10 Spectacular Places to Camp in the Summer

Even if you haven't had summer off in years, you still think of it as vacation season. Why not succumb and go camping? See pictures of national parks.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Even for those who are long past the summer vacations of that marked the end of the school year, the season's warmer temperatures and longer days still invoke late nights and precious time to disconnect from everyday life. Whether you're an experienced outdoor adventurer or a novice naturalist, summer is the perfect time to head outdoors for a camping trip.

Most campgrounds offer different levels of luxury and accommodations; regardless of the site you choose, though, you'll be paying for far fewer amenities than you'd find at a hotel. For example, while a mid-range New York hotel could cost hundreds of dollars a night, you can spend a week at a campground in the Catskills for less than $200 [source: Brookside Campground].

Novice campers might want to choose a campsite that offers running water and flush toilets. Recreational vehicles, or RVs, also offer the comfort of beds and enclosed shelter. Many campgrounds have sites reserved for vehicles, but always check ahead to be sure that you and your home on wheels will have a place to park for the night.

More experienced campers might prefer a campground with fewer amenities. For the truly adventurous, many sites permit backcountry camping, or camping in undeveloped and sometimes even untraveled areas. Clearly, you won't find hot running water here; instead, backcountry campers -- often backpackers who camp in different spots throughout a long trek -- abide by strict guidelines designed to preserve the sanctity of the surrounding area [source: Schowalter-Hay].

Even at the highest level of outdoor luxury, you'll be responsible for bringing everything you need with you for the great outdoors. Here's a quick checklist:

  • a sturdy, waterproof tent
  • warm sleeping bags (even in summer, mountainous areas and sites close to water -- where many popular camping spots are -- get cold at night)
  • a strong flashlight
  • sturdy clothes and lots of layers
  • toiletries
  • a first-aid kit
  • entertainment (think cameras, bicycles, kayaks and fishing poles)
  • non-perishable food and water [source: Duvachelle]

Getting excited? Read on to start learning about the spectacular camping sites where you could spend your summer.

10
Cave Springs Campground, Ariz.

"Arizona? Why would I visit a desert in the summer?" you might ask yourself. However, with its rugged bluffs and majestic vistas, the Grand Canyon state makes for an attractive summer camping destination. While the rest of Arizona roasts at temperatures that can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius), you can cool off at Cave Springs, one of Arizona's most popular campgrounds, far away from the baking desert.

From the campground in the heavily wooded Oak Creek Canyon, visitors can access hiking trails, explore the many bird-watching spots (you might spot the black phoebe and the yellow warbler, among other species), and fish in the Oak Creek itself [sources: USDA Forest Service, Northern Arizona Audubon Society]. Equipped with grills, restrooms and coin-op showers, this campground is great for families with young children or less experienced campers. However, its popularity and accommodations come at a price: The site is often quite crowded, especially on weekends. If your schedule is flexible, take advantage and head out on a weekday [source: USDA Forest Service].

Cave Springs Campground is a riparian site (meaning it's next to a natural water source), so it keeps the heat at bay better than most of its surrounding region [source: Merriam Webster]. However, it's still in the middle of a desert, and Smokey the Bear can tell you that that means fire. Campers should always check weather conditions and fire advisories before heading out to a site -- if there's one thing that will sour a summer camping trip, it's having the campground wiped out by flames before you arrive.

Cave Springs isn't the only site that shows off its cool rock formations. Read on to find out how chemistry created some of the most spectacular stonework in the United States.

9
Luray Caverns, Va.
Luray Caverns is best known for its impressive stalagmite and stalactite collections.
Luray Caverns is best known for its impressive stalagmite and stalactite collections.
John & Lisa Merrill/Getty Images

If you've ever wanted to step into an Indiana Jones movie but weren't so crazy about the guns and bad guys, Luray Caverns might be your dream come true. Located in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley near Jefferson National Forest, the Luray Caverns are literally dripping with stone: Stalactites, the pointy spears of rock that sometimes dot cave ceilings, cover the Luray Caverns in elegant and downright breathtaking formations.

