“Well, you really picked a winner!” said Bob, the host at Grand Canyon National Park’s North Rim Campground, after I had serendipitously wandered onto site 14. And he’s right. Site 14 has plenty of space and is close to the bathrooms—but not too close.
Best of all, it extends right up to the edge of a side canyon, providing a private view across to the Grand Canyon. I spent hours watching the setting or rising sun change the color of the canyon’s rock layers from pink to purple to chocolate, cup of morning coffee or glass of evening wine in hand.
It stands to reason that not all of the tens of thousands of campsites in the United States will be winners. Many are little more than dusty, soulless patches of sun-parched earth with a falling-down fire ring, a picnic table with one bench, and a view of the bathrooms. (The National Park Service is promising vast improvements to its campgrounds as part of a sprucing-up before its centennial, in 2016.)
However, some real stunners are out there if you know where to look. I know because I recently spent more than two years traveling and camping my way around the country.
Another great find: the campground in Oregon’s Memaloose State Park, which has big, shady, grassy sites right on the banks of the Columbia River. Set up your temporary home here and you’ll have great views of the Columbia River Gorge, plus access to ample wild blackberry vines and some of the best windsurfing in the country. Many of the sites come with hammock-ready trees.
The camping platforms over a gorgeous gator-and-migratory-bird-filled swamp in Georgia, meanwhile, provide an unusual and enthralling experience for nature lovers. Then there’s the campground in South Dakota’s Badlands National Park that has its own resident herd of majestic buffalo. Watch them roam—and take in a world-class sunset, with the dying light spreading across the seemingly-endless grassy prairies, creating shifting shadows and dancing color changes. Who could resist?
The answer to that question is not many. This means you won’t be alone in trying to book a spot—especially after the September debut of Ken Burns’s documentary about the National Park system, America’s Best Idea. NPS officials “expect a dramatic increase in park visitation,” particularly in the spring of 2010.
So reserve as early as you can wherever reservations are accepted. For the first-come-first-served locations, arrive by 11 a.m. (a lot of campgrounds set checkout times between 10 and 12, which means many folks will be vacating their sites around 11). Ask for the specific site you want, since many parks honor such requests. Don’t have a clue which one is best? Log on to the park’s Web site and see if there’s a campground map.
Just be prepared to take what you can get should your dream spot already be taken. In most cases, it’ll be worth a trip in its own right.