If you’re looking for things to do with kids in San Simeon, California, you’ve come to the right place!
Both Allan and I grew up on the Central Coast of California and consider San Simeon and the surrounding areas to be our big “backyard”!
San Simeon is a small coastal town located north of San Luis Obispo along scenic Highway 1. It’s the perfect place to visit if you love to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life and enjoy outdoor adventures!
A weekend getaway to San Simeon is the perfect way to unwind and reset! We’ll help you make the most of your time by sharing with you the top ten things to do with kids in San Simeon.
Chill at William Randolph Hearst State Beach
One of our all-time favorite beaches on the Central Coast is Hearst State Beach. You’ll quickly see why Hearst chose to build his castle overlooking the bay.
The beautiful turquoise water speaks to your soul. A long stretch of sandy beach provides plenty of room to run and play.
The bay also has its own little micro-climate and is usually sunny, even when the surrounding areas are shrouded in fog.
Enjoy kayaking, paddle boarding, boogie board, swimming, hunting for shells and sea glass, and–if the tide is low enough–exploring the small caves at the end of the cove along the bluff.
Bathrooms are available to visitors as well as an outdoor shower for rinsing off the sand at the end of the day. There is no entrance fee for parking.
Tour Hearst Castle
There’s just something about castles that brings out the kids in all of us! School-aged kids, in particular, will enjoy a tour of California’s well-known castle–Hearst Castle! Hearst Castle is the historic attraction that put San Simeon on the map!
The castle was built by William Randolph Hearst in the early 1900s with the help of architect Julia Morgan. This 165-room architectural wonder sits up on a hill on 123 acres of gardens, pools, terraces, and paths overlooking the beautiful San Simeon Bay.
In the 1950s Hearst donated the castle to the State of California, and the estate became a Historical State Park. Every year, more than 750,000 visitors come to explore the property and take in gorgeous views.
Schedule a Tour
Visit the park website to schedule a tour. If it’s your first visit, we recommend the Grand Rooms Tour. It gives a great overview of the castle and includes some of our favorite portions the kids will love—the swimming pools!
Watch a Movie on the IMAX Screen
Included in your ticket price is a view of Building the Dream. Shown on the Visitor’s Center IMAX screen, it’s a documentary that focuses on the construction of the castle.
Usually, during the slow season (January and February), the IMAX may play a National Geographic film that young viewers typically enjoy for a nominal fee!
Camp at Hearst San Simeon State Park
Just south of Hearst State Castle is a state-run campground. If you love tent camping or have an RV, it’s a great little place to spend a few nights.
The Hearst San Simeon State Park Campground is a developed campground with flushing toilets, showers, fire pits, picnic tables, and a dump station. There are hiking trails and easy access to the beach.
If you’re looking for a quieter spot, we recommend reserving a space in the Washburn Campground. Amenities are more limited, but you’ll enjoy the solitude and the stargazing at night. If you need a shower, the main campground is a short walk, bike ride, or car ride away.
Take a Hike
One of our favorite things to do with kids in San Simeon is to go for a hike!
Not all kids love to hike, but we somehow ended up with three kiddos who do. Even if you have to bribe and convince your young explorers to go for a hike, we have three kid-friendly trail recommendations.
San Simeon Bay Trail at Williams Randolph Hearst State Beach
This trail is one of our favorites. It’s an out and back trail that All Trails rates as moderate, but I would say is easy. The only tricky part is a short walk through the sand and up a small hill. Once you’re at the top of the bluff, the trail is completely flat.
This trail has a beautiful, sprawling tree that every kid will want to climb. There are scenic overlooks of the bay and you’ll often see elephant seals in the water or laying on the beach. We’ve spotted several bald eagles while hiking this trail. There are also a couple of tree tunnels that speak to the kid in all of us. You can simply hike to the point and back, or you can walk a full four miles (out and back).
Fiscalini Ranch Preserve
The Fiscalini Ranch Preserve Trail is located in Cambria, just a few miles south of San Simeon. The Preserve is located right along the bluffs and offers accessible trails. Kids will enjoy the boardwalks and fun benches made out of driftwood.
