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Backpacker Magazine – October 2007

America's Best Campsites

Whether you are after fishing holes or skinny-dipping, Backpacker tracked down the best campsites in the country

by: Kelly Bastone

Best Beach, John Cornforth
Best Beach, John Cornforth
Best Swimming Hole, Michael Gadomski
Best Swimming Hole, Michael Gadomski
Best Sunset, Paige Falk
Best Sunset, Paige Falk

So you say it's all about the journey, not the destination? Come on, admit it: Hiking is great, but it's even better when it takes you somewhere unforgettable. These classic backcountry sites are decked out with idyllic features like photogenic waterfalls, abundant wildlife, and killer sunsets. Bunk at one of them, and you'll never wonder if something better awaits just down the trail.

Best Beach
Kalalau Beach, Na Poli Coast, HI
To sink your feet in the luxuriant sands of Kalalau Beach you first have to hike the rugged, 11-mile Kalalau Trail, the only land route leading to Kauai's most paradisiacal beach. Impossibly high, sheer cliffs surround this mile-long, pristine strand; behind them, rock fins covered with green jungle protect it from everyone but hikers and kayakers. Snack on wild mangoes, shower in waterfalls, and sleep to the sound of lapping waves. It's not always solitary–the beach sometimes draws a pack of regulars–but there's no denying it's a knockout. Mandatory permits cost $10/night per person. (808) 274-3444; hawaii.gov/dlnr/dsp/index

Runner-up
Horn Island, Gulf Islands National Seashore, MS
Paddle 12 miles to the sugary quartz beaches on one of the Gulf's last undisturbed barrier islands. The breezy (and bug-free) east and west tips of this sword-shaped, 14-mile-long haven offer fishing for mullet and flounder. Spend days hiking the interior dunes and lagoons, where alligators lurk. (228) 875-0823; nps.gov/guis

Best Ridgeline
Continental Divide Trail, Vasquez Peak Wilderness, CO
This entire wilderness - nearly 13,000 acres - sits above 10,000 feet, almost two-thirds of it above timberline. Tote your tent west from Berthoud Pass, following the CDT as it rambles across the bald, tundra-covered ridgeline, and camp just before the trail dips down to Vasquez Pass at 3 miles. Three wilderness areas–Byers Peak, Indian Peaks, and Eagles Nest–surround your ridgetop aerie, forming a sea of snowy peaks that gleam like sharks' teeth. The enthralling views continue after dark, when the moonlight turns the treeless landscape into an Ansel Adams print. (970) 887-3331; fs.fed.us/r2/arnf

Runner-up
Brown Dog Campsite, Pine Mountain Ridge, GA
Heading south? This your last chance to sleep high before the Appalachians melt into the Florida lowlands. On the 23-mile Pine Mountain Trail, which follows this range's most southerly ridgeline, the Brown Dog backcountry site sits 1,000 feet high on a bluff overlooking a small, spring-fed waterfall. (706) 663-4858; pinemountaintrail.org

Best Urban Escape
Sunol Regional Wilderness, CA
Think the Bay Area's sprawl takes hours to escape? Just 30 minutes out of Oakland or San Jose, you can plunge into a sprawling tract of untamed California. Rolling, grass-covered hills, rocky summits, and stream-carved chasms cover 23,010 acres in Sunol and its adjacent preserves (Ohlone, Mission Peak, and Del Valle). Eagles, bobcats, mountain lions, and tule elk roam here; to join them, hike 3.5 miles on the McCorkle Trail to Sky Camp. Of Sunol's seven backcountry sites, this one alone offers top-of-the-world views from a grassy vantage over Alameda Creek Canyon, making it far and away the best parking space in the East Bay. Trail permit $2, plus $5/night per person for camping. (510) 636-1684; ebparks.org

Runner-up
Little Bald Knob, Wild Oak Trail, VA
Pitch your tent on 4,351-foot Little Bald Knob–the highest point on the 26-mile Wild Oak Trail–for uncongested vistas of the Shenandoah Valley. The undulating green waves massage away the relentless Beltway buzz of Washington, DC, just two hours east. (540) 432-0187; fs.fed.us/r8/gwj/dryriver

Best Summit
San Gorgonio Mountain, CA
When SoCal hikers want to get high, many head for Gorgonio, which ranks among the ten most prominent peaks in the contiguous United States. This giant, multi-ecozone peak soars from relative lowlands to 11,501 feet. Bagging its bald summit requires a 4,000-foot elevation gain by any route, so look to stretch out your time up top. It's all open sky from this cloud-piercing lookout, which hovers nearly 10,000 feet above the deserts of Joshua Tree National Park to the west. If you've ever longed to be Zeus for a day, looming high above mere mortals, this is your throne. Free wilderness permit required, plus a $5 Adventure Pass. (909) 382-2881; sgwa.org

Runner-up
Grassy Ridge Bald, Roan Highlands, TN
At 6,189 feet, this meadow-topped bald is one of the Appalachians' highest, and it boasts 360-degree views of rhododendron-covered Roan and the mighty Black Mountains. From the Appalachian Trail (which traverses Grassy's north slope), hike the spur trail south to the summit for big-sky camping that rivals anything out West. (423) 772-0190; fs.fed.us/r8/cherokee




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READERS COMMENTS

Sarah
Feb 16, 2012

With the Zone Camping Pass, you should never have trouble finding the best camping site no matter the time of the year or circumstance. It offers flexibility, and can save serious campers thousands of dollars every year.
www.zonecampingpass.com

Michael
Sep 12, 2010

Agree with UT_Dutchman. Black Balsam is a great spot.

UT_Dutchman
Sep 11, 2008

Well maybe the best ridgline in the west is in CO, but the best in the east is not in GA it is in NC of off the Blue Ridge Parkway; Black Balsam at or above 5000 ft. is made up of all balds and saddles for over five miles that end with spectacular white school bus size granite protruding out of the top of the ridge. One of the trails to enjoy this hike is the Art Loeb Trail.

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