25 favorite no-reservation campgrounds from California to Colorado.
A crowd-free view of Kings Creek in Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
> Juniper Lake: Tucked into the southeast corner of the park, this 18-site campground has one drawback: no running water. (So bring your own, or a purifier.) But the pluses are many: a stunning lakeside location; the nearby half-mile hike to Inspiration Point, where you'll see half of Northern California from the summit.
>Plan B: Warner Valley Campground, in the south-central part of the park, also gorgeous, is near the Devil's Kitchen geothermal area.
>Pomo Canyon in Sonoma Coast State Park: Up and over a ridge from Goat Rock Beach, a quiet canyon holds 20 redwood-shaded walk-in sites. They're spread out enough to give you privacy but not so much that it's a long schlep from the car. A 3-mile hike gets you up to the ridge for big views of the coast and the mouth of the Russian River, then down to the beach.
>Plan B: Nearby Willow Creek Campground is a 1/4-mile hike in from Willow Creek Road
Yosemite National Park
> Yosemite Creek Campground: If you've been thinking, Gee, maybe it'd be fun to go camping at Yosemite this summer, conventional wisdom would answer: "Wrong-o! Too late!" But there is an exception. Yosemite Creek-a large campground 5 miles up a bumpy winding road, off Tioga Road en route to Tuolumne Meadows-doesn't take reservations. Your pine-shaded, creekside site will put you within an hour of Yosemite Valley and a half-hour of Tuolumne Meadows. So there.
>Plan B: The 57 sites at Porcupine Flat Campground, 3 miles farther up Tioga Road toward Tuolumne, are also no-reservation. BYO water.
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Valles Caldera National Preserve
La Cueva, NM
>Redondo Campground: Just 15 minutes from the massive Valles Caldera (pictured), a recreation-packed preserve in the Jemez Mountains, Redondo is the closest spot to pitch a tent. Anchor among ponderosa pine for days of mountain biking, fishing, or climbing Redondo Peak. Bonus: Ranger events like Milky Way-gazing are held almost weekly at the preserve.
>Plan B: Jemez Falls Campground has an added luxury: A 1.5-mile hike leads to the bathwater-temp McCauley Warm Springs.
Near Pecos, NM
>Jack's Creek Campground: This grassy spot is your jumping-off point for exploring the quarter-million-acre forested mountains of the Pecos Wilderness. Down the road, the Cave Creek Trail leads through stands of aspens and wildflower-filled meadows before reaching its namesake. The rushing stream snakes in and out of natural caves, some of which can be explored if you've got a flashlight.
> Plan B: Iron Gate Campground, a more-remote haven 10 miles away.
>Bonito Campground at Coconino National Forest: If an award existed for "campground with the most interesting landscape," Bonito would be a shoo-in. Nearly a thousand years ago, lava oozed over this area from nearby Sunset Crater, creating a jagged black lava field with petrified rock bubbles and caves. During the same century, the Ancestral Puebloans were building 100-room dwellings from red sandstone in what is now the Wupatki National Monument, 18 miles away.
> Plan B: Lockett Meadow Campground, 6 miles away on the other side of the highway.
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Sunset Campground sits off Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, which curves into the heart of the …
Kings Canyon National Park
>Sunset Campground: At a pleasantly cool elevation and less than a mile from the Grant Grove of giant sequoias, this camp is an ideal base for exploring both Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Forget something? The Grant Grove Village market and restaurant are a half-mile away. $18; 559/565-3341.
>Plan B: Try next-door Azalea Campground.
East of Santa Barbara
>Chula Vista Campground in Los Padres National Forest: Way up near the summit of Mt. Pinos, this 12-site walk-in camp is an escape from the summer heat. Campsites are shaded by Jeffrey pines, and a dark sky is perfect for stargazing (amateur astronomers set up telescopes in the parking lot). Bring water-plus your hiking boots and mountain bike. Free; 661/245-3731.
>Plan B: McGill Campground, a couple of miles down from the summit.
Near Mammoth Lakes
>Convict Lake Campground: Most people come to Convict Lake to catch trout, but there's plenty more to do. Hiking trails lead into the John Muir Wilderness, horses are available for hire, and the neighboring resort has a first-rate French restaurant. Then again, you could just kick back in a lawn chair and stare at the glacial cirque of Convict Lake, backed by the jagged, sky-high Mt. Morrison. Only 25 of 88 sites are reservable; the rest are for the last-minute crowd.
>Plan B: Another last-minute lakeview spot is Lake Mary Campground, just outside the town of Mammoth Lakes.
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>Warner Lake Campground in Manti-La Sal National Forest: A 9,100-foot sky island provides cool relief from the searing desertscape 5,000 feet below-it can be 40° cooler up here. The 20 drive-in campsites are tucked into aspen groves where you'll have forever views of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Bring a paddleboat to explore the lake (pictured), a no-motors liquid jewel.
>Plan B: Nearby Oowah Lake, a petite high-country lake with 11 tent-only campsites.
>Cromwell Dixon Campground at Helena National Forest: West of Helena, campers can usually mosey up on a whim and snag a site atop McDonald Pass. Most of the 15 developed sites have views of the immense valleys, mountains, and meadows that sprawl into the boundless horizon (ain't for nothing they call it Big Sky Country). From here, you have right-there access to the Continental Divide Trail stretching from Canada to Mexico. $8; opens late May; 406/449-5201.
>Plan B: Score one of the 15 sites at Vigilante Campground, 30 miles east of Helena.
The Tetons, WY
>Teton Canyon Campground in Caribou-Targhee National Forest: Welcome to one of the best wildflower-viewing areas in the Tetons. This 20-site campground at nearly 7,000 feet is a good jumping-off point for popular areas of the Jedediah Smith Wilderness, an untrammeled expanse where trails lace through a kaleidoscopic display of flowers. Also outside your tent flap: rock climbing, fishing, and horseback riding.
>Plan B: Head to Curtis Canyon Campground, 8 miles east of Jackson.
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Palouse Falls State Park
North of Walla Walla, WA
>Palouse Falls State Park, near Starbuck: You may not be able to see Palouse Falls (pictured) from the 10-site campground, but this time of year, you can hear the thundering Palouse River as it tumbles over the lip of a miniature Grand Canyon. After you pitch your tent, stroll to the overlook and imagine you're the kayaker who took the 200-foot plunge last spring and broke nothing but his paddle.
>Plan B: About 8 miles south, half of the 50 sites at the private campground at Lyons Ferry Park overlook the Snake River.
Columbia River Gorge, OR
>Viento State Park: This former whistle-stop 8 miles west of Hood River works well as a shaded base camp for last-minute adventurers from Portland. Kiteboarders head to the water, while hikers amble along a decommissioned mile-long stretch of the Historic Columbia River Highway to picnic in the misty shroud of Starvation Creek Falls. Serious climbers do an all-day trek to the summit of Mt. Defiance, a thigh-blaster with a heart-stopping view of the gorge.
>Plan B: Nine miles west, a trail from the seven tent sites at Herman Creek Campground wanders through the gorge's largest remaining stand of old-growth cedar.
>Lava Lake Campground, Deschutes National Forest: A lodgepole-pine forest shrouds 43 sites from the sun-and the high-peaks vistas-so rent a canoe and savor the summit of the South Sister while casting for rainbow trout.
>Plan B: One of the six waterfront sites at the adjacent, and no less lovely, Little Lava Lake.
Related: The West's best camping guide