Most popular national parks for campers
On March 1, 1872, Congress established Yellowstone National Park in the territories of Wyoming and Montana as “a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” The park itself was placed under the exclusive control of the secretary of the Interior. In the following years, the U.S. government authorized the creation of several more national parks and monuments, many of which were located in the less-developed West.
Then on Aug. 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed an act that created the National Park Service. The new federal agency was responsible for protecting and managing 35 existing national parks and monuments, which had previously been looked after by a variety of departments, including the War Department and the National Forest Service. The National Park Service was also responsible for creating new parks. Today, the national park system is comprised of 400 areas, which cover more than 84 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands.
Among other things, almost all U.S. national parks have developed campgrounds and allow backcountry camping. Stacker has rounded up the 25 most popular national parks for campers.
To determine these parks, Stacker consulted the National Park Service’s (NPS) Annual Park Ranking Report, which was updated in 2018. NPS categorizes data on campers as “tent campers,” “RV campers,” (both of whom use developed campgrounds) and “backcountry campers” (backpackers who set up camp in the undeveloped wilderness). We added together the total visits from each category and ranked the most popular 25 national parks based on their total camping visits in 2018. All 61 national parks were considered.
Whether you’re an experienced camper or looking to sleep under the stars for the first time, camping at any one of these national parks is sure to be a hit. And from California's Yosemite Park to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Park to North Carolina and Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains Park, there’s almost certainly one close to home.
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#25. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- Total recreational camping visits in 2018: 34,146
- Tent camper visits: 19,527 (#40 most popular)
- RV camper visits: 12,531 (#46 most popular)
- Backcountry camper visits: 2,088 (#65 most popular)
There are three camping sites at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: the South Rim, North Rim, and East Portal. The South Rim site is by far the largest and includes amenities such as electrical hookups and reservable/accessible sites. Campers flock to the park for its wealth of hiking trails, outstanding trout fishing, and expert-level kayaking and rock-climbing opportunities.
#24. Arches National Park
- Total recreational camping visits in 2018: 34,463
- Tent camper visits: 17,938 (#41 most popular)
- RV camper visits: 16,157 (#40 most popular)
- Backcountry camper visits: 368 (#83 most popular)
Seeing the 2,000+ natural stone arches that give Arches National Park its name, is undoubtedly the primary draw for campers. From the Devil’s Garden Campground, the only campsite within official bounds of the park, visitors can set out to hike to the Delicate Arch, one of the most famous geological features in the world, through the Devil’s Garden, and up to the Balanced Rock. A hiker’s heaven, the campsite includes amenities like trash collection and firewood for sale, but no electrical hookups or showers.
#23. Great Basin National Park
- Total recreational camping visits in 2018: 52,386
- Tent camper visits: 32,758 (#32 most popular)
- RV camper visits: 19,348 (#37 most popular)
- Backcountry camper visits: 280 (#87 most popular)
While many national park campgrounds are open year round, four of Great Basin National Park’s five developed campsites are closed from October to May. During the summer season, visitors can arrange a park ranger-led tour of the Lehman Caves, some of the 40 known caves in the park which contain unusual life forms and geological features. Another attraction is the Bristlecone pines, among the oldest-known and longest-living trees. Hikers who keep a sharp eye out will be sure to spot them as they hike through the park’s 60 miles of trails.
#22. Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
- Total recreational camping visits in 2018: 53,972
- Tent camper visits: 29,832 (#33 most popular)
- RV camper visits: 19,665 (#36 most popular)
- Backcountry camper visits: 4,475 (#47 most popular)
While backpacking at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is popular, it isn’t for the faint of heart. Overnight backpackers who want to stay on the dunes first must hike at least 1.5 miles out of the day-use area, before finding a place to bunk down that is sheltered from the strong winds that swirl through the dunes. But those who persevere are rewarded with a once-in-a-lifetime experience, including, on a clear night, beautiful views of open, starry skies.
#21. Capitol Reef National Park
- Total recreational camping visits in 2018: 56,013
- Tent camper visits: 24,822 (#34 most popular)
- RV camper visits: 27,143 (#30 most popular)
- Backcountry camper visits: 4,048 (#50 most popular)
In the heart of red rock country in south-central Utah, Capitol Reef National Park is home to the Waterpocket Fold, a truly unusual geological wrinkle in the earth. Those who stay at the 71-site Fruita Campground have access to 15 day-hike trails through the Cathedral Valley District and under natural stone arches. More adventurous backcountry campers can choose from a number of marked backcountry trails, including a few near the Upper and Lower Muley Twist canyons and Halls Creek.
#20. Mammoth Cave National Park
- Total recreational camping visits in 2018: 59,909
- Tent camper visits: 38,784 (#27 most popular)
- RV camper visits: 13,264 (#45 most popular)
- Backcountry camper visits: 7,861 (#36 most popular)
Mammoth Cave National Park derives its name from its primary feature: the world’s longest known cave system, with more than 400 miles of explored caves, a “grand, gloomy, and peculiar place.” Ranger-led and self-guided tours are some of the park's most popular activities. But many campers who stay at one of the park’s five campgrounds also enjoy water activities like fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and swimming along 30 miles of the Green River and the North River that lie inside the park’s boundaries.
#19. Bryce Canyon National Park
- Total recreational camping visits in 2018: 81,969
- Tent camper visits: 49,747 (#23 most popular)
- RV camper visits: 29,619 (#28 most popular)
- Backcountry camper visits: 2,603 (#61 most popular)
The largest concentration of hoodoos (irregular columns of rock) anywhere on Earth lies in Bryce Canyon National Park. A free shuttle bus takes visitors to some of the park’s key sites, including Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, Bryce Point, and Paria View. After a day of hiking and exploring, campers can spend the night under the stars at the North Campground or Sunset Campground, but visitors should note there are no hookups at either site.
#18. Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Total recreational camping visits in 2018: 95,091
- Tent camper visits: 59,733 (#19 most popular)
- RV camper visits: 28,038 (#29 most popular)
- Backcountry camper visits: 7,320 (#38 most popular)
Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of only two known habitats for the rare Sierra Nevada red fox. Survey and tracking of the animal being done may be its last chance for survival. Aside from rare sightings of the animal, the park’s steaming fumaroles and natural hot springs are major draws for thousands of campers each year. Eight campsites dot the park, including rustic camping cabins at Manzanita Lake.
#17. Canyonlands National Park
- Total recreational camping visits in 2018: 102,113
- Tent camper visits: 13,221 (#48 most popular)
- RV camper visits: 10,517 (#48 most popular)
- Backcountry camper visits: 78,375 (#7 most popular)
The Colorado River and its tributaries divide Canyonlands National Park into four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves. The Needles is the most popular backpacking and backcountry camping district in the park, while backpacking and backcountry camping in The Maze are nearly impossible thanks to unmarked routes and steep trails. Rock climbing at Island in the Sky is also another popular draw for visitors.
#16. Big Bend National Park
- Total recreational camping visits in 2018: 112,930
- Tent camper visits: 55,863 (#22 most popular)
- RV camper visits: 33,209 (#25 most popular)
- Backcountry camper visits: 23,858 (#23 most popular)
Big Bend National Park in far west Texas is home to hundreds of bird species and dozens of diverse cacti. There are four popular campgrounds in the park, including one with full RV hookups. In addition, visitors with valid passports can journey to Boquillas, Mexico, by either wading across the river or renting a rowboat for $5.