The cheapest vacation you'll ever take: 10 memorable camping trips
Yellowstone National Park -- Wyoming; Montana; Idaho
With spectacular natural wonders like Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs, the country's oldest national park leaves a lasting impression on its visitors. Beyond dramatic waterfalls and bubbling hot springs, you'll find fascinating wildlife, including elk, buffalo and bears. And with 2.2 million acres to explore, Yellowstone gives campers plenty of trailblazing options. The national park's vast territory also means camping choices abound: Book your stay at one of Xanterra Parks and Resorts' 1,700 campground sites in advance or check out one of the seven first-come, first-served grounds spread across the park. Mammoth, which sits near the park's North Entrance and provides ranger-led programs, offers camping rates at $20 a night for up to six guests. If you're hoping to stay near the southern entrance to the park, Lewis Lake is another idyllic campground. The area offers 85 campsites and a wealth of wildlife-watching areas along Lewis River, with nightly rates starting at $15 for up to six guests.
Know before you go: Admission costs $12 for visitors entering on foot or on bike (plus $25 if you bring a noncommercial vehicle), and includes a seven-day permit for both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Visitors ages 15 and younger can enter for free.
Torres del Paine National Park -- Patagonia, Chile
If you're looking for an off-the-beaten path spot, it's hard to match Patagonia's Torres del Paine National Park. Reaching remote Chilean Patagonia will be no easy feat, but once you arrive, you'll be rewarded with dramatic peaks, emerald lakes and the soaring Cuernos del Paine (Paine Horns). EcoCamp Patagonia, a sustainable-focused site that features dome-shaped lodges designed to block Patagonia's strong winds, is a popular place to bed down. All 25 EcoCamp domes are solar- and hydro-powered; in the Superior Domes, guests have access to propane heaters and a high-tech composting toilet. Rates for a Standard Dome start at $460,200 CLP ($750 USD) per person for a three-night stay, and include dining and transportation fees. What's more, you can sign up for guided hikes and wildlife-watching tours (for an extra fee).
Know before you go: Park admission fees cost 18,000 CLP (about $30 USD) in the high season (October to April) and 5,000 CLP (approximately $8 USD) in the low season (May to September).
Acadia National Park -- Maine
Stretching across 47,000 acres, Acadia National Park features a wealth of ways to commune with nature. Plan an awe-inspiring hiking trip across the Carriage Roads. Or, if you'd rather take in the scenery from behind the steering wheel, drive along Park Loop Road, stopping along the way at Otter Cliff, a 110-foot-tall ledge with dramatic ocean views. After adventure-packed days, unwind in a cozy tent at the Backwoods Campground, situated just 5 miles south of Bar Harbor, where you'll find picnic tables, running water and ocean views. Nightly rates during the high season (May through October) cost $20 per site. Seawall Campground (about 18 miles southwest of Bar Harbor), is another family-friendly spot, equipped with a picnic area, toilets and running water. Rates start at $20 for drive-up campsites. To ensure availability, reserve your spot several months in advance online or by calling the National Recreation Reservation Service at 877-444-6777.
Know before you go: Acadia National Park requires an entrance fee from May through October. Admission costs $5 per person for those on foot (visitors 15 and younger can enter for free) or $20 per vehicle (which includes all occupants; 15 or fewer passengers). For up-to-date weather, regulations and road closure information, consult the National Park Service's website.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park -- North Carolina; Tennessee
With mile-high mountains, 800 scenic trails and show-stopping vistas, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an outdoor enthusiast's playground. But with a myriad of things to see and do — from the 5-mile Cades Cove Nature Trail to Roaring Fork, a meandering mountain stream — you'll have to be selective about where you stay. If you're an avid hiker, you can't miss the 16-mile Mount Cammerer loop, a less-traveled sliver of the Appalachian Trail that yields impressive views from atop the Mt. Cammerer Fire Tower. Inside the park, there are 10 developed campground spots, including the popular Cades Cove and Smokemont; each of which provides access to toilets and access to nearby shower facilities. Though day-of reservations are available, you can also book a campsite online or by calling 877-444-6777. Fees range from $17 to $20 per campsite.
Know before you go: Though pavilion rental and camping fees apply, admission to the park is free of charge. But before you hit the road, read up on current road closures and park regulations listed on the National Park Service's website.
Photo: Shutterstock / jadimages
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park -- Hawaii, The Big Island
You can witness lava punctuating the night sky, smell the fragrant wild orchids and hit trails filled with lava rock formations on a trip to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. The park houses two active volcanoes: Mauna Loa and Kilauea. Catch sight of Kilauea's base along the 11-mile Crater Rim Trail while you weave through verdant rainforest and desert landscapes. The park contains two drive-in campgrounds: Namakanipaio and Kulanaokuaiki. Namakanipaio offers ample facilities, including restrooms, Wi-Fi and communal picnic tables. You'll have to pay park entrance fees, but you can pitch your own tent at one of Namakanipaio's 16 campsites for $15 per night. If you'd like to sleep beneath the stars without the hassle of having to pitch your own tent, you can rent camping equipment from the nearby Volcano House Hotel (complete with a memory foam mattress, cooler, chairs, a lantern and tent assembly) for $55 per night. To reserve camping equipment, call the Volcano House Hotel at 808-756-9625.
Know before you go: Admission to the park costs $10 per vehicle (and covers all of the passengers inside) or $5 per person entering on foot, by bike or by motorcycle, and covers entry to the park for seven days.
