It’s not too late to go camping, so pack up the car and head to the closest state park near you. Below are a few of my favorites.
Gorges State Park, North Carolina
True to its name, Gorges encompasses some of the steepest and most spectacular river gorges in the Southeast, with trails along the Toxaway and Horsepasture rivers leading to exceptional waterfalls, swimming holes and diverse wildlife habitat.
You’ll find primitive camping for backpackers in the Frozen Creek Access Area, Raymond Fisher Campground, and the Grassy Ridge Access Area. The “secret spot”? Six free sites along the Foothills Trail—first come, first serve. Note that these are just a short hike from the car, so they’re perfect for young families.
Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina
Not gonna lie: Hunting Island can be brutal in terms of biting insects (sand fleas), heat and humidity during the summer. Over the winter, however, it’s an exceptional terrain to explore. Five miles of Carolina coast in its native state showcase maritime forests that stretch all the way to the dunes. There are huge swaths of salt marsh, inlets and lagoons, and with decent swell the surf conditions are surprisingly good. The park also features the only publicly accessible lighthouse in the state, as well as a large campground. Look for sites at the ends of the loops for more primitive-feeling areas to set up your tent.
Sinks Canyon, Wyoming
At the southern edge of the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming, the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River flows through a dramatic class IV–V canyon before disappearing underground in a natural geologic phenomenon called “the Sinks.” This park offers car camping in about as pristine a setting as you can get, with pinyon-juniper foothills rolling up through coniferous areas to high meadows of aspen.
Enchanted Rock, Texas
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area in the Texas Hill Country is a popular go-to spot for car camping with quick access to trails and bouldering, as well as primitive options that get you away from the masses (in fact, on some weekends the park gets so crowded that it closes down to further visitors by 11am). You can hike to the top of the huge pink granite dome and explore a cool cave passage up there, or take any of a number of trails around the base; on the backside keep an eye out for rock climbers. Notably, Enchanted Rock is an International Dark Sky Park, which makes it outstanding for stargazing.
Eleven Mile Canyon, Colorado
West of Colorado Springs, Eleven Mile Canyon sports both a beautiful class III–IV+ whitewater stream with easy roadside access, and further upstream, a huge reservoir with some of the best fishing in the Rockies. The area sees fairly high traffic, but there’s a large camping infrastructure to accommodate it, including sites accessible only by foot or boat where you can get away from the crowds. Eleven Mile Canyon is distinctive in the area in that its walls are solid granite, making for a different kind of whitewater run and exceptional climbing.
Baxter State Park, Maine
One of the few parks in the country that has a truly “traditional camping” feel, Baxter offers campsites that have been used for almost 100 years. Choose from nine campgrounds (and more in the backcountry) variously situated for hikes up Mount Katahdin as well as for explorations around Daicey Pond and other beautiful lakes and streams. Accommodations include bunkhouses, cabins, lean-to shelters and backcountry tent sites. In early September, as colors are changing, this area is absolutely the most beautiful place in the country.
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, California
Camping in a redwood forest is mystical. Tucked within a massive canopy of redwood, western hemlock, Sitka spruce, and grand and Douglas fir, and with a soft layer of duff covering the forest floor, there’s a sense of quiet and peace here. Sounds are dampened. Jedediah Smith is an entrancing place to camp: just imagine looking up through the huge branches and the understory of madrone and bigleaf maple, strolling through the giants in the Stout Grove, and wading in the crystal clear Smith River, the last major undammed river in California.
Photo credit: Ibrahim Cetindemir.
Have a favorite state park? Share in the comments below.