Although the Luray Caverns boast one of the most impressive collections in the U.S., stalactites themselves aren't terribly rare. They begin to form when water seeps into a limestone cave, creating a calcium carbonate solution. Caves have a different atmospheric composition than the open areas outside, and when the solution hits the air inside, a tiny deposit of crystallized calcite forms on the ceiling. (When the drops fall and deposits build up from the floor, they're called stalagmites.) Add millions of years into the mix, and you've got formations like Titania's Veil, a cascading, snowy-white pure calcite formation. You'll also hear these formations referred to as dripstone; today, they're dripping into formation at about one cubic inch per 120 years [source: Luray Caverns].

There's no camping allowed inside the caverns, but you'll find plenty of campsites in nearby Shenandoah National Park. Many are located conveniently close to hiking trails and facilities, and the Big Meadows and Mathews Arm campgrounds are nearest to the caverns. The Luray area itself is dotted with high-end campsites, making it a great spot for newbie campers who aren't quite ready to give up modern plumbing.

Interested in water that drips a little more quickly? Keep reading.

8
Nairn Falls Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada

If Canada is America's hat, it's spectacular enough to hold its own at England's next royal wedding. Located in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, this stunning site is carpeted with emerald trees and crowned with a nearly 200-foot (61-meter) waterfall. Its northerly location and chilly winter temperatures (dipping below 12 degrees Fahrenheit, or -11 degrees Celsius) make it an ideal summer camping destination [sources: BC Parks, Tourism Whistler].

Nairn Falls Provincial Park was established and placed under official governmental protection (similar to state and national parks in the U.S.) in 1966. The park and its surrounding region (an area stretching from Vancouver to Whistler known as the Sea to Sky Corridor) are important spiritual locations for the Lil'wat Nation, a native tribe of the British Columbia area [source: Lil'wat Nation].

Nairn Falls itself is just south of One Mile Lake, a great spot to picnic or take a dip. Many visitors also enjoy the hike up to the waterfall -- it's about two miles (3.2 kilometers) of fairly easygoing terrain, and it promises spectacular views of the crashing falls and evergreen-carpeted cliffs upon completion [source: BC Parks, Vancouver Trails]. While both the falls and the lake are great places to take the kids, visitors should be especially careful: Unlike the rec center pool back home, there's no lifeguard on duty. When you're camping, swimming and water sports are activities where a little extra vigilance is crucial.

If you're a newbie hiker or are into roughing it, Nairn Falls is a great summer camping destination. The campsite offers some key accommodations (such as drinking water, fire pits and vehicle access), but it's rugged enough to remind you that you're definitely out in nature (no flushing toilets, for example). However, if you're really craving running water and true bathroom amenities, pop over to the nearby town of Pemberton for a quick fix of creature comforts.

7
Sylvan Lake State Park, Colo.
Sylvan Lake has a lot more to offer than swimming.
Sylvan Lake has a lot more to offer than swimming.
iStockphoto/Getty Images

Sylvan Lake State Park isn't trying to deceive anyone with its name. "Sylvan," a word of Latin origin meaning "living or located in the woods or forest," is a perfect description of the campgrounds located just under 150 miles (241 kilometers) west of Denver [source: Merriam Webster].

Many campers are eager for a destination that can help them beat the summer heat, making areas like Sylvan Lake quite alluring . It also doesn't hurt that the lake is located at 8,500 feet (2.6 kilometers) above sea level in the midst of the Rocky Mountains, where the temperatures are easily 10 degrees cooler than they are at lower elevations. Plus, with 44 different campsites to choose from, you'll have an easier time avoiding summer crowds than in some other smaller popular camping areas [source: Colorado State Parks].

