Wilderness Made Easy

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1995

Wilderness Made Easy

Ten campsites you can get to in mere hours, but feel light-years away from the workaday world
By Larry Rice

It's early on a Friday afternoon, and claustrophobia has set in: You have to flee the gray, crowded, frenetic city. But where can you go on a moment's notice? Well, if you can figure out how to cut work a little before quitting time, you still have a chance to get deep into the woods--or at least what'll feel like the deep woods--by nightfall. Here is a collection of our favorite easy-to-reach campsites, each within a few hours' drive of a major metropolitan area and each within a couple of miles of the closest trailhead. Because sometimes you're not looking for the world's most remote spot--you're just trying to get out of Dodge for the weekend.

Ross Lake National Recreation Area
North Cascades National Park

The Spot: A clearing in a cool forest of ancient firs and giant ferns next to frothy Thunder Creek. The sites have a genuine Deep Cascades feel and yet are just a mile and a half from the trailhead at Colonial Creek Campground.

Things to Do: For grand views of Cascade giants, take the moderately steep, 3.2-mile trail from Thunder Camp to 3,600-foot Fourth of July Pass, where you'll be face-to-midriff with the glacier-draped Colonial and Snowfield Peaks. Down by Colonial Creek Campground, the cold waters of Diablo Lake teem with rainbow, brook, cutthroat, and Dolly Varden trout. You can also get out on the water on a nearby nine-mile, Class II stretch of the Skagit River; the put-in is 11 miles to the west at Goodell Creek Campground. For an outfitted trip, call Orion Expeditions (three hours, $55; 206-547-6715).

Local Wisdom: Black bears are frequent visitors to Thunder Camp, so follow the usual precautions diligently.

The Way There: From Seattle, about three hours away, take I-5 north 64 miles to Washington 20, and then go east 68 miles to Colonial Creek. Thunder Camp is a mile and a half south along Thunder Creek Trail. For maps and a free backcountry permit (required), call the North Cascades Visitor Center at 206-386-4495.

Big Thicket National Preserve

The Spot: Choose any of the small, gladelike clearings along the first mile and a half of the 18-mile trail that parallels Turkey Creek, which runs through the heart of this crazy quilt of savannas, blackwater bayous, and swamps in southeastern Texas, about two hours northeast of Houston.

Things to Do: The languid waterways of Big Thicket make it an ideal paddling destination. Some of the region's best backcountry canoeing can be found on a 37-mile section of slow-moving Village Creek, which flows within a mile of camp. For guides, rentals, and shuttle service, call Timber Ridge Tours (rentals, $20 per day; guided tours, $30; 409-246-4481) or Piney Woods Canoe Company (rentals, $17 per day; 409-274-5892). Back on land, be sure not to miss the hike to Pitcher Plant Trail, which splits off from Turkey Creek Trail about seven miles north of camp. On this quarter-mile-long nature walk, you'll be treated to a view of the nation's most diverse population of carnivorous plants--four of the five types that occur naturally in the United States can be found here.

Local Wisdom: Steer clear in summer--if the unreasonable heat and unfathomable humidity don't get you, the mosquitoes and biting flies will.

The Way There: From Houston, take I-10 east 100 miles to Beaumont, and then head north 27 miles on U.S. 69 to Farm-to-Market 420. Go east 2.5 miles to the Turkey Creek Unit Information Station (409-246-2337), where you can pick up maps, permits (free), and the trailhead.

Pinnacles National Monument

The Spot: These 20 drive-in sites are decidedly nonwilderness--they come complete with bathrooms, fire grates, and picnic tables--but are just a stone's throw from scores of spirelike rock formations and 25 square miles of wild chaparral-covered hills.

Things to Do: If rock is your medium, head to the Balconies Cliffs, one and a half miles north of Chaparral. Here you'll find routes ranging from 5.5 to 5.11. Check out Shake-N-Bake, a challenging 5.10, or if you're new to the sport, head to Elephant Rock, on the trail to Balconies just a half-mile from camp, where you'll find The Regular Route, a beginner-friendly 5.3. Those who feel the need for knowledgeable companionship can hire a guide from Peak Experience in Santa Cruz ($80 per day; 408-462-2023). From the campground you also have a choice of several well-marked hiking routes. The 1.4-mile Balconies Trail gives a quick overview of the monument's landscape and offers easy access to the cliffs. You can also take the Juniper Canyon Trail to the 2,500-foot High Peaks Area, a 4.2-mile round-trip that pays off with a dramatic view of nearby Hawkins Peak.

