Mountaintop vistas and roasted marshmallows: 10 U.S. campsites with epic views

March 01, 2016                 5m read time
Amber Murakami-Fester


From ice-capped mountains to white sand deserts, the U.S. has some of the most jaw-dropping natural features in the world. Here are 10 campgrounds that’ll take your breath away–and not just because of the high altitudes (ba-dum-tss).

1. Sahale Glacier Camp, Washington

Sahale Glacier Camp in the Cascade Mountains in Washington andy porter

Sahale Glacier Camp in the Cascade Mountains in Washington

andy porter

 

The path to Sahale Glacier isn’t for the StairMaster shy—you’ll ascend 4,000 feet in six miles, completing more than 30 switchbacks in just the first half of the trek. But the Cascade Pass Trail remains popular for a reason: You’ll wind through old growth trees, listen to the ice crackle off glaciers and bask in the insanity of high-altitude views. Continuing up the Sahale Arm Trail will get you to Sahale Glacier Camp, where you can sleep in the shadow of the glacier and wake up among the ragged peaks of the Cascades glowing pink in the sunrise. Be sure to grab a permit from North Cascades Ranger Station in Marblemount, bring your hardiest supplies and pack extra cocoa—glaciers get chilly...

2. Garden Key Campground, Florida

Garden Key campground in Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida Xian Zhang

Garden Key campground in Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida

Xian Zhang

 

Nearly 70 miles off the Florida coast in the Gulf of Mexico is Dry Tortugas National Park, a collection of seven islands stretching across 100 square miles of open blue waters. Nestled in the shadow of Fort Jefferson, Garden Key Campground is arguably the best beachfront campground in the U.S. The primitive campsite means you’ll have to rough it a little (if you can call staying on a tropical island “roughing it”), but being one of only a handful of campers on the island—the ferry only shuttles across 10 each day—will put real meaning back into “getaway.” Waters that hit bottom at a shallow 15 feet put the park’s vibrant fish and 30 species of coral a few steps and a plunge away, but it’s the lavish views of orange sunsets, white sands and night skies sagging with stars that earned this gem its place on the list.

3. Jumbo Rocks Campground, California

Jumbo Rocks Campground in Joshua Tree National Park in California Howie Muzika

Jumbo Rocks Campground in Joshua Tree National Park in California

Howie Muzika

 

Out on the western border of Joshua Tree National Park is Jumbo Rocks Campground, where you can sleep surrounded by gargantuan boulders that resemble misshapen eggs. Although there’s probably a better metaphor for that, you get the idea—this is the best chance you’ve got to sleep among Southern California’s most bizarre geological landscapes and vegetation. Plus, pitching your tent at the base of these unusual rocks gives an added bonus: shelter from wind and the unrelenting summer sun, proximity to Skull Rock (a famous rock that’s shaped like—you guessed it—a skull) and easy access to the park’s trail system.

4. Belle of Colorado Campground, Colorado

Belle of Colorado Campgroun in San Isabel National Forest in Colorado Sayamindu Dasgupta

Belle of Colorado Campgroun in San Isabel National Forest in Colorado

Sayamindu Dasgupta

 

A half hour outside Boulder and 10,000 feet up in San Isabel National Forest lies Belle of Colorado Campground. Situated on the lip of Turquoise Lake, this campground provides the best view of massive Sugarloaf Mountain, and several sites sit a literal stone’s throw from the lakeshore. Plan on arriving early to secure your spot—Belle of Colorado is relatively small, first-come first-served and open just for the summer months.

