We play matchmaker, pairing your camping personality with places you're sure to love.
Sunset's camping guide by region:
California & Hawaii
Perfect campgrounds for first-timers
Mt. Hood National Forest, OR
Lake Powell, UT and AZ
Wahweap Campground Glen Park National Recreation Area: What better payoff for taking the camping plunge than the finger canyons of Lake Powell? A waterfront campground comes with basic creature comforts (hot showers, shaded picnic tables). After breakfast, the main event: Rent a boat or kayak at the marina to explore what looks for all the world like Zion National Park filled halfway with water. From $23. Book it: 888/486-4665.
Near Santa Cruz, CA
New Brighton State Beach: Sit on a pine-shaded bluff above an endless white beach, New Brighton's 100+ sites get snapped up by those itching for a beach weekend-without the triple-digit nightly tab. The beach is the real draw, and the hot showers don't hurt, but another bonus is that if you forget your matches or just don't feel like cooking, you can easily grab takeout in town, a five-minute drive away. After all, this is vacation, right? From $35; 831/464-6330. Book it: reserveamerica.com
Mt. Hood National Forest (pictured above)
Hoodview Campground: The name pretty much says it all: the shark's tooth summit of Oregon's signature peak rising from an alpine forest and mirrored in aquamarine. A prime position on the south shore of Timothy Lake makes Hoodview the most popular of the five campgrounds on this reservoir, where anglers, paddlers, swimmers, and water-skiers proliferate like mayflies. Newbies, wrap your hands around a steaming mug of cowboy coffee and just take in that surreal view. $17; opens Memorial Day; 503/622-3191. Book it: recreation.gov
Perfect campgrounds for families
Bandelier National Monument
Near Los Alamos, NM
Juniper Campground: Here's your home base for Bandelier National Monument (pictured above). Climb in and out of Ancestral Pueblo cave rooms, complete with kid-friendly ladders. Then hike the 2.5-mile Falls Trail past two waterfalls to the Rio Grande. (Come in May, because June 1, the campground closes until next spring for restoration.) No reservations, but sites always available; $12; 505/672-3861 ext. 517.
Anderson Valley, CA
Hendy Woods State Park: In summer, kids spend whole days ankle deep in the Navarro River, which flows placidly over fist-size stones through a redwood grove. If they can be dragged away from the large, looping campground here, the gardens and picnic areas at the Anderson Valley wineries are a short drive, the coast only a bit farther. If cooking for the gang seems a bit much, Libby's ($; closed Sun-Mon; 707/895-2646), just down the road in Philo, has excellent Mexican food. Stop by the Philo Apple Farm (707/895-2333) for a wander in the orchard and some fresh juice from the honor stand. $35; parks.ca.gov or 707/937-5804. Book it: reserveamerica.com
Near Steamboat Springs, CO
Steamboat Lake State Park: With Hahn's Peak as a backdrop, this azure lake's shoreline shimmers with wildflowers. You could just soak in the pageantry from scenic campsites, but playtime will prevail. Rent paddleboats and canoes to explore the 1,100-acre lake, tangle with trout, or head out on expeditions on nearby hiking trails that plumb the pristine wilderness. From $16; or 970/879-3922. Book it: 800/678-2267. colorado.gov/parks
Perfect campgrounds for amenities junkies
Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows
Yosemite Village, CA
Yosemite National Park: A terrific alternative to Yosemite Valley's busyness is quieter, cooler Tuolumne Meadows (pictured above), 1 1/2 hours from Curry Village at 8,600 feet in elevation. Half the 304 sites are reserved, half first-come (be sure to reserve). $20; typically open Jul-Oct; nps.gov/yose
Santa Fe, NM
Big Tesuque Campground: Tesuque Basin is the best of Santa Fe without the fake cowboy hat. About 12 miles northeast of downtown is primitive Big Tesuque Campground. Hike the trails, then head to town for art and a cocktail. Free; 7 tent sites; open May 1-Oct 31; no reservations; BYO water; 505/753-7331
Perfect campgrounds for secret spot hunters
Moab, UT (pictured above)
Canyonlands National Park: When the sun goes down at Utah's Canyonlands National Park, 99.99 percent of the people drive back to Moab. But the knowing few set up their tent, trailer, or RV at Willow Flat, the only drive-in campground in the area, which rises 1,000 feet above the surrounding country. The 12 sites rent out on a first-come basis. Get there early to snag your spot, then settle in for some superior stargazing. $10; no reservations; BYO water; nps.gov/cany
North central CO to central and northeastern WY
Medicine Bow National Forest: The North Platte River runs smack through the funky town of Saratoga, Wyoming, where the hot springs have eased stress for centuries. And the Medicine Bow National Forest offers 2.9 million acres of hiking and adventuring. The best U.S. Forest Service campground is Jack Creek, with 16 tent sites and a cabin at Jack Creek Guard Station. Tent site $10; cabin $50; open Jun 1-Oct 31; fs.usda.gov/main/mbr/home
Rio Grande National Forest: The name Penitente Canyon hints at spiritual salvation, and although the monks and other seekers who gave their name to this southern Colorado draw are mostly gone, the refreshing of the soul still happens. There are 300-plus rock climbing routes for the vertically inclined, and also a network of horizontal trails. Camping is DIY at the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Penitente Canyon Campground. $11; 22 sites; no reservations; 719/852-5941.
