After a spring of uncertainty and serious stay-at-home efforts, everyone is wondering what travel will look for the foreseeable future. Experts are predicting an emphasis on domestic trips, especially in the US, when more than a few foreign destinations aren’t reopening to Americans just yet. Already, travelers mindful of social distancing have sent RV rentals soaring, and many would-be wanderers with a case of cabin-fever are putting outdoor destinations at the top of their bucket lists.
You don’t have to head to the farthest-flung destination on the map, however, to have a safe, fun vacation that blends fresh air and gorgeous scenery. While many outdoors hotspots are safely outlining reopening procedures through the rest of 2020, some more rural locations have a higher hurdle to clear. A number of the nation’s most popular national parks exist far from metropolitan areas, and as crowds surge in these locations, public services in small towns near these outdoor recreation epicenters shoulder the potential risks from an influx of tourists.
However, thanks to the latest phased reopening plans from local, state, and federal officials, some of the top outdoor destinations in the country with close access to major cities are opening to travel-hungry campers looking to plan their next trip into the outdoors.
Whether you’re hitting the road in a camper or your trusty tent, these stunning outdoors destinations near major metropolitan areas are open to overnight stays. Get ready for sandy beach campsites, long hikes in the fresh air, and everything else you’ve missed from our nation’s best camping destinations – all with easy access to airports, train stations, and vehicle rentals.
1. Rocky Mountain National Park – Colorado
One of the crown jewels of the National Park System, Rocky Mountain National Park is a natural playground of snow-capped mountains, sky-blue lakes, and high-altitude activities all in close proximity to Denver, Colorado. As of June 4, the park is opening its gates in a broader way through a timed entry permit system for campers and day-use visitors, with some regions remaining restricted. This gives quick-planners a chance to experience the normally-brimming trails mostly free of the park’s 700,000 average visitors in the summer months.
For the time being, campers can only make reservations for the Moraine Park and Glacier Basin Campgrounds, or can attain a wilderness permit for backcountry camping that brings social distancing to the next level. Be sure to check the forecast and pack warm layers and storm gear – the Rockies are known to have unpredictable weather and fresh snow even in the summer months. If there’s a piece of gear you’ve forgotten, however, there are numerous outfitters in Estes Park at the front door of Rocky Mountain NPS where you can grab last-minute supplies.
2. Indiana Dunes State and National Parks – Indiana
A biodiverse beach getaway doesn’t require driving to the coast or the Gulf. Newly-minted Indiana Dunes National Park and its sister state park are both just under an hour from downtown Chicago and rest along more than 15 miles of Lake Michigan’s south shore. Though Indiana Dunes is one of the country’s newest national parks, the area’s towering eponymous sand dunes and consistent waves have given generations of families, surfers and sunbathers a destination to swim, hike and camp. The region is also one of the most biodiverse among national parks; with forests, rivers, swamps and, of course, miles of boardwalk-paved beaches, visitors should plan to spend days exploring all the parks have to offer.
Currently, both the state and national parks are open to day-use visitors, but campsites are only open on one side of the state park side for the time being. RVers and car campers alike are welcome, with sites just steps away from the shore.
3. Channel Islands National Park – California
If you’ve ever felt like you wanted a true escape from civilization during your self-quarantine, Channel Islands National Park might already be at the top of your to-go list. Encompassing five isolated islands off southern California’s coast a little over an hour’s drive from Los Angeles, not including your voyage by chartered boat, this park’s boundaries are host to a plethora of wildlife, history and activities.
As of June, visitors are able to visit and camp on any of the five islands, and typically only share the land with sea birds, seals, dolphins and many other wild creatures. You can arrange your trip to the islands via a private charter company, while camping reservations can be made in advance for any of the wilderness campsites across the five islands.
4. Lake Mead National Recreation Area – Nevada
Much more than just the largest reservoir in the U.S., Lake Mead National Recreation Area is Las Vegas’ outdoorsy playground. Ship out for a speedboat ride across the lake’s surface (which is formed by the mighty Hoover Dam), head south for a raft trip down the Colorado River or just relax on a hike through natural wonders adjacent to the Grand Canyon. The park’s latest reopening schedule allows for visitors to enter and camp either in swanky RV resorts on the Nevada side, or the established campgrounds across state lines in Arizona.
Entrance to Lake Mead National Recreation Area requires visitors purchase an annual pass for vehicle entrance, and a separate pass for vessel launching on the water. That means year-round entry for campers, who may inevitably admire the park’s grandeur enough to make countless return visits.
5. Mt. Hood National Forest – Oregon
Portland, Oregon is certainly not wanting for green space nearby, but to locals and visitors alike, the Mt. Hood National Forest area surpasses all others. The titular mountain offers skiers and snowboarders fresh powder in the winter (and year-round at Timberline) and hikers and mountain bikers in the summer, while the surrounding 60 miles of forested ridges, lakes and streams sit waiting for adventurers to explore.
The national forest is currently phasing in openings of trailheads, parking areas, river access and campgrounds, and is expected to continue to open even more campgrounds and day-use areas in the coming weeks. Eager campers can look to reserve a limited but popular selection of campgrounds ahead of time through the National Forest Service.