The 7 Best National Parks for Last-Minute Camping Trips
America’s national parks attracted 331 million visitors in 2016, good for a third consecutive year of record attendance—and a perfect way to mark the National Park Service’s centennial anniversary. Of those visitors, the National Park Service recorded 15.4 million overnight stays in lodges, cabins, and campgrounds, representing a two-and-a-half percent increase over 2015. Bottom line: As more visitors crowd the national parks, snagging a campsite can at times feel as futile as playing the lottery.
But with a little patience, know-how, and, yes, luck, you too can set up camp in some of our nation’s most scenic settings. Whether sleeping beneath the towering giants in a California redwood grove or watching the sunrise from the shores of Maine, here are seven stunning national parks ideal for planning a last-minute camping trip this summer.
1. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Every year, visitors from around the world are drawn to Crater Lake’s distinctive blue hue. After a day of hiking around the park’s peaks and admiring the lake from more than 30 viewpoints, most can pitch a tent at one of the park’s two campgrounds.
Mazama Village Campground, the only developed campground within Crater Lake National Park, hosts 214 tent and RV sites and offers a myriad amenities, including pay showers, a convenience store, and a self-service gas pump (a rarity in Oregon, where pumping one’s own gas is illegal).
At the height of summer, 75 percent of the park’s campsites can be reserved in advance, while the remaining sites are first-come, first-served. (Visitors are asked at check-in to choose their own sites and should show up as early as possible for their pick of available sites.)
Lost Creek Campground offers a primitive alternative near the popular Pinnacles Overlook. The campground hosts 16 tent-only sites, all of which are first-come, first-served. You can usually find a spot at Lost Creek Campground in mid-afternoon at the height of summer, but keep in mind that the campground closes on certain weekends in August and September for park events.
2. Redwood National and State parks, California
As far as annual national park visitation goes, Redwood National and State Parks in northern California routinely rank near the middle of the pack. That said, travelers and families are drawn to camping amid the majestic groves of towering trees—considered to be the tallest in the world.
If you count yourself among those enchanted by the redwoods, don’t despair: You have 332 campsites spread across four developed campgrounds to choose from (plus eight backcountry camps). Given the park’s remote location, last-minute cancellations can be common, and availability opens up dramatically during the park’s shoulder season (late spring and early fall).
Even if you come up empty in one of the four primary campgrounds, the National Park Service offers resources for snagging one of roughly 500 spots in nearby county and state parks (spanning northern California and southern Oregon). One helpful tip: Most visitors gloss over southern Oregon when planning a trip, so those campgrounds don't fill up nearly as quickly as their California counterparts.
3. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Campers can choose from two options for pitching a tent in Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Many of the 100 sites within Cedar Pass Campground offer views of the badlands formations for which the park is renowned, as well as dazzling wildflower displays, breathtaking sunrises, and stunning sunsets.
That said, we’re partial to the primitive Sage Creek Campground. You won’t find showers or running water at Sage Creek, but the park rarely fills to capacity, and it’s not uncommon for grazing bison to wander through the campground. Adding to the out-in-nature feel: You’ll fall asleep to the sounds of prairie dogs and coyotes in the distance.
4. Glacier National Park, Montana
Seemingly everything about Glacier National Park is big—Montana is known as Big Sky Country, after all. The park encompasses more than 750 lakes, 175 mountains, and nearly 3,000 miles of streams—all spread across more than one million acres.
Accordingly, the National Park Service offers a mammoth selection of campsites. Thirteen campgrounds host more than 1,000 campsites in all. The vast majority are first-come, first-served, but visitors can make advance reservations at St. Mary, Many Glacier, Apgar (for groups), and Fish Creek campgrounds.
If you show up and strike out at the park’s developed campgrounds, try your luck with the park’s primitive campgrounds: Logging Creek, Cut Bank, and Quartz Creek. You’ll sacrifice a hot shower, but the the sites rarely fill up before noon—if they fill up at all.
5. Acadia National Park, Maine
Visitors can see it all in Acadia National Park. Maine’s only national park sits on the rugged eastern seaboard, rich with forest, ponds, and marshland, making it popular with fishers, hikers, cyclists, swimmers, birders, rock-climbers, and tidepool enthusiasts.
As one of the first places in the United States to see the sunrise each morning, Acadia National Park hosts plenty of campsites to accommodate outdoor enthusiasts of all interests. Approximately 600 campsites are spread across three campgrounds (not including Duck Harbor Campground on Isle au Haut, which typically requires a reservation months in advance). None of the sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, but would-be campers are advised to keep an eye out for last-minute cancellations.
6. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
If all you do in Shenandoah National Park is admire the view from the 105-mile Skyline Drive, you’re missing out on a lot of the park’s natural beauty. At the very least, we’d suggest you snag a campsite and spend a few days exploring the park’s 200,000-acre backcountry and more than 500 miles of trail.
Shenandoah hosts hundreds of campsites across five campgrounds, with numerous spots available to campers making a spur-of-the-moment trip. Lewis Mountain, for instance, hosts roughly 30 first-come, first-served sites in a primitive setting; you won’t enjoy a free shower, for instance, but pay showers are available nearby.
That said, we’d suggest starting your search at Loft Mountain Campground, which hosts 200 campsites and, sitting atop Big Flat Mountain, offers some of the best views in the park.
No matter where you wind up, you’re never more than a short hike from the park’s scenic viewpoints, cascading waterfalls, and impressive wildlife.
7. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
By far the most-visited national park in the United States, Great Smoky Mountains National Parkwelcomes more than 10 million visits each year and sits within 550 miles of one-third of the U.S. population. But the 521,000-acre park hosts plenty of campsites for visitors near and far.
With nearly 950 sites spanning 10 developed campgrounds, odds are good you’ll stumble upon a last-minute cancellation or luck out with a first-come, first-served site. Start your search with the Elkmont, Smokemont, Cades Cove, and Cosby campgrounds, which collectively host 70 percent of the park’s developed campsite inventory.
Even if you can’t make a reservation at the park’s most popular campgrounds, take heart: Five campgrounds within the park are entirely first-come, first-served, while the rest (save for Cataloochee) host at least *some *first-come, first-served sites.
Looking for a more primitive experience? Great Smoky Mountains National Park hosts more than 100 backcountry campsites and more than 800 miles of trail.
Originally written by RootsRated for Marmot.