I once was a bootleg camper, poaching any old roadside BLM or Forest Service patch of property like it was my own backyard. But this disregard for campsite aesthetics (not to mention etiquette) was less a lack of taste and more a lack of time.
As a waitress at a Colorado ski resort, I had one precious day off a week. So, the routine went like this: Late Saturday night, my boyfriend and I would get off work, pack the truck, and drive as far up the closest fourteener as the fire roads would allow. At around midnight, we’d park the car and pitch a tent on any horizontal surface we could eke out in the inky blackness. One morning we woke up in the middle of a field full of bellowing, moon-faced Jerseys. Another time, I zipped open the tent flap to find that we were perched on the precipice of a gully with no visible bottom.
While these quasi-legal camping episodes gave us our weekly wilderness fix along with some fantastic stories, I secretly longed for legitimacy, a time when we could hike into a campsite (reserved in advance, of course) with 360-degree views, a fire ring, and a pit toilet—and stay there for an entire week. The staying for a week part still eludes me, but in the past decade, my campsite life list has expanded beyond cow paddocks in Colorado. In fact, I daresay I’ve become—through personal experience and hours of research—somewhat of a campsite connoisseur.
Take it from someone who has spent many a restless night longing for horizontal tent pads with a view: these sites are as good as it gets in the great American outdoors.
- 1 Camp Lakefront: Philip Edward Island, Ontario, Canada
- 2 Camp Riverine: Nankoweap, Marble Canyon, Arizona
- 3 Surfside: Stafford Beach, Cumberland Island, Georgia
- 4 Puntas Cabres, Baja California, Mexico
- 5 Lower Blue Lake, Mount Sneffels Wilderness, Colorado
- 6 Top of El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California
Camp Lakefront: Philip Edward Island, Ontario, Canada
Call it Ground Zero for the privacy-seeking northland paddler. Along Philip Edward’s south shoreline of wind-warped pines and granite cliffs, this cove offers both respite from Georgian Bay breezes and instant access to the Fox Archipelago, part of an offshore Crown Land parcel that stretches from Lake Huron’s McGregor Bay south to Parry Sound.
Paddle a few strokes to begin exploring the coves and coasts of the archipelago. As your lats begin to falter, pull ashore on any sizable island and climb up for across-the-bay views of the quartzite La Cloche Mountains. And while you won’t be reeling in any trophy lake trout thanks to years of excessive recreational fishing, these waters do yield five-pound walleye, bass, and pike. You can rent a sea kayak ($23 to $56 per day) or arrange a guided paddling tour ($45 to $730 for one to four days) from Killarney Mountain Lodge and Outfitters (800-461-1117; www.killarney.com) in the village of Killarney, on the mainland 11 miles from Philip Edward. Sailors head west of town to the well-protected North Channel, but you’ll have to haul your own craft across the border, as no local outfitters rent sailboats.
From Toronto, it’s a 285-mile drive to Philip Edward Island. Head north on Interprovincial Highway 400 and Canada 69, and then take Ontario 637 west until it enters Killarney, ending conveniently at the put-in. (Be sure to stop by Killarney Mountain Outfitters to pick up charts before you set out; the site is tough to pinpoint without them.) You’ll paddle east among countless islands before reaching, about seven hours later, the northeast side of the large, unnamed isle just east of Lowe Island. Now head north across the 40-yard channel and round the point to find a nicely protected cove with a flat stretch of granite for your tent. You’ll know you’re in the right spot if you look northwest and see West Desjardin Bay stretching inland.
Next Time Try
Alice Lake, Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho
The granite face of El Capitan—no, not that El Cap—looms to the northeast; above your spot on Alice’s southeastern shore are the jagged peaks for which the wilderness is named.
Location: 45 miles north of Ketchum
Details: three sites; no fees
Prime Time: early September to early October
Forked Lake Campground, Adirondack Park, New York
In just 300 paddle strokes you’ve got your very own Adirondack isle, skirted by rocky, cedar- and pine-shaded lakeshore and miles of cold, clear swimming and canoeing.
Location: 135 miles northwest of Albany
Prime Time: June to early September
Camp Riverine: Nankoweap, Marble Canyon, Arizona
It’s geological perfection with an archaeological twist. At Nankoweap, where narrow Marble Canyon suddenly opens into the three-mile-wide fissure of the Grand Canyon, you’ll sleep on a commodious outfanning of white sand beach, gaze up at 2,000-foot-high red canyon walls, and whisper to your tentmate above the whoosh of the Colorado. But the most memorable touch may be the Anasazi ruins perched a mere 40-minute hike upslope. Three days into America’s most classic raft trip, this campsite isn’t exactly undiscovered, which means that two other groups will likely be camped nearby. Don’t fret, strategically placed dunes and willows keep privacy intact.
