Car camping in the US
March 18, 2013 5:07 PM   Subscribe

Help me compile a togo list. I'm open to everywhere, everything. What is your favorite lesser-known US National Park or State Park for car camping? And the best time of year to visit?
posted by 1066 to Travel & Transportation around United States (16 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I haven't been there for years ... decades really ... but my absolute favorite car camping campground in all of California is Horse Flat, in the Trinity National Forest. Dunno why. Just a run of the mill campground. We used to spend all day bouldering along and over the creek (water or bank touches cost a square of Hershey's each) with day trips to frolic in the Trinity River nearby.

Get one of the sites up on the side of the hill, above the bridge, overlooking the stream, away from the RVs parked down near the gate.

MacKerricher State Park in Mendocino is pretty great, too. Not rustic like Horse Flats. This is a well developed, destination type campground a few miles north of Fort Bragg, on Hwy 1. Just getting there is spectacular. We used to pretend we were Hobbits in Middle Earth whenever we camped there.

A little further north in Humboldt is Patrick's Point, also on Hwy 1 and also spectacular. Never camped there, but that's 'cause we day-tripped from McKinleyville, where we lived. Another well developed and possibly crowded destination type campground.
posted by notyou at 5:51 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia. Don't go in the dead of Summer and I think it's closed in the Winter (but the website will tell you better.

First Landing State Park - again not a good idea to go in the dead of Summer (it's HOT) and tourist season.

Natchez Trace Parkway - Drive along and stop when you feel like it. There's lots of campgrounds along the way. Again, Spring or Fall for this place.

Shennandoah National Park. It's not a lesser known park, but it's a must see (IMHO) in the Fall. It'll be crowded, but it's worth it. Long highway with bunches of campsites - watch out for bears.

On the other end of the country there's the Olympic National Park. An actual rain forest right here in the USofA. Lots of highway and bunches of campsites. Summer is actually the better time to head up north.

I know more, but my mind went blank. I'll be back.
posted by patheral at 6:01 PM on March 18, 2013

Best answer: I've probably spent four or five months, total, sleeping in a car somewhere, so here goes;

Places I Have Slept In My Car:
-Page, AZ (Antelope Canyon)
-Saguaro doesn't have camping or any overnight parking. Wound up parking in a church parking lot and getting woken up by the cops.
-Guadalupe National Park
-White Sands (cannot sleep in park, but there's a lot outside the gate)
-Bryce, but I really don't recommend it. The elevation means it's fuckin' cold. Better in warmer months.
-Death Valley - even in the dead of winter it's not bad in Badwater or furnace creek.
-Glacier - esp the western side. Pretty sparsely visited.
-Yellowstone - the road north of West Yellowstone has some really nice pullouts.
-Tetons (mormon row)
-Fossil Butte
-Bear Lake, UT
-Tony Grove Lake, UT
-Timpanagos Cave
-Dead Horse Point
-Arches (almost every pullout has someone waiting for midnight to take pictures)
-UT12 - far from civilization
-Devil's Tower
-Lake One, Ely MN (fall)
-Teddy Roosevelt, both sections
-Rocky Mountain NP, at the entrances
-Natural Bridges NM (perfectly clear sky)
-Sleeping overnight in the Grand Canyon means you can catch the early bus out to Hermit's Rest for sunrise. For that matter, I recommend, if you're car camping, always being up and in motion for sunrise. Most people don't rise until 7 or 8 at the earliest, so you have the country's best scenery to yourself.

Fall is pretty much like summer, with some lower elevations being more tolerable. Coloradans pretty much have made a sport out of sleeping in their cars...wherever. Some particularly memorable spots are:
-Maroon Bells
-South of Carbon Peak
-Ohio Pass
-the high point on Grand Mesa
-Tigiwon campground near Vail
-Independence Pass in a storm
-County Roads 5 and 9 outside of Ridgway
-Silver Jack Reservoir (actually, Powderhorn, Little Cimarron, and Big Cimarron are all great roads to pull over and pass out)
-Molas Pass
-County Road 7 just north of Silverton
-South end of McPhee Reservoir
posted by notsnot at 6:08 PM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Golden Gate Canyon State Park, west of Denver

Also see its Wikipedia entry
posted by LonnieK at 7:09 PM on March 18, 2013

Best answer: Kodachrome, in Utah. Beautiful and (okay ten years ago) really lovely showers!

