10 High Cool Places for Summer Camping

December 2, 2011
Filed under Camping Destinations, Feature Stories

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Have you ever reconsidered your vacation destination choice while standing in a three-hour line for a theme park ride, or sweltering under the hot sun in a resort town? If you’re looking for a truly cooler family trip this year — and one that involves the outdoors in a way you can enjoy (sans humidity and heat), then read on. We discovered vacation spots throughout the U.S. with altitude but not attitude that are sure to keep everyone relaxed this summer.

When you think of high elevation, Arizona doesn’t often come to mind. However, Bruce Leadbetter, guide and owner of the Arizona adventure vacation company 360 Adventures, advises that “Camping in the White Mountains in eastern Arizona is amazing and wildlife abounds.”

Ideal for family summer fun activities afforded by the mountain lakes, streams and trails, plenty of campsites can be found in Arizona’s second-highest mountain range. Sites such as Big Lake Recreation Area Campground offer fishing, boating, showers and restrooms. In the mixed-conifer forests of the central White Mountains, visitors also have the chance to be guests on Fort Apache Indian Reservation’s 1.6 million acres of pristine land. Special reservation permits are required for many outdoor activities such as hiking, camping and fishing, but camping on this tribal land is more secluded than what may be found in off-reservation campgrounds in the region.

Leadbetter also recommends escaping the desert heat by traveling to Mount Lemmon (9,157 feet) just north of Tucson. Mount Lemmon, part of the Santa Catalina Mountains in Coronado National Forest, can be accessed via the Catalina Scenic Byway. Those seeking outdoor adventure will find many campgrounds that will accept tents and RVs. Spencer Canyon and Rose Canyon are two campgrounds located far up the byway that offer cool temperatures.

Skiers, snowboarders and tourists who flock to Utah’s world-renowned winter resorts can also escape the state’s hot summer sun with some strategic vacation planning to those same higher elevations. One example is southwest Utah’s Brian Head Resort (200 miles from Las Vegas), which has 400 inches of snow in winter, but in the summer transforms into another kind of outdoor adventure playground. Mountain biking, hiking, rappelling, fishing and camping are also available atop Markagaunt Plateau (elevations up to 11,000 feet). Just 10 minutes down the road from Brian Head, Cedar Breaks National Monument provides excellent opportunities for sightseeing and camping, and Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks are right next door. Nearby Cedar City is a great place to stop and load up on supplies before heading into the mountains.

Cedar Breaks has spectacular views and 28 campgrounds.
The campground in Cedar Breaks National Monument offers 28 campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis for tents and RVs. Camping is also available at Panguitch Lake North and Duck Creek campgrounds in the surrounding Dixie National Forest.

In Idaho, the panhandle-shaped state, high, cool weather can be found in the Bear Lake/Pioneer Country region and just about anywhere from Palisades Reservoir to the Montana border west of Yellowstone National Park. Upper Mesa Falls is a must-see if you’re in this area any time of year. Camp almost anywhere in the Colorado Rockies in summer and you’ll find cooler weather and incredible beauty. The Pike’s Peak area west of Colorado Springs, and Rocky Mountain National Park west of Loveland have always been favorites. On the west side of the Rockies, look to the San Juan (Durango area) or Grand Mesa national forests (Grand Junction area) for high-elevation getaways.

A top choice in New Mexico is Carson National Forest near Taos. Cool, breezy areas are the Wheeler Peak or Cruces Basin areas; both offer excellent hiking trails and stunning scenery. The areas around the towns of Cuesta and Red River can provide campers with cool temps, too. Our first thought on a hot day in the Albuquerque area would be the Sandia Peak Tram on the city’s eastern edge. It is the world’s longest passenger tramway and lifts visitors 2.7 miles into the Sandia Mountains. At the top, a panoramic view stretches over metropolitan Albuquerque and Rio Grande Valley, and the National Forest Service’s Four Seasons Visitor Center here offers a wealth of information on the area. Local rangers can provide information on trails and also the Junior Ranger program that is great for keeping the kids busy during the summer.

