Family Friendly Tent-Only Campgrounds

April 19, 2012
A family pitches a tent at a paddle-in campsite—a great option for those looking for tent-only campgrounds.
Jeb Wallace-BrodeurA family pitches a tent at a paddle-in campsite—a great option for those looking for tent-only campgrounds.

Summer’s coming, the school year is almost over. Do you see yourself or your family in the following descriptions?

You want to go on a family camping trip, but you aren’t sure how to get away from the crowds (and RV generators). You’re ready to leave the car behind but not quite ready to backpack. You enjoy hiking, especially if you can take a shower afterward. You don’t mind cooking a meal outside, but you prefer to eat sitting at a table. You like to hike as a family, and you also enjoy other activities together, such as paddling or bicycling. You do not want to be stuck in a tent with kids on a rainy day.

If any of these rings your family bell, then you want to know about walk-in camping. Walk-in camping occupies a sweet spot on the camping continuum—neither backpacking nor car camping, yet incorporating some of the best elements of both.

Camping at a walk-in site is just what it sounds like: You walk to the place you pitch your tent rather than drive to it. Unlike backpackers’ campsites, though, walk-in sites may be only a few yards from your car, making them more of a “stroll-in” than a ‘hike-in.”

Campsites are frequently far enough away from “civilization” to feel close to nature and yet close enough to let you brush your teeth at a faucet. Amenities at walk-in campgrounds vary widely, from simple privies and a water pump to the facilities of a full-service resort. All this, and savings too: Walk-in sites often cost less per night than drive-in sites.

Although “walk-in” is the general term for these campsites, that doesn’t mean you should use them only for hiking trips. Campgrounds on popular bicycle paths offer “bike-in” campsites. Some spectacular campsites can be reached only by water.

Speaking of terminology, you may notice that campgrounds and parks also use the term “walk-in” to refer to sites of all sorts that don’t require advance reservations. Be clear which type of “walk-in” you mean and check specifics before you go.

The 10 locations below, selected for their family appeal and listed in alphabetical order by state, highlight the range of walk-in camping options across the AMC region.

 

10 GREAT TENT-ONLY FAMILY CAMPGROUNDS

1. Connecticut
Rocky Neck State Park, East Lyme

This compact state park on Long Island Sound offers easy access for walk-in campers: 23 sites (of 161 overall) are a short walk from parking and behind the park’s amphitheater and nature center, with spectacular views of the water. The 710-acre park contains woods, tidal rivers, salt marshes, and coastal beaches, and offers both water activities, such as swimming and saltwater fishing, and inland activities on miles of hiking and biking trails. The campground has bathrooms, picnic areas, and a concession stand.
For more information: Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection

 

2. Maine
Swan Island, Richmond

This narrow island in the middle of the Kennebec River a few miles south of Augusta (not to be confused with Swan’s Island in Acadia National Park) is a state-owned wildlife management area. Visitors are encouraged to reach the island by canoe or kayak, but the state also runs a walk-on ferry from Richmond. At the other end, an open-slatted truck fitted with benches transports campers 1 1/2 miles to the campground on the island’s one dirt road. Two hundred years ago, the island hosted a thriving coastal community. Now it is home to nesting bald eagles, flocks of wild turkey, and deer. Ten widely spaced campsites line the edges of grassy fields leading down to the tidal Kennebec. Water is provided and bathroom facilities are available. Advance reservations are required.
For more information: State of Maine

 

3. Maryland
Assateague Island National Seashore, Ocean City

This barrier island along the Atlantic Ocean is known for its wild shoreline and wild horses. Walk-in sites (60 of 400) are on a point of land that offers spectacular ocean views in one direction and protected tidewater paddling in the other. The sites are never more than 200 feet from centralized parking areas. Each site has a picnic table and upright grill.
For more information: National Park Service: Assateague Island

 

4. Massachusetts
Tully Lake Campground, Royalston

Every campsite in this popular tent-only campground in central Massachusetts is a walk-in. Managed by The Trustees of Reservations, the campground offers 35 campsites along the shores of a 200-acre lake. Campers can choose from inland or waterfront campsites, and carts are available for transporting gear. Activities include fishing, hiking to nearby waterfalls, mountain biking, and paddling around the lake’s islands and inlets. The campground also rents canoes, kayaks, fishing poles, and GPS devices for geocaching. A centrally located bathhouse has toilets and coin-operated showers.
For more information: The Trustees of Reservations

 

5. New Hampshire
Cardigan Campsites, Alexandria

AMC’s Cardigan Lodge is already popular with families. Its 17 walk-in campsites extend that family-friendly service, creating a backcountry experience without a long hike. The camping area is a short 10-minute walk from the lodge and swimming pond. Campers can use wheelbarrows to shuttle their gear from the parking area. Each campsite has a fire ring with a grill and a picnic table; outhouses are nearby. Campers can also reserve meals at the lodge during full-service season. Trails from the lodge connect to a 50-mile network. AMC will hold an Intro to Family Camping weekend July 6-8.
For more information: Cardigan Lodge

 

6. New Jersey
Mohican Outdoor Center, Blairstown

AMC’s Mohican Outdoor Center, in the Skyland area of the 70,000-acre Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, sits below the long ramparts of Kittatinny Ridge, the “endless mountain” that stretches from Pennsylvania to High Point. Tucked in around the shores of a 60-acre glacial pond, 10 secluded walk-in sites offer a stunning introduction to the area. Each site has an outdoor privy. No campfires are permitted at the campsites, but the outdoor center offers gathering space, a fireplace, and showers for a small fee. Meals may also be available in the center’s dining room. Activities include hiking—the Appalachian Trail is 0.4 miles from the center—paddling, swimming, and fishing. (A New Jersey fishing license is required.)
For more information: Mohican Outdoor Center