While your party’s cook is prepping Dutch-oven surprise, hike 800 feet up behind the site to the 1,000-year-old granary built into the steep cliff face. Thanks to a natural overhang, this vantage point is an especially good place to sit out late-summer afternoon downpours; stay till sunset for perhaps the quintessential Grand Canyon vista. To raft on your own, get your name on the lengthy waiting list for a permit or, better, call the Grand Canyon Colorado River office (800-959-9164) in hopes of scoring a cancellation (available more frequently than you might think). To ensure that you’ll get on the river even more quickly and for the most authentic Powellesque experience, book a trip with the venerable Grand Canyon Dories (seven-day trips, $2201 with $700 deposit; 800-346-6277).
The Way There
Rafts put in at Lees Ferry, 120 miles north of Flagstaff on U.S. 89. For the strong-kneed, there’s also the two-day hike down the North Rim’s Nankoweap Trail. Backcountry permit fees are $10 per permit plus $5 per person per night. For information, call the Grand Canyon Backcountry Information Center at: 928-638-7875.
Next Time Try
Virginia Falls, South Nahanni River, Nahanni National Park Reserve, Northwest Territories
Lay your bag on the western banks of the South Nahanni and fall asleep beneath swaying willows to the rush of Virginia Falls if you can: This cascade is nearly twice the height of Niagara.
Location: 340 miles east of Whitehorse
Details: 30 sites; entrance fee $70 (U.S.) per person
Prime Time: July to August
Cedar Ridge, Desolation Canyon, Utah
Put in at Sand Wash for a 50-mile Class II-III run to this swath of shoreline on the Green River, a cottonwood grove with a beach wide enough for a touch football game and conveniently littered with firewood.
Location: 85 miles northwest of Grand Junction, Colorado
Details: rafting permit, $18; no camping fees
Prime Time: May to August
Surfside: Stafford Beach, Cumberland Island, Georgia
Welcome to the un-Hamptons. At Stafford Beach, only a shifting dune separates your live-oak-shaded encampment from an utterly uninhabited 18-mile sugar-sand beach. With the exception of one quiet inn, a few grandfathered private residences, and of course the brief media invasion that followed John-John Kennedy’s nuptials, Cumberland Island remains a surprisingly wild place: Diamondback rattlers guard plantation ruins, feral horses graze sand dunes, and alligators patrol saltwater marshes. This 36,415-acre national seashore allows only 60 people at a time in its four backcountry campgrounds, which means Stafford, three miles from the ferry dock, is never crowded.
Since cars and bikes are generally not allowed, you’ll be doing your exploring on foot. Head south through cactus-studded dunes and then inland among the palmettos, violets, and oxalis. Or walk north along the beach, where loggerhead turtles nest from April through August. Either way, set out early to avoid the heat and bugs, leaving the afternoon for bodysurfing. Since the ferry will not transport kayaks, paddlers must embark from Crooked River State Park, six miles west on the mainland (put in at high tide to avoid getting marooned). Rent kayaks from Up the Creek ($30 to $45 per day; 912-882-0911), seven miles south of the park in the town of St. Marys.
From Jacksonville, Florida, drive 60 miles north on I-95 and then east on Georgia 40 until it ends at the St. Marys ferry dock. The Cumberland Queen departs daily at 9 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. from March through November, returning at 10:15 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. ($12 round-trip; 912-882-4335). Park fees are $4 per person per day, plus $2 per person per day for a camping permit. For reservations, call the Dungeness visitor center (912-882-4335) a few months in advance.
Next Time Try
Randall Creek, California
Begin at Mattole Recreation Site, traipsing south along the Lost Coast for eight miles before arriving at the mouth of Randall Creek. Here you can dodge winds in a driftwood shelter, keeping an eye on rising tides and the 4,000-foot King range to the east.
Location: 260 miles north of San Francisco
Details: free campfire/stove permit required
Prime Time: April, September, October
Puntas Cabres, Baja California, Mexico
Drive south on Mexico 1 two hours from Ensenada. Pass a gas station, and then a tiny white church on the left. Hang a right. Make a beeline for the Pacific. Camp on the low red bluffs above endlessly south-curving beaches. Surf by morning, windsurf by afternoon. Repeat.
Location: about 120 miles south of Ensenada
Details: camp anywhere; no fees
Prime Time: April to July
Out There: McKeen Brook, Allagash Wilderness Waterway, Maine
The high point of a weeklong canoe trip along the 92-mile waterway, three miles below the thundering crash of Allagash Falls. The fir-shaded campsite comes complete with a fire pit, a primitive table, and, to help you make optimal use of these rustic amenities, its very own brook brimming with trout and salmon. Best of all, the nearest neighboring campsite is almost a mile off.