The search for a cool summer climate and some outdoor fun wouldn’t be complete without exploring Northern California. Tim Loftus, a program manager for REI Adventures, designs and manages weekend getaways that offer short and accessible adventure travel trips. When asked about his recommendations in this area, Loftus suggested Mount Shasta as an excellent high-elevation region with cool temperatures and great outdoor activity options.

Mount Shasta is at the southern end of the Cascades and is the seventh-highest (dormant) volcano in the U.S. at 14,162 feet. Plenty of campgrounds are offered in Shasta National Forest, however Loftus advises: “Attempting to summit Mount Shasta should involve a guide and mountaineering experience.”

Loftus also recommends the Lake Tahoe region of the Northern Sierra as “another perfect higher-elevation getaway location within a few hours of the San Francisco Bay Area.” The lake’s crystalline waters are known worldwide for clarity and the region in general offers a host of outdoor activities.

While 90-degree highs may be considered typical summer temperatures for inland areas of Southern California, residents of San Diego (just over two hours’ drive for Angelenos) need only travel upward into their nearby mountains to escape the heat.

Biking through the Laguna Mountains.
Located just south of San Diego’s historic mountain gold rush town of Julian, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park offers more than 100 miles of hiking trails, most also open to horseback riders. Campgrounds and picnic sites are nestled among meadows, oak and pine woodlands, and Sweetwater River’s headwaters. Boating and fishing are available at nearby Lake Cuyamaca, owned and operated by Helix Water District. On a clear day, the park’s highest viewpoint, Cuyamaca Peak (6,512 feet), offers views of Mexico and the mountain ranges and wide expanses of nearby Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The park is also home to magnificent wildlife, including herds of mule deer, coyotes, bobcats, an occasional mountain lion and more than 150 species of birds.

The area’s Laguna Mountains (6,000 feet), located within Cleveland National Forest’s 460,000 acres, are also another “hot” spot to cool down, offering outdoor enthusiasts hiking, biking, camping, fishing and mountain climbing during the summer months.

Traveling up the Pacific coast to the Northwest, one can find a seemingly endless array of options for high-elevation recreational spots to cool down during a hot summer.

Mount Rainier’s stunning hikes and year-round snow make it a great summer playground.
Loftus, who also designs trips for REI in the Pacific Northwest, says, “Mount Rainier National Park is the crown jewel of the region. With stunning hikes out of paradise above 6,000 feet, cooler temperatures and in some cases, year-round snow, this is a great summer getaway.”

Camping inside Mount Rainier National Park is generally on a first-come, first-served basis, although campers can reserve sites at Cougar Rock and Ohanapecosh Rock campgrounds. The national forests around Mount Rainier National Park also provide a variety of camping and recreation opportunities, with campgrounds located along Highway 12 and 410 in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie, Gifford Pinchot and Wenatchee National Forests.

When planning summer travel with high elevations in mind, many may look past the Midwest, best known for the Great Plains. However, even where elevations do not exceed 1,500 feet, such as Cathedral Canyon in the St. Francois Mountain Range of Missouri, one can find some of the best-kept travel secrets of the Midwest. Loftus offers that the views from Cathedral Canyon “are spectacular and exploring this area can be prolific, with natural caves and deep canyon walls.”

He also recommends Mount Magazine in Arkansas and the state’s Ozark Mountains as other high points worth visiting in the Midwest. Mount Magazine, a flat-topped plateau with a sandstone cap rimmed by precipitous rock cliffs, is the highest point in Arkansas at just less than 2,800 feet. It is also home to one of Arkansas’ newest state parks with a campground that includes 18 campsites for tent and RV campers.

The Ozark Mountains (elevations up to 2,560 feet) cover parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas, and are a rugged and deeply dissected plateau. Its topography with altitude is what creates such a variety of outdoor vacations, including an abundance of water-driven outdoor recreational activities such as fishing, canoeing and kayaking, thanks to its multiple lakes and rivers, in addition to hiking and camping. The Ozarks include America’s first National River, the Buffalo River, one of the few remaining in the lower 48 states without dams. One of the last worries you’ll have in planning this trip is finding a place to camp, with sites available throughout the region, including inside Ozarks National Forest.

