Tent camping with your family can be one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll ever have as a traveler. Something in act of being away from home and then setting up your shelter together as a group — organizing your gear, your kitchen, cooking and working together: it’s always fertile ground for creativity, improvisation, mishaps, comedy, bonding. It gets people out of their comfort zones and into places and scenes they wouldn’t have found otherwise. It can be one of the greatest “classrooms” for everyone in your family. If you’re interested in learning more about actual skills in family camping, please check out 13 essential first experiences in nature, which gives a variety of tips, games you can play, and just simple ways to make your time outside more fun.
The following camping spots all share a common theme of being epic “playgrounds” for the whole family. While some areas will be full in summer, there’s almost always an option to go one level deeper into the wilderness (starting with “frontcountry camping” and moving into backpacking / backcountry). Stay safe out there this summer, and let us know what other places you like to camp. See you on the road!
1. Outer Banks, North Carolina
Where: One of the four campsites at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Why it’s so cool: 70 miles of wild Atlantic coastline accessible by 4 x 4, as well as organized camping, with epic fishing, surfing, and beach camping along the way. Here’s where you can play all day at the beach with zero other people around if you want.
What makes it unique: The first of 10 National Seashores in the US.
2. Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota
Where: Stay/start out from Sawbill Campground
Why it’s so cool: Loons and lakeside camping Every. Single. Night. Traveling by canoe affords some creature comforts the whole family can enjoy — be it a blankie or snuggie for the kids and a can of pale ale for you. Oh, and nighttime stargazing hardly gets better.
What makes it unique: The truly great thing about the BWCAW is that you can go lake-hopping, linking the area’s almost innumerable lakes via short trails, or “portages,” over any amount of nights.
3. Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Where: One of the 13 campgrounds in the park.
Why it’s so cool: Families can see three natural stone bridges up close by taking short hikes that should be easy on those with short legs. The Junior Ranger Program is a great way for both parents and kids to learn about the rich geological history of the area.
What makes it unique: First designated International Dark-Sky Park in the world.
4. Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado
Where: Echo Park Campground, 38 miles from the Canyon Visitor Centre.
Why it’s so cool: Spectacular river canyons, easy level hike to check out the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers, and petroglyphs and fossils that provide great historical and cultural outdoor discoveries.
What makes it unique: The lack of light pollution provides grandiose star-gazing opportunities.
5. Red River Gorge, Kentucky
Where: One of the 3 campgrounds in the area.
Why it’s so cool: The beautiful gorge in the middle of the Daniel Boone National Forest is a great place to introduce kids to beginner-level rock climbing, kayaking, rafting, and hiking.
What makes it unique: The Red River Gorge is home to the Natural Bridge, a sandstone rock arch that is 65 feet high and 78 feet long.
6. Hot Springs, North Carolina
Where: Creek Ridge Campground, just outside the village of Hot Springs.
Why it’s so cool: The Appalachian Trail runs right through town, so you won’t have to go far to get out in Nature. The French Broad River (which also runs through town) offers tons of aquatic activities (white-water rafting, tubing, kayaking, swimming, etc.) and some fishing.
What makes it unique: Hot Springs is one of only two locations on the east coast with natural hot spring waters. There’s nothing like a good soak after a day in the outdoors!
7. La Push, Washington
Where: Camp on the beach at Second Beach in Olympic National Park.
Why it’s so cool: The one-square-mile remote village is a great place for surfing, fishing, and hiking in the summer. There is also a lot to learn of the early inhabitants of La Push, the Quileute people, who have preserved many of their skills and crafts.
What makes it unique: Olympic National Park protects 73 miles of wild Pacific coast.
8. Joshua Tree National Park, California
Where: One of the 9 campgrounds in the park.
Why it’s so cool: Numerous easy hikes to discover the unique flora of the park, the bizarre shapes of its geologic landscape, and the desert bighorn sheep.
What makes it unique: Joshua Tree National Park is home to five of North America’s 158 desert fan palm oases.
9. Hither Hills State Park, New York
Where: Camp right over the dunes from the beach.
Why it’s cool: Learn about the Native American communities of Long Island and get out on the water for some awesome fishing, surfing, and swimming. Your family will also get a kick out of tumbling down dunes!
