The 5 Best National Parks for Car Camping

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When it comes to camping in the outdoors, it really doesn’t get much better than the national parks. Home to some of the country’s grandest and most treasured natural landscapes, the national parks are simply loaded with gorgeous places to pitch a tent or hang a hammock beneath the stars. And if it’s ease you’re going for, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more convenient method than car camping.

With car camping, you can reap the same benefits of getting away from it all with a fraction of the hassle and way better food. Just pack the car with a tricked out sleeping system, fill the cooler (bring the good beer), and some good company. You’ll be in the mobile lap of luxury. And some national parks are just too big not to have a car; you need to drive across and see all that the park has to offer (like the TWO deserts that converge in Joshua Tree National Park). Camping, road trips and the National Parks go together like red, white and blue. So, without further ado, here are some of our favorite great American parks to hit the road (and then then hay):

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Cades Cove Loop Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Cades Cove Loop Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Kevin Kelley

 

At over half a million acres, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park preserves some of the most beautiful forest lands in the East. The park straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, making it a convenient diversion for many East Coast road trips. While there are a number of beautiful campsites throughout this large park, the campground at Cades Cove is our pick for top car-camping destination.

As one of the most popular gateways to the park, Cades Cove will be crowded, especially in the warmer months. However, a trip to this area provides a fascinating window into the history of Appalachian culture and serves as basecamp for some of the best day hiking trips in the park.

From your campsite, explore some of the most famous park locations, such as Rocky Top, the inspiration for the well-known University of Tennessee fight song. While that’s a strenuous and fairly long day hike (nearly 14 miles), there are great short options as well. The five-mile hike into Abrams Falls is perfect for the entire family, and offers a nice swimming hole to cool off on a hot summer day. And then you can’t forget about cycling the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop; the campground store even offers bike rentals if you don’t have the space to bring your own.

2. Big Bend National Park

Stargazing in Big Bend National Park.
Stargazing in Big Bend National Park. Keith Yahl

 

As the old song goes, “The stars at night / are big and bright / deep in the heart of Texas” and nowhere else in the Lone Star State is that more true than in Big Bend National Park. Big Bend was named as a dark-sky park by the International Dark-Sky Association in 2012, making it one of the few places in the United States that is almost completely free of artificial light pollution. You’ll get blazing views of the Milky Way, thousands of stars and planets, satellites, shooting stars and even the faintly glowing clouds of distant nebulae.

Big Bend is open year-round, with the best camping opportunities in the cooler winter months. There are three established campgrounds in the park, each offering a different perspective. Rio Grande Village is the largest, with 100 sites (43 of which can be reserved) tucked in a cottonwood grove close to the Rio Grande River. Cottonwood Campground is a small 24 site first-come-first-serve area that sits in a shady retreat in the desert. And finally, there is Chisos Basin Campground, perched over 5,000 feet with 60 campsites, 26 of which can be reserved. Chisos has the best access to the hiking trails, including the Window Trail, one of the most popular in the park thanks to its access to scenic canyons and ancient rock formations.

Each campground in the park is a comfortable oasis to immerse yourself into the land. When the sun goes down, the artistry of the night sky illuminates the heavens, bathing the living desert in pale shades of blue and green interstellar light.

3. Glacier National Park

Campsite in Glacier National Park.
Campsite in Glacier National Park. Steve Cyr

 

Known as the “Crown of the Continent,” Glacier National Park is a 1-million acre land of soaring peaks, sparkling lakes, diverse and abundant wildlife, and of course tons of recreational opportunities, with over 700 miles of trails spiderwebbing throughout the park and no less than 13 different campgrounds featuring a whopping 1,000 sites—so you’ve got options to say the least!

The park is also so large that most people visit a section at a time, and could easily spend a whole vacation exploring each one. So, a car is essentially a must-have—especially when you throw into the mix the fact that Glacier is home to some mighty impressive roads. Going-to-the-Sun Road, for instance, is a 50-mile drive through the center of the park, and it’s arguably the most scenic road in the Continental U.S. and hits most of the popular spots.

