woman in purple KÜHL baselayer standing in front of open car trunk

20 Stunning Car Camping Spots for a Perfect Road Trip

Camping Travel
on
August 23, 2021

There’s nothing quite like the great outdoors and breathtakingly scenic views to reset and restore the soul. The U.S. offers an abundance of amazing natural beauty, and one of the best ways to see it is to simply hop in your car and go!

No need to book costly accommodations, rent an RV, or pull a trailer. Most of America’s best beaches, national parks, and campsites have parking spaces that you can pull into and camp right from your car.

So load your gear, pack the trunk, and gas up for an amazing adventure on the road! If you’re wondering which scenic destination you should plug into your GPS, check out the 20 car camping spots below.

Check out our complete checklist of car camping gear.

1. Mt. Hood National Forest, OR

Located just 20 miles east of Portland, Mt. Hood National Forest extends south from the stunning Columbia River Gorge across more than a million acres of tree-lined mountains, lakes, and streams. Of course, it’s also home to iconic Mt. Hood.

With so much to do – including fishing, boating, hiking, hunting, and skiing – and such amazing scenery, it is one of the best car camping spots. Mt. Hood National Forest offers more than 70 developed campgrounds (many of them with picnic tables), as well as dispersed camping opportunities.

Before you go, make sure to check with the National Forest website to learn more about the specific rules and regulations for camping.

snowy mount hood rising above the road and trees
The staggering Mount Hood rising above the road. Photo by Elena Kuchko.

2. Sierra Buttes, CA

You’ll discover the jagged tops of the Sierra Buttes surrounded by dozens of alpine lakes and lush forests in the Lakes Basin Recreation Area. Besides the jaw-dropping scenery, the recreation area offers over 30 miles of hiking trails, fishing, kayaking, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and more.

The varied Lakes Basin Recreation Area campgrounds provide both designated and dispersed camping opportunities. Check their website for any fees and permits required.

lake near trees and mountain
Sierra Buttes, Sardine Lake. Photo by Nick Rickert.

3. Yosemite National Park, CA

Yosemite National Park is one of the nation’s most popular parks, but a reservation is a strict requirement for all campers. Don’t arrive at Yosemite intending to stay overnight if you don’t already have a reservation. Since they book up well in advance, you need to plan accordingly if staying in Yosemite National Park is on your car camping bucket list! 

branches and rocks at lake in Yosemite National Park
A photo taken in Yosemite National Park after a quick nap in the car by Nathan Dumlao.

4. Big Sur, CA

If ever there was a perfect, idyllic road trip, Highway 1 along the California coastline would be it. In and around Big Sur, the way the towering road winds and the land hugs the sea below is both unique and breathtaking.

It is illegal to car camp along Highway 1, but Big Sur offers streamside oceanview, and bluff camping at a private, state park, as well as dispersed campsites. One of the most popular sites is Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Check the state park website for camping fees and permits that may apply to camping within the park.

car and tent next to a lake and dirt road
One of the best state parks for car camping trips – Big Sur. Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan.

5. Alabama Hills, CA

Alabama Hills, located near the eastern slopes of the jagged Sierra Nevada mountains, is a natural formation of eroded hills and rounded rocks and arches. It is a popular spot for climbers, boulderers, and photographers.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages three campgrounds in and around Alabama Hills. Tuttle Creek has more than 80 sites with views of Mt. Whitney and fishing opportunities. Drinking water and restrooms are also available.

people camping next to fire under starry sky
Alabama Hills offer free space for overnight parking on BLM land. Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan.

6. Trona Pinnacles, CA

One of the most unique geological features in the California Desert Conservation Area, the Trona Pinnacles are located 28 miles outside of the Mojave Desert. Designated as a National Natural Landmark, the Trona Pinnacles are a collection of 500 spirals (some reaching 140 feet tall) scattered across the barren landscape. Their stunning look has been featured in many commercials and movies. The Bureau of Land Management provides free, dispersed camping in the area here.

dirt roads next to brown rock formations
The car campers and the overlanding community both love Trona Pinnacles for its smooth dirt roads. Photo by Joy.

7. Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Named after the twisty, spiky, Dr. Seuss-like tree that scatters the landscape, Joshua Tree National Park is an expansive desert landscape of unique beauty. There are 500 campsites in the area, offering both developed car camping sites with amenities and a picnic table, as well as dispersed camping opportunities for tent camping. However, the majority of the sites are available by reservation only. Regulations and rules are based on the time of year you visit the area. Make sure to check with the National Park Service website for more information.

camp site under brown rock formation during night
You’ll find picnic tables and fire pits at the Joshua Tree National Park camp sites. Photo by Megan Leong.

8. Moab, UT

Moab in Utah is a camping mecca! It is neighbored by two National Parks, one state park, and a massive expanse of BLM land.

The red-rock wonderland, Arches National Park is filled with beautiful, naturally occurring rock formations and sits only 5 miles outside of Moab. The park has over two thousand stone arches, hundreds of soaring pinnacles, and massive boulders.

Just 55 miles away from Moab, you’ll find Canyonlands National Park, filled with vast canyons and buttes formed by the Colorado River.

people sitting around the camp fire under night sky
Car camping site under the stars in the incredible Moab. Photo by Emma Smith.

9. Manti-La Sal National Forest, UT

The Manti-La Sal National Forest sits about 150 miles east of Moab. The diverse landscape offers up scenic views of canyons, dense forests, mountains, meadows, lakes, and streams. There are plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation – hiking, climbing, fishing, horseback riding, mountain biking, and more.

You can reserve one of the 32 developed campsites in the National Forest or discover more primitive campsites intended for dispersed camping in the area. To learn more about camping in Manti-La Sal, go to the National Forest Service site.

car camping site in woods
Car camping in Manti-La Sal National Forest. Photo by The Greater Southwestern Exploration Company.

10. Grand Staircase, Escalante UT

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a few hours drive from the north rim of the Grand Canyon and spans over 1 million magnificent acres. The landscape ranges from a low-lying desert to a large conifer forest.

The Grand Staircase boasts cliffs, terraces, monoliths, slot canyons, natural bridges, and arches. The unspoiled area is a welcoming frontier and offers opportunities to view breathtaking scenery in quiet solitude.

Two official campgrounds are located in the monument, Deer Creek and Calf Creek Recreation Area. There is also a variety of dispersed camping options around the area.  

brown rock formations rising in desert
You can get a permit for overnight car camping in visitor centers in Kanab or Escalante. Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument by Patrick Hendry.

11. Sheep Bridge Road, UT

Managed by the BLM, Sheep Bridge Road, near Zion National Park, offers 48 free dispersed campsites with fire rings. Sheep Bridge Road goes through the middle of Hurricane Cliffs Recreation Area, a landscape of red-rock cliffs, canyons, and mesas.

Besides being free, what makes Sheep Bridge Road so popular are the gorgeous views, beautiful sunsets, and the clear night sky. Moreover, the Virgin River runs through the area with several hiking trails that lead to the river.

river surrounded by short green bushes and tall mountain
Virgin River, Zion National Park by Joshua Sukoff.

12. Stanley Lake, ID

An alpine lake at the foot of the Sawtooth Mountains, Stanley Lake is perfect for fishing, boating, water skiing, jet skiing, swimming, canoeing, and kayaking. Stanley Lake is situated in the Sawtooth National Forest. This National Forest is known as the crown jewel of the Gem State due to its remote wilderness and stunning landscapes.

Although there are dozens of campgrounds in the National Forest, Stanley Lake Campground offers hilltop views and lush pine forest. To learn more about dispersed camping near Stanley Lake, visit the National Forest Service website.

lake near mountain under blue sky during daytime
Stanley Lake offers free car camping spots as well as those with amenities. Photo by Perry Kibler.

13. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, CO

This lesser-known part of Colorado boasts an astonishing site carved into the southwestern part of the state. Camping is only allowed at designated sites. With epic views, the North Rim Campground is close to several lookouts and a system of trails that lead down to the canyon.

There are just 13 remote sites located at the North Rim, with 88 sites offered at the South Rim and 15 at East Portal. Check with the National Park Service site for more information.

rock formations in black canyon of the gunnison
Stunning views in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison by Ben Cappellacci.

14. Big Bend National Park, TX

Big Bend is situated on the western edge of Texas’ Mexican border. The vast desert landscape is stunning and the clear, black night sky is filled with stars at night. The area is perfect for campers looking for some peaceful solitude.

