10 Absolutely Stunning Places to Go Camping This Summer

There are some seriously stunning camping destinations in the U.S. — plus, taking a camping trip instead of a hotel vacation is also a great way to save money.
Last updated May 15, 2022 | By Becky Holladay | Edited By Michele Zipp
tourist camp with fire

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After being cooped up during the winter and a tumultuous spring, summer is a great time for a well-needed getaway. Camping in one of these beautiful destinations will give you an opportunity to reconnect with your traveling partners — or yourself, if going solo — and leave you feeling inspired and recharged.

While a traditional vacation can easily cost a minimum of $1,000 per person, a night at a campground will most likely run only $15 to $25 for a primitive tent site and maybe even free for backcountry camping. There are also private campgrounds and glamping options for a wide range of budgets, but they are almost always less expensive than a hotel.

Read on for our list of the 10 best state and national parks, national forests, and even a national river, to go camping this time of year.

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Joshua Tree National Park, CA

mightypix/Adobe Joshua Tree National Park

With its massive peachy-brown, windswept rock formations and iconic, fantastical trees, Joshua Tree National Park in southern California has been attracting artists, nature lovers, spiritualists, and boulder-hoppers for years.

There are hikes through moonscape-like areas that result in 360-degree desert views. There are more than 15 species of cacti endemic to Joshua Tree.

For activities, there are more than 8,000 rock climbing routes in the park, so if this is your jam, Joshua Tree is the place to be. With their smooth surfaces, pockets, and cracks, these boulders are made for climbers of all levels.

There are numerous camping options at Joshua Tree, either through the park itself or at nearby private campgrounds.

Huntington Beach State Park, SC

Maryna/Adobe wooden boardwalk and stairs to the Atlantic ocean

Just south of rowdy Myrtle Beach is secluded and undeveloped Huntington Beach State Park, with three miles of beaches and more than 300 species of birds.

The fishing village of Murrells Inlet — once Blackbeard’s hideout but now known as South Carolina’s seafood capital — is right next door. The park hosts kayaking tours of the salt marshes, as well as educational talks on some of the area’s reptilian residents — sea turtles and snakes — some of whom may even make an appearance.

Finally, there’s the Moorish-style Atalaya Castle and award-winning Brookgreen Gardens, gifts of a local artist and the philanthropic Huntington family, who used to winter here and for whom the park is named.

Campgrounds are located in the park itself, and there are some private options nearby as well.

Los Padres National Forest, CA

Zack Frank/Adobe Los Padres National Forest California

Rugged, varied, and vast, the Los Padres National Forest stretches 220 miles from Los Angeles County to Monterey, encompassing both coastal areas and mountain ranges, and all the wildlife in between.

Los Padres has a dizzying number of camping and activity options. You can camp by the beach, in the mountains, next to a river, or a lake. Camping here will also give you easy access to Santa Barbara, Solvang, Ojai, and a few other towns.

Our top picks in this 1.75-million-acre national forest are wild and rustic Sand Dollar Beach near Monterey, serene and green Cachuma Lake Recreation Area — also a Santa Barbara County park — and the natural swimming holes and cascade waterfalls of Santa Paula Canyon Falls in Ventura County.

There are nearly 50 campgrounds in Los Padres, managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Big Bend National Park, TX

haleturek.raw/Adobe Ernst Tinaja in Big Bend National Park Texas

At the over 800,000-acre Big Bend National Park in far west Texas, visitors can paddle down the Rio Grande, through canyons whose walls reach up to 1,500 feet, hike trails through pine forests leading to panoramic views of the Sierra del Carmen mountain range and Chihuahuan Desert.

At night, take advantage of what the National Park Service calls “one of the most outstanding places in North America for stargazing.” For non-park excursions, explore the artist enclave of Marfa, which is just 1.5 hours away by car, cross into Mexico for lunch in dusty, colorful Boquillas, or stay in the former Texas mining town but now uber-hip Terlingua, which has plenty of glamping options.

There are four developed campgrounds for tents and RVs within the park, backcountry options with permit, and numerous private campgrounds just outside the park.

Gorges State Park, NC

Charles/Adobe Strawberry falls Gorges State Park North Carolina

There’s a rainforest in America, and it’s in Gorges State Park, about an hour south of Asheville, close to the South Carolina border. There are so many cascades and waterfalls in this region that for years, they were owned by an energy company as a potential source of hydropower.

