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My campfire flashes and flickers on the massive rocks behind it, casting warm light on my quiet site. There’s room for more tents here, but I’m alone, camped on the broad shoulder of a peak in the Eastern Sierra where Fourteeners fan away in both directions. When the flames fade, the snowy teeth of the ridgeline above my camp glow in the moonlight.
There’s not a trace of light pollution—until I open the door to my car and the dome light clicks on. Though it feels like it, this isn’t the backcountry at all. I’m a 10-minute drive down a network of dirt roads from fast-asleep Lone Pine, California. Even so, I’m more alone here than I was in the true backcountry of Yosemite a few days ago.
This isn’t car camping like my family used to do it when I was a kid. There are no campground loops, electrical hookups, reservations, party tents, or campground hosts. Instead, it’s almost as if someone dropped my car from a helicopter into one of my favorite backcountry campsites. The difference is that tonight I’m sipping a cold one and cooking fresh ground beef for tacos. It’s a luxurious basecamp that doesn’t sacrifice the wilderness feeling that I’m out here to find.
Tomorrow—after a bid up Mt. Whitney—I’ll set up my tent in another roadside slice of paradise, tucked deep in a parcel of Forest Service land. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a backpacking purist. There’s nothing quite like getting to camp by leg power, not horsepower. But, mixed into a lifetime of long distances with a heavy pack, there’s something refreshing about car camping done right, about quickly moving between classic destinations and savoring good food and drink packed on ice.
But, just like backpacking, it requires research to find the best destinations. When I do, I find that the perfect car-camping spots deliver on backcountry promise, like Shadow Mountain Road in Jackson—a car-campable hill with amazing views of the Grand Teton. Grassy Lake Road, just south of Yellowstone, is also burned into my memory: There, parked off the side of the gravel, I was awakened by the bugle of elk crossing the Snake River in the morning mist. When I unzipped my tent, I was almost surprised to see my car sitting there at all.