5. Cedar Pass Campground, South Dakota

Cedar Pass Campground in Badlands National Park in South Dakota Chris

Cedar Pass Campground in Badlands National Park in South Dakota

Chris

 

First dubbed “mako sica,” or “land bad,” by the Oglala Lakota for its arid, rocky terrain, Badlands National Park enjoys its rep as one of the nation’s most geologically distinct places: The prairie rustles with life, the low grassland surrounded by jagged layered rocks that jut high into the sky. Plus, rhinos, horses and saber-toothed cats once roamed there, making it one of the top places for mammalian fossil discoveries on the planet. Pitch a tent at Cedar Pass Campground for prime viewing of the park’s signature buttes and spires. Bison wander by the camp and prairie dogs will probably scamper to and fro around your site.

6. El Capitan State Beach, California

El Capitan State Beach in California NOAA’s National Ocean Service

El Capitan State Beach in California

NOAA’s National Ocean Service

 

If cliffside camping is your zen, look no further than El Capitán State Beach. This Santa Barbara fave features multiple campsites atop a cliff that drops straight down to the beach. But being only steps away from the waves means sea breezes and killer sunsets are only the icing on a very big cake: Nabbing a spot at this insanely popular campground will also give you delightful accessibility to swimming, surfing and fishing on one of the world’s most famous coastlines.

7. Piñon Flats, Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado Andrew E. Russell

Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Andrew E. Russell

 

Explorer Zebulon Pike had it right: “Their appearance was exactly that of the sea in a storm, except as to color,” he wrote after seeing these undulating sand dunes for the first time in 1807. And stormy sea-like they are: The park’s biggest dunes reach up to 750 feet in height and the entire landscape constantly shape-shifts in the wind. Piñon Flats Campground, appropriately located in a copse of pinyon pines, offers the most impressive views of the dunes—as well as the snow-capped, 13,000-foot Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

8. Chisos Basin Campground, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Chisos Basin Campground in Big Bend National Park in Texas Adam Baker

Chisos Basin Campground in Big Bend National Park in Texas

Adam Baker

 

This campground is the most sought-after spot in the park, and for good reason. Located in the northern mountain region, Chisos Basin is surrounded by rocky cliffs and outcrops, making for up-front views of the Chisos Mountains themselves. More into things that move? The Chisos Basin is centrally located to many of the park’s most popular trails and is the Colima warbler’s only nesting ground in the continental U.S. Maybe you’ll make a coyote friend on your hike—they roam the area too.

9. White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

White Sands National Monument in New Mexico  Joshua Barnett

White Sands National Monument in New Mexico 

Joshua Barnett

 

One of the lesser-known parks on the list, White Sands National Monument is perhaps the most visually striking. Its ten backcountry sites will plant you in the middle of powder-white gypsum sand and make you feel like you’re in a New Age music video. Cuddle with a spindly soaptree yucca, watch the sunset turn the entire desert into a glowing pink bath or enjoy live music beneath a full moon during a monthly concert scheduled by the park. The only (really cool) downside? It’s adjacent to a military missile range, which means unexpected closures during testing sessions.

10. Kirby Cove, California

Kirby Cove in California Tom Hilton

Kirby Cove in California

Tom Hilton

 

You might have to reserve the space months in advance and fend off locals with a stick, but being tucked away in the Marin Headlands in a ring of towering pines with a view of the famous Golden Gate Bridge is undoubtedly worth it. Frolic through hills of sage and lupine and explore the cove’s old army battery namesake, Battery Kirby. If you grow tired of nature or the summer fog puts a damper on your view, never fear—Kirby Cove is just an eight-mile trudge (or quick Uber ride) from downtown San Francisco, and the Bridge is basically your next-door neighbor.

It goes without saying that campsites with killer views are usually high in demand. But the hard-to-reach nature of some, and the fact that many others can’t be reserved in advance, mean even last-minute campers have a shot at sleeping with beautiful vistas outside their tent flap. So plan an epic trip or just grab your pack and go—there's no wrong way to enjoy these dazzling destinations. 

Amber Murakami-Fester

Amber is the editorial intern at ZOZI. In her spare time she enjoys listening to Amy Winehouse, rooting for the San Francisco Giants, and riding public transportation.

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