Top 10 Campgrounds for Experts

Thomas J. Story
These beautiful spots are for everybody—you just need to hike a little to reach them

California

Coast Camp, Point Reyes National Seashore

Ninety minutes north of San Francisco, spend the night 200 yards from Santa Maria Beach, one of Point Reyes’ most inviting stretches of sand. An up-and-down 1.8-mile hike on the Laguna and Fire­lane Trails leads to 14-site Coast Camp, where breaking waves croon a soothing lullaby. Sites 1 through 7 have optimal privacy and views. From Santa Maria Beach, walk north toward Limantour Beach or south toward Sculptured Beach, with miles of uninterrupted shoreline between. The camp has vault toilets and fishing. $20; nps.gov/pore.

Ridge and Sunrise Campsites, Angel Island State Park

After day-trippers leave, campers reign over Angel Island and its San Francisco Bay vistas. Ridge sites, on the island’s west side, offer city and Golden Gate Bridge views. Sunrise sites, on the east, overlook Treasure Island and the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge. Fog and wind can be fierce: Layer your clothing and stake your tent. During daylight, explore the island, hike Mt. Livermore, or beachcomb Perle’s Beach. Campsites are minimalist with vault toilets and fishing. The trek in is up to 2.5 miles. $30 plus ferry from Tiburon, Oakland, or San Francisco; angelisland.org.

Water Canyon Campground, Santa Rosa Island, Channel Islands National Park

California’s second-largest island (nearby Santa Cruz is first), Santa Rosa provides 84 square miles to explore and a noticeable lack of crowds. A three-hour boat ride from Ventura and a 1.5-mile hike take you to camp. Enjoy long expanses of white sand beaches and a rare stand of Torrey pines-—this island and San Diego are the only spots where these wind-sculpted conifers grow. A hike to Lobo Canyon is a must. The camp is surprisingly plush-—showers, flush toilets, and wind shelters for food storage. $15 plus boat ($114 round-trip; islandpackers.com); nps.gov/chis.

Colorado

Molas Lake Campground, Silverton

The state’s most photogenic summits tower over 10,515-foot Molas Lake, so it’s no surprise that campers routinely fill this 58-site campground south of Telluride. But its five walk-in options let tenters escape the hubbub, and the choicest sites even offer views of snowcapped peaks. It’s ample reward for hauling your gear 50 to 200 feet. New vault toilets feel nicer than many gas station rest stops, and a shower house delivers the kind of refreshment that only hot water can achieve. From $12; open Jun 1–Sep 30; molaslake.com.

Montana

Handkerchief Lake Campground, Flathead National Forest

Camping at one of these three walk-in sites due east of Bigfork is like entering a decompression chamber. Silence and solitude make campers feel as if they’ve arrived at the back of beyond, but an easy 100-yard walk is all that’s required to reach these scenic lakeside spots. Picnic tables, fire rings, and a vault toilet are the sole facilities—there’s no potable water—but rusticity keeps the crowds away: No motorboats disturb the water, which reflects the waterfalls and steep, forested peaks along its edge. Anglers should bring their tackle since Handkerchief is brimming with grayling. Free; no reservations; fs.usda.gov.

Oregon

Mirror Lake, Mt. Hood National Forest

Just an hour from Portland, the mile hike up to rhododendron-rimmed Mirror Lake is more popular than a noontime food truck, but thankfully most folks retreat to their cars at the end of the day—giving you front-row views of Mt. Hood and (naturally) its reflections. Come morning, leave your things and continue 1.8 miles to the ridgetop of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain for even more stunning views of the volcano (and great rocks for sunbathing). No toilets or potable water. Free; $5/day rec pass; no reservations; fs.usda.gov.

Strawberry Campground, Malheur National Forest

Rising above Eastern Oregon, the quiet and craggy Strawberry Mountain Wilderness—named for the wild berries that ripen here in July—seems more like the Canadian Rockies than the high desert. Depending on the strength of your quads, call it good at Strawberry Lake (1.2 miles in), a gentle pool below an amphitheater of cliffs. Or continue another 1.8 miles to Little Strawberry Lake for even more solitude and expansive vistas. Feeling invincible? Day-hike 4 miles more to 360° panoramas on 9,038-foot Strawberry Mountain. $8; no reservations; fs.usda.gov.

Utah

Rock Cliff Campground, Jordanelle State Park

Compared with the park’s lively hub at Hailstone, which buzzes with motorboats and RVs, Rock Cliff is a low-key corner dedicated to nature and wildlife. Its six-site hike-in campground sits on a quiet tributary of Jordanelle Reservoir. Nab sites 1, 2, or 3 for riverside views, and look out for marmots and eagles. Even moose occasionally wander along the bank, browsing on shrubs. The 50-yard walk to the campsites feels like a small price to pay for scenery and seclusion just 40 minutes from Salt Lake City, and the rustic vibe comes with civilized comforts like plumbing. Showers, fishing, and RV/ trailer hookup; $16; $7 park entry; stateparks.utah.gov.

Thomas J. Story

Washington

Heather Lake, Mt. Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest

Tucked below dramatic 1,500-foot-high cliffs, as if poured into a giant bowl, tranquil Heather Lake is reached by a moderate 2.5-mile climb up from the Mountain Loop Highway. (On the way, watch out for colossal cedar stumps left from logging days.) A half-mile trail encircles the lake, allowing easy access to huckleberry bushes and close-up looks at the waterfalls cascading off the lower flanks of Mt. Pilchuck. You’ll find flat places for your tent but no toilets or potable water. Free; $5/day rec pass; no reservations; fs.usda.gov.

Shi Shi Beach, Olympic National Park

Once you navigate a forested 2- to 4-mile approach and a 200-foot descent down a bluff, you can set up camp anywhere on 2.5-mile-long Shi Shi Beach (say shy-shy)—one of the most spectacular stretches on the Olympic coastline. The primo real estate is between Petroleum Creek (potable if boiled or filtered) and the sea stacks and seastar-filled tidepools at Point of the Arches. Go for a bracing dip, build a campfire, and settle back for a wide-open sunset. $5; $15 park entry and fees for parking and permits; nps.gov/olym.

Unless noted, these 10 campgrounds have potable water but do NOT have flush toilets.

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