Local Wisdom: Chaparral is closed to camping on weekends through May; if you feel the need to get there before summer, camp at privately owned Pinnacles Campground Inc. ($6 per night; 408-389-4462), an amenity-laden facility just outside the park's eastern boundary. Also, be aware that some Balconies routes are closed in spring to protect nesting Cooper's hawks and peregrine falcons: Call monument headquarters (408-389-4485) for current closures before heading out.

The Way There: From San Francisco, three hours away, take U.S. 101 south 130 miles to the town of Soledad, and then go east 12 miles on California 146 to the monument's west entrance. Here you'll pay the $4 entrance fee and $10 per night for your campsite; while you're at it, pick up a map and, if you plan to get vertical, a copy of Climbing Guide: Pinnacles National Monument ($18). From there, the Chaparral campground is three miles east along the main road.

Middle Fork State Fish and Wildlife Area

The Spot: A hushed, serene atmosphere in a mosaic of deciduous trees and 100-foot-high bluffs on the banks of the Middle Fork of the Vermilion, Illinois's only National Scenic River.

Things to Do Most of the action here centers around the river, which is ideal for canoeing, especially the stretch between Kinny's Ford, ten miles north of camp, and Kickapoo Bridge in nearby Kickapoo State Park. For a boat ($34 per day) and shuttle service, call Kickapoo Canoe Rentals at 217-354-2060. Angling opportunities are also plentiful, with smallmouth bass, bluegill, and crappie lurking in the small green pools at every bend. More than 35 miles of interconnected trails radiate from the campsite. Start by taking the equestrian trail north a half-mile and connecting to the unnamed, seven-mile snowmobile trail, which loops back around to camp. Mountain biking is not allowed in the Fish and Wildlife Area, but there is a knobby track in Kickapoo, the challenging and aptly named Bike Trail.

Local Wisdom: Spring is prime time along the Middle Fork--not only will the river be running briskly (it can be quite low in late summer), but a stunning wildflower show will be all around you, highlighted by the showy bluebells that carpet the forest floor.

The Way There: From Chicago, three hours away, take I-57 south 138 miles to Champaign, where you'll pick up I-74. Go east 24 miles to the town of Oakwood, and then head north for six miles on County Road 900 East. Turn right on County Road 2400 North and go a half-mile to the park office (217-776-2614), where you can obtain camping permits ($6 per night). Continue another half-mile north to the parking area; Pondside is three-quarters of a mile south on the unnamed multiuse trail.

White Mountain National Forest
New Hampshire

The Spot: A clearing near a stream patrolled by an army of busy beavers, where you can watch the bucktoothed rodents while being serenaded by the trilling of what sounds like a million toads.

Things to Do: Since these are the White Mountains, hiking is king. There are endless opportunities along the Smarts Brook Trail, which winds through heavy stands of hardwoods and conifers as it follows its namesake stream. For the best viewpoint in the area, follow the trail northeast about three and a half miles from camp, where you'll hit the Sandwich Mountain Trail. Go a half-mile up and you'll top out on Sandwich Dome, which offers a panorama of the Mad River Valley from its 3,993-foot vantage. Down by camp, mountain biking is also allowed on the Smarts Brook Trail, but as you head uphill it crosses the boundary of the Sandwich Range Wilderness, where mechanized travel is prohibited. Instead, ride south from camp to Yellow Jacket Trail, the start of a seven-mile, partially single-track loop that traverses a footbridge, a stream, and a steep descent before bringing you back via the asphalt of New Hampshire 49.

Local Wisdom: If you're a fan of bracing water, be sure to bring a bathing suit, as Smarts Brook has many riffling pools that make perfect swimming holes. Be sure to steer clear of the beavers, though, as rangers are worried that their habitat has become increasingly encroached upon by not-so-low-impact day-trippers.

The Way There: From Boston, two and a half hours away, take I-93 north 120 miles to New Hampshire 49, and then go northeast for five miles to the clearly marked trailhead parking lot. The campsite is a mile and a half to the southeast, just before the trail narrows and begins to get steep. No permit is required; for maps, call the Pemigewasset Ranger District at 603-536-1310.

Greenbrier River Trail
West Virginia

The Spot: An unmarked primitive campsite nestled among rocky ridges, misty waterfalls, and the jagged summits of the Allegheny Mountains, adjacent to Monongahela National Forest and 170 miles southwest of the nation's capital.

