Car camping is a great way for families to explore wilderness areas without sacrificing comforts that must be abandoned when backcountry camping. (Ever try to carry a full cooler on a backpack?) Sharing a tent under the stars is a great way for kids to develop a deep love for nature and a taste for the adventurous life. Car camping is also the perfect way to establish a base camp for assorted adventures, from day hikes to lake paddles. While car camping is not exactly roughing it, it is a novel way to reconnect with nature without a lot of the hassle. Our tour around the country looks at some of the best regional car camping sites to take your family when the call of the wild modestly knocks at your door.
1 – Austin, TX – Pedernales Falls State Park
Pedernales Falls is about an hour’s drive from Austin and is a beautiful, natural counterpart to the busy city streets. The centerpiece of the park is the namesake waterfall that gradually cascades down a 50-foot drop. The water is shallow and dotted with limestone rock islands that make for fun boulder-hopping. Besides all the river fun, there are hiking and mountain biking trails that escape into the woods. Horseback riding is popular in the area and the abundance of wildlife makes the area a hit with birdwatchers and wildlife photographers. There is a family-friendly vibe to the area as well as plenty of available car camping to be found within the park. Pedernales is a great weekend escape that is perfect for adventurous families.
2 – Portland, OR – Shady Cove Campground
Shady Cove doesn’t have RV hookups or luxury camping amenities, but it does have picnic tables, fire pits, and a shared restroom. It’s still car camping and is easy to access, but the primitive camping sites offer a more backcountry feel to the area. Because it is in the thick of true wilderness, it makes a perfect basecamp for adventures into the nearby old-growth forests. Opal Creek Wilderness is within walking distance as is the Three Pools recreation area—some of the best swimming holes in the region. There’s plenty of wildlife, flora, and hiking trails for families to explore. The dense forests lend a prehistoric presence to the region—so why not bring along a book about dinosaurs to read to the kids at night? The beauty of this area is everything you’d hope for in a backcountry adventure that starts right from the comforts of your own little campsite hollow.
3 – Cody / East Yellowstone, WY – Newton Creek Campground
Newton Creek is one of those quiet, peaceful places that instantly changes your frame of mind. Access is easy—only 32 miles from Cody—and the car camping is plentiful. Sites are next to the chilly, Shoshone River—a place where kids love to splash, fish, and generally monkey around. There’s also plenty of wildlife in the area. Moose and their calves are known to frequent the area as do bear, elk, and many other smaller critters. Hiking trails from the campground explore the pristine, less-visited land that borders Yellowstone National Park. Note that only hard-sided campers are allowed in the campground—no tents, since grizzly bears are common in the area (a common requirement in the region). Vans and trucks are perfectly acceptable. It’s a small price to pay to have a look at this real, raw western wilderness.
4 – Knoxville, TN – Elkmont Campground
Elkmont is a more traditional car camping destination—in fact, it’s the largest campground in the Great Smoky Mountains. Its location is ideal for families to get out and explore the heart of the Smokies, and the drive from Knoxville is a reasonable hour or so. The abandoned houses of the old Elkmont township are the perfect setup for ghost stories, while the network of rivers and ponds are great for kids to explore. There’s plenty of hiking trails that start from the campground, and panoramic mountain views await around every proverbial corner. Families with older kids may want to use the campground as a home-base to explore nearby destinations such as Clingman’s Dome, Tennessee’s highest point, and the heralded Appalachian Trail, which runs through this corridor as well.
5 – Minneapolis, MN – Lake Elmo Reserve
Lake Elmo is a mere 20 miles from Minneapolis, making it an easy weekend destination to take the family. There are 2,200 acres and over 20 miles of hiking trails that explore this unique wetlands region. Most of the trails are mellow and easy for kids to hike—and there are plenty of welcome distractions in the form of wildlife, birds, and flowers. There are many open meadows, where the chorus of crickets and frogs ring out through the night. Within the boundary of the reserve are old farm ruins that harken back to the olden days. Many families find themselves coming back again and again to trek on unexplored trails or simply to take in the majesty of the midwestern forest. Oh, and don’t miss the summer lightning bug display—if you catch it at the right time, the entire forest seems to glow with flickering, Fern Gully-esque lights.