The Preserve offers 17 easy to moderate trails. We recommend the Bluff Trail which takes you right along the water’s edge on a well-maintained boardwalk. It’s a little less than a mile, but packs a lot of punch!
The Harmony Headlands Trail is 20 minutes south of San Simeon. The trail is wide and flat, making it an easy hike for most young adventurers. Portable restrooms are located just west of the trailhead.
This trail winds through the hills where you’re bound to see some wildlife and ends with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. For added adventure, if the tide is low enough, hike down the bluffs to the water’s edge and explore.
Tidepooling is a wonderful way to spend a few hours. If you’re not familiar with the term tide-pooling, I’ll explain. When the ocean tide recedes twice per day, water is left in rocky crags and “pools” along the beach.
These pools are teeming with sea life. Muscles, clams, hermit crabs, sea anemones, starfish, crabs, eels, and octopuses all make their home in the protected rocks.
When the water is low, it’s a great time to explore the tidepools. Check the tides before your trip and go during low tide. And remember, always face the waves–sometimes they sneak up on you!
Best Tidepooling Places Near San Simeon
Cayucos, north of the pier
Cambria, Moonstone Beach
Harmony Headlands, along the bluff
Bike Ride in Cambria
Paths and boardwalks wind through Cambria and riding these paths can be a fun way to experience this quaint town. While you’re in Cambria, we highly recommend grabbing a bite to eat at Main Street Grill. We especially love their salads (add tri-tip), tri-tip sandwiches, grilled chicken sandwiches, and ABC burgers. Biggest tip: Main Street Grill french fries are TASTY. Ask for ranch dressing and bbq sauce for dipping…but they don’t even need it.
Visit the Elephant Seals
No trip to San Simeon is complete without a stop by the Elephant Seal Viewing Area just a few miles north of Hearst Castle.
If you’ve never seen an elephant seal, you’re in for a treat. Northern Elephant Seals are large and loud (and occasionally smelly–especially when they’re molting).
The seals congregate in large numbers on the beach at a location known as the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. These creatures are entertaining to watch from the viewing area, but keep your distance! Although they look deceptively slow, they can move as fast as most people can run, weigh thousands of pounds, and have sharp teeth that can snap bones in half. In other words, they can ruin your vacation. Don’t be that person.
Watch them from a distance and chuckle at their antics. And smile, because the experience is completely free!
Drive up to Salmon Creek Falls
If you’re up for a short hike and would like to splash in a freshwater stream, then a drive up to Salmon Creek Falls is in order. The trail is all of 0.3 miles and easy. There is poison oak, so keep that in mind and bring along some Fels-Naptha soap if you have sensitive skin.
You can fish in the stream, swim, or–if the water is low enough–hike above the waterfall and climb inside!
Look for Zebras
Yes, there are zebras in San Siemon.
Williams Randolph Hearst created a zoo on the property, shipping in animals from all over the world, including African zebras. To this day, the zebras graze the grassy hillsides surrounding the castle with cattle.
We typically spot them out in the field just south of the entrance to Hearst State Castle.
Get Ice Cream in One of the World’s Smallest Towns
If you hike Harmony Headlands, it only makes sense that you stop for ice cream in the small town of Harmony.
And when we say small, we mean SMALL. The population of Harmony is 18, and there are rumors that the number includes a few cows.
Harmony Valley Creamery is located on the main drag, and you really can’t miss it. Grab a cone and walk one block to explore the remainder of the town. Don’t forget to take a picture in front of their city sign!
Enjoy your family getaway to San Simeon
We know you’ll have a wonderful time exploring this little piece of paradise on the Central Coast!
If you have any questions about an upcoming trip, drop us a line below–we’d love to help!
A Southern Utah road trip has been on my radar for years.
We’ve passed through Utah on several occasions, visited Zion National Park, and explored Dinosaur National Monument, but hadn’t spent concentrated time in this unique state.
The gorgeous red-rocked landscapes of Utah are recognized across the world. We didn’t have time to see everything (farming is a difficult job for Allan to do remotely), but we had plenty of time to see an amazing collection of some of the most beautiful places in Utah.
To help you plan your family’s southern Utah road trip, here’s a 7-day itinerary!