The Many Glacier Campground is probably the most popular campground in the park. As such, sites tend to fill up very quickly. But if you’re able to snag one, you’re in for a real treat. The Many Glacier area is the heart of the park and is simply breathtaking. One of the most popular hikes here is to Grinnell Glacier. The 11-mile roundtrip starts at the Many Glacier Hotel and heads first to Lake Josephine, then through beautiful meadows to a steady 1,600-foot climb to the glacier viewpoint. Like most other places in the park, the scenery is breathtaking, but it’s also the chance to see a glacier before they all melt.

4. Yellowstone National Park

The perfect setup for Yellowstone National Park.
The perfect setup for Yellowstone National Park. Mia & Steve Mestdagh

 

Yellowstone is the gold standard when it comes to America’s National Parks, thanks to its dreamscape of geothermal features and photogenic wildlife. Camping in the park can be an intimidating prospect because–let’s face it–you don’t want to miss anything! There are 12 established campgrounds in Yellowstone: 5 of which allow reservations (1,700 total sites) and 7 of which are first-come, first served (450 sites). The Yellowstone camping information website has all the information you’ll need, including a very handy chart showing at what time of the day the first-come, first-served sites fill up (in most cases, by about 6:45 am).

Reservations and planning ahead are a given for a place as busy as Yellowstone. If you’re coming from the northern side of the park in Montana, Mammoth Hot Springs Campground is one of the best locations to set up a tent near the namesake calcified, odiferous hot springs (and amazingly, it’s open year-round). Norris Campground is centrally located in the park near the Norris Basin, home to many hot springs and geothermal features. If you’re interested in the Yellowstone Lake area, Bridge Bay is your best choice. Madison Campground is the closest spot you’ll find near Old Faithful (about a 20 minute drive). And for the southern end of the park and the West Thumb Geyser Basin, check out Grant Village Campground.

5. Joshua Tree National Park

Car camping in Joshua Tree National Park.
Car camping in Joshua Tree National Park. Mark McKnight

 

Probably due to its proximity to the Los Angeles culture machine, Joshua Tree National Park –or at least the namesake tree–has been uniquely influential on pop culture. Bands as diverse as the Eagles, U2, and Selena have recorded near the park. A single visit is enough to understand why this area inspires so much creativity. The cartoonish rock formations at Jumbo Rocks Campground contrast with the dramatic silhouettes of the eponymous Joshua trees. As one of the most popular campgrounds, you will want to show up early (well before sunset) to claim a campsite.

While the park is known worldwide as a rock climbing destination, there are plenty of activities for the entire family. If you’re new to rock climbing, there are guides available. The short but strenuous uphill hike to the top of Mount Ryan affords a 360-degree panoramic view of the entire park, and is highly recommended. A four wheel drive vehicle is required to complete the fascinating 18-mile Geology Motor Tour, an overview of the park’s diverse geological landscape. Don’t miss the brochure kiosk at the start of the tour.

Straddling the Colorado and Mojave deserts, Joshua Tree tends to have very predictable weather, with extreme fluctuations in temperatures from day to night typical of the desert. Be sure to research the conditions before you visit and pack plenty of water. The busy season for this park is opposite most national parks, with visitors flocking to the park in winter and spring, and avoiding the summer heat. If you can handle the heat, you’ll have Jumbo Rocks Campground nearly to yourself during the summer.

If you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, head north and visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

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Nothing says road trip like a comfy pair of overalls.

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When picking the perfect shirt for long hours in the car, make sure it’s quick-drying, moisture-wicking, and wrinkle resistant.

Originally written by RootsRated for Toad&Co. Featured image provided by David Sorich

Canoemobile Update: Detroit, MI

As part of our longtime social mission to provide opportunities for adults with disabilities, we gave a grant to the National Park Foundation to get 1,000 adults with disabilities into national parks this year.  The Canoemobile, operated by the skillful team from Wilderness Inquiry, is currently touring the country to connect folks to their local national parks by getting them into canoes and paddling through the great American waterways. Rose Conry, one of the Canoemobile’s trusty captains, offers up the latest update:

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After a great week in Dallas, TX, the Canoemobile Team rolled into Detroit, MI to get on the water at River Raisin National Battlefield. Special Olympics Michigan athletes and their families embraced the peacefulness of an overcast Sunday morning, paddling quietly along the marshy mouth of the the Huron. For many, it was their first canoe experience, and several athletes were nervous initially. The boats, 24-foot cedar-stripped voyageur canoes made the ride more unusual.

