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Trip Planning

Hidden Gems that are Perfect for Your Summer Travel Itinerary

From the sheer granite cliffs of Yosemite to the dense forest in the Great Smoky Mountains, some of America’s most iconic national parks are receiving crowds unlike any time in the past.

The following article was originally published on Accuweather as part of a partnership with Go RVing. The original post can be found HERE

The unprecedented popularity of the parks can take away some of the enjoyment of the adventure, but there are hidden gems scattered across the country that offer memorable experiences without having to compete with crowds for a parking spot.

Some of these hidden gems are off the beaten path, making them great destinations for folks hitting the road in an RV.

Not only does driving to and from these destinations allow you to see the country first-hand, but also you can do so without leaving behind the comforts of home.

RVs can be outfitted with a large cozy bed that is more comfortable than a cramped tent, a personal bathroom and shower and even solar panels to quell any battery anxiety when your cell phone is running out of juice.

It is important to plan ahead and book a campsite reservation that allows RVs since pulling off to the side of a road or staying in a parking lot near a trailhead is not a safe or legal option. The Go RVing Find a Campground page is the perfect way to ensure that a site will fit your needs. 

So sit back and relax from inside a spacious RV while visiting these destinations across the U.S.

1. Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument

Acadia National Park in Maine is one of the most popular outdoor travel spots in the Northeast, but the state is also home to a lesser-known wilderness under a branch of the national park system. Katahdin Woods & Water National Monument is located in central Maine, far away from major cities, and offers visitors a glimpse of the wild without the crowds.  In 2020, fewer than 42,000 people visited the national monument, which was established just a few years prior on Aug. 24, 2016.

A 17-mile road that loops through the southern extent of the monument offers scenic views of the breathtaking landscape and access to some trails. Katahdin Woods is also home to one of the darkest night skies in the eastern U.S. due to its distance from major cities, and when conditions are right, it can be illuminated by the northern lights.

Most of the campsites in Katahdin Woods are for tents only, so RVers should look for other options just outside of the monument, such as Wilderness Edge Campground near Millinocket, Maine, which is just south of the park's boundary.

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2. Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia

Hiking on the Appalachian Trail does not always mean giving up the comforts of home. Nestled in the mountains of southwestern Virginia is Grayson Highlands State Park, an off-the-grid park that offers RV-friendly camping and easy access to a unique stretch of the Appalachian Trail. This section of the world-famous trail attracts more than just hikers – wild ponies roam the landscape year-round and graze on the open grasslands. Around a dozen herds reside in Grayson Highlands with the largest ponies growing around 4 feet tall, according to The Appalachian Voice. These ponies have grown accustomed to humans hiking through the area and may walk right up to some hikers, but it is illegal to feed them.

More adventurous visitors can take a hike to the nearby Mount Rodgers, the highest point in the state of Virginia at 5,728 feet above sea level. The trail to the summit of Mount Rodgers is easy to follow and has plenty of great views of the surroundings, but it may not be for everyone as it is around 10 miles out and back. Grayson Highlands Campground is a great option for people looking to stay in the park with a small store within walking distance.

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3. Assateague Island, Maryland

Grayson Highlands is not the only place in the eastern U.S. that visitors can encounter wild horses. Assateague Island is a long and narrow barrier island along the Delmarva Peninsula where wild horses roam. These are full-sized feral horses that can be seen trotting along the beach with waves crashing nearby. They may even wander into your campsite as they stroll along the sandy landscape. 

Assateague Island also offers a unique camping experience with sites so close to the ocean that the waves can be heard crashing in the background while sitting around the campfire at the end of the day. RVs can pull right into these sites and can be great for those looking to get out of the sun for a while following a day on the beach. The sites can accommodate RVs up to 50 feet long, and reservations can be booked through the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Rocket launches can even be seen from Assateague Island several times a year from the nearby Wallops Island Flight Facility, which NASA operates.