The first part of our road trip was spent…well, on the road. We traveled from the Central Coast of California to St. George, Utah. It was an 8-hour drive that was relatively uneventful.
The kids spend most of their time working on their new Road Trip Activity Binder that I created. Their favorite activities included the Find that State (license plate game), completing Silly Stories (my version of Mad Libs), and playing Sink the Ships. It definitely cut down on the typical disagreements that occur in the car.
The rest of the time they spent eating, looking out the window (we saw wild donkeys), and watching a Harry Potter movie.
We arrived at St. George in the middle of the afternoon and in the middle of a heatwave. A southern Utah road trip in July is not for the faint of heart. Thank goodness for swimming pools and air conditioning.
Swimming and relaxing for the afternoon and evening was a perfect way to start our vacation!
DAY 1 – BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK
Bryce Canyon is located only a little over two hours away from St. George. The wonderful thing about Bryce Canyon is that it’s nestled in the mountains at 8,300 feet above sea level. The temps dropped 25 degrees which was a nice change.
Get Settled at the Campsite or Hotel
When we arrived we immediately went to our campsite and set up camp. We like getting settled before we begin our adventures.
We stayed in the Sunset Campground which has picnic tables, fire pits (although there was a fire ban due to the drought), and flush toilets. Showers can be found at the General Store, a short distance from the campground.
Sunset Campground at Bryce National Park
Visit Inspiration Point
After setting up camp and getting some food in our bellies, we walked to the campground entrance and caught the shuttle bus to Inspiration Point.
The shuttle buses have air conditioning, which was lovely on a hot summer day. Masks are required on the shuttle, so don’t forget to throw one in your backpack!
We hopped out of the shuttle at Inspiration Point and got our very first glimpse of Bryce Canyon. Allan saw it first and all he said was, “Wow.”
“Momma, why aren’t you taking any pictures?” one of the kids asked.
“First I need to take it all in,” I replied.
Pictures are a treasure but they can never replace experiencing something with all five of your senses.
From the first viewpoint, we hiked up a short, but steep, dirt trail to the middle and upper lookouts for Inspiration Point. Sometimes, there are no words.
Tour the Visitor’s Center
Next, we hopped back on the shuttle and made our way to the Visitor’s Center. We typically like to stop by the Visitor’s Center on our first day in a new park to talk to Rangers, watch informative videos about the park, and check out the interactive displays. It’s also a great time to pick up a Junior Ranger booklet if you have younger children.
Explore Old Town Bryce
After the Visitor’s Center, we got back on the shuttle and rode into Old Town Bryce. We took silly pictures, contemplated buying an expensive slab of petrified wood (not really), and window-shopped.
TIP: Don’t forget to take your park pass with you! Old Town Bryce is located outside of Bryce National Park and the shuttle bus driver will require that you show your pass before you can get back on the bus.
We didn’t have ours with us. Oops! I asked if I could show him my campground reservation for proof of entry, and he obliged.
Visit Bryce Point
In the evening, we decided to drive ourselves down to Bryce Point. We admired the views of these amazing hoodoos, then got back in the car for our next adventure.
Take an Evening Wildlife Drive
The best time to view wildlife is in the cool of the morning or evening, around dusk. After leaving Inspiration Point, we drove towards Rainbow Point for a few miles and spotted mule deer, wild turkeys, prairie dogs, chipmunks, and ground squirrels.
Catch the Sunset at Sunset Point
Just before sunset, we ended our drive at Sunset Point. We walked along the rim trail and took in the changing views of the valley. There was a decent amount of cloud cover that evening, which ended up obscuring the sunset. Regardless, it was beautiful!
DAY 2 – BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK
On our second day in Bryce Canyon, we decided to beat the heat and take a morning hike. We were told that to fully appreciate Bryce Canyon you MUST hike into the hoodoos and see the rock formations up close and from a different angle.
Hike Queen’s Garden + Navajo Loop + Wall Street
The Queen’s Garden Trail begins at Sunset Point. The trail is fairly steep and the dirt trail was loose underfoot, but if you have decent traction on your shoes, you should be fine.
We hiked down Queen’s Garden Trail until we ran into the Navajo Loop Trail, which we followed east, and then finished by going north on Wall Street, up and out of the canyon.
