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Why Everyone Needs a Go-To Camping Spot

Up in Utah’s La Sal Mountains, about 45 minutes from Moab, there’s an undeveloped campsite on Forest Service land. A rough dirt road forks, then turns even rougher immediately before a stand of aspens opens onto a field with a sweeping view of La Sal Pass. 

This was my family’s favorite spot when I was in high school. We would set up our tent at the edge of the trees, the mountain peaks visible out the door. In spring, the field was a riot of wildflowers; in fall, the leaves turned golden. Cows sometimes wandered through, flustering our Jack Russell terrier. 

We visited that spot at least twice as often as we went anywhere else. It was a summer escape from the desert’s baking heat, and it was beautiful, free, close by, and almost never occupied. We could bike or hike, but mostly we just hung out around camp, enjoying the view and the silence and each other’s company. Having a go-to spot eliminated decision anxiety and cut down on planning, making camping more a good habit than a special occasion. After a busy week that left no time to dream up new adventures, if we realized we wanted to sleep under the stars, we could be on our way in an hour.

Our spot was familiar (we knew which trees could anchor our tarp when it rained and which rocks made the best seats) but returning to it was no less memorable than trips that took months to plan. The only mountain lion I’ve ever seen bounded across the road in broad daylight as we drove to our site—in disbelief, we confirmed with each other that it was what we thought and kept the dog on a leash that night. We saw a double rainbow and dense wildflowers and the orangey-pink light of summer evenings slanting across 12,000-foot peaks. When we forgot our stove, we made tacos and pancakes over the campfire in a cast-iron pan.

By letting go of the expectation that every vacation be unique, we got out more. We cultivated a relationship with the place—I brought a high school boyfriend there once, a compatibility test on par with having him meet my parents. Our family camping spot wasn’t just a place we went to; it was an extension of home.

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The Best Hike in Every National Park

From Alaska’s remote bush to downtown Cleveland, our national parks provide us with millions of acres of public land to explore. We compiled a list of the best hikes in each park, according to the wilderness guides, park rangers, and hikers who know them. 


No People(Photo: PictureLake/iStock)


The Expert: Pat Johnson, Maine Outdoor Adventure Club trip leader
The Hike: Penobscot and Sargent Mountain Loop

Summit two of the park’s highest peaks on this 9.5-mile loop through thick spruce forest that eventually gives way to pink-tinted granite crags. The route offers access to three carriage-road bridges, relics from John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s philanthropic work—consider detouring less than a half mile to the 230-foot-long Cliffside Bridge. 


Vibrant Color(Photo: johnnya123/iStock)


The Expert: John Tillison, former Washington State park ranger
The Hike: Devils Garden Loop

You’ll see eight of the park’s stunning rock formations on this 7.9-mile tour through Devils Garden. It’s an easy stroll to the longest arch in North America, Landscape Arch, but then the gentle trail transitions to narrow ledges that involve some scrambling to reach Double O, Navajo, and Partition Arches. 


Badlands(Photo: SharonDay/iStock)

South Dakota

The Expert: Kelsy Koerlin, Rapid City, South Dakota, hiker
The Hike: Notch Trail

An easy 1.5-mile round-trip, this trail tours the best of the Badlands’ otherworldly assortment of eroded rock and clay, splashed with a brilliant array of red, white, and black. Ascend a log ladder to a bird’s-eye view of the rugged terrain and distant prairie of White River Valley. 

Big Bend

big-bend-best-hike_h.jpgCamping and hiking (Photo: Maxine Weiss/iStock)


The Expert: Courtney Lyons-Garcia, Big Bend Conservancy executive director
The Hike: Lost Mine Trail

Soak in the solitude through the heart of the Chisos Mountains for 4.8 miles round-trip, past alligator junipers and piñon pines. The views of the Sierra del Carmen mountains in Mexico are spectacular. Visit in November or March to avoid the summer heat. 


national park(Photo: jtstewartphoto/iStock)


The Expert: Sandra Friend, author of 'The Florida Trail Guide'
The Hike: Spite Highway Trail

Only accessible by boat, Elliot Key is the largest island in the park, home to the “Spite Highway,” a seven-mile sliver of forest that in the 1960s was flattened in opposition to a national-monument designation. It’s the park’s only hiking trail, and on it you’ll be immersed in tropical forests, even as Miami looms to the north. 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison 

Beautiful(Photo: dschnarrs/iStock)


The Expert: Elaine Brett, North Fork Valley, Colorado, hiker
The Hike: North Vista Trail

At Exclamation Point, snag the best view of the park’s namesake canyon from 900 feet above the rim. Continue to Green Mountain for a panoramic vista of the San Juan Mountains and Grand Mesa, a seven-mile round-trip. 