Perfect campgrounds for comfort cravers
Big Island, HI
Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area: On Big Island, HI's northwest corner, the 62-acre Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area has 6 A-frame, 4-person cabins with screens and wooden sleeping platforms. Plus there are showers to wash off the salt from swimming. $50; hawaiistateparks.org/camping
Deschutes National Forest: The Green Ridge Lookout in Oregon's Deschutes National Forest has windows on all four sides, with views of 10,497-foot Mt. Jefferson, the Metolius River, and a fish hatchery that helps feed eagles. $40; open May 18-Jun 24 & Sep 21-Nov 18; BYO water; 1.usa.gov/GzLGBM
San Juan Islands, WA
Lopez Farm: Experience Washington's San Juan Islands' lushness from Lopez Farm, your base on Lopez Island. On 30 acres of pastures and woods, 5 cottages offer all the amenities of home, including a breakfast basket every morning (wait ... that doesn't happen at home). Cottages from $145, 13 tent sites (May 25-Sep 30) from $40; lopezfarmcottages.com; ferry from $32 round-trip.
Perfect campgrounds for adventurers
California's Desolation Wilderness
Near Taos, NM
Rio Bravo Campground, Orilla Verde Recreation Area: Less than an hour north of this high-desert campground shaded by cottonwoods is the put-in for the class IV Taos Box, a 15-mile stretch of some of New Mexico's wildest whitewater. Hook up with Kokopelli Rafting Adventures for a guided trip (from $110; 800/879-9035). Back at camp, come down from your adrenaline rush by watching a mellow section of the muddy Rio Grande flow languidly by. $7; blm.gov/nm or 575/758-8851.
Near Lake Tahoe, CA
Island Lake, Desolation Wilderness: A great choice for the first-time backpacker, with moderate effort required for some seriously scenic payoff. Spend the night at Island Lake beneath soaring Mt. Price. The dramatically stark granite terrain dotted with shock-blue lakes is the definition of high country. Next morning, you're set to explore the lakes and passes higher up the slope-and out of day-hiker range. 20 overnight wilderness permits ($5/person) issued daily May 31-late Sep; 530/647-5415.
Little and Big Therriault Lake Campgrounds, Ten Lakes Scenic Area in Kootenai National Forest: It's not off the map (it's just this side of the Canadian border, west of Glacier National Park) but does come close, at least in character. The quiet 6,541-acre Ten Lakes Scenic Area has been set aside for backcountry use for more than 30 years. Pitch camp at one of these rustic, drive-to campgrounds, then ponder the possibilities of peak scrambles, canoeing, fishing, or heading off on the nearly 90 miles of surrounding trails. $5; opens late Jun; 406/882-4451.
Perfect campgrounds for solitude seekers
Point Reyes National Seashore
On Tomales Bay, CA (pictured above)
Point Reyes National Seashore: Leave the car campers in the dust, and paddle off to a boat-in-only beach on Tomales Bay. It's a peaceful glide with grebes, great blue herons, and, if you're lucky, sea lions bobbing in the barely lapping water. The crew at Blue Waters will rent you a kayak, and, for an extra fee, even boat in and set up your gear, then cook you dinner. Pick up a camping permit at the Bear Valley Visitors' Center; kayaks from $95.
P.O. Saddle, Hells Canyon National Recreation Area: This remote camp is perched on the edge of one of the world's most jaw-dropping panoramas, a rift deeper than the Grand Canyon. Yet aside from hunting season in August, you'll likely have your pick of 14 sites in a grove of Doug fir at the end of a 4WD gravel road near the Hells Canyon Overlook. Pack plenty of water and a topo map, then set out on the Rim Trail. But first, savor the view and give the world a shout-out. The only voice answering your call of the wild will be your own. $30 park pass; opens June 1; 541/426-5546.
Near Saratoga, WY
French Creek Medicine Bow National Forest: Between chiseled white granite peaks, perpetual snowfields, and streams that refuse to shrivel, the Snowy Range feels like a bit of the Alps in the Rockies. Head to French Creek, with 11 stellar, dispersed sites surrounded by aspens and wild rosebushes. The tight teardrop loop road fends off most RVs, and camper traffic here is zilch. $10; opens Jun 15; 307/326-5258.
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We play matchmaker, pairing your camping personality with places you're sure to love.