Where to Camp: The Best Campgrounds and National Parks

Friends hanging out at Lakeside Campsite
Hero Images/Getty Images

Campgrounds will fall into two basic categories: public or private. Public campgrounds are usually run by a government agency and include those found in national and state parks and forests, Bureau of Land Management areas, and Army Corps of Engineer projects. Private campgrounds are typically RV parks and campground resorts owned by private citizens or businesses.

Public Campgrounds

Public campgrounds offer the largest choice of campground destinations available to us. These campgrounds, which are mostly funded by tax dollars, are typically found in scenic areas or on lands set aside to preserve some aspect of the natural environment for outdoor recreation. The public campgrounds usually offer the same quality of service and amenities nationwide.

If you've ever camped at a national park, you can typically expect the experience to be the same as other campgrounds, including national forests, state parks, and more.

Campground Resources

Although there is no singular website that has all the information about every campground available in the U.S., there are websites that act as a definitive source for details about particular types of campgrounds:

  • National Parks: The National Park Service, which is overseen by the Department of the Interior, provides comprehensive information about national parks such as visiting, history, facts, and logistics like how to obtain a park entrance pass.
  • USDA Forest Service and Army Corps of Engineers: Reserve America is a website dedicated to trip planning, campground software, hunting and fishing licenses, camping guides, and more. The site lets travelers know where to camp in various cities, along with other outdoor tips, like cooking and photography.
  • Bureau of Land Management: The U.S Department of the interior provides a directory of BLM-manged public lands for visitors to explore. There are over 245 million public lands available for outdoor adventures in more than 12 states.
  • State Parks: A list of state parks is available on the Tourist Information Directory. Inside, each state park link includes information about each location plus a source for its dedicated website.

National Parks (NPS)

Within the national park system, there are hundreds of parks, recreation areas, and other facilities. Over 100 of these campgrounds are open to the public and are typically available on a first come, first serve basis. A few of the campgrounds also offer online reservations.

Thankfully, national park campgrounds aren't expensive. Typically, a night can cost between $10-20 with a maximum stay of 14 days. The campgrounds have clean restrooms and hot showers, and some have laundry facilities. Campsites typically also have picnic tables and fire rings. Because national parks are popular and tend to get busy during the holidays and summer months, travelers should book early.

National Forests (USFS)

Campers have thousands of campsites available at over 1,700 locations. National forests are managed by the USDA Forest Service, Army Corps of Engineers, National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, and more. Details of individual campgrounds are provided by Reserve USA and the National Recreation Reservation Service (NRRS).

Finding a campground at Reserve USA is easy. From their website, travelers can click on the map of the US or from the list of states. Then, a localized map is displayed, which also lists campgrounds in the area. Each campground page will tell you a little bit about the area and show a detailed map of that campground's layout. You can then choose the area of the campground that interests you and read specifics about each campsite to find one that meets your needs. Information about special events, services, and amenities is also provided.

Army Corps of Engineers (ACE)

The Army Corps of Engineers are familiar to most of us from their involvement in dam construction to control river flows, build lake reservoirs, and produce hydroelectric power. Part of their charter is to also open up river and lakeside areas to the public and provide recreation opportunities for fishing, boating, and camping.

With over 4,300 recreation areas at 450+ lakes managed by ACE, there are many choices. As with the campgrounds provided by the US Forest Service, searching is simplified by ReserveUSA. The campgrounds at ACE facilities are clean and well maintained and offer the basic amenities: showers, restrooms, water, picnic tables, and fire rings. The areas offer services for boaters and fishermen, like marinas, boat launches, and tackle shops.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for land, mineral, and wildlife management on millions of acres of US land. With over one-eighth of the US land mass under their control, the BLM also has plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities to offer.

The Bureau of Land Management areas includes 34 national wild and scenic rivers, 136 national wilderness areas, 9 national historic trails, 43 national landmarks, and 23  national recreation trails. Campers can enjoy these natural wonders from 17 thousand campsites at over 400 different campgrounds, typically located in the western states.

Most campgrounds managed by the BLM are primitive, although you won't have to hike into the backcountry to get to them. The campsites will often be a small clearing with a picnic table, fire ring, and may not always offer a restroom or potable water source, so travelers should bring their own water.

BLM campgrounds are usually small, with not many campsites, and are also available on a first come, first serve basis. You may not find a campground attendant, but rather an iron ranger, which is a collection box where you can deposit your camping fees, usually being only $5-10 per night. However, many of the campgrounds charge no fees.

The easiest way to find BLM campgrounds is at Recreation.gov, which allows you to search for outdoor activities on public lands, including the national parks, national forests, and army corps of engineer projects. From the results page, BLM campgrounds are listed with a link to area descriptions and campground details.

State Parks and Forests

The state park systems offer opportunities for everyone to get outdoors and enjoy the wonders of nature. No matter where you live, there's usually a state park within a short distance from your home. Although state parks make great camping destinations during the week, they are quite busy on almost any weekend throughout the year.

The easiest way to plan a camping trip to a state park is to first narrow your selections down to a particular state. Find Your Park lets you search by park name, location, or activity. Other parks are included in the search results besides the state parks, but all have excellent descriptions and photos.

State parks provide wonderful facilities for family camping. The parks are well maintained and offer many amenities to make your stay more comfortable, such as clean restrooms, hot showers, stores, marinas, and more. Prices will vary but are seldom more than $15-20 a night. Many state park campgrounds also offer RV sites with electric, water, and/or dump stations.

Campground Tips

  • Read Reviews: Check with family and friends to get opinions on places to go camping in your area, or read campground reviews to get other ideas.
  • Make Reservations in Advance: If you're making summer reservations, try to make them as far in advance as possible. Popular campgrounds tend to get booked early for weekends and holidays. It's also important to make sure you understand the cancellation policy. In fact, before getting off the phone, make sure to finalize a rate and confirm what that rate includes. If you will be arriving late, you can ask if they have any late arrival arrangements. Lastly, when making online reservations, make sure to print a copy of any confirmation page or save any confirmation email to take with you when checking in.
  • Deposit Fees Correctly: For public campgrounds that use an iron ranger, deposit nightly fee(s) in an envelope with the name and site number before dropping it in the collection box. Sometime during the day, a park ranger will make rounds of the campgrounds and collect the fees. You will often see these in national parks and national forest campgrounds.