At 42 acres (17 hectares), Sylvan Lake has the real estate to offer much more than swimming: Many visitors take advantage of the kayaks and paddle boats available for rent, and if boating isn't your cup of fresh mountain water, superior hiking and bike trails abound. Sylvan Lake State Park is also one of the few state parks that allow hunting (although only during permitted seasons, and definitely far away from camping areas) [source: Colorado Come to Life].

One thing that sets Sylvan Lake State Park apart from many other lush and mountainous campground brethren is its group campsite, which can accommodate up to 60 people. Like the other Sylvan Lake campgrounds, the group area features hot showers and real flushing toilets during the summer [source: Colorado State Parks]. It might be a long shot to convince your boss to hold your next office party there, but you'll never know if you don't try!

If you're looking for a dose of history with your summer vacation, we'll tell you how to relive the wagon train days on the next page.

6
Umatilla National Forest, Ore.

If you were a kid during the 1990s, you may be familiar with the Oregon Trail computer game, an educational program that let millions of players forge their way through the historic trail. Complete with opportunities to hunt, purchase supplies and name characters after your friends, Oregon Trail helped millions of kids learn what it felt like to be on a wagon train heading west.

If you haven't been able to leave those river-fording days behind, Umatilla National Forest, a protected region spanning 1.4 million acres (566,560 hectares) in northeast Oregon and southeast Washington, might be the most nostalgic camping trip you've ever taken. In the mid-1800s, hundreds of settlers traveled through Umatilla National Forest on their way out west; in the earlier parts of the century, Lewis and Clark even spent some time exploring the region [source: Powell]. Today, the forest is protected under the multiple-use principle, which dictates that it be dedicated to "the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time" [source: Pister].

When you visit Umatilla National Forest, it's not hard to imagine what some of those uses might be: It boasts more than 715 miles (1,151 kilometers) of biking and hiking trails; rivers offering swimming, kayaking and rafting; and a lake spanning 145 acres (59 hectares) give visitors quite a variety of summer activities to choose from. Those seeking quieter pursuits can enjoy picking berries or observing osprey, elk and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep -- sure to offer some good photo ops.

With 1.4 million acres (566,560 hectares) to work with, there's a campsite in Umatilla National Forest to meet every level of camping experience. However, it's worth noting that most of these campgrounds have been developed to interfere as little as possible with the surrounding environment, which means you may have a harder time finding sites with amenities like hot water and flush toilets than you would elsewhere [source: USDA Forest Service].

5
D.L. Bliss State Park, Calif.
If you hike at the right spot at D.L. Bliss State Park, you may be able to see Lake Tahoe off in the distance.
If you hike at the right spot at D.L. Bliss State Park, you may be able to see Lake Tahoe off in the distance.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

With 156,299 total square miles (404,813 square kilometers) of land area, it's not surprising that California is home to some spectacular camping spots [source: City Data]. One of those is D.L. Bliss State Park, located less than 20 miles (32.2 kilometers) from the Lake Tahoe area in central California. While other areas of the state reach temperatures in the hundreds on the Fahrenheit scale during the summer, D.L. Bliss State Park's temperate heat (around 75 degrees Fahrenheit, or 24 degrees Celsius) and centralized location make it an ideal summer getaway.

As with most parks in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, D. L. Bliss State Park boasts some pretty incredible hiking -- from Rubicon Point, you can even see Lake Tahoe itself. One noteworthy site is the Balancing Rock Nature Trail, where a 130-ton (117,934-kilogram) granite rock balances precariously on a small stone joint. However, you might want to make this one a priority: As the tiny base slowly erodes, the equilibrium that keeps the large stone balanced becomes more and more difficult to maintain [source: California Department of Parks and Recreation].

The area is perfectly safe for visitors, but campers should be aware of one of the most common occupational hazards of wilderness exploration: bears. If you're planning on heading into a bear-friendly environment this summer, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Don't advertise your dinner. Bears have an exceptional sense of smell, and your BBQ leftovers look as good to them as they did to you.
  • Keep trash locked up securely.
  • Store all other food in bear-proof containers. Many campsites require campers to take this precaution, and some even provide storage facilities for visitors [source: California Department of Food and Game].