During our quiet river paddle, the Special Olympians spotted fish jumping out of the water, ospreys, cormorants, and terns diving for breakfast. Herons waded in for their next meal while swans and geese guarded their young. A ranger from the River Raisin National Battlefield shared historical and natural knowledge about the area. He explained how the U.S. came to lose Detroit in the War of 1812 and what invasive species threaten native plants and animals in the area.

As the program wrapped up, the ranger explained River Raisin’s summer kayaking program. Many participants expressed eagerness to join the park service for another paddling adventure. I want to come back for it, too.

For information on when the Canoemobile will be in your area and how to get involved, check the Canoemobile schedule!

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Best National Parks to Visit in April

With April 20-28 (2019) marking National Park Week, there’s no better time to check out some of our nation’s greatest treasures. Get to your nearest national park, forest, river or lake, or adventure on to one of our favorite National Parks to visit in April…

Joshua Tree
Photo cred: Ann Kathrin Bopp

 

Joshua Tree National Park takes your breath away the first time you see it with your own eyes. Sure, you’ve seen the giant rock cathedrals and Seussical J-trees in pictures, but you can’t fully grasp the awesomeness of these bizarre formations until they’re right in front of you. With hundreds of trails, thousands of official climbing routes and even more unofficial bouldering routes, Joshua Tree lives up to the hype. Though a relatively small national park, it’s the meeting point of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts and offers great variation in ecosystems. Explore the prickly cholla (pronounced “choy-ya”) garden and keep going to check out the ocotillo cactuses (both of which may be in bloom in April), scramble around Jumbo Rocks and make your way into the Fortynine Palms Oasis. You might have some trouble booking a campsite last minute, but there are plenty of first-come first serve sites and designated areas for hike-in backpacking (even as close as .5 miles from your car). Pack up and go, wherever you are.

 

Grand Teton
Photo cred: Makenzie Cooper

 

Grand Teton National Park is something to behold any time of the year, but when the spring sunshine hits the mountains and greets the buds below, there’s nothing like it. Head out to the lake shore trails and enjoy a stroll by Jenny Lake or String Lake. Bradley and Taggart Lakes are mellow lowland hiking options early in the season. And when the sun goes down and you’re left to reflect, best to do it over a killer Jackson Hole burger. Be sure to check road conditions and road status before heading up to Grand Teton. It’s not uncommon for a late spring snow storm to close roads, even after they’ve opened for the season. Be aware of the possibility for inclement weather any time of year. This is the Wild West, after all.

 

Zion
Photo cred: Hunter Wiseley

 

Massive sandstone cliffs, never-ending slot canyons, green and pink vistas—there’s no shortage of “WHOA” in Zion National Park, southwestern Utah’s bragging rights territory. Within its 229 square miles are high plateaus, a maze of narrow, deep, sandstone canyons, the Virgin River and its tributaries, 2,000-foot Navajo Sandstone cliffs, and countless waterfalls supporting lush hanging gardens. And all those wonders are magnified when spring has sprung. Like natural springs? They burst from cracks, running to the Virgin River. Like springtime blooms? The cottonwood trees blossom and begin to show some color. Like hiking? Most of the main canyon and the Upper East Canyon are hikeable, but the Kolob Terrace and Lava Point may remain buried in snow until late April or May. Either way, you’ll be busy saying “WHOA!”

Shenandoah
Photo cred: Andrew Nee

 

Just 75 miles from downtown DC you’ll find yourself at the top of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, overlooking cascading valleys enfolding the Appalachian Trail. Shenandoah is known for it’s gorgeous fall foliage, but trust us – it’s just as spectacular in spring! Bike or drive historic Skyline Drive and rest at overlooks along the route positioned above the sprawling valley. Paddle along the Shenandoah River, take your adventure underground to the nearby Luray Caverns, or lace up your kicks and explore more than 500 miles of trail networks, including the most challenging hike in the area, Old Rag Loop. Whatever you do, catch a sunrise and sunset in the same day—your soul will thank you.

