Yes, it’s February, which means while you sit by a warm fire in these colder months you are most certainly beginning to contemplate how you’ll fill your summer months. One thing is for sure, I’m definitely taking my family camping this summer. But, where to go – so many sweet, delectable spots in the U.S. alone – without even contemplating the incredible destinations that lie beyond our borders. Here are 20 spots that are must-visits if you have a tent and desire to stargaze. The country is yours!
1. Acadia National Park, Maine
Photo: National Park Service
Maine is called “The Pine Tree State” for a reason: It’s covered in 17 million acres of forest. Plus, it has 6,000 lakes and ponds and 32,000 miles of rivers and streams. Basically, it’s a camper’s paradise. Located on Mount Desert Island, Acadia National Park makes the perfect camping destination for nature lovers of all skill levels. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/acad.
2. Green Mountain National Forest, Vermont
The famous Long Trail is one of the biggest draws to the Green Mountain State, so try finding a camping spot close by to enjoy hiking a portion of the trail during your stay. Aside from being absolutely gorgeous, the trail is the oldest long-distance trail in the U.S.! It follows the ridge of the Green Mountains through Vermont from the Massachusetts border to Canada. For more information visit www.fs.usda.gov/greenmountain.
3. Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland
If you love beaches, and you love camping, then this is the spot for you. Assateague is a barrier island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia that’s covered in sandy beaches, salt marches, forests, and coastal bays. There’s even a community of wild horses (how exotic!). Enjoy relaxing on the 37 miles of beach or hiking by day, and buckle down your tent right by (err… a safe distance from) the crashing waves for a night under the stars. Just stay away from hurricane season. For more information visit www.nps.gov/asis.
4. Yosemite National Park, California
Photo: Randy Lemoine
Nearly 95 percent of the park is designated wilderness — that means no cars, no structures, no roads, and no electricity. After a night spent under the stars, take a hike up to Glacier Point, which overlooks the park’s famous Yosemite Valley, Half Dome (a rock structure revered among climbers), and the High Sierra peaks. The hike on Four Mile Trail from Yosemite Valley to the top of Glacier Point takes about 3-4 hours each way. If you’re looking for something a bit tougher, the Panorama Trail is about twice as long. For more information visit www.nps.gov/yose.
5. Joshua Tree National Park, California
Photo: The City Project
We know — camping in the desert doesn’t sound like so much fun (hello, sunburn). But the famous Joshua Tree National Park is oh so much more than just desert. The park actually sits at the intersection of two very different deserts: To the east is the low-lying Colorado Desert; to the west lies the slightly higher, cooler, wetter Mojave Desert (home to the park’s namesake, the Joshua tree). In addition to the deserts, the park also has ten mountain peaks higher than 5,000 feet in elevation. Need to get vertical? Joshua Tree is a popular rock-climbing destination For more information visit www.nps.gov/jotr/.
6. Olympic National Park, Washington
Photo: Dave Lichterman
The coolest thing about this park? It contains three different ecosystems, including — wait for it — a rainforest. Head to the Quinault Rainforest (one of only three in the western hemisphere) to see the largest Sitka Spruce tree in the world. There’s a 30-mile road that loops through the rainforest, but we think hiking’s the better option. End your trip at Ruby Beach — where you can see the mountains, glaciers, and rainforests right from the shoreline — or at La Push, the northernmost beach in Washington, where you can see whales off the coast during migration season. For more information visit www.nps.gov/olym.
7. Zion National Park, Utah
Photo: Daniel Peckham
Remember learning about the pioneers? Yeah, they walked the grounds of Zion (before it was a park). After spending the night in the woods, try hiking the Kolob Canyons in the northwest corner of the park. The five-mile and 14-mile trails make perfect four- or eight- hour trips. The longer trail takes you to Kolob Arch, one of the largest natural arches in the world. If you’re traveling in the summer and lucky enough to win a permit in the permit lottery ($5), exploring The Subway of the park is an unparalleled experience. There are two ways to hike the deep valley and underground passageways, both strenuous, nine-ish mile routes. (Be warned — both trips are wet.) For more information visit www.nps.gov/zion.
8. Glacier National Park, Montana
Photo: National Park Service
The park’s probably known best for Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile road through the park’s interior that winds through the mountains — but that’s only fun if you’re in a car (and what fun is that, really?). For some fun on foot, try hiking the Many Glacier (there are a few trails to choose from, many of which offer spectacular views of alpine lakes). There’s also a campground at the glacier that accommodates both vehicles and primitive camping.
9. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Photo: National Park Service
Located just north of famous Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Grand Teton is home to a number of impressive Rocky Mountain peaks. There are a ton of hiking trails ranging from easy to very strenuous, so you can choose your own fate based on how you’re feeling that day. For more information visit www.nps.gov/grte.
10. Arches National Park, Utah
Photo: Captain Kimo
It’s a red rock wonderland with over 2,000 natural stone arches. The park has a variety of easy, moderate, and long trails. One of the most popular, the Delicate Arch trail, takes you to the well-known arch by the same name (a photo op not to miss). There’s also the option to take a ranger-guided hike through the Fiery Furnace, an area of sandstone canyons with no marked trailheads (to go without a guide, you need a permit). For more information visit www.nps.gov/arch.
11. Big Bend National Park, Texas
Photo: Robert Hensley
The Rio Grande river runs right through Big Bend, so rafting, canoeing, and kayaking trips are common (and pretty amazing). The park is packed with hiking trails covering desert, mountain, and river terrain. One popular desert hike is the Devil’s Den, a moderate 5.6-mile trip along the rim of and down into a limestone slot canyon in the park’s northern region. Another beautiful hike is the Santa Elena Canyon trail — a moderate-difficulty, 1.7 mile round-trip hike that provides both top-down and bottom-up views of the canyon. Oh, and don’t forget to look up from your campsite at night — the park’s remote location provides gorgeous views of the night sky. A free permit is required for hiking in the backcountry. For more information visit www.nps.gov/bibe.
12. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Photo by Rikk Flohr
French trappers named this land “area mauvaises terres a traverser” in the 1800s. That translates to “bad lands to travel across”. Sure, it’s a tough climate — but it’s also absolutely beautiful. Between a variety of rock formations lie a mixture of tall- and short-grass prairies. Be on the lookout for fossils — the park has one of the most complete fossil accumulations in North America, providing a glimpse into the area’s ancient ecosystems. The park also provides amazing stargazing and even hosts an astronomy festival in early August! (Fun Fact: The Badland’s apocalypse-like setting has also served as the backdrop for many well-known movies, including Armageddon, Starship Troopers, and Dances with Wolves. For more information visit www.nps.gov/badl.
13. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
This park offers something different for every season: The summer and spring are perfect for water activities; fall turns the park into a hiking paradise; and winter calls to cross-country skiers, snow-shoers and snowmobilers, and ice fishers. The park is comprised mostly of water, so for those entering the park without their own vessel, guided boat tours are a popular activity. There are also a wide variety of hiking trails accessible by both land and water. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/voya.
14. Ludington State Park, Michigan
This park is sandwiched right between two lakes (Hamlin Lake and Lake Michigan) in western Michigan. There’s everything from sand dunes and shoreline to marshlands and forest, and there are eight separate hiking trails covering 21.5 miles throughout the park. Canoeing is also popular, and offers gorgeous, up-close views of the water. For more information visit www.michigandnr.com/parksandtrails.
15. Ozark National Forest, Arkansas
Photo: Adam Bartlett
Fun fact: The Ozarks served as the setting for “Where the Red Fern Grows,” and the family featured in The Beverly Hillbillies are also from this region. There are more than 200 camping and picnic sites, nine swimming beaches, thousands of acres of lakes and steams, and 400 miles of trails in the 1.2 million acre forest. The 196-mile Ozark Highlands Trail is one of the best known. The caverns at Blanchard Springs are also a draw (open mid-March through October, 7 days per week, and Wednesday–Sunday from November through mid-March). For more information visit www.fs.usda.gov/osfnf.
16. Everglades National Park, Florida
This park is the third largest in the lower 48 states, covering 2,400 square miles. So, let’s just say you won’t get bored. There’s a wide range of hiking trails with heads near all of the park entrances and campgrounds, as well as ample opportunities for biking. There are also a ton of canoe and kayak trails to take you further into the park’s mangrove forests, freshwater marshes, and open Florida Bay (You can also take a multi-day canoe or kayak trip — just make sure you don’t accidently do that by getting lost). Once you’ve had enough of doing the work yourself, check out one of the tram or boat tours offered in the park. For more information visit www.nps.gov/ever.
17. Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina
Photo: Terry Tyson
There are literally hundreds of different trails throughout the Hemlocks region, offering a diverse range of hikes and backpacking opportunities. Just an hour from Asheville, NC, The Pisgah Forest is sometimes called “Land of the Waterfalls” (we’ll let you guess why), so take a look at a map and pick a hiking trail at your comfort level to check out some of the wondrous falls. The forest also contains four long-distance trails, including portions of the Appalachian Trail and the Mountains to Sea Trail. The Art Loeb Trail is one of the toughest (30.1 miles) trails in the forest, but also one of the most popular. There are plenty of campsites along the trail, too, so it makes a great path for a weekend backpacking trip. For more information visit http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/nfsnc.
17. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Photo: National Park Service
Washington, DC area readers, get packin’: Just 75 miles from your metropolis is a perfect natural escape. The park contains 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, some trails leading to viewpoints or central features like waterfalls, and others just leading into quiet, peaceful wilderness. Regardless, there will be a hike you’ll enjoy. The eight-mile hike to Old Rag Mountain is the toughest route in the park (and also one of the most popular). If that’s a bit too ambitious, try hiking to and around one of the park’s many waterfalls. For more information visit www.nps.gov/shen.
18. Great Smokey Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Photo: Michael Hicks
People have inhabited this area since the Paleo Indians in prehistoric times. Needless to say, the area’s steeped in history. More than 70 structures still remain from the prehistoric era, and the park now contains the largest collection of historic log buildings in the East. The park is also packed with waterfalls, all of which can be part of perfect day hikes. Attention, all tech-savvy campers: The Great Smokies also has a free mobile app available for iOS and Android! For more information, visit www.nps.gov/grsm.
19. Denali National Park, Alaska
Six million acres of open land? Check. Unbelievable wildlife? Check. Hiking to please even the most experienced of outdoorspeople? Check. Basically, it doesn’t get cooler than Denali. The central draw to the park (especially for mountaineers) is Denali itself — otherwise known as Mt. McKinley, or “the great one”. The park offers hikes for pros and beginners alike. Most trails start near the visitor center and are considered easy to moderate in difficulty. A few trails start deeper in the park, beyond the first three miles of the access road. For more information visit www.nps.gov/dena.
20. Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
Photo: National Park Service
Glacier Bay National Park is actually mostly water, the bay itself serving as the passageway to the inner section of the park — which is (awesomely enough) a glacier. After spending the night under the stars, try cruising the bay on a tour, charter, or private boat. There aren’t any marked trails in the park, so backpacking is more strenuous here than elsewhere. Rafting one of the park’s two rivers is a great alternative that allows campers to easily tow supplies — but make sure you’re with someone who knows what they’re doing. Park rangers also lead a variety of tours and talks every day during the summer. For more information visit www.nps.gov/glba.