Instead of putting in at crowded Chamberlain Lake, launch your journey at less-visited Allagash Lake. During prime season (April through early June) you’ll catch plenty of fat brookies and return most of them because of an 18-inch minimum-size regulation. (Fishing permits cost $8 to $70, depending on age and number of days; 207-287-2871.) You can bang up the canoe on the 3.5 miles of Class II rapids below Churchill Dam. Farther downriver at Round Pond, moose sightings are virtually guaranteed. Allagash Outfitters in Allagash (207-398-3277) rents canoes for $12 per day and offers guide and shuttle services (prices vary with group size). A seven-day trip with Allagash Guide Inc. costs $600 per person (207-634-3748).
Allagash Wilderness Waterway begins 125 miles north of Bangor. Drive 63 miles north on I-95 to East Millinocket, and then take Maine 157 west to Millinocket. Turn north on Baxter State Park Road, then west onto Golden Road, and north again onto Telos Road. You’ll pass a gatehouse where the North Maine Woods Organization collects a road fee ($8 day-use fee) and camping fee ($6 per person per night). At the Chamberlain Bridge Ranger Station, ask for directions to the put-in at Little Allagash Stream, 65 miles northwest. On your six-day trip downriver, you’ll pass through a succession of lakes (including Chamberlain and Eagle) before hitting the dam and the main section of the Allagash. There’s a third-of-a-mile portage around the falls; the site lies three miles farther, where McKeen Brook joins the river. Call the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands at 207-941-4014 for more information.
Next Time Try
Jap Lake, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota
The northwest shore’s mosquito-free site is well worth the grueling mile-long portage. Its rocky cliffs and protruding granite slabs provide cannonball-launching-pad perfection.
Location: 220 miles north of Duluth.
Details: camping permit, $12 plus $20 refundable deposit; advance reservations required.
Prime Time: early June, late August, September
Lower Blue Lake, Mount Sneffels Wilderness, Colorado
A 3.5-mile trek from the East Dallas Creek Trailhead puts you at Lower Blue and within striking distance of five 13,000-foot-plus peaks, topped by 14,150-foot Mount Sneffels. After you’ve hiked your fill, do your collapsing per wilderness rules at least 100 feet from the lake.
Location: 35 miles north of Telluride
Details: no permits or fees required
Prime Time: late July to early August
Camp Vintage: Lake Kulik Wood-Tikchik State Park, Alaska
Come mid-June, when the snow has receded to distant peaks, you can camp anywhere in this 1.6-million-acre roadless Alaskan wilderness spliced by 12 major lakes. But the park’s sole ranger recommends the west end of 21-mile-long Lake Kulik, the entry point for the kayak-friendly Wood River chain of six lakes connected by rivers. Pitch your tent on the gravelly shoreline at the base of the Wood River Mountains, which rise steeply from grassy hills and tundra to snowy valleys and pencil-sharp spires. If you love tracking then you should always buy best-hunting boots for the lonng trip because hunting boots especially designed for the hunter to keep comfortable for a long time while hunting into the forest.
Kayak eastward to a 1,000-foot waterfall that each summer carves a giant ice cave through avalanche debris on Kulik’s south shore. Then run the gentle Class II rapids of the Wind River, which flows into Mikchalk Lake. From here, a 2.5-mile river leads to Lake Beverley, another good place to overnight. If you have at least a week, continue paddling 20 miles to the Agulukpak River, which hosts as many as 2,000 rainbow trout per mile. (They’re catch-and-release only, but you can keep the even more plentiful sockeye salmon.) For fishing permits ($10-$100, depending on the number of days), call the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at 907-465-6085. Tikchik State Park Tours offers six-day guided trips (about $1,500 per person, including airfare from Anchorage; 888-345-2445).
To get from Anchorage to Lake Kulik, 300 miles west, fly to Dillingham on Pen Air ($400 round-trip; 800-448-4226) and hook up with charter operator Bay Air (907-842-2570), which will drop your party at Lake Kulik and retrieve you in Aleknagik, at the end of the Wood River chain, for about $525 per person. For more information, call the park ranger (907-269-8698 from October to May 15, 907-842-2375 from May 16 to September 30).
Next Time Try
Top of El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California
The two-day hike to the summit of El Cap is admittedly less glamorous than free-climbing the Nose, but the payoff’s quite the same: views of Yosemite Valley’s granite walls, Half Dome, and the meandering Merced River.
Location: 209 miles east of San Francisco
Details: free backcountry permit required; $20-per-car park entrance fee
Prime Time: mid-September to mid-October
Cheoh Bald, Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina
Bed down in this 5,062-foot-high meadow and you’ll be treated to panoramic views of the Great Smokies and sunrises over 2,000-foot-deep Nantahala River Gorge. The sites are just ten paces from the Appalachian Trail and eight miles via the same route from the renowned Nantahala Outdoor Center.
Location: 80 miles southwest of Asheville
Details: three sites; no fees
Prime Time: May, October