Thankfully, the land was sold back to the state, and now visitors can hike along well-developed, forested trails for views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the park’s 26 plunging waterfalls. There are also mountain bike trails, horseback riding, a beautiful visitor center with a stone fireplace and exhibit space, and for fishermen, rushing streams full of trout.

At this time, most camping options through the park are first come, first served, primitive backcountry sites. There are also numerous RV parks and private campgrounds in the nearby Lake Toxaway area.

Grayton Beach State Park, FL

Billy McDonald/Adobe wooden fence on white sand dunes

The white sand “sugar” beaches in this part of Florida’s panhandle — often ranked as some of the country’s best — were created over 20,000 years ago, when melting ice caps brought millions of quartz crystals from the Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico.

At Grayton Beach State Park, you’ll avoid the bustle of nearby Destin and Panama City to find your own little slice of crafted-over-the-epochs heaven, with clear and shallow emerald green waters just right for snorkeling.

There are also hiking trails that take visitors through the forests and sand dunes, kayak rentals for paddles on Western Lake, and the nearby town of Seaside, with its pretty walkways, shops, and vintage food trucks.

There are 59 campsites at the state park, all have electricity and are suitable for tents and RVs.

Santa Fe National Forest, NM

Jacob/Adobe Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico

Pine forests, clear mountain lakes, meadows full of wildflowers, plus easy access to the artistic hub of Santa Fe and numerous ancient indigenous sites make this a great camping destination.

Did we mention there are natural hot springs with mountain views? And just outside the 1.6-million-acre Santa Fe National Forest are Bandelier National Monument and Pecos National Historical Park.

Just two hours away by car is Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

There are more than 20 campgrounds within the forest, ranging from primitive to those suitable for RVs with full hook-ups.

Buffalo National River, AR

John/Adobe Buffalo National River from above

This underrated jewel in northern Arkansas is home to America’s first national river, a protected free-flowing, 135-mile stream surrounded by bluffs, meadows, and forests.

Buffalo National River is one of the lower 48 states’ last undammed rivers. Sections range from calm and pool-like for the casual tuber to rapid and difficult for the more experienced whitewater kayaker.

Although paddling and fishing are the main draws here, there are other activities too, such as waterfall hikes, touring historic homesteads, or just watching the local herd of elk graze in the meadow.

There are nearly 20 campgrounds within the park, ranging from primitive tent sites to those suitable for RVs with full hook-ups.

Jekyll Island State Park, GA

romarti/Adobe Beach Dunes overlooking Jekyll Island Georgia

On this barrier island about an hour-and-a-half drive south of Savannah, you’ll find more than eight miles of undeveloped beaches, but also loads of non-beach activities, such as historic trolley tours, bike paths, a golf course, tennis, and a waterpark.

There are seven beach areas within the park, each with its own characteristics. Driftwood Beach is rustic, Great Dunes Beach Park has playgrounds and miniature golf, and St. Andrews Beach Park has an educational exhibit featuring artifacts from one of the last slave ships to reach the shores of Georgia. With its relatively shallow waters and small waves, Jekyll Island State Park is especially well suited for families with children.

There are 179 total campsites at the state park, many within walking distance to the beach. The majority of the sites are suited for RVs, but a few are primitive tent sites.

Zion National Park, UT

lorcel/Adobe Great Landscape in Zion National Park Utah USA

Zion National Park in southern Utah is a nearly 150,000-acre park encompassing towering canyons layered in red, salmon, white, gold, and tan sandstone, rock towers, high plateaus, and mesas — all set against a classic southwestern desert sky.

Zion draws crowds for its sheer beauty and bucket-list hikes, such as The Narrows, where you’ll hike in the Virgin River as it cuts its path through steep canyon walls, or Angels Landing, often called “America’s most dangerous hike,” where you’ll navigate a dizzying ascent on an extremely narrow path.

There are three campgrounds within the park, ranging from drive-in tent sites to those suitable for RVs, backcountry permit camping options, and numerous private campgrounds in the park area.

Bottom line

Jankovoy/Adobe camping in the mountains under the starry night sky

Reservations within park systems and national forests can usually be made online through Reserve America, but some sites are first come, first served, so check each park’s website for details. Campsites at some of these locales — especially the more popular state and national parks — might fill up fast.

If a particular park strikes your fancy, there are likely many other private campgrounds or RV parks nearby. KOA and Hip Camp are also good sites to search for privately owned camping grounds.

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Author Details

Becky Holladay Becky Holladay is a finance and travel writer whose work has been published in The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, and the California Business Journal, among others. She loves finding out what makes people tick and telling their stories, whether they're entrepreneurs, artists, or changemakers.