Car Camping 101
Car camping—or camping next to your car at a developed campground—is an easy way to enjoy the outdoors without a whole lot of pre-planning. Car camping allows you to haul your favorite creature comforts—coolers, lawn chairs, lanterns, board games, fishing poles, toys, etc., and pitch your tent right next to your car.
Get ready for your campout by learning camping tips, campfire songs and stories, camping recipes and more courtesy of the National Wildlife Federation's Great American Backyard Campout. Also check these Outdoor Safety Camping Tips and other ideas in Camping with kids? There’s a method to this madness courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.
If you’re ready for an easy outdoor camping adventure before summer ends, you’ll like our list of the family-friendly campgrounds below (or type your zip code into the Recreation.gov search box for a list of campgrounds near you).
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Even Alaskans sometimes want a simple, easy-to-get-to, front country camping experience. Williwaw Campground in the Chugach National Forest offers just that! Not only is it 50 miles from Anchorage (15 miles from Girdwood), it’s just off the Seward Highway en route to the Kenai Peninsula. The campground also offers easy access to some prime destinations like the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, Portage Glacier, and Begich, Boggs Visitor Center. Black Bear Campground is nearby and available on a first-come, first-served basis only.
Set in shaded Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona, Cave Spring Campground is surrounded by red sandstone walls and features a creek nearby. Kids will love the natural sandstone waterslide at Slide Rock State Park about five miles down the road. Scenic vistas beckon hikers to nearby trails and birding and fishing along Oak Creek near the campground are popular activities for everyone.
Summerdale Campground in the Sierra National Forest is located just over one mile from Yosemite National Park and sits in a scenic wildflower-filled meadow, surrounded by fir, cottonwood and cedar trees. The campground's proximity to Yosemite, the excellent fishing at Big Creek and the cooler summer temperatures make it a very popular destination for camping veterans and newcomers.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is a network of park sites and locations that offer camping just hours from the Los Angeles area. Groups can book Circle X Group Campground, a former Boy Scout camp.
Crystal Lake Recreation Area
Crystal Lake Recreation Area offers a great beginner camping experience in the Angeles National Forest within 50 miles from downtown Los Angeles (but allow an hour and a half for the drive, due to the winding mountain road). The campground is nestled at 5,600 feet with quiet, shade, a small (seasonal) stream and a small lake that attracts wildlife. Facilities include running water, a contact station, a camp store and café, family-friendly hiking trails and longer hikes for the more adventurous. First-come, first-served camping is available in three loops, and families often bring bicycles to ride on the closed loops.
Piñon Flats Campground, located within the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, is an excellent spot to have a fun and unforgettable experience. You can run up and then slide, roll or tumble down the dunes or jump into nearby Medano Creek to cool off (seasonally).
Colorado National Monument may be lesser known than other national parks in Colorado, but this gem preserves one of the grand landscapes of the American West. Less than ten miles from Fruita or 20 miles from Grand Junction, Saddlehorn Campground offers advance reservations and towering red rock views just steps away from your campsite. Drive the spectacular Historic Rim Rock Drive, join a ranger program at the amphitheater or try one of many other Things to Do.
Salt Springs Campground in the Salt Springs Recreation Area is the largest campground in the Ocala National Forest. The campground offers restrooms and even a bathhouse, plus a cool, refreshing swimming area (marked off in the springtime). Also near the campground is the Salt Springs Canoe Run that flows to Lake George which offers fishing and a marina with canoe rentals, and the Bear Swamp Trail — perfect for a quiet stroll to a boardwalk viewing area. Pick up supplies and enjoy local flavor in stores and restaurants in the nearby town of Salt Springs.
Lake Sinclair Recreation Area in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest offers 40 campsites not far from Atlanta and Macon (the nearest town is Eatonton, with full services including restaurants and grocery stores). Lake Sinclair is ideal for families. Under a shady mix of oak, pine and hickory you can run on the playground, swim, boat or fish. Try the Twin Bridges trail and you might glimpse some wildlife!
Imagine camping at 6,500 feet on the shores of Redfish Lake with the Sawtooth Mountains as your backdrop. Point Campground in the Sawtooth National Forest offers this and more. There’s a sandy beach on the lake, the easy Fishhook Nature Trail and the town of Sandy four miles away.
Sagehen Creek Campground
Sagehen Creek Campground in the Boise National Forest is set in a gorgeous pine, spruce and fir forest with a camp host on site (in season), a sandy swimming beach on Sagehen Reservoir and several trails in the area. Access to this lovely campground is via a mostly (28 mile) graded Forest Service gravel road, but in dry weather passenger cars can manage just fine.
