Attributes of Great Campgrounds: What Sets Them Apart?

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There's nothing quite like spending a night in the woods.
On a trip to Acadia National Park, friends and I booked two sites at Blackwoods Campground right in the middle of the action on Mount Desert Island. It's open year round, is home to over 300 sites, and books up far in advance during the busy season. Having never stayed there before, I dreaded arriving and finding tiny sites packed together without privacy, the incessant hum of RV generators, and other campers not observing posted quiet hours or cleaning up after themselves.

What a curmudgeon I am, right?

When we pulled into our site just before sunset, I was floored. The campground staff put us in sites directly across from each other that were beautifully kept, had plenty of room for our tents and gear, and were completely tree-covered. Each site had a big fire ring with a grill and a giant, sturdy picnic table. They were next to the (cleanest) bathrooms (I've ever seen at a campground), but aside from the occasional "whoosh" we heard when someone flushed a toilet, I hardly noticed.

When you’re looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, spending a night visiting a campground can be the perfect option. Crackling fires, sleeping under the stars, the sound of cool evening breezes rustling the leaves on the trees above you; it’s a recipe for a wonderful, relaxing time outdoors. But not all campgrounds are created equal. Though my list of desired attributes changes depending on the trip, there are a few features that all great campgrounds have.

Great Campground Attribute #1: Adequate Privacy.

In general, my philosophy is that unless you’re willing to do what it takes to get far into the wilderness, it’s not realistic to expect solitude when you're camping. Great campgrounds, even mediocre campgrounds, get crowded because they're a convenient way to spend time outdoors without leaving your car far behind. But depending on the way sites are laid out around the campground, tree cover and other features, you can still find spots that feel secluded.

Ricketts Glen State Park in Pennsylvania, for example, is one of my favorite group camping spots in my current home state. The group sites are huge, far apart, and there's what feels like a forest in between them. You truly feel like you're the only group there.

Pro Tip: Look at the campground map in advance to see which sites are far from popular destinations, like bathrooms. If you're tent camping, see if you can snag a spot a good distance from RV-friendly sites to avoid having to listen to generators all day.

A great campground might use tree cover to separate sites, helping with privacy.

Great Campground Attribute #2: Easy to find and navigate around.

Though I generally don’t mind going out of my way to find a campground in the middle of nowhere, getting there safely is important. On a trip to the Catskills several years ago, my group and I planned to stay at a campground the night before setting out on Devil's Path. We found ourselves driving in circles trying to find a very small campground in the dark, mostly due to inadequate signage and poor turnoff markings.

Getting to Blackwoods Campground in Acadia, on the other hand, was a piece of cake. Signage on the road made the entrance easy to find, and though the wooden signs designating different campground loops were tough to read in the dark, we still didn't have any trouble figuring out where we were going.

Solo campground camping in Zion National Park. Such big, beautiful, clean sites!

Great Campground Attribute #3: Easy access to activities. 

When I stay at a campground, it’s usually to be close to trails or other places I’m eager to visit. I don’t want to spend half the day getting to and from my activity spots. One of my favorite local Eastern Pennsylvania campgrounds at French Creek State Park doesn’t offer maximum privacy for individual tent sites, there’s so much to do there that it doesn’t matter. With miles of trails for and mountain biking, Hopewell Lake for swimming, boating and fishing, and picnic areas for day-use, French Creek gives visitors a chance to do just about anything within a few miles of their campsites.

And one of the best things about staying at Blackwoods Campground in Acadia this fall was the fact that we could pick up a trail to the top of the park's high point, Cadillac Mountain, from the middle of the campground.

Great Campground Attribute #4: Open and accessible all year. 

Though it might sound crazy, camping in the snow can be an absolute blast, as long as you're adequately prepared. It's a great way to test your mental reserves and to have all the fun you’d have in warmer weather without anyone else around. A stay at Hickory Run State Park during the winter is still one of my most memorable campground overnights. My friends and I had the campground to ourselves, save two RVs, and we spent the night enjoying s’mores and hot apple cider over the fire in the quiet.

Camping in the snow, if you're adequately prepared, can be an absolute blast!

Great Campground Attribute #5: Clean, well-kept facilities.

If you're sleeping and playing outside, you're going to get dirty. Mud will get on your shoes, bugs will fly around your head, leaves and sticks will find their way into your hair, and rocks may end up in your shoes. However, when I sleep outside at a campground, I prefer to have clean campground quarters.

If the bathrooms are full of bugs and devoid of toilet paper, trash dumpsters aren't emptied regularly, and fire rings are full enough with old ash and garbage from previous tenants that I can't build a proper fire, I'm probably not heading back to that campground. Or, at least, I'm heading back prepared!

If it's not obvious how much I love Blackwoods Campground in Acadia yet, let it be known - I love Blackwoods Campground. In addition to meeting all of the attributes above, the bathrooms were near spotless, always stocked with toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Trash dumpsters were emptied regularly and clear signage helped campers figure out where reyclables should go. The fire rings were, a far as fire rings go, immaculate.

So, now that you've read this list, what other attributes would you add? What, to you, separates the good campgrounds from the great campgrounds? We'd love to hear from you in the comments!

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