primitive camping, national parks, adventure

7 Awesome Primitive Camping Spots 

Words + Photography: Jonathan Irish/Stefanie Payne

America’s national parks are our beloved treasures, but often they can get a little busy. Here’s the best places to find a little elbow room in the great outdoors.

Most who seek adventures in the wilderness do so to find peace away from the fray of busy urban life. And while a visit to any of the national parks provides an escape of sorts, nowadays the parks can also be quite busy and finding solitude isn’t always easy. 

During our quest to explore all 59 national parks in 2016, we found that the best way to escape the crowds was to set off on primitive camping experiences in the backcountry. It was those adventures that blew our minds and allowed us connect more clearly with the natural world

The loose definition of primitive camping is to plop down anywhere in a place of wilderness — free of water, electricity and nearby people and/or civilization; where you are left to rely solely upon the gear you brought with you, the company in which you keep and the mercy of wild nature. 

We wanted to share our favorite off-the-beaten-path campsites where you can pitch a tent, explore your surroundings, challenge your body, create beautiful photographs and sleep soundly beneath dark, starry nights. 

7. Picnic Key Beach Camping, Everglades National Park, Florida 

primitive camping, national parks, adventure

In Florida’s Everglades, primitive campsites scattered throughout the 10,000 Islands area of the park offer excellent beaches to pitch a tent and relax after a long day of paddling. During a three-day canoe adventure, we camped on a chickee nestled in the mangrove trees, on a beach at Jewel Key and, finally, at Picnic Key — our favorite of the three. There you can gather wood for a fire, and kick back after a day of exploring the confluence of fresh- and salt-water waterways that earned this park the designation of a marine sanctuary. Every moment is incredibly peaceful as the songs of abundant birdlife remind you that you are a guest in an important wildlife habitat.  

6. Olympic Coast, Olympic National Park, Washington

primitive camping, national parks, adventure

This backpacking adventure is the quintessence of beach camping, Pacific Northwest style! Marine weather, rocky beaches decorated with massive hunks of driftwood, active tide pools, crashing waves of the Pacific and mysterious forest lining the beach are your surroundings at Rialto Beach in the coastal area of Olympic National Park. Waking up to seabirds soaring over symphonic waves makes for a peaceful setting. As Washington state is positioned in a wet climate, adventuring there is always a rain-or-shine event. The great thing is that you can gear up and head out to the coast and experience one of the area’s local treasures almost any day of the year.  

5. Great Sand Dunes, Colorado

primitive camping, national parks, adventure
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Just a little over four hours driving south from Denver brings you to one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets and home of the highest sand dunes in North America, situated at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. From the Dunes parking lot, set out on foot with your backpacking gear and trek over mountains of sand to find a secluded place where you can camp for the night atop untrampled sandscapes. Hiking at high altitude (base elevation is 7,500 feet) is no easy feat, but the reward is epic when you find yourself ready to rest under dark starry skies in complete isolation. 

4. Bear Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

primitive camping, national parks, adventure

If there is ever too much of a good thing, you might find it on your quest to explore the area surrounding Bear Glacier, the largest glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. Every aspect of the entire experience brings you into the fold of the picturesque Alaskan scenery — like the three-mile stretch of Bear Lagoon Beach where you will sleep aside the Aialik Bay or sharing breakfast with bald eagles that call the beach home. After arriving and setting up camp on the rocky beach, you can head out on an all-day paddle (stand-up or kayak) through an iceberg-filled lagoon where harbor seals and other marine life seek safety from larger predators found in neighboring waters. It’s an immersive experience with a true taste of Alaska that is of dreamlike proportions. 

3. Donaho Basin, Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska 

primitive camping, national parks, adventure

If you want to conquer some of the toughest (and most rewarding) hiking terrain in any of the national parks, head to Wrangell St. Elias National Park. A multi-day backpacking adventure across the Kennicott Glacier is the ultimate way to experience the region. After a day of hiking across the famed glacier in crampons, you’ll come to the serene Donaho Basin where the purest alpine lake is surrounded by majestic tundra and mirrors the spectacular Wrangell and St. Elias mountain ranges that rise above it. It’s almost unbelievable how many unique environments you can travel through on one journey through America’s largest national park, and every inch will challenge you while taking your breath away with its wild beauty. 

2. Turquoise Lake, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska

primitive camping, national parks, adventure

Just a 90-minute flight from Anchorage is primitive camping in its truest form. After being dropped off by floatplane, you instantly realize that you are truly in the heart of the Alaskan bush. We brought foldable kayaks that were easy to tote and set up, which enabled us to experience our surroundings in an adventurous way. All we wanted to do was to paddle and photograph lingering sunsets over pristine glacial waters — and, here, we were able to do both to our heart’s content. 

1. Chesler Park, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

primitive camping, national parks, adventure

In southeastern Utah, we stumbled upon one of the coolest places to camp in the lower 48. Site CP1 (Chesler Park 1) has insanely beautiful views in both directions. On one side, the Chesler Park area looks as if it’s from a storybook. And on the other, a perch overlooking the Elephant Canyon is full of geologic needle formations. After a monstrous day of hiking, we celebrated with a sunset that gave way to an angelic ring around the moon, slept soundly and rose early the next day to catch the sunrise. We wouldn’t change a single thing about this camping experience.   

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