Camping the Parks
Ever since the Timmons’ National Park Trip of 2017, my family and I have gone camping in the parks. Of all the fun activities we do in National Parks, camping has to be in my top 5. There are many reasons and benefits to camping in the parks. Here are 10 of them.
1. Half the Park is After Dark
If you are familiar with the National Park Service then you are probably familiar with the phrase “Half the Park is After Dark “. So many park visitors forget that natural places like these can be extremely different after the sun sets. From temperature changes to dark skies, wildlife, and the feeling of the landscape, all these features can change after dark. If you only visit parks during the day, you may miss seeing the Milky Way or getting a glimpse of some nocturnal animals like a fox or owl. Because a lot of visitors don’t stay in the park, I personally find it more peaceful. Seeing the landscape in completely different lighting is also something unique. For example, when there is a full moon at White Sands National Park, the light reflects off the sand and gives you a different sense of the area. I would not have experienced that had we not camped.
There are a lot of ecosystems that thrive at night. What better way to experience them than to camp? The first time I took a trip to Everglades National Park (FL) we camped and that allowed us to go on a ranger lead midnight hike. We walked along Anhinga Trail which is already known for its great wildlife viewing, and it was a different experience at night. I saw so many more gators along that walk than I did in the daylight. Panthers, coyotes, wolves, owls, bats, and foxes… the list goes on, and they are all nocturnal! There are also cool insects like the scorpion which lights up under a blacklight. All this means that camping or staying in the park longer not only increases the chance of seeing different wildlife but introduces you to the other side of the parks’ biodiversity. (If you do happen to run across wildlife, DO NOT feed them and avoid interacting with them. They are WILD life. Give them space.)
3. Sunrises and Sunsets
Who doesn’t love a good sunrise/sunset? The colors projected into the sky and the light bouncing off the landscape is something I live for. Many parks like White Sands National Park (NM) often offer sunset ranger-led hikes and ranger programs which are always nice. One of my favorite feelings is driving back to the campsite as the sun sets and seeing how the last light of day sinks into the horizon. And then there are the sunrises. With the number of sunrises I have seen from my campsite I would count all of them as my favorite. One of my top favorite activities is to go on a sunrise hike. Something about waking up super early in the morning and going on a hike to see the sunrise is so fulfilling. A lot of times I will go with my dad to see the sunrise and other times my entire family will start out early on a super long hike to see one of the must-see sunrises, like Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park (UT). The convenience of staying in the park for both of these beautiful events is yet another reason to camp.
Being a high school kid, sleep is very precious to me. The times I have gotten the best sleep have been while camping. Something about sleeping under the stars, hearing trees rustle and the wind blow, and in some cases the waves crash, is very calming. The air mattresses and sleeping bags are definitely something to get used to but once you do, it’s really nice. Then in the morning being woken up by the sun coming through your tent, man I am getting camp sick thinking about it. (get it… homesick… camp-sick… 🙂 )
5. Campfires and S’mores
Bundled up around a campfire, mountains in the background, the sunlight peeking out behind the horizon, and sitting in my favorite camping chair, eating a bar of chocolate. That’s one of my favorite camping memories at Death Valley National Park (CA/NV). Now, I do not like marshmallows, so therefore I do not like S’mores. The rest of my family loves S’mores, and I like roasting marshmallows for my family and eating the chocolate, so it all works out. Campfires and activities like roasting your food over the fire are pretty neat things to do while camping. Since I mainly camp in national parks, that’s where we have the most campfires. Time spent together around a campfire has made a lot of fun memories for me, and camping is a way to get that kind of experience. (Be sure to check with the national park first about making a campfire ahead of time, for safety reasons).
6. Dark Skies
All my life when I have gone outside and looked up at the sky from my backyard I have only been able to see a handful of stars. This is a result of light pollution, which is pretty bad in my town. Now imagine, no lights for miles, you are in the middle of the desert, and you look up at the dark sky. You see an actual shooting star for the first time in your life. You see more stars than you ever thought were possible. The sky seems to be alive. You can make out actual constellations and the “milk” in the Milky Way. That’s how it was for me in 2017 at Great Basin National Park. There are quite a few International Dark Sky Parks in the National Park Service system and Great Basin is one of them. And throwing that rainfly off the tent and laying there looking up in wonder; that’s something. In some parks, my family has gotten out of the tent to go to the car or bathroom and looked up and just been amazed, even in parks that aren’t International Dark Skies yet. Camping gives a great open door to see skies like this.
Another reason to camp is time. The line to Devils Tower National Monument (WY) went on for miles when we left. But because we camped, we were some of the first in the visitor center and got a decent parking spot first thing in the morning. Had my grandparents not rented an RV on our 2021 summer trip, they would have had to get a hotel room hours away. For some parks, camping allows you to really get to know the park. Had my family not camped at Dry Tortugas National Park (FL) (10/10, I love that park so much) then we would have only had a few hours to do a couple of things. But because we camped, we spent 4 days on Garden Key! FOUR! We got to snorkel, fish, kayak, walk around the magnificent Fort Jefferson, have the swimming beach almost to ourselves, and saw the sun ruse and then set behind Loggerhead Key. Unless you have your own boat and want to sail 70 miles from Key West, you have to travel by seaplane or the Yankee Freedom 3 boat to the park, and you only stay for a few hours. You never know when you will be back to these parks, make the most of your adventure time and camp.
My parents handle the financial side of our travels (Thank you so much mom and dad, y’all are the best.), but it’s easy to see that for a family of 5, camping is the least expensive option. Some of the towns around the national parks have become very popular, but that doesn’t always help the visitor out with costs. I love camping over hotels. The experience, the memories, everything! My family has adapted to camping and we make it work really well. I can stay at a hotel 4 miles from my house, however, I can’t stay in a place like the parks very often. Save those pennies and camp!
When you camp in a campground, it’s not just going to be you. But that opens up a door for you to meet a lot of other cool national parks/camping enthusiasts. At Dry Tortugas National Park (FL) our camping neighbor Christian was a professional photographer, and he took some awesome pictures of us when we went kayaking. Another camping neighbor at Dry Tortugas was the President of the International Dark-Sky Association, and I later got to interview her for my podcast. At Death Valley National Park (CA/NV), our camping neighbor gave us some firewood when we couldn’t buy any, he was so nice. I have run into rangers more than once while staying in a park and made friends with them, like at Channel Islands National Park (CA). The friendships I have made through camping in the parks are so amazing.
10. Unique Stories
In case you haven’t noticed, I have a lot of stories to tell. Like when my dad told us we could wear shorts to Padre Island National Seashore (TX), only for us to show up and it was actually freezing and raining and it was cold… so, so cold. Another time we woke up in a puddle and it was pouring rain outside at Ozark National Scenic Riverways (MO). We had to pack all our gear up in soaking wet. It was a struggle, but we look back and laugh because we still had an amazing trip.
Let me tell you about the drive down to the Echo Park campground at Dinosaur National Monument (CO/UT), it was terrifying! But we had an awesome time waking up in the canyon and seeing the sites down there. Or one time I got robbed by a fox, but that’s a different story for a different time. Camping has given me so many memories that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Who knows, it might do the same for you!
With so many reasons to camp, I hope you try it out one day. Make sure to do your research. To book and find out about some of the campgrounds and parks visit recreation.gov. Thank you so much for reading and go have some fun and safe adventures!
-Junior Ranger Clara Timmons