Whether you’re looking for a mountaintop meadow, a tall forest or a red-rock wonderland, there’s a national park campground to match your geographical preference.
These top US national park campgrounds offer unrivaled scenery, easy access to outdoor fun and prime wildlife watching.
Best campground for stargazers
Chisos Basin Campground – Big Bend National Park, Texas
Flanked by the rugged Chisos Mountains at an elevation of 5400ft, this remote campground doubles as the finest performance hall in the park system. Nearby, an enormous gap in the mountains, known as The Window, frames the West Texas desert far below, and the show at sunset is memorably gorgeous. After the sun drops, Mother Nature pulls back the curtain overhead at this International Dark Sky Park, revealing a dazzling display of more than 2,500 stars on the clearest nights.
Best campground for amateur geologists
Devils Garden Campground – Arches National Park, Utah
The enormous red rocks overlooking this popular campground may have been named for the Devil, but wind, rain and the steady march of time did all the hard work in its creation, eroding the fiery sandstone into a fantastical assortment of towering arches and hulking fins. Botanical flourishes include yucca plants, prickly pear cacti and juniper and piñon pines. The only campground in the park, Devils Garden is 19 miles from the entrance to Arches and 23 miles from Moab.
Best campground for wildlife spotters
Cataloochee Campground – Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
Elk and wild turkey roam the surrounding meadows and forests with photogenic abandon at this camping spot in the secluded Cataloochee Valley - once a thriving southern Appalachian farm community. Overhunting and loss of habitat caused the decline and disappearance of elk here in the 19th century, but the majestic beasts were successfully reintroduced in the early 2000s. Campsites are scattered between hemlocks and white pines beside Cataloochee Creek.
Best campground for hikers
Bright Angel Campground – Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
You’ll earn bragging rights after an out-and-back hike to this campground at the bottom of the Big Ditch. Sitting a half-mile north of the Colorado River and shaded by cottonwood trees, this lovely creekside spot is reached by a nearly 10-mile hike from the South Rim or a 14-mile hike from the North Rim. Hard on the knees? Yes. But the vast canyon views on your descent are simply gobsmacking. A Tecate beer at the Phantom Ranch canteen just down the trail is a fine post-hike reward.
Reservations: Fax or mail a backcountry permit request form to the Grand Canyon Backcountry Information Center. See park website for detailed instructions.
Fee: Backcountry permit per campsite $10, camping fee per person per night $8
Best campground for families
Big Meadows Campground – Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Big Meadows is big fun. Tucked between the Appalachian Trail and lofty Skyline Drive, this woodsy campground is smack dab in the middle of the park – and the action. Kids can tackle the three waterfall trails or walk to the Byrd Visitor Center for Junior Ranger Programs and exhibits about the history of the park. Other distractions include raptor talks in the amphitheater, ranger-led walks through a wetland meadow and wagon rides. Stop by Big Meadows Lodge for trivia nights, craft workshops and live music. The campground is 100 miles southwest of Washington, DC.
Best campground for forest bathers
Jedediah Smith Campground – Redwood National & State Parks, California
Seamlessly intertwined with three California state parks, Redwoods National Park holds 45% of California’s old-growth redwoods, which are some of the world’s tallest trees. In the northernmost reaches of the 200-sq-mile park, you can pitch your tent inside a thick stand of these ancient showstoppers, all soaring skyward from their lush surroundings. It’s the perfect place for forest bathing, the Japanese-inspired art of relaxing in the company of trees. Several campsites border the Smith River, the longest major free-flowing river in the state. Trails to more redwoods can be accessed from the campground.
Best campground for beach-goers
Assateague Island National Seashore Campground – Maryland
This campground is within a national seashore, not a national park, but who’s quibbling with boring federal distinctions when you can camp beside sand dunes a few steps from the surf on a rugged barrier island, with wild horses galloping past as the sun goes down? Add wind-swept sea oats, egrets and herons, crabbing and kayaking, and mythic stories of Atlantic Coast seafarers, and you’ve hit tent-life perfection (but bring bug spray). The campground is 145 miles east of Washington, DC on the Delmarva Peninsula.
Best all-around campground
Norris Campground – Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
We’re not saying this is the best campground in the entire national park system, but it does hit all the bases for a satisfying outdoor stay. Spread across a scenic and open lodgepole-pine forest on a sunny hill overlooking meadows and the Gibbon River, this is one of the park’s nicest campgrounds. Watch for roaming bison, attend a campfire program or follow a one-mile trail to the geothermal action at Norris Basin. Centrally located just north of Norris Junction, the campground is a convenient base for exploring the entire park.
Reservations: first-come, first-served
Fee: $20 per night
Visit individual park websites for detailed reservation information; many of these campgrounds also offer first-come, first-served camping. Prices do not include park admission fees.