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America's Coolest Campgrounds

U.S. News & World Report

America's Coolest Campgrounds

Summer is now in full swing: Time to take a load off and enjoy some quality relaxation time. For many of us, the warmer weather begins the countdown to that vacation we've been planning for months. However, the economy isn't what it used to be, and traveling can be a major drain on the bank account. But if you are one of the many who has decided to sacrifice a summer getaway to salvage a few bucks, think again.

Other than airfare, the largest travel expense summer vacationers encounter is often lodging. There's a solution, folks: bring your bed with you. This is the time to enjoy the great outdoors, and camping is the easiest way to save money without sacrificing experience. Below are some of the country's most beautiful and exciting places to unroll your sleeping bag. And the best part: You won't have to spend more than $50 a night.       

[See a photo recap of America's Coolest Campgrounds]

Many East Coasters know that a summer trip to the southern coast of Maine is hard to beat thanks to quaint towns like Bar Harbor and delectable seafood restaurants. However, if it’s a taste of the great outdoors you're craving, look no further than Acadia National Park. With towering mountains framing the jagged Atlantic coast, this 47,000-acre park welcomes more than two million visitors each year. However, a good number of those visitors don't come for the views but for the fish. The park's lakes and streams are fully stocked with salmon, trout and bass, while the rocky shores offer substantial footing for deep-sea casting. The Seawall Campground caters to anglers by occupying primo real estate along the southernmost edge of the park. When you tire of waiting on the catch of the day, the Seawall Campground is also just a short hike from some of the park's most popular climbing spots.

You should know … Rates range from $14 to $20 a night depending on the campsite. Although you can try your luck with vacancy, consider making a reservation by phone before you arrive.  

The Blackfeet Indians who once occupied most of northwest Montana's Glacier National Park nicknamed their home the "Backbone of the World" for its dramatic landscape and thriving ecosystem. And now, thanks to more than 700 miles of hiking trails, you can traverse the park's 1,000,000 acres of spiny mountain scenery with ease. Boasting jagged peaks and crystal clear lakes -- formed by glaciers during the Ice Age -- this park is often referred to as one of the most beautiful places in the world. Trust us: One day here won't be enough, so bring your tent and claim a spot at the park's eastern Many Glacier Campground. It offers many opportunities to get acquainted with your surroundings, including boat tours, horseback rides and educational programs. Make sure to bring your binoculars; while staying here, you're sure to catch a glimpse of park wildlife like bighorn sheep and moose.

You should know … Rates are $20 a night during the summer, but you can catch a $10 break if you visit in September or October. Also, this is bear territory, so be cautious. You'll find more information about bear safety here.

Don't be deterred by Maui's ritzy reputation; this Hawaiian destination may be known for its price tags, but you don't need to spend much to make the most of your island getaway. Avoid crowded Wailea and head east to Haleakala National Park, home to more than 30,000 acres of tropical forests, tumbling waterfalls and volcanic peaks. Daytime hiking and bird watching are a must here, but you won't regret sticking around for the nights, either. Haleakala is known for its spectacular sunsets, and the absence of light pollution makes for some fantastic stargazing. For the best location, set up camp at Hosmer Grove, located in the park's northern Summit Area. Perched near the summit of Haleakala Mountain at about 7,000 feet above sea level -- just below Haleakala's impressive cloud belt -- Hosmer Grove awards its guests with stunning views. And here's the best part: There is no camping fee. The $5-a-day park entrance fee ($10 if you bring a car) covers it all.

You should know … Due to high altitude, the temperature at Hosmer Grove can be significantly cooler than it is in other parts of the park. Make sure to pack layers.

