Some people love a resort vacation, where every one of their trivial whims is seen to and absolute luxury is the norm. You aren’t those people. Your idea of the perfect trip requires vast wilderness, open sky, long trails, and muddy boots. You don’t need five-star service to be happy; a warm meal every now and then is enough.
Yet, whether you blame it on the economy or on popular trend, more and more people seem to be seeking outdoor vacations, clogging your campsites and polluting your fresh air with noise and fumes. Fortunately, the United States is vast, and even as popular camping sites become cramped, there are thousands of acres of untapped natural beauty for you to explore on your next vacation. So, lace up your hiking boots, strap on your backpack, and read on for the seven secret outdoor spots you must see in your lifetime.
1. Badlands, South Dakota
Neither of the Dakotas usually top travelers’ bucket lists, but avid campers should be racing to pitch a tent in South Dakota’s Badlands. “Surreal” is one of the best ways to describe the terrain in this austere national park: With giant, windswept rock formations and endless acres of flat prairies, the Badlands are convincing as an alien landscape — especially considering the massive fossil beds scattered around the park. Backcountry camping is encouraged, but registration and fees are required first.
2. Joshua Tree, California
To most, setting up a tent in an area bereft of coniferous trees just doesn’t feel like camping, but the experience of roughing it in this southeastern California national park might make you change your mind. Joshua Tree is located at the intersection of a number of distinct ecosystems, which means campers are exposed to the cool, wet Mojave Desert, the low, dry Colorado Desert, and six expansive mountain ranges. Campers can trek through the lowlands, climb the jagged mountains, or simply enjoy the warm, exotic weather amidst the iconic Joshua tree.
3. Puget Sound, Washington
Perhaps the most verdant region of the lush Pacific Northwest rainforest, Puget Sound is the epitome of camping destinations. However, campers looking to get away from the hoi polloi should give bigger-name campgrounds in the south and east a wide berth. Instead, you should take your tent to the northwest, toward Samish, Padilla, and Skagit bays which offer isolated beaches perfect for meditating and being grateful — as well as swimming, fishing, and waterfowl hunting, should you so wish.
4. Black Canyon, Colorado
The Colorado River is best known for its work shaping the Grand Canyon, but farther north, the rushing waters carved another, less popular gorge amidst Gunnison National Park in Colorado. Black Canyon is incredibly old, and the steep crags of its walls and spires feel both inspiring and intimate. Unlike other camping spots on this list, Black Canyon is best left to the experienced trekkers, as its hiking trails down to the water are strenuous at best.
5. Denali National Park, Alaska
For campers looking to escape the crowds, Alaska’s Denali National Park is a prime destination for several reasons. For one, few among even the most avid outdoorsmen are willing to venture so far afield, despite Denali’s dazzling views and the vast, untouched wilderness. For another, the park encompasses more than six million acres of open land, which means even if hundreds of families made a rush for the park, you would still feel like you have the place to yourself.
6. Taos, New Mexico
As a whole, New Mexico is enchanting, but perhaps the most captivating region is the wilderness surrounding the deceptively small town of Taos. While the urban area effortlessly mixes Anglo, Hispanic, and Native culture, nearby Carson National Forest teems with wild magic year-round. Campers can enjoy all sorts of outdoor recreation, from skiing and snowshoeing in the winter to fishing, hunting, and hiking in the warmer months. There are plenty of established campsites that abound with visitors during camping season, but dispersed camping in the backcountry is mercifully peaceful.
7. Acadia, Maine
Compared to the overdeveloped Mid-Atlantic, there are hundreds of stunningly wild regions of New England perfect for the regional camper. Among these, Acadia National Park on Maine’s Mount Desert Island is decidedly the best. The only national park in New England boasts fresh inland lakes, ocean, forest, and mountain views, and the right amount of challenge for any camping level. Visitors must find home base in one of two established campgrounds (Blackwoods or Seawall) but nearly the whole park is open for exploration.