What makes it unique: There’s nothing like falling asleep in your tent to the sound of the ocean’s waves.
10. Edisto Island, South Carolina
Where: Edisto Beach State Park is one remote hour away from Charleston. You can rent a cabin or a tent site right by the beach.
Why it’s so cool: Miles of Atlantic shore and salt marshes to explore with great swimming and fishing. Edisto Island also has many short, level trails — for walking, riding, or biking — where wildlife is abundant. Keep your eyes peeled for deer, alligators, and even bobcats.
What makes it unique: If you get up early enough, you’ll be able to see dolphins feeding near the pier.
11. Hume Lake, California
Where: Hume Lake Campground in Sequoia National Forest.
Why it’s so cool: Snag your own little “beach” on the lake a short walk away from your tent, or rent a canoe, a kayak, or a row boat from the nearby Christian camp for some brilliant fishing.
What makes it unique: Camp amongst the towering giant sequoia, the world’s largest tree.
12. Douthat State Park, Virginia
Where: Lodges, cabins, or camp sites available close to Douthat Lake.
Why it’s so cool: More than 40 miles of trail for all levels, excellent initiation to fishing at Wilson Creek or on Douthat Lake, and a great educational programs for the kids to get their Junior Ranger badge.
What makes it unique: The lack of cellular service makes this spot all the more enjoyable.
13. Acadia National Park, Maine
Where: Blackwoods Campground.
Why it’s so cool: Great combination of wooded wilderness and ocean fun; camp under a large tree canopy that is just a stroll away from the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
What makes it unique: Cadillac Mountain, easily accessible from Blackwoods campground, is the highest mountain on the US Atlantic coast.
14. Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina
Where: At the Northern end of Hunting Island State Park, by the ocean.
Why it’s so cool: 5 miles of beach to explore and fish from and many easy trail for families to experience the island’s natural environment (maritime forest, marsh, etc.)
What makes it unique: The large salt water lagoon of the island is home to seashores and barracudas.
15. Point Mugu State Park, California
Where: Sycamore Canyon Beach.
Why it’s so cool: 4 miles of ocean shoreline at the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains with great camping near the beach, body surfing, and awesome hiking trails for all levels.
What makes it unique: Look out for whales and dolphins passing the beach!
16. Great Smoky Mountain National Park, North Carolina
Where: Big Creek (frontcountry camping).
Why it’s so cool: Literally the coolest place in the South in the summer–hike up to Midnight Hole upstream along big creek and then cool off the deepest, shadiest, most perfect swimming hole you ever saw.
What makes it unique: GSMNP has more botanical biodiversity in the park than all of Northern Europe, more than 6,000 plant species, and tons of fungi, butterflies, salamanders, and all kinds of cool animals to track. Bring a magnifying glass, binoculars, and tree / plant / insect / animal guides with you.
17. San Elijo State Beach, California
Where: San Elijo State Beach campground, right by the ocean.
Why it’s so cool: This bluff-backed beach is a great place for both adults and kids to get their first surfing, windsurfing, snorkeling, and scuba diving experience. It’s also possible to whale-watch right from your campsite.
What makes it unique: This campground even has its own gourmet snack stand, Bull Taco!
18. Lake Placid, New York
Where: ADK Wilderness Campground.
Why it’s so cool: Several of the trail heads to explore the area and the many Adirondack peaks start here, and there is great swimming at Heart Lake, a short walk from the campsites. On a rainy day, the Wild Centre, located one hour away, is also a great place for both parents and kids to learn more about The Adirondack region.
What makes it unique: The little town of Lake Placid hosted two Olympic Winter Games in 1932 and 1980.
19. Caledonia State Park, Pennsylvania
Where: Chinquapin Hill Campground.
Why it’s so cool: 10 miles of trail for all levels to explore the forest and the historic sites of the park, including 1.8 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Children’s programs are scheduled throughout the summer season.
What makes it unique: Only a 20-minute drive to Gettysburg National Military Park.
20. Mammoth Lakes, California
Where: Twin Lakes campground.
Why it’s cool: Lakeside organized camping with great fishing, canoeing, and kayaking. There is a variety of hikes available from the campsites and the John Muir Wilderness is easily accessible.
What makes it unique: Breathtaking views of the waterfall flowing in one of the lakes.