Most sun-seeking travelers turn to Key West when planning a vacation to the Florida Keys. However, you can catch just as many rays at the far less crowded Dry Tortugas National Park, located about 70 miles west in the Gulf of Mexico. This park encompasses seven tiny keys, one of which is home to Fort Jefferson, a historic U.S. naval base once used to help regulate piracy on the area's merchant ships. But most people are drawn to Dry Tortugas for what lies under the water's surface: intricate coral reefs and numerous ancient shipwrecks that provide divers with miles of dazzling playground to swim through. And since it will take you more than one day to explore Dry Tortugas' waters, you may as well sleep there, too. The Garden Key Campground sits right on the sand south of Fort Jefferson, allowing campers to fall asleep to the sound of the waves and wake up to a watery sunrise.

You should know … Rates are $3 per night. Dry Tortugas National Park can be reached by seaplane or ferry from Key West. 

When it comes to enjoying the California coast, don't let the Golden Gate Bridge block your view. Instead, head about 170 miles south of San Francisco along Cabrillo Highway to Los Padres National Forest. Encompassing much of the scenic Big Sur coast as well as the Ventana Wilderness area (home to the endangered California Condor), this 1.75 million-acre park offers visitors a taste of the true California wilderness. To fully immerse yourself in Los Padres' splendor, reserve a spot at the Kirk Creek Campground, located just off the Cabrillo Highway near the park's center. Because of its location -- on a coastal bluff --  nearly every campsite offers spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. You'll find privacy amidst Kirk Creek's towering Pampas trees, but if you're starved for company you can head to the camp's cliffs and bask in the summer sun alongside sea otters and sea lions.

You should know … Rates are $22 per day. The campground features flush toilets, hot showers and easy access to hiking trails and fishing spots.

Central New York state's Catskill region -- once known as "America's wilderness" -- is famous for its verdant forests, crystal-clear lakes and challenging trails. According to the region's tourism board, it's "the perfect environment in which to find yourself, or lose yourself." However, most travelers to Juniper Woods Campground aren't searching for the quintessential Catskills experience. This facility -- located just off I-87 about seven miles north of Catskill, N.Y. -- is more like a communal gathering place than a traditional campground. A swimming pool and volleyball court, plus regularly scheduled events help bring campers together. However, this environment isn't for the demure: it's also a clothing-optional campground. What better way to enjoy your natural surroundings than in your most natural state?

You should know … Rates range from $25 to $30 a night per person, but there are discounts for couples. Be aware that Juniper Woods enforces a strict code of conduct to ensure that every camper feels comfortable.

With rides, games and an assemblage of beloved cartoon characters, Disney World is a favorite summertime family getaway. But as much as parents want to let their kids live the dream, a trip to this Floridian fantasyland can empty a wallet faster than you can wish upon a star. There are ways to lighten the financial load: forgo the Disney-themed resort for a night in the great outdoors. The Campsites at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort is an ideal alternative for the frugal family, with nightly campsite rates starting at just $46. Located in the Magic Kingdom area, this family-oriented campground is just a (complimentary) boat ride away from many popular Disney World attractions. Plus, Fort Wilderness offers a variety of on-site activities -- including horseback riding, swimming and tennis -- for some fun in your own temporary back yard.

You should know … Rates start at $46 per night, and campers can save on park admission by purchasing a Magic Your Way Vacation package that includes a stay at Fort Wilderness.

Today, traveling cross-country is easy thanks to airplanes and interstate highways. But back in the mid-1800s, American pioneers had to rely on covered wagons to brave the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail to the West. Now, the Oregon Trail Wagon Train campground allows campers to re-enact the journey. Located at the base of iconic Chimney Rock near Bayard, Neb., this campground caters to American history buffs (and those who spent hours attempting to beat the computer game). To get the full experience, campers are invited to tour the Nebraska prairies in covered wagons. Guided treks to and around Chimney Rock are also available, as are canoe rentals for those of you looking to tackle the North Platte River. In the evenings (for an extra cost), you can kick back around a campfire and relax pioneer-style with a plate piled high with steak, potatoes and veggies.

You should know … Rates are $20 a night for a full-service campsite (complete with electricity and running water) and $10 for a basic site.

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