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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

Best Canyon
Forty Mile Canyon, Glen Canyon NRA, UT
The portal to this remote sandstone labyrinth is 42 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Road at Sooner Wash, where you'll scramble over and under several SUV-sized chockstones on a Class 3 descent (no ropes required). Then it's a leisurely amble for about 3.5 miles through the broad, burnt-orange canyon and under lush groves of giant cotton-woods along Forty Mile Creek. The canyon abruptly narrows at a 12-foot waterfall splashing into an icy swimming hole. Set up camp here on the sandy flats above the falls, where water and shade are abundant. Around the next bend is a superb 200-foot-tall slot that narrows to 4 feet and is adorned with hanging gardens of maidenhair ferns. Wade and swim (or body-stem if you want to stay dry) across a series of emerald pools for about 1.5 miles to the Willow Gulch junction. Double back to the car or continue up Willow to complete a 10-mile loop. No permits required. (928) 608-6200;

Paria Canyon, UT
Splash along between Paria's caramel walls for 7 miles to its confluence with Buckskin Gulch, and your nighttime layover becomes a gateway to two distinct species of slot canyons. To your south, Paria offers easy walking, warm water, and sheer, stately corridors. To your west, Buckskin boasts tight squeezes, anarchic twists, and spooky lighting. Permits are $5/day per person;

Best Skinny-dipping
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, MI
It's not for the modest–Lake Superior's window-clear waters obscure nothing–but the sheer pleasure of swimming at sundown in the world's largest freshwater lake makes shrinkage issues seem, um, trivial. From the trailhead on MI 107, hike 7 miles west on the Lake Superior Trail to a solitary backcountry campsite sheltered from shoreline winds by pines and hardwoods. At dusk, when the big lake reflects pink topaz skies, ditch the skivvies for a brisk, pulse-quickening plunge. (906) 885-5275;

Conundrum Hot Springs, CO
Conundrum's 100°F waters, which bubble up beneath 14,000-foot summits, almost instantly ease away the rigors of the 9-mile hike in. Go midweek to avoid crowds, and camp a quarter-mile beyond the pools. (970) 925-3445;

Best Stargazing
Mt. Wrightson Wilderness, AZ
The Southwest's high, dry climate makes for great "astronomical seeing"–science jargon for calm, low-moisture air that makes stars and planets more distinct. That's why Smithsonian pros study the cosmos from the Whipple Observatory on Mt. Hopkins. You can savor those same star-filled skies from neighboring Mt. Wrightson, known locally as Old Baldy for its prominent tree-free summit. Camp at 9,543 feet atop the Santa Rita Mountains' loftiest peak to admire the Milky Way and galaxies you may have heard about, but almost certainly never seen. From the Madera Canyon trailhead, take the 4.5-mile Old Baldy Trail to the summit. (520) 281-2296;

Stiles Creek Cabin, Chena River SRA, AK
This backcountry hut near Fairbanks sits within the "aurora oval," where the Northern Lights are brightest and most frequent. From mile 36.4 on Chena Hot Springs Road, follow the red trail markers 8 miles northwest to the hilltop cabin for wide-open views of the aurora borealis: iridescent curtains of light streaking across the night sky. Go in late fall or winter. (907) 451-2695,

Best Wildlife Show
Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, WY
No place in the Lower 48 has Yellowstone's variety of marquee wildlife, and the broad Lamar Valley is the park's animal-viewing nexus. You'll tick off life-list sightings starting with the most common: elk, bison, coyote, and antelope. Bald eagles, osprey, and black bears are also abundant, and the Lamar is the best spot in the park to see (and hear) wolves and grizzlies. Rarer but occasionally spied are moose (in marshy areas) and bighorn sheep (on rocky ledges). Hiking out and back on the Lamar River Trail, grab designated backcountry campsites near where Cache (2.6 miles) or Miller (7.6 miles) Creeks enter the Lamar; they're natural wildlife corridors. Keep your binoculars at your fingertips in the early morning and evening.

Best of Alaska's Wildest Parks
South Fork of Arrigetch Creek, Gates of the Arctic National Park
The soaring spires of the Arrigetch Peaks, in the Brooks Range, draw a handful of adventurous mountaineers and backpackers every summer. But most visitors gladly camp in the main cirque after traveling to Bettles, flying into Circle Lake, and humping up 14 miles of brushy game trail above the east bank of Arrigetch Creek. You'll reach a much more private paradise by turning south up the cirque's highest southern tributary (5N 0453455E 7480446N, NAD 27) and following game trails along the creek's west and north sides. Continue around four small lakes to granite benches beneath the icefield at the valley's head. There you'll find upper-balcony views, crystal-clear ponds and waterfalls, and dizzying granite peaks. Plan on a week. (907) 692-5494; Brooks Range Aviation: (800) 692-5443;

Ruth Glacier, Denali NP
Vying with Mt. McKinley itself as the park's most jaw-dropping attraction, this glacier's Great Gorge has been called "Yosemite with ice." But that phrase doesn't do justice to the dramatic icefalls or mile-high granite walls that lord over this snow-filled valley. Fly in from Talkeetna, load up your sled, and trek across the ice to ear-splitting solitude. Don't forget warm booties; you'll be sleeping on one of the world's thickest glaciers. (907) 683-9649; Talkeetna Air Taxi: (800) 533-2219;


North America's largest elk herd, 42,000 strong, roams these 235,406 acres in northern Colorado. Cook your dinner while watching these big ungulates munch theirs by claiming a patch of high tundra just north of the intersection of the Turret Crescent and West Mountain Trails. (970) 638-4516;

Best Place to Feel Small
Redwood Canyon, Kings Canyon National Park, CA

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Reader Rating: -


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.

Sep 12, 2010

Agree with UT_Dutchman. Black Balsam is a great spot.

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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