Between the towns of Carbondale and Marion, Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge is one of only a few National Wildlife Refuges in the U.S. that offers camping. Choose from among four campgrounds—Blue Heron, Crab Orchard Lake, Devils Kitchen Lake and Little Grassy. Little Grassy especially caters to novice campers—they have extra equipment, will help set up tents and demonstrate basic outdoor skills. While you are here, you can enjoy photography along the nine-mile auto tour route (bald eagles frequent the area), launch a boat, fish from the bank on piers and walkways, or join an interpretive program. Campsites are not available through Recreation.gov — contact the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge at 618-997-3344 extension 1 for information.Rend Lake
Part of the immense Mississippi River watershed, Rend Lake is on the Big Muddy River in southern Illinois, less than 100 miles from big city St. Louis, and convenient to smaller towns like Whittington or Mt. Vernon, Illinois. The lake’s campgrounds offer shaded campsites, showers, electric hookups, playgrounds and swimming beaches. Birding and butterfly watching are popular activities. Read more about Rend Lake in our Spotlight Article.
Just outside of Des Moines, North Overlook Camp on Lake Red Rock boasts the largest sandy beach and the largest lake in the state of Iowa. The campground has a playground for the kids and easy access to the 14-mile Volksweg Trail, an ideal route for family biking. Wildlife is abundant around the lake—you might even see the American White Pelican. Read more about Lake Red Rock in our Spotlight Article.Sandy Beach Camp
Outside of Iowa City, Coralville Lake’s Sandy Beach Camp is great fun for first-timers. The Sugar Bottom Trail is world class for biking and two 18-hole disc golf courses are popular recreation spots. Kids will love Devonian Fossil Gorge which provides a glimpse into Iowa’s geologic past. Read our Spotlight article on Coralville Lake’s Veterans National Recreation Trail.
Rough River Lake is less than two hours from Louisville and offers four campgrounds each within a few miles of small town amenities (like gas, groceries and restaurants). All offer playgrounds and boat ramps, with boat or Jet Ski rentals available at the lake’s marinas. The historic Green Farm is adjacent to the lake and Mammoth Cave National Park is an hour away.Mammoth Cave National Park
Half way between Louisville, Kentucky, and Nashville, Tennessee, Mammoth Cave National Park also offers advantages for beginner campers. The park offers family-friendly tours of the world’s largest known cave system (or choose from among more challenging cave tours) as well as bike trails and nearby canoe and kayak outfitters for fun on the Green or Nolin rivers. A small store, restaurant, lodging and gas are available in the park.
On the shores of Upper Caney Lake in the Kisatchie National Forest, east of Shreveport, look no further than Beaver Dam Campground for beginning camping—and also swimming, boating, fishing or water skiing! The Sugar Cane National Recreation Trail passes right next to the campground for walking or biking.
Greenbelt Campground is 12 miles from Washington, D.C. The campground is a great option for families and is known for its safety. At Greenbelt, you can enjoy peaceful wooded walking trails, two sets of playground equipment, activities for kids and Wednesday night bicycle practice races. You may also enjoy the quiet nights between day trips into our nation’s capital. The city of Greenbelt is one mile away and the Washington, D.C. Metro (College Park Station) is three miles from the park.
It doesn’t get much better than Lake Michigan at Manistee Campground, sheltered behind the Lake Michigan dunes in the Huron-Manistee National Forest. Walk the short Arrowhead Trail to a sandy swimming beach. Sit on the dunes for spectacular views of the sunset, and then return to your cozy campsite for a marshmallow roast. An array of other hiking and biking trails in the area and proximity to the towns of Manistee and Ludington make this a top option for novices.
Choctaw Lake Campground wraps around Choctaw Lake in Tombigbee National Forest, a little over a 100 miles from Jackson. Boating, swimming and fishing are popular activities. Take a stroll around the lake on the accessible walking trail or try the longer, moderately difficult three-mile trail that leads from the campground. The campground provides easy access to popular destinations like historic Natchez Trace Parkway, Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee Wildlife Refuge and French Camp Historic District.
The Rainbow Point Campground in the Gallatin National Forest provides a convenient location 10 miles north of the Yellowstone National Park west entrance, and also offers camping on scenic Hebgen Lake, Montana's premier still-water fishing lake. Boating and swimming are popular activities as is viewing wildlife, including sandhill cranes, herons, white pelicans, osprey, loons, bald eagles, bison and moose.
Less than 35 miles from Las Vegas, you’ll find more than 100 palm-studded campsites near Lake Mead’s shores at Boulder Beach Campground. Try an October visit when the water is still warm enough to swim and the days are still long enough to hike. Families will enjoy the Historic Railroad Trail tunnels.