 

Great Sand Dunes
Photo cred: Lionello DelPiccolo

 

Sure the Rockies are pretty great, but one of Colorado’s lesser known National Parks is just as awesome: Great Sand Dunes National Park. The Great Dunes, North America’s tallest sand dunes, rise more than 750 feet, with the Sangre de Cristo Range as the backdrop.  These dunes are simply phenomenal, especially at dusk. Spend the night at Zapara Falls, just 11 miles south of the park, but bring an extra blanket because at 9,000 feet it can get chilly. When you’ve had your fill of the dunes, get a taste of the jagged peaks of the Sangres from the Comanche-Venable Trail loop near Westcliffe.

For moisture-wicking, UPF-tested, Insect Shield® treated hiking clothes that look great on the trail and at the nearest tavern, check out Toad&Co’s Modern Travel Collections for Men and Women.

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Our First Time in Great Basin National Park

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When was the last time you did something for the first time? The last time you experienced something that made you see things a little differently? The last time you stood in a new place and felt an overwhelming sense of awe? That’s the feeling we set out to find. We grabbed some friends, packed up our bags and set out for Great Basin National Park – one of the least visited parks in the Lower 48 with some of the oldest trees and the darkest skies.

We left Salt Lake City after work on Friday (later than planned, of course), headed southwest toward the Nevada/Utah border. Joel was driving Rita Jean, a semi-trusty ’86 Westfalia vanagon, with Brandon riding shotgun and Crystal and Hannah in the back. Van Morrison was also along for the ride.

240 miles later, we rolled into Wheeler Peak campground around 10pm, hungry but happy. We paid the fee and went to start up the van and snapped off the gear shaft right then and there. After 4 hours of climbing 10,000 ft, Rita Jean had had enough. We tinkered for an hour then finally pushed Rita to an open site and whipped up some 11pm campside tacos. We all agreed they were the best tacos we’d ever had.

The closest “big” town to Great Basin National Park is Ely, Nevada – 70 miles north of the park. Deny and Trudy from Ely showed up the next morning with a flat bed truck to haul Rita back to Ely for fixing over the weekend. Carless but prepared with a cooler full of bacon and bourbon, we got our day started.

We spent the next two days exploring Wheeler Peak. With a height of 13, 065 ft, the summit is covered with snow most of the year – an ideal climate for the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, an ancient pine species that’s been thriving for thousands of years (yes, thousands). These pines are truly mind blowing. Huge, car-sized trunks give way to twisty bark, looking like a lightning bolt that’s been carved from wood. It’s gnarled and split as sections of the tree die off and peel over the centuries. But these mangled trees are alive and kicking, sometimes with only a narrow strip of living tissue connecting the roots to a handful of branches. And those needles that are sprouting out? Those same needles live for an average of 45 years. The oldest tree in the Western Hemisphere is a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, still going strong at 5,062 years old. Those are some deep roots.

Along with ancient pines, we’d always heard about Great Basin’s killer stargazing. They say “Half the Park is After Dark”, and now we know why. Low humidity, minimal light pollution and high elevation give Great Basin the edge when it comes to stargazing. Combine that with Earth’s location deep within the spiral arms of the Milky Way and you’ve got a primo view from the inside looking out. Thousands of stars, five of the eight planets, 88 summer constellations, the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies – all with the naked eye. With binoculars we could easily see Saturn’s rings. Yes, Saturn.

On Monday morning Denny and Trudy picked us up and hauled us to Ely, Nevada. We reunited with a souped-up Rita Jean and hit the road back to Salt Lake City, taking the Northeast route via US-93. We took our sweet time, picnicking at a neat rest stop somewhere outside of Ely. Just across the Utah border, we took a detour off the I-80 to spend an hour cooling off at the Salt Spring Management Water Area , a marshland with natural salt springs and watering holes. Two hours and one roadside diner later, we made it back to SLC – full of memories and ready for our next first experience.

To plan your own trip to Great Basin National Park, visit www.nps.gov/grba

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