the Keys, and they even had electric. Anyway you can do it, make sure to get something on the water when in the Keys. It’ll make the Key Lime Pies taste that much sweeter if you can dip your toes in the ocean.
[Tip: The Keys are expensive and often full during the winter! We found that going right at the start of the off season in late April/early May meant we could take advantage of the off-season rates (which were 25-30% cheaper) but the weather was still glorious.]
Bonus: Favorite Tent Camping
Cottonwood Campground, Grand Canyon National Park
It’s a lovely little campground, with half the sites under the protective shadow of canyon walls, and the other half under the shade of enormous Cottonwoods and next to the clear cool waters of Bright Angel Creek. Recycled antique telephone poles are provided to hang up your packs, and I am still in disbelief that there are flushable toilets and running water to be had at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon. In the morning you can see the pack mules leaving, single-file, from Phantom Ranch with the lucky folks that get a ride back up to the South Rim. At night, you get to see the inner walls of the Grand Canyon in moonlight, then grab a well-earned glass of wine in the Commissary of Phantom Ranch (without paying out the nose for a bed and steak dinner). The rushing brown waters of the Colorado are a few hundred feet away, as are several great hikes – up the creek to the North Rim, or up onto the canyon walls for an insane view of the Canyon. The competition has grown so fierce that they’ve made it a lottery system for reservations starting next year – good luck!
Del Norte Campground, Channel Islands National Park
This backcountry campsite not only has no water, but is a 3-mile hike from the ferry drop. That’s three miles of constant elevation changes from steep hills and narrow trails with an extra 20 pounds of water on your pack. That being said, this was a stunningly lovely campsite – there are only four spots, each at the hilltop overlooking a magnificent view of an ocean bright with dolphins. The hills are lush green and covered with dew and wildflowers, the hike curved around panaromic views at each turn. From the campsite, you can hike along the mountain ridgeline all the way to the other ferry point, but at Del Norte, you have the pleasure of knowing that (aside from the 3 other groups) you are the only people on this side of this magical island.