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in North Dakota. Pros: bison. Cons: bison mating season.

Wind Cave, Nebraska.

Bridger National Forest, Wyoming. Caution: stunningly vicious clouds of mosquitos in certain areas. Much, much less RV-heavy than the heavy hitter Teton to the north.
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:39 PM on March 18, 2013

Best answer: Palo Duro Canyon. Second biggest in the US.
posted by timsteil at 7:44 PM on March 18, 2013

Response by poster: Best Answer for everyone! Thanks for the great ideas!
posted by 1066 at 10:04 PM on March 18, 2013

May I suggest that you visit the National Park Services web site prior to departure - if you are visiting federal parks. I hear rumblings that Park services will be severely impacted by Sequestration starting this year. So please be prudent before taking a long journey, and finding out that the National park/campsites of your dreams are closed for the season.
posted by seawallrunner at 10:32 PM on March 18, 2013

Most state parks and national parks have designated campgrounds and are pretty restrictive on camping, paying and where you go and what you can do. There are lots and lots more public lands than just these two categories.

Here is a link to just about every camp ground in the US.

In the Western US there is a LOT of Burea Of Land Management (BLM) federal land that is pretty much wide open for casual use such as camping (there are some campgrounds but dispersed camping is usually OK). Something like half of most western states are some kind of federal land and a bunch of that is BLM. The rules for national forests are usually the same. Both may have some kind of fire restrictions in place depending on time of year and location so it is best to check in at the ranger station or the website.

Here is a list of Corps of Engineers campgrounds that are usually near some water feature, and aren't that heavily used.

Also most truck stops are usually ok with parking and sleeping and they also have showers that are cheap (just a few dollars) and can really help you feel human when car camping and almost always have some kind of wifi setup. Most small town libraries also have wifi these days and most hotels are moving away from codes on their wifi and you can get a signal in the parking lot and use them for checking in and getting info.
posted by bartonlong at 9:35 AM on March 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

For a nicely located New England home base in the early fall, I love Savoy Mountain State Forest. Near a unique museum (MASS MoCA), the Berkshires, and spitting distance from Western New York and Vermont. Bonuses? It's quiet, there's swimming and hiking, and the showers are free! We usually go the car camping route, but there are cabins as well.
posted by metarkest at 11:01 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

We like Dinosaur Valley State Park about 1.5 hours outside of Dallas-Fort Worth, TX. You can walk in actual dinosaur footprints in the Paluxy Riverbed. Best time to go - you want to make sure the water level is low enough to see the footprints; that would be mid-to-late-summer, but that's also the really hot part of the year. I think there is a part of the river that makes a deep swimming hole (the water is cooler when it is deeper) and a river to tube/swim down, so that can cool you off.

Bonus: Nearby is the Creation Evidence Museum which completely debunks all the dinosaur propaganda that you learned at the state park.

Another bonus: Waco Mammoth Site. As long as you are looking at prehistoric animals, drive on over to Waco and see some mammoth bones.
posted by CathyG at 11:39 AM on March 19, 2013

Big Bend, in Texas, is hours and hours from anywhere. When you get there, you can spend a week or more without camping in the same place twice. There is the river, and there are mountains, hot springs, desert, volcanos, and ghost towns. It is best visited in the fall or spring, as it will get quite hot in the summer and cold in the winter. There are plenty of opportunities to get away from other people, without having to backpack for hours.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 12:26 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Zion in May is perfect.
posted by benbenson at 12:36 PM on March 19, 2013

Patrick's Point, as mentioned above, is great. I camped there in November a few years back and the weather was perfect. I'd guess summer and fall would be good times to go. Also, Lavabeds National Monument in northeastern California is a fun and fascinating place for camping.
posted by JenMarie at 2:16 PM on March 19, 2013

A few years ago I took a cross-country road trip with a few AAA campground books and whenever I felt like stopping I just picked one out that seemed close. One of my favorite campgrounds was in Manzano Mountains State Park in New Mexico. Very secluded and surprisingly wooded.
posted by ltisz at 7:01 PM on March 19, 2013

Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northeastern California is AMAZING. My brother and I car camped here for a few days this past summer (and that's the time I'd recommend going - high altitude means cool temps and possible snow during non-summer times).
posted by hapax_legomenon at 8:02 PM on March 24, 2013

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