Glacier National Park -- Montana
With 740 trails and a reigning title as "The Crown of the Continent," Glacier National Park offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Hike along the 11-mile Grinnell Glacier Trail to reach a 1,200-foot summit, where you'll behold a massive glacier, glacial lakes and a landscape speckled with wildflowers. Other popular treks include the Trail of the Cedars and the 50-mile-long Going-to-the-Sun Road Highway, which crosses through Lake McDonald and finishes at the Continental Divide. If you would rather take in the dramatic peaks beneath a canopy of stars, make your way to Swiftcurrent Lake, which offers vistas of Mount Wilbur, Mount Gould and Grinnell Point. And when you're ready to swap stories around a campfire, you'll have nearly 1,000 campsites to choose from. Fish Creek and St. Mary are popular spots, and can be reserved up to six months in advance (both cost between $10 and $23 per night).
Know before you go: Vehicle permits cost $25 in the summer and $15 in the winter, and grant entry to the park for seven days; individual park admission rates cost between $10 and $12 per person, changing according to season. For up-to-date weather, regulations and closure information, consult the National Park Service's website.
Reykjavik -- Iceland
Yearning for an alternative to a traditional campsite? Reykjavik, Iceland, is the place to go. Beyond catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis), you can admire Reykjavik's iconic sites like the cascading Gulfoss (Golden Falls) and the Stokkur geyser as you traverse the Golden Circle Route. And when you're ready for more relaxing pursuits, you can take a soak in the geothermal hot tubs at Laugardalur Park or make the 30-mile trek outside of Reykjavik to the Blue Lagoon. This geothermal mineral spa, as its name suggests, omits a vibrant blue sheen thanks to its mineral-filled basin. What's more, you can bed down on a shoestring. For 1.700 ISK (roughly $12 USD) per person per night at the Reykjavik Campsite, you'll have access to free showers, parking and complimentary Wi-Fi access (all included). Plus, you can add on extras like breakfast or a bike rental for 1.550 ISK (roughly $11 USD) and 3.500 ISK (roughly $25 USD), respectively.
Know before you go: Reykjavik Campsite welcomes visitors from May 15 to September 15. While September to May is the best time to see the Northern Lights, June to August is the best time to explore the great outdoors, with temperatures hovering in the 40s and 50s.
Joshua Tree National Park -- California
Spread across nearly 800,000 acres, Joshua Tree National Park is a nature-lover's paradise. Here, you'll find everything from prickly cholla cacti to colorful wildflowers to far-reaching yuccas (Joshua Trees). Plus, the park houses nine campgrounds that allow for RVs and tents. Popular grounds include Hidden Valley, which grants easy access to the Hidden Valley Trail and Indian Cove Campground, a family-friendly spot with picnic tables. Both grounds offer plentiful campsites, and require a $10 and $15 nightly fee, respectively. Reserve your place several months ahead of your trip (six months is highly recommended), especially if you're planning a weekend camping trip during fall, winter or spring, when campsites are at full capacity.
Know before you go Admission to the park costs $15 per vehicle (including its passengers), or $5 per person (visitors younger than 16 can enter for free). Consult the National Park Service's website for up-to-date weather advisories and program listings.
Arches National Park -- Utah
The vaulted arches and sandstone rock formations peppering Utah's Colorado Plateau are a sight to behold. For the most enchanting views, and a great home base for exploring the park's desert trails, reserve a spot at Devils Garden Campground, situated 18 miles outside of the park entrance. The grounds offer picnic tables, flush toilets, running water and grills. Nightly rates start at $20 per site for up to 10 guests. Reservations must be made online through www.recreation.gov; booking six months ahead of your stay is highly recommended during peak season (March to October). Nearby, you'll find Utah's can't-miss site — Delicate Arch — the staggering and iconic structure that can be found splashed across state license plates and computer desktops. Another must-see geological oddity: Balanced Rock, which is situated smack dab in the middle of the park.
Know before you go Entry to the park costs $5 per person or $10 per vehicle (includes all its passengers; 15 person capacity); and admission fees grant access for seven days. For upcoming park events and current alerts, consult the National Park Service's website.
Yosemite National Park -- California
A quintessential camping spot, Yosemite National Park boasts cascading waterfalls, serene meadows and glistening glaciers from sky-high lookouts. Many of the 13 campgrounds at the park require reservations in advance, but if you're planning a last-minute trip, you'll have your pick between seven sites spread across the Yosemite Valley. For abundant campsite facilities, consider Upper Pines Campground, an RV site that offers food storage lockers, campfire areas, drinking water, flush toilets and easy access to Glacier Point and Half Dome. For stays from mid-March to November, reservations are required five months in advance; the nightly rate is $26 per site. Another popular spot is Yosemite Pines RV Resort, located 22 miles west of the park, which provides cabins, yurts and RV and tent sites along with a barbecue area, a pool and a volleyball court. Basic tent campsite rates range from $16 to $38, depending on the season.
Know before you go There are no required reservations to enter the park; however, there are often weather advisories in effect. Consult the National Park Service's website for current updates.
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There may be no better way to relax and recharge than a camping trip. You can disconnect from your digital devices and replace time spent browsing Facebook, Instagram and Twitter with up-close wildlife encounters in the great outdoors. But before you reach for your sleeping bag, you'll want to ensure you pick a place that maximizes comfort and cleanliness amid the scenery.
That's where U.S. News comes in. We've searched far and wide to find epic campgrounds, from steeped-in-the-wild eco campsites in Chilean Patagonia to family-friendly grounds in Yosemite. Whether you want to stargaze around a crackling fire, get your heart racing with exhilarating treks or simply soak up the scenery, there's a place for you on this list. Best of all, you'll form lifelong memories without breaking the bank: Campsite rates start as low as $15 a night.