Atlanta, which is a short distance from the start of the Appalachian Trail, is also situated in a climate zone that inflicts brutal summer heat and humidity, and has achieved record-breaking levels in recent years. While the Atlantic coast is less than half a day’s drive away, many residents of Atlanta and its surrounding areas can enjoy an outdoor adventure that doesn’t involve intense heat and humidity by exploring the Blue Ridge Mountain destinations in and around Asheville, N.C., which are just three and a half hours away from the city.

The Blue Ridge Parkway offers breathtaking views of the gently rolling North Carolina countryside.
Regional sites worth exploring include DuPont State Forest, spread over 7,600 acres and featuring 90 miles of trails. There are also several of America’s best waterfalls, such as Triple Falls and Hooker Falls, a popular swimming hole. Asheville is also home to one of the most popular sections of “America’s Favorite Drive” — the Blue Ridge Parkway. A short drive from town offers several gorgeous overlooks.

Located on Goldview Knob, 10 minutes north of downtown Asheville, Campfire Lodgings is a campground offering 110 acres of mountaintop camping with full accommodations and facilities for RVs and tents (cabins in the area are also available). Tipi Camp Asheville, a biker-friendly campground, is also nearby and offers tepees and screen lodges in the woods complete with beds, linens, and coffee in the morning. It also offers visitor sites where you use your own tent.

New Yorkers, whose habits of vacating the city at seasonal points throughout the year (such as July and August when average temperatures peak at 85 degrees) may have sparked the use of the word “vacation” in a tourist sense, and have any number of escape routes leading to cooler temperatures in elevated areas.

Traveling 90 minutes south into the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, New Yorkers yearning to escape from city stress, humidity and pollution can regroup in the clear crispness of the mountain air and enjoy water recreation at Otter Lake Camp Resort in East Stroudsburg. Set upon 300 wooded acres and featuring a pristine 60-acre lake, this campground offers spacious and fully equipped campsites with fireplaces, hookups and cable.

This lakeside camp is in the Adirondacks region of Upstate New York.
New Yorkers can also stay in-state and still find reprieve from city noise and heat but travel in quintessential “Big Apple,” larger-than-life fashion by hitting the Adirondacks, the largest park in the contiguous United States, and the largest National Historic Landmark. Offering more than 6 million acres, its land area is far greater than the area covered by Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains national parks combined. Some of the park’s high interest areas for families include tubing, canoeing, kayaking, paddling, fishing and swimming in 2,000-plus lakes, ponds and rivers (and accompanying sandy beaches), not to mention hiking trails ranging from something for the beginner to the backcountry trail runner in search of a challenge and solitude. The highest elevation in Adirondack Park is Mount Marcy at 5,344 feet.

New Hampshire’s White Mountains are carpeted with wildflowers deep into the summer months.
There seems to be a near infinite number of places to camp and enjoy the cooler temperatures of summer by doing so at the elevated areas offered along the 1,500-mile-long, and at places, 300-mile-wide Appalachian Mountains. One popular location that is centrally located to such major metropolitan areas as Boston and New York are the White Mountains of New England.

Covering 800,000 acres of New Hampshire and a small part of western Maine, the White Mountains offers both rugged areas that could best be traveled by a guided tour for those looking for adventure, while also offering a number of fun activities for those looking to balance a nature-tour experience with summer festivals and sightseeing. Hikers can also enjoy the White Mountains’ well-known alpine huts, owned and operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club, a 100-plus-year-old tradition and network of base camp mountain huts that are each a day’s hike apart along the Appalachian Trail, and offer shelter and a place to relax and recharge for both beginner and experienced hikers.


Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau

Adirondack Regional Tourism

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Idaho Dept. of Commerce

New Mexico Tourism Dept.

Sandia Peak Ski & Tramway

Visit Rainier

White Mountains Attractions

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