Imagine waking up to the sound of rushing water just steps from your sleeping bag and sipping coffee on a boulder next to the stream, then spending all day swimming, paddling, and fishing. In the evening, you cook your catch over an open flame for dinner. Not bad, right? Here are seven of our favorite places to park your van or pitch your tent to experience life down by the river.
You don’t need a special permit to camp in these places, but you will need to have reservations for a few of them, which you can make via the links provided.
Buena Vista, Colorado
The Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area manages seven campgrounds (from $18) along the Arkansas River around the towns of Buena Vista and Salida. Those spots require booking online in advance and come with amenities like restrooms, running water, and picnic tables.
Or find your way onto Chaffee County Road 371, a partially dirt road that parallels the river north of Buena Vista and has ample pullouts for free, dispersed camping. Railroad Bridge is a popular overnight pit stop for kayakers and people panning for gold. Brown Dog Coffee in Buena Vista is your go-to for espresso and breakfast burritos.
Tellico Plains, Tennessee
You can’t beat the price—just $6 a night—to park near the shores of the Tellico on one of 16 primitive spots at Spivey Cove Campground, tucked into a quiet hollow along the river in the 640,000-acre Cherokee National Forest. The town of Tellico Plains, in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, is 18 miles downstream along a winding road. The 300-mile Benton MacKaye Trail passes near the campground. There’s a section of Class III–IV whitewater on the upper Tellico for kayaking and world-class brook, brown, and rainbow trout fishing.
North Yuba River
At Union Flat or Loganville, you’ll find riverside campsites (from $24) along Northern California’s picturesque North Fork of the Yuba River in a quiet pine and oak forest just steps from some of the best swimming holes. Boating and hiking at the Sardine Lakes is about 14 miles away. There’s also incredible mountain biking on the Downieville Downhill Trail and hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail within easy reach. Bassetts Station, on the nearby Gold Lakes Highway, has groceries and old-fashioned milkshakes worth stopping in for postride.
Sol Duc River
Olympic National Park, Washington
Open from March through October, Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort Campground (from $25) is located on the river. Three mineral-hot-spring pools dot the property. Hiking trails through old-growth forest start right from camp, including a 1.6-mile out-and-back to Sol Duc Falls. Book online in advance to secure a site, or show up and nab one of the spots reserved for walk-ins. Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, just down the road, has a small general store selling firewood and other camping supplies, as well as cabins for rent.
Settle in amid lodgepole pines alongside the water at the Salmon River Campground, five miles north of the town of Stanley along Highway 75. No need to book online—these sites (from $16) are first-come, first-served. Located at the base of the Sawtooth Range, you can enjoy hiking and mountain biking on trails, fly-fishing for rainbows and cutthroats, and a variety of activities at Redfish Lake, all nearby. Don’t miss the area’s natural hot springs, including Boat Box Hot Springs, made from a metal riverside tub. Pop into town for homemade cinnamon rolls in a log cabin at Stanley Baking Company.
Ellis and Saco Rivers
Glen, New Hampshire
At the confluence of the Ellis and Saco Rivers in Mount Washington Valley, you’ll find the privately owned, 80-acre Glen Ellis Family Campground (from $48), which is run by three generations of the Goff family. Score a riverfront site to catch rainbow and brook trout, or rent tubes to float the Saco River. Endless hiking trails on Mount Washington are a short drive away, but if you’ve got kids, they may never want to leave: the place has a pool, playground, country store with ice cream, and massive grassy fields.
Taos, New Mexico
Orilla Verde Recreation Area stretches for seven miles along the Wild and Scenic Rivers–designated Rio Grande and contains several riverside campgrounds (from $7 a night) as well as plenty of free, undeveloped camping zones. From the small community of Pilar, 16 miles south of Taos, head upriver on State Road 570 and you’ll find ample places to park for the night on land managed by the BLM. By day, enjoy whitewater kayaking and rafting (Far Flung Adventures offers guided trips), fishing, and well-maintained hiking and mountain-biking trails.