This loop was about 3 miles and one of the most beautiful trails I have ever hiked in my life.
Eat Ice Cream in Old Town Bryce
After working up a sweat hiking, we drove into Old Town Bryce and got ice cream from the ice cream parlor. Unfortunately, it was some of the worst ice cream we’ve ever had. Haha! I didn’t know it was possible to have bad ice cream, but apparently, it happens. Next time, we would probably opt for a prepackaged ice cream treat from the General Store.
Go Souvenir Shopping
Getting a small souvenir (we’re budget shoppers), is always on the kid’s “must-do” list. It’s also my least favorite part of vacationing. But it brings them joy for years to come, so it’s a small sacrifice. We perused the General Store in Old Town Bryce (it’s big!), then headed back to the campsite for lunch.
Bike Bryce Canyon
Claire’s legs were done for the day, so Corrine and Allan went for a bike ride. An 18-mile paved multi-use trail runs through the park, and out along the highway. They ended up riding about 8 miles round trip and got in a workout with the higher elevation.
TIP: A shuttle bus driver said the best thing to do was to put your bike on the front of the shuttle in town, ride the bus up to Inspiration Point where the trail starts, and ride downhill the entire way back into town.
Hike the Rim Trail
Allan and the older kids still hadn’t had enough exercise, so they took the shuttle up to Bryce Point and hiked the 2-mile Rim Trail back to the campsite.
Date Night: Bike Ride and Sunset Watching
By the time they returned and we had dinner, I was itching to get out and explore more, so we left the kids at the campsite to play card games while Allan and I went on a quick date. We rode our bikes to Sunset Point and watched the sun set over the canyon. It was such a peaceful, beautiful moment that I’ll remember forever.
DAY 3 – SCENIC HWY 12 & ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
We packed up first thing in the morning and headed toward our next destination, Moab. Although it’s a slower route, I wanted to take Highway 12. This famous highway is famous for a reason.
Highway 12 could be classified as one of the most iconic and beautiful highways in the United States. It is equal parts majestic and terrifying.
You won’t see large semis on this route, for good reason. This route is carved through the beautiful rock formations of Bryce, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Capitol Reef. One section will take you along a ridge that has stunning drop-offs on both sides of the road.
Our advice, if you’re pulling a large trailer or there’s inclement weather, take an alternate route. Otherwise, this will be a road that you’ll never forget!
Take time to pull off the highway periodically and enjoy the views. If you have avid hikers, hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls (8 miles roundtrip). Alternatively, younger children will enjoy a visit to Goblin State Park!
I was also surprised to see that while there was a huge variety of rock formations, there were also beautiful green mountain passes like the one pictured below. I definitely wasn’t expecting to see this view on my southern Utah road trip!
Eat Dinner at Moab Diner
An early dinner at the famed Moab Diner seemed like a good idea. The food is good, down-home cooking. Nothing too fancy. Just solid food. However, they have ice cream…
TIP: Get the huckleberry shake or a cup of huckleberry ice cream! You’ll thank me later.
Explore the Windows Area of Arches National Park
Arches National Park is located on the outskirts of Moab, just minutes away from downtown. After dinner, we headed into the park and were able to see the Courthouse Towers Viewpoint, Petrified Dunes, Balanced Rock, and the Windows Section.
The Windows Section had low crowds with ample parking. We all loved standing under Turret Arch and in the Windows. It feels otherworldly.
We could have easily spent several more hours in this section of the park. There’s so much to see in such a small area.
TIP: If you’re wanting to pick up a Junior Ranger booklet, you’ll have to plan to arrive in the park before 5 pm, when their Visitor’s Center closes.
DAY 4 – ARCHES & CANYONLANDS National Parks
Spend the first half of the day exploring Arches National Park and the second half in Canyonlands National Park!
Hike to Delicate Arch
Delicate Arch is one of the most photographed arches in all of Utah. You’ll even find it on the state license plate. It’s an iconic hike and something that should be experienced…at least once!
Arches National Park has seen higher-than-average visitor levels. When parking lots fill, they close the park entrance for a few hours until things thin out.
We left our hotel at 7 am to go to the park. We ended up driving around for 25 minutes trying to find a spot to park.