Things to Do: Hard-core backpackers might scoff at the idea of hiking on an abandoned railroad right-of-way, but that may be because they've never visited the rough gravel trail that runs through the heart of the Greenbrier River Valley. The route winds through hardwood forests, disappears into the darkness of a 500-foot-long tunnel, and reemerges to skirt the edges of ghost towns from the region's big-timber era. But since the trail doesn't connect to any others that loop back to the site, expand your range by exploring the Greenbrier on a mountain bike. A particularly fun ride is the 26-mile stretch between the historic logging town of Cass, ten miles north of camp, and the small hamlet of Marlinton. The Elk River Touring Center in Slatyfork rents bikes ($25 per day) and guides tours along the trail ($239-$299 for a three-day, three-night trip); call 304-572-3771 for details. Angling is also a big draw, with the river's deep pools harboring hefty brown and rainbow trout as well as smallmouth bass. Elk Mountain Outfitters in Slatyfork sells the required $12 state license and offers fly-fishing lessons, equipment rental, and tours; call 304-572-3000 for prices and information.

Local Wisdom: The trail slopes gently as you move south. If you tend to hit the wall on the return leg of your rides, go north when you head out in the morning to avoid an end-of-the-day climb.

The Way There: From Washington, D.C., go west 100 miles on I-66 to I-81, and then south 110 miles until you hit U.S. 250. From there, go west 65 miles to County Road 1, and then south 15 miles to Clover Lick. Park in the trailside lot on the south side of town; the campsite, which is free and requires no permit, is 1.5 miles south along the trail. For a map ($2) and more information, call the Greenbrier River Trail Association at 304-572-3771.

Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
New Jersey/Pennsylvania

The Spot: A cluster of car- and canoe-accessible campsites on the wildest part of a 40-mile designated Wild and Scenic stretch of the Delaware, where the nighttime calls of barred owls and whippoorwills aren't forced to compete with the drone of road traffic, despite the proximity (two hours) to Manhattan.

Things to Do: Canoeing is one of the big attractions on the Delaware, particularly among the shallow riffles and quiet pools of the Water Gap area, through which there are access points about every eight to ten miles. If you don't have a boat of your own, call Pack Shack Adventures in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania (rentals, $40-$43 per day, including shuttle service; 717-424-8533). But the Gap is also referred to as the Eiger of the Poconos, and while this may be something of an overstatement, there is good climbing to be found on the 200-foot cliffs of Mounts Minsi and Tammany, near the Kittatinny Point Visitor Center, three miles south of camp. Popular routes for experienced climbers include Heights of Madness (5.8) and Morning Sickness (5.11). If you don't already climb but want to give it a try, Pack Shack offers instruction, from full-day group sessions ($45) to private lessons ($100). While you're in the neighborhood, take the 3.75-mile trail from Kittatinny Point to Sunfish Pond, where you can hook up with the Appalachian Trail, which traverses the park for some 25 miles. From the ridge two miles north of Sunfish Pond, you'll be treated to a commanding view of the entire Water Gap area.

Local Wisdom: If you're an aficionado of big birds of prey, consider making this trip in late September or early October, when hawks and other raptors come through on their annual migrations.

The Way There: From New York City, follow I-80 west 85 miles to the Delaware Bridge exit (the last one in New Jersey) onto Old Mine Road, where you'll find the visitor center. Continue north three miles to the campground ($8-$10 per night; 908-841-9575). For maps and more information, call the recreation area headquarters at 717-588-2435.

Mount San Jacinto State Wilderness

The Spot: A grassy, fern-backed meadow on the flanks of the San Jacinto Range, which rises with startling abruptness from the desert oasis of Palm Springs. Expect to see deer, coyotes, the odd mountain lion, and--since this is southern California--plenty of other nature seekers, but know that, come nightfall, 99 percent of the last will be on their way back to the megalopolis.

