Hit the road for adventure this summer with a visit to one of these incredible car-camping destinations.
There’s something downright elegant about stripping life down to its basic elements: shelter and food (and, ideally, good company). We’re talking about car camping. For a fraction of typical lodging costs, car camping often brings you to stunning outposts and remote beaches, the kinds of places you’d expect to be off limits, were it not for public lands and clever road builders. And there are really no limitations on what you can bring.
Better yet, there’s no right way to car camp. There’s the couple with the tricked-out cargo van, and the gal sleeping in her Mazda hatchback right next to her mountain bike. There’s the family in the station wagon, the dudes on their motorcycles, and the retired folks piloting their R.V. around the country. Here are five top car camping spots around the country that deliver high adventure.
Best Time to Visit: Late June through August
What to do: Located about five miles from Crested Butte, an iconic Colorado mining-town-turned-outdoors-mecca, this campground straddles the Slate River and offers 360-degree views of the shark-toothed elk mountains.
World class mountain biking trails start from the campground. There’s also an abundance of fly-fishing, hiking, and stand up paddleboarding. July is peak wildflower season.
Essentials: When the sun goes down, the temperatures plummet. Bring a down jacket and warm hat so you can stargaze sans chills.
Best Time to Visit: This is a great summer car camping destination, but May is a prime month to visit, when more than 370 species of birds migrate through the area.
What to do: Birders will love the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival in mid-May. The park abuts the southern tip of Lake Michigan and offers world class beaches. Hikers should tackle the Three Dune Challenge, which involves climbing the three highest sand dunes.
Essentials: A proper sandal or camp shoe like the Oboz Footwear Campster to protect your feet from the ground is essential. Polarized sunglasses are also recommended, and a good set of binoculars like the Athlon Optics Midas ED.
Quick tip: No matter how long or short your car camping trip is, a well-insulated, leak-proof cooler is an invaluable investment. I like both Yeti and OtterBox coolers; I’ve tested each, and both keep ice frozen for days and food cool and fresh.
Best Time to Visit: Mid-December through April, when the temperatures range from 70- to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
What to do: The park has an award-winning beach and historic bridge to an offshore island. Popular activities include snorkeling, kayaking (rent them at the marina if you don’t have your own), tarpon fishing and swimming. And Key West is just over an hour’s drive farther south.
Essentials: Snorkel and mask, sunscreen, and fishing gear.
Best Time to Visit: September in Maine is ideal; most tourists have gone home, the daytime temps are warm, and the ocean is still warm enough for (quick) swimming.
What to do: This ocean-view campground is a water lover’s paradise. With canoe, kayak, and paddleboat rentals (the paddleboats are relegated to an old quarry), opportunities to float abound. There’s also a heated pool, playground, and 50 miles of bike-friendly carriage roads. More than 120 miles of hiking trails are in striking distance of the campground.
Essentials: Sturdy hiking boots, camp chair and Thermocell for your campsite since there are still lingering mosquitos in early autumn in Maine.
Contact: Somes Sound View Campground
Best Time to Visit: This high desert destination in Central Oregon is most pleasant spring and fall.
What to do: Smith Rock State Park is home to several thousand rock climbs, the four-mile Misery Ridge Trial, and the 7.5-mile Summit Trail. Though primarily a draw for rock climbers, the park also allows hiking and mountain biking, and offers stunning views of the Three Sisters, defunct volcanoes that define the Central Oregon horizon.
Essentials: A reliable hydration pack and a sturdy sun hat are essential for staving off the high and dry climate.
Car Camping Checklist
Unlike backpack camping, where every ounce counts, weight is not a factor when car camping, so you can bring almost anything including luxury items that elevate car camping to glamping. Use this list of basics as your starting point then customize it for your next car-camping getaway:
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About the Author: Rachel Walker is a freelance writer and editor in Boulder, Colorado. Her work appears frequently in the Washington Post, Inspirato, Sierra and other publications. Follow her on Twitter: @racheljowalker