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4. Mount Mitchell Scenic Byway

Standing at the top of the tallest mountain in the eastern U.S. does not require an arduous hike. Mount Mitchell in North Carolina stands at 6,684 feet, a higher elevation than Denver, and ascending the mountain can be completed in style with an RV. The Mount Mitchell Scenic Byway is a 52-mile stretch of road that starts just outside of Asheville, North Carolina, and ends at the mountain's summit. However, the parking lot near the summit falls just a few feet short of the peak, so a short walk up a paved path is required to become the tallest person east of the Mississippi River. 

An RV is a great option for traveling along the byway as there are not many rest areas to stop for food or bathroom breaks. But with an RV, travelers can pull over at any parking lot or scenic overlook to grab a bite to eat or to sip on a cool beverage from a built-in kitchen and refrigerator.  

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5. Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Michigan

Nearly everyone has heard of national parks, but a new type of park has been becoming more popular in recent years around the globe. Since the International Dark Sky Places Program was founded in 2001, more than 100 Dark Sky Parks have been established across North America. These sites are locations where human-created light pollution is limited and the night sky's darkness is preserved, allowing visitors to enjoy the true beauty of the night sky. According to the World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness, more than 99% of the U.S. population lives under a light-polluted sky.

Headlands Park is one of these sites in the U.S., located near the tip of northern Michigan, far away from light-polluted cities such as Detroit and Chicago. “A county-wide outdoor lighting ordinance helps curtail the growth of artificial light at night in surrounding areas, while the land in and around the park is zoned for natural conditions and strict limits on outdoor lighting,” the International Dark Sky Association said. This gives people incredibly pristine views of the Milky Way and is a great spot for viewing events like the Perseid Meteor Shower in mid-August. After a late night of stargazing, an RV can be an easy and comfortable place to spend the night without having to worry about driving to a hotel or pitching a tent in the dark. No camping is allowed in the park, but stargazers have a few nearby options with four camping options located within a 15-minute drive of the park.

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6. Teddy Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota 

A national park named after one of the country’s most recognizable presidents is just a few hours away from a bust of his face, alongside three other famous presidents. North Dakota’s Teddy Roosevelt National Park is named after the 26th U.S. president and is located about 250 miles north of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Roosevelt himself visited this land to hunt in 1883, nearly 100 years before the park was established. Teddy Roosevelt National Park offers similar sites to other parks with fewer crowds, including bison like those that run free in Yellowstone and geologic formations like the nearby Badlands National Park.

Even during the summer, the nights in Teddy Roosevelt National Park can get chilly, so having the climate controls outfitted in many RVs can make a vacation to this park more comfortable. Summer is also the wettest time of the year in the park, so being shielded from precipitation in an RV can soothe worries about being soaked on a rainy day.

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7. Big Bend National Park, Texas

Deep in the heart of Texas is a remote national park that is worth the drive, especially if the weather is clear. Big Bend National Park, located in far western Texas near the border of Mexico, is unlike the landscape seen around the more populated parts of the state with impressive mountains, cliffs and valleys across a desert landscape. Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is a great way to see the park from the comfort of an RV and offers easy access to some of the most popular trails and vistas in the park.

And don’t forget, half the park is after dark. San Antonio and El Paso are the closest major cities to the park but are both more than 250 miles away, meaning there is minimal light pollution for stargazers. The Milky Way can be easily seen on a cloud-free night amid a sea of countless stars, a site that is impossible to see closer to Dallas, Houston or Austin.

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8. Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Sinking your feet in the sand doesn’t always go hand in hand with the ocean. Near the base of a mountain range, about a four-hour drive southwest of Denver, are vast sand dunes created by time and wind after a large lake evaporated into thin air. Great Sand Dunes National Park features the tallest sand dune in North America, Star Dune, at 750 feet tall, although the park’s elevation is more than 7,500 feet above sea level.

You cannot drive your RV on the sand, but you can ride down the dunes on a "sandboard," which is similar to a snowboard. Afterward, cool off in Medano Creek, which is fed by snowmelt from the nearby mountains and flows along the boundary of the dunes. Nearly 90 campsites can be booked in the park at the Piñon Flats Campground, but no hookups are available for RVs. Those looking for more amenities, including electrical hookups and a dump station, can book a stay at the nearby Mosca Campground, which is an easy 15-mile drive from the park's entrance. 