 

7. New York
Meacham Lake, Duane

Meacham Lake Campground is the only development on a 1,200-acre lake in the Adirondack Preserve. The campground has 21 walk-in campsites (out of 224 total), all situated along the west shore of the lake. The wilderness setting is complemented by family-friendly amenities: a playground, swimming beach and bathhouse, picnic area, hot showers, and a daily activity program during summer months. Rowboat and canoe rentals are available.
For more information: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

 

8. Pennsylvania
Pickerel Point Campground, Greentown

At 1,800 feet on the Pocono Plateau, 50 walk-in sites line the shore of a peninsula at the southern end of Promised Land Lake. The sites share a swimming beach at the end of Pickerel Point. The campground has a picnic area with pay showers, access to hiking and biking trails, and canoe, rowboat, paddleboat, and kayak rentals.
For more information: Pennsylvania State Parks

 

9. Vermont
Underhill State Park, Underhill Center

Underhill State Park should properly be called “sidehill,” for its location halfway up the western slopes of Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak at 4,300 feet. All 11 of the park’s campsites are walk-in. The park has four hiking trails to the summit of Mount Mansfield. Vermont’s Long Trail traverses the summit ridge. The campground has a restroom facility with flush toilets and cold running water, but no showers. The park also includes a log picnic shelter built during the late 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a nationwide public works program that employed millions of young men during the Depression and helped build thousands of the country’s parks.
For more information: Vermont State Parks

 

10. Virginia
Shenandoah National Park, Luray and Crozet

Big Meadow and Loft Mountain campgrounds, two campgrounds on Shenandoah’s Skyline Drive, together have nearly 100 walk-in campsites. Big Meadow is near many of the park’s popular hiking trails. Loft Mountain, the park’s largest campground, sits atop Big Flat Mountain with outstanding views to the east and west. Both campgrounds offer easy access to the Appalachian Trail and short hikes to waterfalls, as well as extensive amenities, including showers, laundry facilities, restaurants, camp stores, and outdoor programs.
For more information: Shenandoah National Park

 

LEARN MORE: GETTING THE KIDS INVOLVED

Even very young children can be included in the decision-making process as you plan a camping trip. From choosing where you go and where you’ll set up your tent to what you’ll do while you’re there, the more you involve children in the process, the more they see it as their trip too.

  • Start a family conversation. Share your excitement about camping and explore your options with children. Does your child want to be near the water or near a playground? Go to a park with great bike trails or great paddling?
  • Make it a quest. When children help choose the park or even the specific campsite that you’ll visit it becomes their trip too. Campground layouts are often available online. Some, such as Tully Lake Campground in Massachusetts, even show photos of each campsite.
  • Bring out the maps. Children are fascinated by maps. Road maps help them understand how they’ll get from home to tent and back again, while campground maps and hiking maps orient them to your family adventure.
  • Do a trial run. Especially for younger children, a night in a backyard tent can ease camping jitters. And it’s a good idea to set up a tent at home the first time you use it each season. It’s always better to re-learn how the poles go together (or that you stored the bag with the poles separately from the tent) before you leave home.
  • Pack for comfort. One of the great things about walk-in camping is that you can bring almost anything with you. Let children pack favorite stuffed animals, books, and games, even if you end up leaving some in the car.

 

LEARN MORE: CAMPING WITH AMC

In addition to the campsites at Cardigan Lodge and Mohican Outdoor Center, AMC offers these and other walk-in and paddle-in options. You can read more about AMC camping areas.

  • Ponkapoag Camp in Canton and Randolph, Mass. Volunteer-managed Ponkapoag Camp offers “civilized wilderness” a mere 15 minutes from Boston. The camp and the pond for which it’s named sit at the heart of the 8,500-acre Blue Hills Reservation, managed by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. A rustic campsite for two tents (up to six people) is available. Activities include hiking, paddling, and swimming.
  • Noble View Outdoor Center in Russell, Mass. Noble View’s peaceful mountaintop location features 360 acres of woodlands, trails, and abandoned farm fields. AMC’s recently renovated, volunteer-managed camp abuts 117,000 acres of forests, streams, and open space and offers breathtaking views of the Connecticut River Valley. Campsites have fire rings; firewood is supplied. Campers have access to a bathhouse with hot showers, sinks, composting toilets, and a dishwashing area. Activities include hiking the center’s trails and swimming and paddling at nearby Russell Pond.
  • Baker Pond Campsite, Maine. This secluded, hike-in site is located on Baker Pond within AMC’s Maine Woods Recreation and Conservation Area, with beautiful views of Elephant Mountain. A single tent pad, picnic table, and outhouse are provided, as well as free use of an AMC canoe.
  • Beal Island, Maine. Two AMC destinations in mid-coast Maine, Beal Island and Knubble Bay Camp, are only one mile apart —but that mile is all saltwater. The mainland camp and the 64-acre island are managed by the same AMC volunteer committee. On Beal Island, a large grassy area and pine grove offer comfortable tenting spots for up to two parties comprising no more than 30 campers. All campfires are restricted to a fire ring on the shore, where two picnic tables are also located. The island has an outhouse, but water must be transported from Knubble Bay Camp. A trail circumnavigates the island, offering breathtaking views of the rocky coastline and marine life.

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Kristen Laine

In 2013, Kristen Laine won an EXCEL gold award for outstanding feature writing for her work in AMC Outdoors.