Summer—in all its campfiring, lake-jumping, ice cream-eating glory—is just around the corner. Campsite reservation systems across the U.S. have opened for business. So, what are you waiting for?
It wasn’t until my husband and I moved to Seattle that I realized just how important planning ahead was. Our first summer here, I’d find myself at my desk daydreaming about the weekend: a Cascades campsite with a trailhead outside our vestibule or a stand-up paddle from our beachside setup in the San Juan Islands. I’d start ticking off the gear list in my head. (Tent, sleeping pads, dog packs.) Sound familiar?
My husband and I would plan over text message and then I’d head to the campground’s website to make our reservations. That’s where the dream would end. Every time I’d see the same thing: “0 matching sites available.” And it would repeat for all 17 weekends that the Puget Sound region sees sun per year.
We quickly learned it was time to join our neighbors—who were obviously all snoozing under the stars with the rest of Seattle—and start reserving our campsites in advance. Well in advance. Which brings me to now. At the start of every calendar year, reservation systems for national parks, national forests and state parks are ready to make your dreams (and mine) a reality.
There are two main places online to make reservations. Recreation.gov gives you access to federally managed campsites, like those run by the Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and National Park Service. From curated trip ideas to an interactive map, Recreation.gov also has information on every lake, trail, whitewater run, climbing route and other entities within their boundaries.
Then there’s the ReserveAmerica.com database, which has more than 100,000 campsites in 48 states. While you’ll find some overlap with Recreation.gov, ReserveAmerica.com also has access to state parks, a handful of county parks, and private campgrounds like KOA with its 485 locations.
With thousands of parks to choose from, it can be daunting to decide where to go. Here are some of our favorites to help you whittle down your choices and start making reservations:
Cape Lookout State Park, Oregon
Drive over wooded Wilson River pass and snake down the windy, steep road into Cape Lookout State Park to find one of the most majestic parks in the U.S. This beachfront escape, just an hour and a half from Portland, is flanked by waves crashing into stories-tall sea stacks and cliffs lined by waterfalls. Just as intoxicating shrouded in mist (as it can be much of the year), miles of beach provide the perfect excuse to spend hours walking and collecting shells. The goods: 227 campsites, ranging from basic tent sites to full hook-ups to yurts.
Acadia National Park, Maine
This coastal Maine park may be known for harboring the highest point directly on the North Atlantic seacoast—1,530-foot-tall Cadillac Mountain—but it’s also surprisingly one of the best parks for visiting on two wheels. Bring your bike and ride 45 miles of paved paths on historic carriage roads and along the rugged coastline. And don’t miss the sunrise; at certain times of year, this is the first place to see it in the U.S. The goods: 473 campsites; all are non-electric.
Custer State Park, South Dakota
If you’re visiting South Dakota, it’s most likely not for the climbing. But it should be. Once you’ve checked Mount Rushmore off the list, head to Custer in the Black Hills with your chalk bag. Routes from 5.3s to 5.10s can be found in the dozens and if you’re an amateur, hire Sylvan Rocks Climbing School & Guide Service to show you how it’s done. The goods: Nine campgrounds within the park provide plenty of options: basic sites, electric hookups and one-room log cabins.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Big Bend is in good company. Not in terms of location—it’s remote, bordering Mexico in southwest Texas—but because it falls into the International Dark Sky Parks group, a designation that only 11 parks in the U.S. can boast. Visit this expansive park, with mountainous desert terrain and elevations up to 8,000 feet, for its sweeping views of the stars. Unlike your backyard, where you might see 500 stars, you will likely spot 5,000 on a clear night. The goods: 184 shady campsites, from primitive to equipped with running water, but no hook-ups.
Assateague Island National Seashore, Virginia/Maryland
Nothing says peaceful like salt marshes, maritime forests, coastal bays and sandy beaches. But it’s the wild ponies that are the real draw here. More than 300 of them wander the 37 miles of coastline and inland pine forests along with 300 or so species of migratory and resident birds. Spot wildlife while kayaking the coastline, four-wheeling on the beach or surf fishing. The goods: Over 650 campsites are spread around this 48,000-acre park, including full-hook ups.
Be sure to set reminders on your calendar to avoid missing out on summer camping trips.