There are three developed campsites and a visitors’ center full of camping supplies. The Chisos Basin Campground is located in the center of the park with the magnificent Chisos Mountains as a backdrop.

desert and mountains under blue sky
Get off the road and you’ll easily find some of the best car camping spots at Big Bend. The Chisos Mountains from the main road of Big Bend National Park by Mick Haupt.

15. Talimena State Park, OK

Settled in the Ouachita National Forest of Oklahoma, this state park is known for its rolling hills and vibrant foliage landscapes during the spring.

Talimena State Park is a gateway to the Talimena National Scenic Drive, a scenic byway that follows the Winding Stair Mountain to Arkansas. You can backpack, hike, ATV, or dirt bike your way through the National Forest. Check out the Travel OK website to book a camp site.

picnic tables on the overlook near mountains
Winding Stair Campground with picnic tables at the overlook on the Talimena Scenic Drive. Photo by Alex Butterfield.

16. Cherokee National Forest, TN

The largest area of public land in Tennessee, Cherokee National Forest spans 640,000 acres in the Appalachian Mountains. Campers can enjoy hiking the 150 miles of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, along with fishing, water skiing, boating, and horseback riding. There are over 30 developed campsites in Cherokee National Forest. 

pine trees rising from body of water
Trees in the Greasy Creek, Cherokee National Forest. Photo by Forest Service, USDA.

17. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, MI

Miles of sand beach, bluffs that tower 450 feet above Lake Michigan, lush forests, clear lakes, and unique landscape create the natural beauty of Sleeping Bear Dunes. The sand dunes, beaches, and lakes all date back to the ice age. The views from the bluffs are breathtaking. The park offers both modern and primitive campsites for all camping styles. 

sand beach under blue sky
You’ll find a few beautiful car camping spots near the lakeshore. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore by Daniel del Real.

18. Pisgah National Forest, NC

The Pisgah National Forest is located in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina. The area offers mile-high peaks, cascading waterfalls, heavily forested slopes, and hundreds of miles of trails to explore. It is home to a 2,000-foot deep gorge filled with massive rock formations and an impressive waterfall called Linville Falls.

Pisgah has dozens of official campgrounds with a few dispersed sites, as well. Check with the National Forest website for more information on how to reserve a space.

waterfall next to wooden fence
Moore Cove Falls in the Pisgah National Forest. Photo by Kimon Berlin.

19. Explore Park, Roanoke, VA

You will be treated to what is frequently referred to as “America’s Favorite Drive” while road tripping along the National Park Service’s Blue Ridge Parkway to Explore Park. The gorgeous scenery can’t be beat!

Explore Park offers everything for the outdoor enthusiast, including 14 miles of hiking and biking trails, fishing, kayaking, and canoeing on the Roanoke River. If you are looking for a unique adventure, try disc golf or zip-lining. Explore Park is a prime camping destination and offers both developed and primitive sites.

car on a bridge in the woods
A bridge on the Blue Ridge Parkway by Chris Hunkeler.

20. Denali National Park and Preserve, AK

Denali National Park lies between Anchorage and Fairbanks and is home to Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America. Offering up 360-degree views of untamed and undisturbed wilderness, Denali is an amazing experience. An abundance of wildlife, including grizzly bears, moose, sheep, and caribou roam the park.

Denali National Park is open year-round and six campgrounds throughout the park offer car campers a variety of options, activities, and amenities. Check with the National Park Service website for more information on campgrounds, reservations, fees, and policies for the time of year that interests you.

white car at the road near mountains
Photo taken on the Denali Highway by FairbanksMike.

Gear Up for Your Car Camping Adventure With KÜHL

There are so many amazing locations in this country to stop for a while and explore, and this is just a sampling of what’s out there.

Both national and state parks are full of designated camping spots for car campers. For a national database of reservable sites on a variety of federal land in all different states, check out Recreation.gov. The site also helps you find BLM camping areas that are typically free to stay on. Before you visit any of the national forests to car camp, make sure you check with the Forest Service website for information about necessary permits and any other policies or restrictions.

Whichever of the beautiful car camping spots you end up on, remember to enjoy the ride. The experience is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. But with so many astounding destinations just waiting to be explored, grab the gear, set the GPS, get behind the wheel and go!

Also, check out these articles:

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