10 of the Coolest Camping Destinations in the U.S.

1. Olympic National Park, Washington
Why it’s cool:
Olympic National Park is home to the only rainforest you can visit without leaving the continental U.S. 500-year-old fir trees, dripping with moss and ferns, blanket the base of Mount Olympus in this temperate rainforest where bald eagles build their nests.

Situated on the Olympic Peninsula, the park contains sandy beaches, rainforest trails, mountain climbs, lakes, rivers and wildflower-filled valleys all in one. Warm winds roll in over the Pacific Ocean, which cool as they climb Mount Olympus, bringing more than 12 feet of rainfall each year.

For at least one day out of your excursion, be sure to catch sunrise on the beach. Clouds rising quickly from the west collide with the sunrise over Mount Olympus, making the whole mountain look aflame. It’s no surprise that a British Fur trader who, upon seeing it, named it after a dwelling of the gods.

Things to do: Hiking, skiing, biking, backpacking, camping, fishing, rock climbing, rafting, kayaking, bird watching and beach strolling
When it’s open: 24 hours a day, every day of the year, but call ahead during winter months to check on closures due to weather.
Cost: $25/vehicle, $15/motorcycle, $10/individual, $15-$22/established campsite, $5/person for backcountry camping, 15 and under admitted free.

Hoh Rainforest in the Olympic National Park

2. Zion National Park, Utah
Why it’s cool:
Sculptural cliffs, serrated rifts and monolithic peaks create the vibrant canyons of Zion National Park. The red-orange sandstone of the Southwest Desert is slowly taken over by greenery as you hike down into the canyons to the winding Virgin River.

Early settlers of Zion called it “the heavenly city,” and it’s not hard to see why. The Virgin River and its tributaries carve a lush oasis and sculpt other-worldly formations into the rock at its banks.

You will want to make any hikes here a day-long trip, as the most spectacular views occur throughout the day. The myriad colors of the park transform under the rising and setting of the sun.

Things to do: Hikes of all ability levels, rock climbing, kayaking, canoeing, mountain biking, backpacking, backcountry camping, scenic drives, cayoneering and horseback riding.
When it’s open: 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
Cost: $30/vehicle, $25/motorcycle, $15/individuals. Youth 15 and under are admitted free.

Zion National Park

3. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Why it’s cool:
Crater Lake sits in the center of an ancient volcano. Mount Mazama was created by a volcanic eruption more than 7,000 years ago in one of the largest explosions in “modern” history. Because of its unique formation, Crater Lake is one of the deepest and clearest in the country.

Be warned: Water stays at a chilly average temperature of 55–60° in summer! But this water is some of the purest and cleanest of any lake, which contributes to it’s flawlessly blue color. On clear days, you can see a record depth of 143 feet.

If swimming isn’t your thing, you can take a boat tour of the lake, where you can fish rainbow trout or kokanee salmon (planted in 1888 by William G. Steel) or visit Phantom Ship or Wizard Island at the lake’s center.

Things to do: In the winter, snowshoing, cross-country skiing, or snowmobiling. In the summer, hiking, boating, kayaking, canoeing, rock climbing, mountain biking, swimming, fishing and camping, driving the rim of the crater and cliff diving.
When it’s open: 24 hours a day, every day of the year, but call ahead during winter months to check on closures due to weather.
Cost: $15/vehicle, $10/motorcycle, $10/individual, $37–52/boat tour. Youth 15 and under are admitted free of charge.

4. Big Bend National Park, Texas
Why it’s cool:
Big Bend National Park is home to some of the darkest night skies in the country. You can stargaze on one of its many backcountry trails or at the nearby, massive research telescope at the McDonald’s Observatory.

The park contains 118 miles of international border. The Rio Grande river winds through the park’s several mountain ranges. The Chisos are the only mountain range completely contained within the park. From there, a hike to the south rim allows for views all the way into Mexico to the Sierra Del Carmen Mountains.

Geology enthusiasts will have much to observe among Big Bend’s desert trails. Large areas of the park were once covered in ocean. Tons of fossils have been found here, including a record-sized prerosaur and a 50-foot crocodile.

The mountains here are some of the only mountains still currently growing! The Pacific Plate collided with North America 150 million years ago and continues to push up the mountains at about three inches per year. However, the Rio Grande probably erodes more than that each year.

Things to do: Hiking, fishing, horseback riding, boating, rafting, canoeing, kayaking, backpacking, rockclimbing, swimming in the hot springs, stargazing.
When it’s open: 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
Cost: $25/vehicle, $20/motorcycle, $12/bicyclists, hikers, pedestrians, $7-$14/campsite, $6-$12 for backcountry camping.

Big Bend National Park, photo courtesy of Sam McFadden.

5. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Why it’s cool:
Mammoth Cave National park holds the world’s largest cave system. The more than 400 miles of passages lying underneath the park inspired Jules Verne to write “A Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

In all its years of exploration, an end to the tunnels has yet to be found. The living cavern features massive stone columns, auditorium-sized chambers, dripping icicles, limestone draperies and beautiful, aquamarine-colored cave pools.

The lush rolling hills, sprinkled with streams, cliffs and valleys, that hide the caves make this park a must-see above and below ground.