TIP: To secure a parking spot, arrive at the Delicate Arch Trailhead before 7:30 am, or arrive in the afternoon.
It was hot, so we opted to hike in the morning when the weather was a little cooler.
The hike to Delicate Arch has almost no shade, and you’re walking uphill on a large slab of rock for a good portion of the trail. Bring plenty of water!
This trail is only 3 miles roundtrip with a moderate elevation gain. Spots near the end of the trail have steep drop-offs, so keep young kids close.
The view at the end is worth the work!
View Petroglyphs and Cabin
Near the start of the trailhead, there is a spur trail that leads to some petroglyphs and an old cabin that we all enjoyed viewing and learning more about.
See Other Areas of Arches National Park
Depending on your energy levels and how quickly you finish the Delicate Arch hike, you can check out the Fiery Furnace area of the Arches National Park, or take a quick hike to Sand Dune Arch (kid favorite).
Island in the Sky at Canyonlands National Park
Leave Arches National Park and make your way toward Canyonlands National Park. This park was the park that surprised us the most.
We took a picnic dinner and explored the Island in the Sky area of Canyonlands. It’s truly stunning.
It reminded us of the Grand Canyon on a smaller scale…without all the people. This park is a hidden gem!
Hike to Mesa Arch
The hike to Mesa Arch is short, only .5 miles each way. Allan and I “hiked” in flip-flops, so I would say this is an easy trail for kids.
The most popular time to visit is in the morning when the sun is rising behind the arch. So, if seeing the Mesa Arch at sunrise is important to you, you could always visit Canyonlands in the morning and hike Delicate Arch in the evening.
The arch was much smaller than I had pictured it to be, but the view of the canyon through the arch is the show stopper. I could have sat there and stared out over the canyon for hours.
But, unfortunately, a storm blew in suddenly, and we were racing back to our vehicle to get out of the sand and wind. We, along with several other park visitors, ended up hanging out in our vehicle for almost an hour until the winds settled down and it was safe to drive.
Claire thought we were going to die. Everyone else thought it was exciting. To me, it was much less intense than being under a tornado warning in Texas (been there, done that).
TIP: Check the weather before you hike. Cell service can be spotty in the park, and summer storms can roll in quickly.
DAY 5 – TRAVEL TO ZION NATIONAL PARK
We packed up and hit the road for Zion. We thought about taking the southern route to see Monument Valley, Horseshoe Bend, and a couple of scenic spots in Kanab, but the kids were voting for less driving time, so we took the northern route.
The town of Springdale is located right next to Zion National Park entrance. There’s a free shuttle service that will allow you to travel up and down the main street. You can exit the shuttle right at the park entrance.
Yes, this is the place where you can talk to Rangers, ask questions about shuttles and trails, and pick up a free Junior Ranger booklet.
Ride the Shuttle Around Zion Valley
Whenever we arrive in a park, we enjoy riding the shuttle around the park to get “the lay of the land”. We hopped on a shuttle and rode down to the Temple of Sinawava, got off, then got back on and returned to the Visitor’s Center.
Evening Bike Ride along the Pa’rus Trail
While the kids and I hung out at the pool, Allan opted to take a bike ride along the Pa’rus Trail that winds through the park. There is an abundance of bike rental shops in the town of Springdale that rent cruisers and e-bikes. However, since we’re cheap, we love fixing flat tires, and we think riding bikes that haven’t had a tune-up in years builds character, we brought and rode our bikes.
DAY 6 – ZION NATIONAL PARK
Hike the Canyon Overlook Trail
Although we visited Zion National Park in 2015, we didn’t hike the Canyon Overlook Trail, so this was a first for us. Of all the hikes with did on our southern Utah road trip this summer, this one was one of our favorites!
We fell in LOVE with this trail.
It’s short, and has a cave, bridges, steps cut out of rock, and stunning views. What’s not to love?!
This 1-mile trail is family-friendly, but independence-seeking toddlers could make it more challenging.
TIP: If you can only do one hike in Zion, do this hike!
Lower, Middle, and Upper Emerald Pools Hikes
Claire’s legs were maxed out after hiking the Canyon Overlook Trail (when you live with a muscle disease, you learn that it’s best to know your limits), so Allan took the girls back to swim while Brandon and I went for a hike.
