As spring approaches, popular campgrounds across the country are already selling out with travelers making reservations months in advance. But some equally wonderful sites seem to always have room, says Jessie Johnson and Matt Schneider, authors of North Carolina Adventure Weekends (Menasha Ridge, $16.95.) The spouses say they’ve found many parks that rarely see crowds. “They’re just not well-known. They’re kind of like a base camp for seeing some unique and beautiful outdoor spaces,” Schneider says. “Once you’ve parked your car and set up your tent, you can do a lot of cool stuff.” The couple share some favorite finds with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.
Nantahala National Forest, N.C.
Located next to the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness and close to the Tennessee border, this easily overlooked campground offers great hiking and exploring. “It’s near one of the largest old-growth forests in the Southeast. You have absolutely huge beech and poplar,” Schneider says. fs.usda.gov/recarea/nfsnc/recarea/?recid=48924
Mount Timpooneke Campground
Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, Utah
Johnson says they first found this campground during a wilderness hike through the American Fork Canyon area, and were astonished that it was accessible by a seasonally open road. “If you want to do car camping that feels like a backcountry experience, it’s an awesome place to go,” Johnson says. fs.usda.gov/recarea/uwcnf/recarea/?recid=9906
Lolo National Forest, Mont.
With easy access to fishing, this is a prototypical Montana campground, Schneider says. It’s located near the Lewis and Clark/Nez Perce National Historic Trail, and a commercial hot springs resort. “You can camp by a creek that just about runs through your campsite. The sun sets over it and the water spirals, and there’s trout. It’s Montana through and through.” fs.usda.gov/recarea/lolo/recarea/?recid=10268
McDowell Mountain Regional Park, Ariz.
Located just outside Phoenix, this park isn’t hidden, but few people realize it offers camping in a gorgeous Sonoran Desert setting. “You can ride your bike on miles and miles of bike trails, surround by cacti galore,” Johnson says. “It offers 360-degree views. You can watch the sunset out of one end of your tent, and in the morning you can unzip the other side and watch the sunrise.” maricopacountyparks.net/mcdowell-mountain-regional-park-mm
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Idaho
This volcano-scarred landscape feels like something from outer space. “It’s a totally weird place, but there’s so much beauty. There are huge lava formations, and lava caves that have snow well into the warm seasons,” Schneider says. nps.gov/crmo
Dockery Lake and Lake Winfield Scott
Chattahoochee National Forest, Ga.
Although these campgrounds in the Blood Mountain Wilderness are within hiking distance of the Appalachian Trail, they’re surprisingly quiet and remote. “There are awesome hiking opportunities from either campground, but there’s almost no one there ever. I don’t know why,” Schneider says. wilderness.net/NWPS/wildView?WID=62
Montana de Oro State Park, Calif.
Although not large, this park has a prime location on the Pacific Coast, near the San Luis Obispo wine country. “There are views out to the Pacific. There are awesome rock beaches. There’s horseback riding, mountain biking and pockets of forest,” Schneider says. parks.ca.gov/?page_id=592
Spruce Knob Campground
Monongahela National Forest, W.Va.
While there’s no shortage of camping spots in the Mountain State, Johnson is a fan of this site near the Cranberry and Dolly Sods wilderness areas. It’s located just below Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia, yet rarely visited. “We went there in August and there was a period when we were the only people. It’s this hidden little campground. There’s no one on top of you.” fs.usda.gov/recarea/mnf/recarea/?recid=7005
McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, Colo.
This free Bureau of Land Management campsite sits on the edge of the 123,430-acre McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, and is just off Interstate 70 in far-western Colorado near the Utah border. “It looks like you’re heading off into Mad Max territory,” Schneider says. “There are huge sandstone formations and petroglyphs, and it’s totally free.” blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/documents/files/CO_McInnisCanyons_NCA.pdf
Pickett CCC Memorial State Park, Tenn.
The campground lies near one of the couples’ favorite spots: the often-overlooked Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. “It’s huge and every time we go there, we think: Where are all the people? Why is no one here?” says Johnson. Those that make the trip find cliffs and sandstone arches, which can be explored by foot, mountain bike or on horseback. tnstateparks.com/parks/about/pickett