Camping is one of the best—and most fun—ways to get outdoors and bond with your brood. But with thousands of campsites available in parks all across the country, finding just the right one for your family trip can be daunting.
That’s where this list comes in. Here you’ll find campgrounds that will appeal to seasoned outdoorists and first-timers alike. We looked for spots from rustic to luxe, from simple tent sites to “glamping” cabins, from historic to brand-spanking-new. So choose a spot and get out there! You won’t be sorry.
1. Herkimer Diamond Mines Koa Resort
Herkimer, New York
A great option for first-timers, KOA (“Kampgrounds of America”) offers nearly 500 locations across the country with amenities that range from pools to go-karts. This upstate New York branch—one of eight nationwide that are considered “KOA Resorts”—has 40 themed “edutainment” cabins and lodges. For example, the Sky Catcher lodge has its own elevated observatory deck with a telescope, while Professor Gadget’s Robotics lodge comes complete with centripetal hammock and motion-activated lights. If you can pry them out of these cool digs, kids will also love mining for quartz crystals at the Herkimer Diamond Mines or taking a boat ride down the Erie Canal’s 20-foot-high locks.
1. Blue Bell Campground, Custer State Park
Custer, South Dakota
Located in the Black Hills, Custer State Park has 350-foot-high granite spires and mixed-grass prairie, but kids will be most impressed by the wildlife: pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep—and a thundering herd of 1,300 bison. Once in danger of extinction, bison now cause traffic jams on the park’s scenic loops. (But you’re in no rush, right?) The campground is set in a forest of mature ponderosa pines and plays host to programs like the Hook ’em and Cook ’em class. Park naturalists help families catch, clean, and cook trout over a campfire. Or book a seat in a covered wagon on the chuck-wagon cookout, where guests are issued cowboy hats and kerchiefs and serenaded by an old-timey guitar player. Yee-haw!
Trail Tip: Headlamps have an edge over flashlights for anything that requires two hands—from changing diapers to washing dishes. Stash one in your pocket before the sun sets to avoid the Catch-22 of not being able to find a light source in the dark. (And give the kids their own too.)
2. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park Campground
Crescent City, California
Imagine camping among trees that would tower over the Statue of Liberty! Part of Redwood National and State Parks, this park—and campsite by the same name—is set in a grove of old-growth coastal redwood trees on the banks of the emerald-green Smith River. Choose to stay in a tent or rent one of four basic cabins, which have electricity and heat, but no kitchen or bathrooms. Families can wade, swim, fish, snorkel, or join a park ranger for a free kayak tour down the river. Catch a campfire program, hike through rainforests, or take a drive on the 10-mile Howland Hill Road to see the centuries old redwoods.
3. Burton Island State Park
St. Albans, Vermont
Accessible only by boat and idyllically car-free, Burton Island is a remote hideaway where you can fish from a grassy shoreline or take a swim in a shale cove. Getting to the 253-acre state park on Lake Champlain is half the adventure: Families pile gear into wheelbarrows (or pony up $10 for delivery) and take a ten-minute ferry ride from the mainland. Bring a tent or just roll out a pad and sleeping bag inside one of 26 lean-to sites. Self-guided interpretive hikes reveal Burton’s rich history of agriculture, including rusting remnants of farming equipment and abandoned fields now filled with raspberry bushes, sumac fruit, and aspen trees. Island vacationing also means the chance to kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard (all can be rented here).
Trail Tip: Bring earplugs: With the whole family sleeping in close proximity, the tent can become a cacophony of snoring, snuffling, and sleep talking.
4. Petit Jean State Park
If a traditional tent feels claustrophobic—or is just too much work to assemble—consider renting a yurt on the shores of Lake Bailey at Petit Jean State Park, named for the legend of an 18th-century Frenchwoman who disguised herself as a cabin boy to follow her fiancé on his exploration of the New World. Situated on a mesa between the Ozark and Ouachita mountains, at this park you and the kids can take a hike up to the spectacular 90-foot Cedar Falls or explore Rock House Cave, which has centuries-old Native American pictographs. (Call it very old graffiti.) Consider heading indoors and splurging one night on dinner at the park’s Mather Lodge, a grand mountain manse that affords vistas of Cedar Creek Canyon.
1. Chatcolet Campground, Heyburn State Park
Since the 1930s, campers have been watching the moon rise over Lake Chatcolet from this small campground in the Pacific Northwest’s oldest state park. Reserve one of the 38 campsites ahead, and plan to be very active while you’re there. The park boasts access to a 73-mile paved bike path that follows the 1880s Union Pacific rail line, including a 3,100-foot-long adrenalineinducing (but fenced-in for safety) crossing over the St. Joe River on the Chatcolet Trestle Bridge. Then cool off (and rinse down—no showers here!) in the lake with a canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard rental.
2. Piñon Flats Campground, Great Sand Dunes National Park
The only campground in the park, here you can set up camp amid piñon pines and then spend your days exploring the soaring sand dunes framed by the jagged Sangre de Cristos mountains. These massive piles of sand rise up like the Sahara but are much more fun for families to hike—and sled down! (Don’t forget the goggles.) Or wade and build sand castles along Medano Creek. While the dunes are an unusual sight, the area nearby is equally eclectic. Scan the skies for alien aircraft at the UFO Watchtower or check out Colorado Gators, where more than 200 alligators lurk in geothermal ponds behind fences (phew!).
Trail Tip: Don’t forget nighttime comfort items like pacifiers, lovey blankets, or a cherished stuffed animal. If a child needs these things to fall asleep at home, he’ll need them when camping.
1. Twelvemile Beach Campground, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Perched along Lake Superior, Pictured Rocks offers the chance for beachcombing, shoreline hikes, and rambles through wildflowers. For lakefront sites, arrive early morning to Twelvemile Beach Campground, one of three campgrounds in the park, all of which are first-come, first-served. (Consider making backup reservations at a nearby campground, like Bay Furnace or Pete’s Lake in Hiawatha National Forest, as an insurance policy.) Families can picnic on the beach, hike to the 1873 Au Sable Light Station for a tour, then head back to the beach to spy the exposed remains of shipwrecks.
2. Primitive Campground, Don Carter State Park
An hour north of Atlanta, Don Carter is Georgia’s newest state park and the first one set on 38,000-acre Lake Lanier. This reservoir is a family-friendly spot with a sandy swimming beach and playgrounds for landlubbers. More experienced campers (and game kiddos!) can fill up their packs and hike-in to tent camping sites. (Newbies might want to sign up for a two-bedroom cottage set on the hillside overlooking the lake.) Either way, families can explore wetland coves by kayak, stand-up paddleboard, or aquacycle, and hit up a series of short half-mile to 2-mile trails that wind through hardwood forests. The park offers a junior ranger program, as well as the state’s First-Time Camper program.
Trail Tip: Duct tape is a miracle fix-it tool. Use it to repair a broken tent pole, protect a blister-threatening hot spot, or patch a hole in your rainfly.
1. Snake River Campground, Merritt Reservoir State Recreational Area
Want to see some little jaws drop? On a turquoise lake rimmed with white-sand beaches, this campground is set so many miles from a lamp-post that the Milky Way literally casts a shadow. (Hence why the area also hosts a “Star Party” every summer, complete with a field school for stargazing and activities like popbottle rocket making.) Pair your trip with a canoe ride down the nearby Niobrara River, which winds through six ecosystems. It’s a dreamy way to slow down and watch for blue herons and bald eagles (go midweek to avoid the crowds).