Visitors should note that D.L. Bliss State Park is only open during the summer, so be sure to plan ahead! The park is also dog friendly -- just be sure to bring a leash and read canine regulations ahead of time.

4
Anini Beach County Park, Hawaii

We've been talking a lot about woodsy places -- sites with plenty of trees, cliffs, and probably a buffalo or two. But if you require sandy toes at all times during your vacation, you're in luck: Anini Beach County Park may be your summer dream trip.

The park is located on the north coast of the island of Kaua'i; the area is relatively secluded, and campgrounds are tucked into the coastline below cliffs that are carpeted in greenery and set off from the open ocean. Even by Hawaii standards, this lagoon water is spectacularly blue.

We've mentioned water sports before, but only at Anini Beach can you roll out of your sleeping bag in the morning and windsurf. A spectacular reef and shallow water (only about four to five feet deep, or 1.2 to 1.5 meters) make it a great -- and notably safe -- spot for beginning snorkelers, but experienced swimmers and scuba divers can enjoy deeper diving where a channel on the northwest side drops 60 feet (18.3 meters) to the open ocean [source: Frommers]. As with all beach excursions, however, keep an eye out for rip currents, which are powerful currents that can pull swimmers away from the shore [source: National Weather Service].

Occupying only 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) of coastline, Anini Beach County Park is fairly small. It's used by daytime visitors as well as overnight campers, so if you're planning to stay overnight, you'll need to purchase a permit from the County of Kaua'i. These are cheap and easy to obtain, but visitors should note that overnight accommodations aren't guaranteed if you show up on a whim [source: Great Hawaii Vacations].

3
Adirondack Mountains, New York
The Adirondacks are some of the most beautiful and well-traveled mountain ranges in the U.S.
The Adirondacks are some of the most beautiful and well-traveled mountain ranges in the U.S.
4 Eyes Photography/Getty Images

New York might be best known for its bustling streets and unparalleled people watching, but the Empire State has a built-in getaway for its busy residents: the Adirondack Mountains. This cluster of peaks, which is located in northern New York, is primary vacation territory for harried New Yorkers and out-of-state visitors alike.

Formed after the last ice age, when glaciers glided slowly through the northern United States, the Adirondacks reach heights of more than 5,000 feet (1.52 kilometers). However, unlike ranges like the Rockies in the western U.S., the Adirondacks aren't actually a mountain range -- they're actually just a group of 100-plus disconnected mountains clustered together throughout a 160-mile (257-kilometer) wide area [source: Visit Adirondacks].

You'll find plenty of traditional campsites in the Adirondacks, ranging from family-oriented and RV-friendly to primitive and secluded. However, this is one of the relatively few places where you can do what's called glamping, or glamour camping -- a service where hired guides provide comfortable amenities, top-notch meals and even massages for those who prefer to mix, well, pleasure with pleasure.

If you're not especially keen on snow, summer is the perfect time to visit the Adirondacks. Warm days and temperate nights offer long hours for visitors to enjoy hiking, boating, fishing and even rock climbing. Birdwatchers also congregate in the area; if you're an avian enthusiast, consider building in time before or after your trip to join the Annual Adirondack Birding Festival in June [source: Visit Adirondacks].

2
Yosemite National Park, Calif.

If you want to check a major destination off your list this summer, make your way to California's Yosemite National Park, where granite cliffs, pounding waterfalls and flower-carpeted meadows have served as muses for outdoor enthusiasts for decades. John Muir, one of Yosemite's most dedicated explorers, once called the park "by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter" [source: National Park Service].

In fact, Muir is one of the main reasons why the park even exists today. Muir was one of the U.S.'s greatest conservationists, and his dogged work -- including taking President Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit camping in Yosemite -- was a major factor in the establishment of the National Parks program [source: Sierra Club].