We chose to hike Lower, Middle, and Upper Emerald Pools. It was sweltering, but we survived and there was at least a little water falling which made it rewarding.
If you have younger kids, I would recommend taking the Lower Emerald Pools trail and combining it with a Kayenta Trail, skipping Middle and Upper Pools.
Relax by the Pool
We loved our hotel stay at La Quinta Inn and Suites. The pool was huge and perfect for families. Plus, we had amazing views of the red-walled cliffs and the hotel is located less than a mile from the park entrance.
DAY 7 – ZION NATIONAL PARK
The Narrows is a section of the Virgin River through a tall, narrow canyon. Hikers wade through the water, up the river for several miles. The water is typically no higher than waist-deep.
There are lots of rocks in the water that make it more challenging to navigate. It’s a gorgeous and unique experience that’s a must-do for most visitors to the park.
You’ll notice there are quite a few outfitters that rent hiking boots and poles.
Can you guess what we did since we’re cheap? We saved $150 and hiked in water shoes that we picked up at Walmart for $5.98.
You can hike for five minutes up the river or for hours. You choose! Claire and I opted for an abbreviated version, and Allan took the older kids higher up the river.
While I do love this hike, it is one of the busiest hikes in Zion.
The Lodge for Lunch
At Zion Lodge in the park, there is a cafeteria where we grabbed lunch after our Narrows hike. The food is typical park food with a selection of burgers, sandwiches, pizza, and salad. There is very little in life as rewarding as a burger and fries after a hike. I opted for a chicken burger and they were kind enough to give it to me in a lettuce wrap.
Attend Ranger Talk
We sat on the lawn to eat our lunch, and there was a ranger nearby leading a talk about condors. My ten-year-old especially loved learning more about condors! The rangers are great about making it interactive and having plenty of hands-on items for the kids to explore.
Relax by the Pool
Are you noticing a theme here?
We enjoy both camping and staying in hotels and typically do both on our road trips. In the first half of our trip, we camp. Then, for the second half, we stay in hotels. Ending our trip with plenty of pool time is a great way to just slow down and chill before returning home.
PLANNING YOUR SOUTHERN UTAH ROAD TRIP
Are you planning a southern Utah road trip? What is on your itinerary? Do you have any questions?
We’ve partnered with several travel bloggers to provide you with details about some of the most magical campgrounds for families in the United States!
From the east coast to the west coast, you’ll find something that fits your style. Whether it’s the redwood forests of California, the unique rock formations of Utah, or the Little Grand Canyon of Georgia, these sites are the perfect place to pitch your tent for a night, or two…or more!
Providence Canyon State Park in Lumpkin, Georgia offers one of the most unique geological attractions in the Southeast United States. One of the seven natural wonders of Georgia, and known as Georgia’s “Little Grand Canyon,” the park boasts excellent hiking around the rim and through towering chasms and canyon walls. Camping is available in either backcountry or pioneer sites, both options offering direct access to trails through the canyon.
The canyon itself is an example of unintentional beauty caused by mankind’s interference with Mother Nature. Poor farming practices in the 1800s coupled with erosion cut through 150-foot canyon walls exposing stunning and vibrant sediment of salmon, scarlet, orange, yellow, and even purple. While about 1/30 the size of the actual Grand Canyon, Georgia’s version packs an accessible punch without the crowds.
The campsites are remote, primitive, exceptionally large, and magical. The clearings above the campsites are large enough to expose one of the few areas of excellent stargazing in the southeast. Families camping in pioneer sites enjoy a solid 200 yards from the neighbors with large open space, lean-to sheds, picnic tables, and dedicated outhouses.
Mike Baron is an outdoor enthusiast, husband, and father of three wild boys. When he’s not outside, he’s usually writing about it, either on his own Family Travel Blog, FivePax, or as a freelance travel writer.
Watkins Glen State Park is the most visited state park in the Finger Lakes region of New York. It is famed for its scenic vistas and numerous waterfalls, and it’s amazing to spend a night at the Watkins Glen campground.