The grass and pine meadow near Sleepy Grass Campground feels secluded and cool at 8,800 feet, and it’s one mile from the amenities in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. Try Trail 5661 for spectacular views across White Sands National Monument. NOTE: Campsites are available on a first-come, first-serve basis only.
Camping in New York City? YES! Gateway National Recreation Area’s three campgrounds around New York City may not offer the glamour of the Ritz Carlton or the Plaza, but the Camp Gateway-Brooklyn offers the luxury of tranquil Jamaica Bay salt marshes, Camp Gateway-Sandy Hook sits on a prime beach-front location, while Camp Gateway-Staten Island provides glamorous views of the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan Skyline and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. All of the campgrounds offer wooded paths for walking, biking or horseback riding and ranger-guided programs and tours of historic buildings. Ferry rides to Manhattan may be available seasonally from Brooklyn and Staten Island. Teachers and youth group leaders: Gateway also offers the Ecology Village, a youth camping program for novices.
Hyatt Lake Campground is within the “amazing treasure” of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. The main campground at Hyatt Lake includes access to two boat ramps and dock facilities, fish cleaning station, sand volleyball court, basketball practice court, horseshoe pits and a children's playground. The campground even provides horseshoes, volleyballs and basketballs. Advance reservations are available.
What makes Tracy Ridge in the Allegheny National Forest a perfect choice for beginners is its proximity to both Allegheny Reservoir and the town of Bradford, as well as access to the 33-mile Tracy Ridge trail system. Nearby Willow Bay provides access to the Appalachian Trail, 11 cabins you can reserve in advance, or first-come, first-served camping.
Primitive (near Mount Rushmore)
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is equidistant between two Black Hills National Forest campgrounds: Horsethief Lake (two miles east) and Grizzly Creek Primitive (two miles west). These campgrounds offer not only location, location, location but delightful settings too! Horsethief’s lakefront view make it popular with campers. Grizzly Creek Primitive is surrounded by the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve and close to Black Elk Wilderness, South Dakota's only designated wilderness area. While beginner campers might be daunted by the vault toilets, many campers find Grizzly Creek’s rustic, Civilian Conservation Corps character charming and appreciate the possibility of sighting a bighorn sheep, an elk, a bald eagle or one of hundreds of other bird species (note: Grizzly Creek offers potable drinking water).
Indian Boundary Campground is the crown jewel of the Cherokee National Forest and a family-oriented base camp to explore Indian Boundary Recreation Area’s 96-acre lake and swim beach. Walk the 3.6-mile trail around the lake or watch kids pedal bikes around the campground loops. Each campsite has electrical hookups and easy access to drinking water, showers, restrooms and a camp store.
Just 45 minutes from Houston, Cagle Recreation Area sits on the shore of Lake Conroe in the Sam Houston National Forest. The two-mile Cagle Trail leads around the campground and most of it is paved and easy to walk. A section of the 128-mile Lone Star Hiking Trail also winds along Lake Conroe.Cedar Breaks Park
Cedar Breaks Park on Georgetown Lake is just 25 miles north of Austin on the north fork of the San Gabriel River. The San Gabriel River Trail is a 26-mile rugged trail winding through dense juniper forest, hardwood bottomlands and prairie grasslands. The trail extends completely around Georgetown Lake via the dam and is open to hiking and biking.
Green River Campground in Dinosaur National Monument (which straddles the Utah-Colorado border) is not exactly close to civilization. The nearest small town is 13 miles away at Jensen, while full amenities are available about 24 miles away in Vernal. Yet the campground offers several advantages beginners will appreciate! It’s just five miles to the famous Dinosaur Quarry Exhibit Hall, and rangers offer guided fossil hikes and night sky programs (in season). The campground offers the shade of cottonwood trees along the cool Green River (with the added bonus of drinking water and flush toilets).Maple Grove Campground
The Maple Grove Campground in Fishlake National Forest, sits beneath towering red cliffs and offers scenic views of the valley below. Thick stands of maple, cottonwood, box elder, oak and pine provide plentiful shade. The three-mile Rock Canyon Trail begins in the campground and leads to the top of the Pahvant Range. Younger campers love fishing for rainbow trout in gentle Ivie Creek.
Newhalem Campground is close to the town of Newhalem, Washington, and the Skagit River, which provides critical habitat for all species of Pacific salmon. The forest surrounds the campground and offers seclusion, yet the town and all its amenities are only a short walk away. The campground also offers salmon viewing stations and access to many hiking trails.
Highland Ridge Campground overlooks sparkling Eau Galle Lake about 60 miles east of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The campground sits next to a lake that boasts boating, canoeing, a playground and year-round fishing. Hikers enjoy many interpretive trails like the Ox Trail to the Northwest Day Use Area which features a swimming beach, picnic shelters, volleyball nets and a large, grassy area ideal for soccer or football.