Perfect campgrounds for adventurers

For you, kicking back in a camp chair is no vacation. You're looking for an adrenaline rush­­­­—and are not afraid to sweat for it

Desolation Wilderness, CA
Photo: Photo courtesy of Facebook fan Bryan Whyte

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.

Eastern Sierra, CA

  • Big Pine Creek Campground, Inyo National Forest, near Big Pine: With a postcard setting at the base of three mountains—the Thumb (13,356 feet), Middle Palisade (14,012 feet), and Norman Clyde Peak (13,855 feet)—this camp is an ideal hub for hikers and climbers. Experts head for the Palisade Glacier—the southernmost in the U.S.—while the less ambitious poke around the waterfalls and wildflowers close to camp and the series of glacial-blue lakes beyond. $20; 760/873-2500. Book it:  recreation.gov

Washington Coast

  • Long Island Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, near Ilwaco: Sure, you need to bring a kayak or canoe and consult a tide chart to make sure there’s enough water to float your boat. And maybe battle a monster headwind. But the sweat equity yields dividends once you’ve beached at one of the five primitive campgrounds on this remote 5,000-acre island. Don’t miss the Trail of the Ancient Cedars, a 1/4-mile loop through a cathedral of cedars, some more than 900 years old. Free; 360/484-3482.

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. Pack your stuff in 3 miles to overnight 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.

Northwest Montana

  • 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.
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