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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Happy campers: National parks offer scenic, cheap vacation options

UPDATED: Thu., May 9, 2019

The Jumbo Rocks Campground at Joshua Tree National Park in California has sites scattered throughout the dramatic desert landscape. (John  Nelson / The Spokesman-Review)
The Jumbo Rocks Campground at Joshua Tree National Park in California has sites scattered throughout the dramatic desert landscape. (John Nelson / The Spokesman-Review)

I’ve hiked amid ancient Pueblo ruins in New Mexico and touched dinosaur fossils in Utah.

I’ve seen grizzly bears in Denali National Park and foxes in Death Valley.

And I’ve witnessed sunsets – dozens of them – from the glorious Washington coast to the dramatic South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Yes, you could say I’m lucky. And so are you: All of these experiences are available to anyone, thanks to America’s amazing national park system.

Over the last year, my wife Leslie Kelly and I have made it a priority to visit as many national parks as possible during an extended RV road trip around the United States. You may have read about us in our Spokesman-Review Auto Connection column, Going Mobile.

Throughout our travels, we’ve stayed in some fantastic campgrounds, perfect for exploring some of the best national parks and monuments in the West. The following campgrounds are some of our favorites. We hope you’ll check them out and start planning your own road trip.

Pacific Northwest and Alaska

Washington: Kalaloch in Olympic National Park is the best campground along the Evergreen State’s coastline. Try to get a site on the bluff overlooking the ocean. In North Cascades National Park, Newhalem Campground sits in an old-growth forest along the Skagit River and is far nicer than noisy, overcrowded Colonial Creek up the road. On the east side of the Cascades, Klipchuck is a lovely national forest campground just outside park, and it’s only 12 miles from the funky Methow Valley town of Mazama. At Mount Rainier National Park, the campgrounds are notoriously crowded. Ohanapecosh is the best of the bunch.

Oregon: Crater Lake National Park has the massive Mazama Campground, which takes reservations, and the Lost Creek Campground, which doesn’t. Of the two, remote Lost Creek is the best choice if you’re willing to take a shot at getting a first-come site.

Alaska: We explored Denali National Park from Riley Creek campground just inside the park entrance. It works well and is easy walking distance to the Visitor Center. Even better, though, is the exclusive Teklanika River campground, 29 miles inside the park. Visitors to Tek, as it’s known, are allowed to drive into the tour bus-only park, a huge bonus.

Intermountain West

Idaho: The Gem State has no national parks, but it does have a fantastic national monument. Craters of the Moon is mind-blowing, a volcanic hot spot that offers wonderful hiking and array of lava tubes to explore. The beautiful Lava Flow Campground puts you right in the middle of the volcanic action.

Utah: One of our favorite spots on this journey has been Green River Campground in Dinosaur National Monument in Northeast Utah. (The monument also extends into northwest Colorado.) The nearby Quarry Exhibit hall is amazing, a place where you can see more than 1,500 dinosaur fossils displayed on massive rock wall. Devil’s Garden Campground in Arches National Park is one of the most stunning places to camp in any national park; as such, it fills up with reservations early (see sidebar). Zion National Park offers two busy campgrounds, South and Watchman near the Springdale, Utah, entrance, both user-friendly places to stay. This is a great park for a bike – riding among the sandstone cliffs is spectacular, especially because cars aren’t allowed in picturesque Zion Canyon.

Colorado: Rocky Mountain National Park is amazing, but its frontcountry campgrounds are horribly overcrowded. Far better camping is available at Colorado’s other parks. Mesa Verde National Park has the Morefield Campground, with excellent sites that puts you in prime position to explore the dramatic Pueblo cliff dwellings. Black Canyon of the Gunnison offers East Portal Campground, a wonderful place to spend the night at the top of a 3,280-foot-deep chasm. And one of the most bizarre and rewarding places we have stayed in our travels is at Piñon Flats Campground in Great Sand Dunes National Park, where you’ll find North America’s largest sand dunes – some more than 1,000 feet tall. Hike to the top and then run – or slide – down.


California: Camping in America’s hottest national park is a challenge, but if you can time it right, it’s unforgettable. Death Valley National Park’s Furnace Creek is massive and crowded, so we opted to stay at Stovepipe Wells, on the edge of the park’s Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. It allowed us to hike amid the dunes as desert foxes scampered alongside us. Another desert gem is Joshua Tree National Park, where the camping is phenomenal throughout. We stayed at Jumbo Rocks Campground in one of dozens of sites set amid the dramatic features.

Arizona: Grand Canyon National Park is one of America’s busiest tourist destinations. It could feel overrun, but Mather Campground on the South Rim is surprisingly good, with beautiful sites in a great location. Besides offering great hiking, Grand Canyon is another fantastic park to explore on bike: A dedicated paved trail snakes through much of Grand Canyon Village, and the road to Hermit’s Rest is off-limits to cars, making it perfect for a ride. The less-traveled North Rim has its own excellent campground and nearby Kaibab National Forest offers free dispersed camping.

New Mexico: One of the most amazing campgrounds we’ve experienced is in Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. Gallo Campground is smack in the middle of the park’s striking Pueblo ruins, and it’s so far from any city that the night skies are unbelievable for stargazing. Carlsbad Caverns National Park has no developed campground, but some fine camping is available nearby at Brantley Lake State Park.

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