After a total of 183 nights of our National Parks adventure, we like to think we’ve got this whole camping thing down. (We don’t, but we like to pretend.)
Here’s how we’ve spent our nights at the time of writing this post:
- Tent camping: 122
- Crashing with friends or family (counting the American Samoa homestay and our three-week holiday break at home): 43
- Hotels (counting the week my Grandma gifted us in Oahu): 14
- Couchsurfing: 4
We spend most of our time in our good ol’ REI half dome, with pads that won’t stay inflated (a whole other ranting post), without showers and exposed to the elements. And since the new year we’re excited to be trying out our Zephyr 2 lightweight backpacking tent from our newest sponsor, ALPS Mountaineering.
Even though we are sometimes envious of the RVers around us watching cable TV in the comfort and warmth of their homes-away-from-home, we know deep down (sometimes wayyyy deep down) that this is the way our personal trip is supposed to go. We’re supposed to be a little uncomfortable, a little cold, a little exposed, because at the end, we’ll look back and know that we fully experienced America’s most beautiful places.
And for the record, we totally have respect for RV travelers and the way they do their own adventure. We are already dreaming about our second lap around the country when we retire, and an RV will no doubt be involved!
Anyway, we have become more and more accustomed to the way the NPS does camping. And we can hardly keep all this information to ourselves.
During our recent trip through Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, we had the realization that we experienced almost all the different ways camping in the National Parks is possible. We thought we’d share our personal experiences there, as well as general pros and cons of the various camping opportunities.
As you might guess, we are focusing on those options for tent campers, but we also mention a few benefits that might be of use to RV campers as well.
National Park Service Developed Campgrounds
Our first look in camping is almost always towards the NPS-run drive-up campgrounds typically located smack-dab in the middle of the park. Since we tend to arrive at a park in the afternoon or evening, staying at a comfy park campground allows us to get the lay of the land in a new park before venturing off into the wilderness.
On our trip so far, these campgrounds have ranged in price from $6 (off-season Black Canyon of the Gunnison) to $30 (Acadia) for primitive tent sites. Bigger parks often have multiple campgrounds, offering options for RV hookups and occasionally pay showers and laundry.
Guadalupe Mountains’ Pine Springs campground was happily on the low end of cost at only $8 a night. The campground was on the small end, but very comfortable, scenic, and laid-back. It was also one of the quieter campgrounds we had experienced, which was a nice treat after long days of hiking and early bedtimes. Bathrooms with running water, and additional drinking fountains, were available. There is an amphitheater with ranger programs running intermittently.
Pine Springs was representative of most other NPS-run campgrounds we have experienced during our trip. Overall, with these developed campgrounds, there are benefits and downsides:
Pros of NPS-run Developed Campgrounds:
- Comfortable, non-risky
- Typically drive-up, allowing for easier food storage and convenience
- Favorable locations with cleared and level spots or platforms
- Amenities like bathrooms, electricity, drinking water, and a camp store
- Little advanced planning required (sometimes online reservations are allowed though)
Cons of NPS-run Developed Campgrounds:
- Occasionally on the loud side
- More expensive
- Sometimes not the most natural settings
A second option at almost all National Parks in the system is backcountry camping. These almost always require a permit (free or for a relatively small fee) and a bit of advanced planning.
As a personal challenge and a way to feel more immersed in the natural elements, we try to camp in the backcountry at least once per park. (And we have accomplished that feat in 15 of 27 parks… The other 12 being impossible, like Hot Springs, or extremely unfavorable, like Everglades).
Backcountry camping at the parks has several benefits. In addition to just being fun (for peeps like us at least), camping in the wilderness is quieter, more peaceful, and a whole lot cheaper. In Guadalupe, there are several backcountry options for hikers, with designated hikes as close as 3 miles (albeit steep miles) away from a trailhead. The permits are free, so it’s very possible to spend your time at Guadalupe Mountains hiking and sleeping under the stars at 8,000 feet, all for free.
We obtained a permit for three separate backcountry sites at Guadalupe, but changed tracks after the first night because we both got sick and wanted the convenience (and warmth) of the lower-elevation Pine Springs Campground.
Most NPS backcountry camping follows a similar pattern:
Pros of Backcountry Camping:
- Cheap or free
- More remote, peaceful
- Occasional amenities like pit toilets and drinking water
Cons of Backcountry Camping:
- Fewer amenities
- Sometimes requires advanced planning and permit
- More hassles, hiking in all equipment, storing food, packing out trash
- More risk and challenge in wildlife encounters and unfavorable weather
BLM (Bureau of Land Management) camping provided a new wealth of opportunity for us early on in our trip, especially when we explored southern Utah. Basically, travelers can camp on most BLM land (federal land not protected by the NPS) for free. Which is awesome! But unfortunately, it’s not always that simple.
Some parks, like Capitol Reef and Guadalupe Mountains, recommend nearby BLM camping as an alternative to their sometimes crowded developed campground. This worked out really well for us in Capitol Reef, where we camped three nights in an obvious camping area for free. But in Guadalupe, we drove around the supposed nearby camping area the rangers told us about for about hour only to find scattered “No Camping” signs, scaring us back to the NPS developed campground.
So it’s a game of high risk, high reward with BLM camping. This way of traveling can be fun and cheap, but it comes with its own setbacks:
Pros of BLM camping:
- Always free!
- Often drive-up, adding benefits of food storage and convenience.
- Plentiful, especially in the west
- No advanced planning required
Cons of BLM camping:
- Confusing locations
- Primitive- rarely amenities like bathrooms or drinking water
- Often inconvenient location to the National Parks
Private Outside Campgrounds
Sometimes, usually as a last resort, we reach even beyond the boundaries of federal land and into the world of private campgrounds.
With so many travelers seeking an outdoorsy National Parks vacation, there is usually a plethora of private camping options located near the parks. And in some parks, like Petrified Forest, which only offers limited backcountry camping, these private campgrounds are the only practical option.
During our whole trip, we have only sought out private campgrounds at Petrified Forest, Biscayne, Everglades (in the Chokoloskee area) because of practicality and, honestly, showers. And we’ve had great experiences! In Choloskee, the private campground was cheaper than the NPS one, and had awesome showers, a community lounge area with games, cable, and a full kitchen (a HUGE treat for us). And in Petrified Forest, we used the nearby KOA as a sort-of “rest” day, and thoroughly enjoyed their showers and laundry amenities.
As with the other camping options, there are upsides and downsides to private campgrounds:
Pros of Private Campgrounds:
- Comfortable, not risky
- Rich with amenities like running water, showers (!!), WiFi, laundry, RV hookups, and a camp store
Cons of Private Campgrounds:
- Located outside the parks
- Much less of a natural environment
- Often (but not always) more expensive
Hopefully the sometimes-muddied waters of National Park camping is a bit clearer after reading about our experiences. Overall, we’d recommend doing pre-trip planning to scout out options. This method has always been more successful than winging it for us. It’s also crucial to consider what kind of experience you are seeking. On a long trip like this, our vibes are always shifting from wanting a shower to wanting a backcountry adventure, and everything in between.
Our last piece of advice for camping in the National Parks? You won’t be showering. So just be prepared.
For a full picture of the climbs and antics of Guadalupe Mountains, check out our video.