Bryce Canyon 

national park(Photo: Tom Mendola/iStock)


The Expert: Charlie Neumann, owner of Willow Canyon Outdoor, in Kanab, Utah 
The Hike: Under the Rim Trail

At 23 miles one-way, Under the Rim Trail is the longest in Bryce. Take two days to experience the best of the Paunsaugant Plateau’s hoodoo rock spires. Tackle most of the 5,000 feet in elevation change early by starting at Rainbow Point—you can arrange a shuttle there with the Park Service, free with your entry fee. 


national park(Photo: Myrabella/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)


The Expert: Cort Wright, Moab Adventure Center guide
The Hike: Grand View Point 

Although only a two-mile round-trip, the trail leading to Grand View Point isn’t short on views—you’ll gawk at the maze of basins, dozens of canyons, and the La Sal Mountains in the distance. Arrive before dawn (and the crowds) to watch the sun cast the desert in an amber hue. 

Capitol Reef 

arid(Photo: silvermanmediaservices/iStock)


The Expert: Andrew Wojtanik, former Capitol Reef interpretive ranger
The Hike: Halls Creek Narrows 

The beauty of the Halls Creek Narrows, a slot canyon with towering cliffs, is often compared to the famous Narrows of Zion, yet this 22.4-mile round-trip hike is much more remote and rugged. The unmarked route requires a topographic map and compass to navigate. Plan to spend two nights in the backcountry and to get wet through several creek crossings. 

Carlsbad Caverns

national park(Photo: Elisabeth Bender/iStock) 

New Mexico

The Expert: Colin Walfield, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, employee
The Hike: Big Room Trail

It takes about an hour and a half to encircle the Big Room—the largest chamber within Carlsbad Caverns and the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America. This 1.25-mile walk twists among giant stalagmites on a paved trail with handrails. A ranger-guided tour provides insight into the geologic history of the cave system. 

Channel Islands 

inspiration point(Photo: benedek/iStock)


The Expert: David Begun, Channel Islands park ranger
The Hike: Lobo Canyon Trail

This 5.2-mile loop is marked by its ecological diversity—more than a dozen rare plants grow in the park. You’ll start in grassland bluffs, with sweeping views of the Pacific, before dropping into a canyon harboring native plants like the canyon sunflower. When you reach the coastline, look out for peregrine falcons and bald eagles. 


national park(Photo: TheBigMK/iStock)

South Carolina

The Expert: Barbie Smrekar, Columbia Outdoor Adventure Network organizer
The Hike: River Trail

Tour this park’s namesake river on a 10.4-mile trail through bottomland and bald cypress forest, home to whitetail deer, otters, and feral hogs. In periods of low water, lounge near the river on exposed sandbars—but keep an eye out for alligators. 

Crater Lake 

national park(Photo: Markgorzynski/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)


The Expert: Erik Fernandez, Oregon Wild wilderness-program manager
The Hike: Garfield Peak Trail

Starting from the Crater Lake Lodge, at an elevation of about 7,000 feet, climb another thousand feet in 1.7 miles to Garfield Peak. From here you’ll have a view of the lake’s crystal-blue water, the deepest in the country at almost 2,000 feet. Go in July for peak wildflower viewing and early in the morning to miss the crowds. 

Cuyahoga Valley 

Amar Veluri(Photo: lipika/iStock)


The Expert: Erik Baldwin, Cleveland Hiking Club member
The Hike: Buckeye Trail

You’ll be hard-pressed to find another park quite like Cuyahoga Valley, nestled in the middle of Cleveland. This one’s for the trail runners and the hardcore hikers: a 12.6-mile section of the statewide 1,400-mile Buckeye Trail from Station Road Bridge to the historic village of Boston. Pass waterfalls and old homesteads dotting densely forested hills before looping back. 

Death Valley 

California(Photo: The Greater Southwestern Exploration Company/Creative Commons)

California and Nevada

The Expert: Alan Gegax, VegasHikers trip organizer
The Hike: Panamint City Ghost Town 

Panamint City was a mining town founded by outlaws in 1873 that quickly garnered a rough reputation, but it was leveled a few years later in a flash flood. Hike to its ruins from Chris Wicht’s Camp, five miles via Surprise Canyon, and admire its flowing water and lush vegetation—rarities in Death Valley.  


ak(Photo: Melissa Kopka/iStock)


The Expert: Amy Eckert, travel writer
The Hike: Savage Alpine Trail

Few trails exist in Denali National Park, but among the handful that do, Savage Alpine offers a lot in only eight miles round-trip. Wind over tundra and past Dall sheep before climbing a ridge that on a clear day offers a view of 20,310-foot Denali, North America’s highest peak.  

Dry Tortugas 

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