Today, it's easy to see what dazzled Muir. Spanning almost 1,200 square miles (768,000 acres, or 310,800 hectares), the park is home to soaring mountains. They include Half Dome, a nearly 9,000-foot (2.74-kilometer) granite peak that towers over Yosemite Valley, crashing waterfalls and complex and colorful ecosystems [source: National Park Service].

While some campgrounds are open in spring and fall, summer campers will reap the benefits of temperate weather and hefty snowmelt with spectacular waterfalls and lush, blooming mountain meadows. With so much to see, many campers take advantage of guided tours, which can help streamline and enrich their visit.

Since it's such a popular destination, Yosemite is one trip that's difficult to execute properly on a whim. Permits are required for vehicles and campsites, and road closures can occur due to occupational hazards like falling rocks and slow-melting snow. Although the park isn't a particularly dry area, it's also a good idea to keep an eye out for fire warnings.

For the true zoologist, there's really only one place to go this summer. Read on to find out where you can see some of the most avidly studied animal populations in the U.S. -- and why you should bring a good pair of eyeshades when you go.

1
Denali National Park, Alaska
Denali National Park is one of Alaska's great natural wonders.
Denali National Park is one of Alaska's great natural wonders.
John Warden/Getty Images

If you thought Yosemite's 1,200 square mile (310,800 hectare) footprint was big, let us introduce you to Alaska's Denali National Park. Clocking in at six million acres (almost 9,400 square miles, or 2.43 million hectares), Denali is a truly unique experience.

You won't find anyone kayaking or windsurfing in Denali, but the scenery is so spectacular that we're willing to bet you won't care. Denali was carved by the slow progress of glaciers through the land -- some of which remain in Alaska today -- which means endless craggy cliffs and picturesque valleys for prime summer hiking [source: National Park Service].

There's one obvious reason to camp in Denali National Park during the summer: Alaska gets, very, very cold during the winter. The temperature commonly dips below zero degrees Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius), and the region's proximity to the North Pole also means that it can get fewer than five hours of daylight during the winter. A few days a year, some areas of Alaska even remain in complete darkness.

However, this same location on the Earth's axis means that summer visitors can enjoy up to 24 hours of daylight (hence the state's nickname, Land of the Midnight Sun) [sources: Alaska.com, State of Alaska]. This makes it a perfect place to camp during the summer -- just be sure to bring some heavy-duty eyeshades for when you want to get some sleep.

Denali's chilly climate results in a unique and highly diverse wildlife population. The organisms that thrive, such as caribou, fox, salmon and certain species of bird, have all adapted to the subarctic climate. Denali is a national preserve, which means its wildlife and ecosystems are strictly protected; as a result, the park is one of the most important sites for scientists studying animal behavior [source: National Park Service].

Denali offers two basic options for campers: established camping and backcountry camping. For those seeking a more comfortable experience, established campgrounds offer amenities like running water and RV access. Backcountry camping and backpacking adhere strictly to the Leave No Trace philosophy -- a widely accepted set of principles that mandate considerations like trash removal and minimum human interference with natural surroundings. Less established campgrounds also require campers to take extra safety precautions, such as bear-proofing their sites [source: National Park Service].

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Author's Note: 10 Spectacular Places to Camp in the Summer

I'm lucky enough to have traveled to two of these locations -- specifically, Yosemite and Denali National Parks -- so this article was a really exciting opportunity for me to share my passion for both places while learning about a ton of new destinations. Since I've never been camping before (I know, I'm missing out), the research for this article was both personally and professionally quite informative.

One of my favorite facts from my research was about Luray Caverns. I made myself remember the difference between stalactites and stalagmites early in life (the word "stalagmite" has a g in it, and stalagmites form up from the ground), but I never knew the chemical process by which they formed. As soon as I can find a cheap flight to Virginia, keep an eye out for a girl geeking out on some rock formations.

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More Great Links

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