Things to Do: Part of the thrill of visiting Round Valley is in the getting there, as you'll have to take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, one of the largest and longest in the world. It carries you up nearly 6,000 feet to Mountain Station, at 8,516 feet. From there, it's a 6.3-mile hike to the top of Mount San Jacinto--at 10,804 feet, southern California's second-highest peak--which offers a dramatic view of both the surrounding high-country wilderness and the distant lowland desert. Another great but no less strenuous hike is the seven-miler to the top of Suicide Rock. Take Wellman's Divide Trail southwest for two miles, and then head west two and a quarter miles on the Pacific Crest Trail and south two miles on Deer Springs Trail, which intersects Suicide Rock Trail. From there it's another mile to the summit. Climbing, as the name suggests, is actually Suicide's biggest attraction; popular routes include the 5.9 Flower of High Rank and the 5.10 Sundance. For more information regarding access and routes, call Nomad Ventures, a climbing store in nearby Idyllwild, at 909-659-4853; for a guide or instruction, call Wilderness Connection in Joshua Tree (group lessons, $150 per day, including gear; private lessons, $175; 619-366-4745).

Local Wisdom: The rapid ascent into the high country via the tramway can have a downside: acute mountain sickness. Try to take it easy on the first day to give your system a chance to acclimatize.

The Way There: From Los Angeles, two and a half hours away, take I-10 east 100 miles to California 111, and then head south through Palm Springs. Turn right onto Tramway Road, and then go three and a half miles to the base of the tramway. The 15-minute ride costs $16 for adults, $10 for children five to 12 years old (kids under five are free); call 619-325-1449 for information. Round Valley is two miles from the top of the tram. Backcountry permits (free but limited, so reserve in advance) and maps can be picked up at Long Valley Ranger Station; call 619-327-0222.

Pike National Forest

The Spot: Eight drive-in sites at the bottom of a trail that leads to four-acre, sky-blue Gibson Lake, which is perched in a roadless area just an hour and a half south of Denver and about four miles from camp.

Things to Do: Gibson's mythic 15-inch brookies are said to be chomping at every fly-shaped bit, but you'll need a state fishing license ($5.25 per day, $20.25 per year). Pick one up on your way from Denver, along with any gear you may have forgotten, at Knotty Pine Sport Center in Bailey (303-838-5679). Wildlife abounds on the shore too, so bring a camera and binoculars, keeping a lens-enhanced eye out for sizable specimens like elk and bighorn sheep, as well as smaller fauna such as marmots and pikas. When it's time to get your heart rate up, take the steep, nontechnical fork off Gibson Lake Trail up a quarter-mile to the top of Whale Peak, local home of the Continental Divide, or spin your knobbies two miles downhill from camp to the Burning Bear Trail, a 5.5-mile route rough enough to make you glad you invested in suspension.

Local Wisdom: Make sure to bring your camp stove: Last year's dry summer gave rangers a scare, and they vow to ban fires this year if such conditions are repeated.

The Way There: From Denver, take U.S. 285 south for 44 miles to the town of Bailey. Continue west on 285 for 14.3 miles, turn right onto Forest Service Road 120 (Hall Valley Road), and then prepare for a bouncy five-mile ride to the campground. No permits are necessary, but there is a $6-per-night fee. For maps and more information, call the South Platte Ranger District at 303-275-5610.

Ocala National Forest

The Spot: 79 drive-in sites infused with boggy tranquility among moss-draped forests of live oaks and whispering pines, yet just an hour from the frantic Walt Disney World kiddieplex.

Things to Do: A 37-mile section of the Florida National Scenic Trail takes off right from your vestibule, with grassy clearings, shallow ponds, and tea-colored swamps providing a backdrop for a rich collection of wildlife--look for four-leggers such as bobcats, foxes, and armadillos, and birds ranging from red-cockaded woodpeckers to the amazing and endangered wood stork, which can have a wing span of up to six feet. Note, however, that many sections of the trail outside the national forest are on private land and are open only to members of the Florida Trail Association; call 800-343-1882 for information on membership ($25 per year) and its hiking-trail guide ($13.75). Paddlers can take off right from the campground on a four- to five-hour trip down the clear, labyrinthine creek, which flows through the heart of Juniper Prairie Wilderness. The recreation area concessionaire (904-625-2808) rents canoes and provides shuttles for $21.25 per day. Swimming is great year-round at the springs from which the area takes its name, a 13-million-gallon-per-day headwaters just 100 yards west of camp.

Local Wisdom: If your day hikes lead you into any of the area's cypress swamps, keep an eye peeled for "logs" that may turn out to be water moccasins or alligators.

The Way There: From Orlando, head north 60 miles on U.S. 441 and Florida 19, and then go west on Florida 40 for three miles until you reach the Juniper Springs Campground. Sites cost $10.75-$12.75 per night; call 904-625-3147 for maps and more information.

Larry Rice lives in Illinois and is a longtime contributor to Outside.

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