Things to do: spelunking, hiking, backpacking, biking, horseback riding, boating, fishing, swimming, canoeing, kayaking.
When it’s open:
June 11-Aug. 14: 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m. CST
Aug. 15-Septe. 2: 8 a.m.-6 p.m. CST
Sept. 3-Sept. 5: 8 a.m.-6 p.m. CST
Sept. 6-Oct. 29: 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m. CST
Cost: $10-$25/camp sites, $3.50-$55/cave tours, $2.50-$5/self-guided cave tours

6. Redwood National Park, California
Why it’s cool:
The Redwood National Park contains the most insanely tall trees that inspire and amaze simply by their size and age. The trees here are the tallest on the planet. The ancient Redwood Sequoias, the park’s namesake, grow to a staggering 367 feet in height (35 stories!)and 22 feet in width. The Redwoods have existed in this area for 240 million years.

Most of the Redwoods in this park are only 5–150 years old (just babies in human years) due to rampant logging in the 1850s, but they have been estimated to live as long as 2,000 years. The oldest living tree in the park is more than 2,200 years old.

The sheer size of the trees alone is reason enough to visit this park. However, it also contains grassy prairies, whitewater rivers and almost 40 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline.

Things to do: Hiking, camping, backpacking, mountain biking, horseback riding, kayaking, canoeing.
When it’s open: 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
Cost: Redwood National Park is free to visit! $35/campsite, $5 for backcountry camping.

Redwood National Park

7. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Why it’s cool:
Yellowstone National Park is the first national park in the world. It was established in 1872 almost 70 years after Lewis and Clark discovered it on their explorations.

The main attraction here is definitely the iconic Old Faithful, a steaming geyser that spouts every 35 to 120 minutes. More than 500 active geysers exist in the park though — each one a blue-green pool surrounded by yellow stone.

In addition to the geysers, Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres contains forests, alongside grasslands, cliffs, waterfalls, canyons and the world’s largest petrified forest. It’s also home to hundreds of animal species, including bears, wolves, bison, elk and antelope, making it a fantastic opportunity for wildlife viewing.

Things to do: Backpacking, camping, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, canoeing, horseback and llama riding, skiing, snowmobiling, fishing, snowshoeing, wild-life watching.
When it’s open: 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
Cost: $30-$50/vehicle, $25-$40/Motorcycles and Snowmobiles, $15-$20/individual.

Yellowstone National Park

8. Everglades National Park, Florida
Why it’s cool:
The Everglades National Park offer a slight change of pace from what you’d normally expect at a National Forest. Mountains, rivers and beaches are replaced by a vast, marshy grasslands and expansive mangrove swamps.

A peaceful canoe or kayaking trip through “Shark Valley,” or the Everglade’s 100-miles of fresh-water sawgrass marsh offers the opportunity to see some of the hundreds of species of animals that call this subtropical ecosystem home, such as American alligators, West Indian Manatees, roseate spoonbills or the endangered and elusive Florida panther.

Things to do: Many visitors come to view its rare wildlife, including 350 documented species of birds. Boating, hiking, camping and biking are also popular activities.
When it’s open: 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
Cost: $20/vehicle, $15/motorcycle, $8/individual. Youth 16 years old and younger, are admitted free of charge.

9. Tahquamenon Falls State Park, Michigan
Why it’s cool:
Tahquamenon Falls State Park contains one of the largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi river, that rivals those of Niagra Falls. What Niagra offers in size and number, Tahquamenon makes up for in beautiful, relatively undeveloped, natural areas.

The massive Tahquamenon River winds through the 50,000-acre forest and comes to a grand centerpiece at the Upper Falls where it drops almost 50 feet and stretches more than 500 feet wide. The waters develop a rich, amber color from the tannis absorbed from the forest’s softwood Cedar, Spruce and Hemlock trees.

Downstream from the Upper Falls, is a smaller but equally beautiful Lower Falls, that comes cascading down multiple tiers, around an island. The falls can be viewed by way of a short hike to the shore or a quick boat trip to the island.

Things to do: In summer, hiking, backpacking, backcountry camping, canoeing, kayaking, fishing. In winter, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and skiing.
When it’s open: Open year-round from 8 a.m.-10 p.m.
Cost: $11/Michigan-registered vehicles, $5/Michigan-registered motorcycles, $9/Non-Michigan day pass

10. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Why it’s cool:
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular national park in the country. Besides the more than 520,000 acres of rolling, misty-blue mountains, the park’s hundreds of miles of trails contain hidden gems of historic, century-old architecture.

More than 90 log cabins and structures sprinkle the trails and forest from the times of early Appalachian settlement. Homes were built alongside creeks and natural springs, where the freezing, spring water was channeled through the home and used to cool perishable foods.

The deciduous-forest landscape is stunning year-round: Lush and green in summer, spectacular autumn leaves in fall, frosty snow-capped mountains in winter and a wonderful wildflower show in spring, with more than 1,600 species of flowering plants living in the forests and valleys.

Things to do: Hiking, horseback riding, backpacking, camping, mountain biking, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, rock climbing, boldering.
When It’s Open: 24 hours a day, every day of the year, but call ahead during winter months to check on closures due to weather.
Cost: No entrance fees. $14-$23/campsites, and $4/person for backcountry camping.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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