10 best national parks for camping

Perhaps your opinionated mother-in-law is coming for an unexpected visit, so you need to retreat – quickly. Or maybe you want to take your family on a summer vacation that won’t bankrupt you. Although motivations for going camping may differ, the main goal is usually the same: a peaceful retreat in a scenic natural setting.

But the definition of “peaceful retreat” and desired amenities can vary greatly between individuals: One person’s idea of a perfect camping trip could be torturous for the next person. Whether it’s backcountry backpacking, austere campsites, or campgrounds with nearly as many amenities as a hotel, you’re sure to find your nirvana at one of these national parks.

Acadia National Park: Mountains descend into the sea along a wind-swept jagged coastline inAcadia National Park. Situated in southern Maine, this 49,600-acre park is an outdoor lover’s playground with climbing, biking, hiking, kayaking, and wildlife viewing, among other activities. The park has two camping spots: Blackwoods and Seawall Campgrounds. Both are tucked into the shade of pine, balsam and hemlock trees and are within a 10-minute walk of the Atlantic Ocean. If you’re looking for seclusion, opt for Seawall. Blackwoods Campground is larger (275 sites), located five miles from the picturesque New England town Bar Harbor, and closer to the park’s main attractions than Seawall Campground.

Glacier National Park: One of the best parts about camping is witnessing those awesome sunrises. Pitch your tent at Rising Sun Campground and take in the scene near the Canadian border. Care to wake along the shores of Lake McDonald with snow-covered peaks in the distance? Head to Sprague Creek Campground. Or backpack deeper into the wilderness of Glacier’s more than one million acres to set up camp at one of the park’s backcountry sites. Glacier National Park has more than 1,000 campsites, offering campers a wide range of scenery and amenities. But they all have one thing in common: they are set against a northwest Montana backdrop of receding glaciers, towering Rocky Mountains, and pristine lakes.

Denali National Park: Journey back to frontier days and discover the spirit of America’s pristine wilderness when you embark on a camping adventure in Alaska’s Denali National Park. Grizzly bears, moose, wolves, black bears, caribou, and wolverines roam this remote subarctic landscape, which is only intersected by one road. Watch golden eagles and peregrine falcons gracefully swoop through the air over glacier-fed streams. Six campgrounds are scattered throughout the six million acre park. Pitch a tent in view of Mount McKinley – North America’s tallest mountain with an elevation of 20,320 feet – at Wonder Lake Campground. Slip away from the daily grind and rejuvenate among one of America’s truly great last wilderness areas.

Voyageurs National Park: Reaching your campsite within Voyageurs National Park is a unique experience in itself. “BYOB” takes on a new meaning within this arboreal forest in northern Minnesota – the B stands for “Boat”. More than 200 developed campsites – including some reserved for houseboat spaces – are scattered among the 500+ islands within the park, and are accessible only by boat. But don’t fret if you don’t own a watercraft: Paddleboats and canoes are available for rent in the park. With 84,000 of the park’s 218,054 acres stretching over water, aquatic exploration awaits you. Don’t have a boat, but want to camp? Two state parks adjacent to the national park offer drive-up campsites.

Capitol Reef National Park: Situated in the epicenter of red rock country in south-central Utah,Capitol Reef National Park is lesser known (and less traveled) than surrounding parks. Canyons, domes, natural bridges, and cliffs become your personal playground in the 100-mile long Waterpocket Fold. Although primitive campgrounds and backcountry camping are available, direct your attention to the park’s one developed campground, Fruita. The 71 campsites are nestled within a desert oasis. Back in the 1880’s, Mormon pioneers planted this orchard that flaunts cherries, apples, apricots, and peaches for your picking. After a thrilling day of canyoneering in the dry desert, return to camp and sink your teeth into a sweet, juicy peach.

Dry Tortugas National Park: Diving and snorkeling enthusiasts take note: You can roll your love of camping and coral reefs into one tropical camping adventure. Situated 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, the 100 miles of Dry Tortugas National Park encompasses five small islands and striking blue waters that are home to coral reefs and a vibrant marine ecosystem. Arrive at the park by boat or plane (typically chartered from Key West), and pitch your tent at one of Garden Key Campground’s 10 primitive first-come, first-served sites. Then don your pair of flippers and dive into the water to explore the underwater landscape teeming with nurse sharks, sea turtles, and brilliantly colored fish.

Virgin Islands National Park: This Caribbean 7,000-acre national park stretches across nearly half of the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Crystal-blue warm waters lap against sandy white beaches, which extend into sub-tropical forests. Cinnamon Bay Campground offers furnished campsites, bare sites, and cottages that are set along the beach or tucked back into the forest. If you don’t feel like lugging your personal camping gear through airports, rent a furnished campsite – tents, sleeping bags and all other necessary equipment are provided.

Big Bend National Park: When many people think of Texas, they imagine a sprawling, flat landscape stretching into the distant horizon. But situated in the middle of the desert in western Texas, the Chisos Mountains rise toward expansive sky and ancient limestone canyons ripple across flat terrain. Chisos Basin Campground’s 60 developed sites are situated among rocky cliffs and are convenient to many trails. And you don’t want to miss an opportunity to hike in Big Bend. This national park possesses the most types of bats, birds, and cacti of any national park in America. For a spectacular display of colors peppering this rugged landscape, visit the park during the spring or late summer when wildflowers are in full bloom.

Shenandoah National Park: Located just 75 miles south of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park boasts spectacular vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley. Numerous scenic overlooks, trailheads and eateries dot the 105-mile long Skyline Drive twisting through the heart of the park. This national park is perfect for individuals and families who wish to go camping but don’t want to venture into a rugged wilderness. Four developed campgrounds are conveniently located to some of the park’s main attractions, from being within close proximity to Shenandoah’s tallest waterfall to being able to pitch a tent atop Big Flat Mountain.

Olympic National ParkOlympic National Park’s more than one million acres stretch from glacier-capped summits of the Olympic Mountains down to the Pacific Ocean. The 16 front-countrycampgrounds provide 900 campsites from which to choose. You can camp along the shores ofLake Crescent (Fairholme Campground). Nestle within your cozy sleeping bag among old growth forest at Heart O’ the Hills Campground, or unwind while listening to waves lap against a rugged beach (South Beach Campground). Or snag a backpacking permit to hike through one of the wildest places left in the lower forty-eight states. Explore the jagged peaks of high country and walk the weathered beaches dotting the wilderness coast.

by Carri Wilbanks, Special for USA TODAY | Published on May 7, 2014

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