The best way to get to know a national park is to camp in one, say authors Renee and Matthew Hahnel, who took a seven-month road trip to research their book “Roaming America: Exploring All the National Parks!” (Lannoo Publishers)
The couple, originally from Australia, lived in a van during their trip and were amazed by the low-cost camping options they found in most parks.
“You’re down by a river. You have a mountain view, you’re in a beautiful setting,” says Renee. Many campsites can be reserved through the recreation,gov website, and although some spots are held for walk-in visitors, they’re often claimed early in the morning.
The Hahnels share some of their favorites with USA TODAY.
1. Jenny Lake Campground, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
You won't have to wander far to see water or wildlife at Jenny Lake Campground, in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park. (Photo: Matthew Hahnel)
The scenery is spectacular at this campsite and so is the location amid evergreens and boulders near a glacial lake.
“There’s a lot of great hiking that leads from there. It won’t be uncommon for elk, or moose or bear to walk through your campsite,” Matthew says.
2. Jumbo Rocks Campground, Joshua Tree National Park, California
Jumbo Rocks Campground , in California's Joshua Tree National Park, offers inspiring night skies. (Photo: National Park Service)
Aplty named Jumbo Rocks Campground is scattered with large boulders, which offer great shelter for camping.
“It’s like everyone’s in their own nooks,” Renee says. And the setting’s unforgettable. “The stars were amazing, and we were listening to coyotes in the distance.”
The park’s busy season runs October through May.
More information: nps.gov/jotr
3. Lane Cove Campground, Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Lane Cove Campground, in Michigan's Isle Royale National Park, is right on the water with access by canoe, kayak or hiking trail, and it offers views clear to Canada – not to mention the local moose population. (Photo: Kelly Morrissey/National Park Service)
You’ll need to take a boat or ferry to reach this Lake Superior island park, but it’s worth the trip, Renee says. The campground’s right on the water with access by canoe, kayak or hiking trail, and it offers views clear to Canada.
“The sites are quite big and it felt like we had the entire place to ourselves,” Renee says. “If you’re hiking, there’s a good chance that you’ll run into a moose. The peace and solitude are 100 percent worth it.”
4. Moraine Park Campground, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Cue up the John Denver and prepare to experience your own Rocky Mountain high at Moraine Park Campground. (Photo: Matthew Hahnel)
This Colorado campsite has it all: location, wildlife and scenery.
“It’s right beside a massive open valley. Beautiful rivers run through it,” Matthew says. “There are lots of elk that graze in that area.”
In addition, the park’s free shuttle bus stops at the campground, offering transportation to hiking trailheads.
5. Cougar Rock Campground, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Cougar Rock Campground is conveniently located at an ideal spot in Washington State's Mount Rainier National Park. (Photo: Sue Russell)
Located between the park’s Longmire and Paradise areas, this campsite puts visitors in a great spot to explore.
“It’s convenient to some absolutely beautiful places,” Renee says. “You’ve close to waterfall trails, wildflower meadows. It cuts a lot of the driving time out.”
6. Big Meadows Campground, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Big Meadows Campground is a prime location for leaf-peeping in the Shenandoahs come fall. (Photo: Matthew Hahnel)
Located near the center of this ridge-hugging national park, Big Meadows is within hiking distance of waterfalls and the Appalachian Trail. It offers plenty of shade, along with spring wildflowers and fall colors.
“It’s in a great location,” Renee says. “We felt we were really close to nature, yet able to access the scenic overlooks and hikes.”
7. Hope Creek Campground, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska
Hope Creek Campground, located in Alaska's Lake Clark National Park, is a paddler's paradise. (Photo: Matthew Hahnel)
Accessible by float plane, this remote park, about 120 miles southwest of Anchorage, is worth the trip.
The campground setting is unforgettable, Matthew says: ”It’s by the most beautiful turquoise lake you’ve ever seen.”
Other highlights include wild blueberries and a chance to visit the log cabin built by legendary Alaskan naturalist Richard Proenneke.
8 .South Campground, Zion National Park, Utah
Zion National Park's South Campground gets you close to Watchman and good restaurants. (Photo: Matthew Hahnel)
Not only does it offer views of the towering Watchman spire and a location by the Virgin River, but this campsite is also near the park’s transportation system, its main visitors center and the nearby town of Springdale.
“You don’t have to find parking to get a shuttle, and you can get a good restaurant meal with walking distance of the campsite,” Matthew says.
9. Many Glacier Campground, Glacier National Park, Montana
You don't have to live on freeze-dried food and gorp. From Many Glacier Campground, you have access to the hotel, which offers both upscale dining and boxed meals for hikers. (Photo: National Park Service)
Campers are well-positioned to explore the park from this site near the historic Many Glacier Hotel, which offers both upscale dining and boxed meals for hikers.
“Some of my favorite hikes, the best hikes in the park, lead from this campground,” Matthew says.
10. Scorpion Ranch Campground, Channel Islands National Park, California
Scorpion Island is the largest campground in the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park, located off California's Pacific Coast. (Photo: Matthew Hahnel)
Visitors will bed down under eucalyptus trees when they spend the night at Scorpion Ranch, the largest campground on the five-island California Pacific Coast national park.
The site, on Santa Cruz island, offers a good base for hikes, and a chance to see the island fox, a unique subspecies.
“They’re really curious,” Renee says. “They come say hello and check you out.”
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