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9. Driving down the Oregon Coast Highway

One of the most scenic highways in the country weaves along the coast of Oregon, the perfect stretch of highway for a West Coast road trip. The 350-mile section of Highway 101 is speckled with quaint towns that offer nearly countless restaurants that serve up seafood within a stone’s throw of the Pacific Ocean. This is the perfect trip for those looking for a break from the heat expected across the interior West this summer as it stays comparatively cool near the ocean.

The highway also features breathtaking views of the rocky Oregon coast with parking areas every few miles that can accommodate RVs of all shapes and sizes. Camping is not allowed at these pull-offs, but there are campsites along the coast near some towns. Cape Lookout State Park near Tillamook, Oregon, is one option that is close to the ocean and offers RV sites.

Travelers electing to drive the Oregon Coast Highway from north to south can follow up the trip with a visit to Crater Lake National Park, located northeast of Medford, Oregon. Approximately 7,700 years ago, the volcano blew its top in a cataclysmic eruption with water eventually filling the caldera to create the deepest lake in the U.S. Visitors can drive around the rim of the volcano when the 33-mile road is not buried in snow that accumulates during the winter.

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10. North Cascades National Park, Washington

Less than three hours away from Seattle is one of the least-visited national parks in the U.S. North Cascades National Park tallied around 31,000 visitors in all of 2020, which was lower than some national parks in Alaska. “North Cascades National Park Service Complex is one of the premier ‘wilderness parks’ in the lower 48 states,” the NPS said. It is also one of the few national parks that do not have an entrance fee and is home to two National Scenic Trails.

Preparing a hot meal during a visit to North Cascades National Park or the nearby Lake Chelan National Recreation Area will be easy this year in an RV but may be difficult without one as fires have been banned across most of the two parks. The ability to make a home-cooked meal while on the road is one of the benefits of traveling across the country in an RV.

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11. Grand Canyon (North Rim), Arizona

The Grand Canyon is one of the most famous national parks globally and is often crowded daily during the summer months. According to the National Park Service, 90% of all visitors gather along the South Rim, but similar views can be enjoyed without the crowds by going off the beaten path. The North Rim offers similar views to the canyon but with more room to spread out. “There is something about the North Rim of Grand Canyon that invokes a sense of solitude and serenity,” the National Park Service said. This side of the canyon sits at a higher elevation than the South Rim, which translates to lower, more comfortable temperatures during the hottest parts of the summer.

Since the North Rim is in a remote coniferous forest, there are not as many amenities when compared to the South Rim, but this is not an issue for those visiting in an RV. The North Rim Campground is the most popular option and features a store, showers, laundry and a dump station. DeMotte Campground and Jacob Lake Campground are two other options and both allow RVs, but they do not have any hookups. Everything from a hot shower to a comfy bed is just a few steps away after putting an RV in park, and the ample room makes it easy to pack for every type of weather that you may encounter along your journey. 

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12. Petrified Forest National Park

Drive back in time with a trip to the Petrified Forest National Park in eastern Arizona. The park is located in the tree-less landscape nearly two hours east of Flagstaff, but the forest is preserved in the landscape itself. Trees that grew 225 million years ago have been transformed over time, petrified and turned into the beautiful stone that is scattered across the park. Ruins from Pueblo settlements are also scattered across the park that date back 1,000 years.

The main road in Petrified Forest National Park also crosses paths with the historic Route 66, the original stretch of road that connected Chicago to Los Angeles before the interstate system was established.

RV camping is prohibited inside the park, but there are numerous options for parking an RV nearby. Private campgrounds like Holbrook/Petrified Forest KOA and OK RV Parkare available and have multiple amenities necessary for a good pit stop.

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AccuWeather Meteorologist and Staff Writer

Brian Lada

Meteorologist & journalist for Accuweather focusing on astronomy & space who enjoys hiking and photography.