The campground in the State Park is spread over a large area with around 300 campsites and wooden cabins. The Watkins Glen campsites are spread out in six loops, with each loop identified with a village name that can be easily booked online at the Watkins State Park website.
Each campsite is spacious and equipped with a fire pit, benches, and tables, with parking for cars. The best part is the campground is being surrounded by lush green trees, fresh air, and serenity.
The campground is best for families and includes facilities like restrooms, showers, a dumping station, and a firewood shop. There are food concession shops, gift shops, and cabins. Near the campground are a kids’ playground and swimming pool, making it a hit amongst families.
During the day, explore the state park by hiking the scenic gorge trail that traverses the 19 waterfalls formed in the creek. The hike can be done with the kids! There are other trails to choose from as well!
The fee for a campsite ranges from $18 – $30 with some additional booking charges. Non-residents of New York state pay an additional $5.
Summer is a popular time and hence it is advisable to book the campsite well in advance.
The Pines Campgrounds in Yosemite National Park
Yosemite Valley, California
Recommended by Melanie from SuitChase
If you think that camping in one of the most beautiful valleys in the world surrounded by granite cliffs 3,000 feet tall sounds like the stuff dreams are made of, we would agree! Yosemite Valley boasts some of the most magical campgrounds, not just in the United States, but in the world.
The campsites themselves aren’t the most magical part–it’s the setting. Everyone else seems to agree, as these campsites can be difficult to come by. They typically are booked within seconds of becoming available on the reservation system. And that’s not an exaggeration.
There are three “pines” campgrounds in Yosemite National Park: Upper Pines, Lower Pines, and North Pines. All three sit along the Merced River and can be used for both tent or RV camping. Be advised that while there are no hookups, there is a dump station available.
Yosemite Valley allows campers to enjoy the beautiful wilderness with the modern conveniences. Pay showers are available at the nearby Curry Village that includes body wash, shampoo, and a towel! If you need ice or almost anything else, it can be purchased at the General Store.
Visitors enjoy hiking to any of the stunning waterfalls, participating in the Junior Ranger Program, rock climbing, visiting the museum, or riding bikes around the valley. If you’re traveling with kids, check out four of our favorite family-friendly hikes in Yosemite!
Are you looking for a campground that is close to National Parks, has plenty of amenities, and is still accessible to civilization? Look no further than ACT Campground in Moab, Utah.
ACT is truly unique in its approach to sustainability, community, and exploration of the natural world. Located in downtown Moab, ACT is close to Arches, Canyonlands (Island in the Sky), the La Sal Mountains, and Dead Horse Point State Park. Within reasonable driving distance is Natural Bridges, Canyonlands (Needles District), Goose Neck State Park, and Monument Valley.
ACT Campground is perfect for campers from all walks of life. In fact, it attracts travelers from all over the world! Whether you prefer tent camping, have an RV, or prefer one of its cabins, ACT delivers.
This campground views its visitors as a community! It offers both indoor and outdoor gourmet kitchens where people from all walks of life often come together to share their adventure stories and love of the outdoors. They also have a business center and lending library.
Self-sustainability is also one of its core values. The property is solar operated, has a garden, and guests are encouraged to recycle and compost on-site
Our family has visited ACT each year for the past five years, and it is one of our favorite places. It’s like coming home.
Fort Wilderness is not your typical campground. It is located in the “most magical place on Earth”, Disney World.
While sites here can easily run over $100, the people who choose to camp here, know that location comes at a premium. Fort Wilderness is located on Disney property and has free transportation to all the four theme parks and the shopping/dining area of Disney Springs.
In addition to being so close to Mickey Mouse, Fort Wilderness offers guests a pool with a waterslide, food trucks, walking trails, a country-themed dining show, character appearances, and some of the largest and cleanest Comfort Stations (showers) I’ve ever seen.
While most guests who stay here take advantage of the boat rides to Magic Kingdom and bus transportation to the theme parks, some just visit Fort Wilderness to get away from the hustle and bustle of Disney hotels. Some of the best things to do in Disney World besides the parks can be found at Fort Wilderness. Guests staying at the campsite or cabins have access to some great amenities and rentals. Some activities available are archery, horseback riding, canoeing, fishing, and using the various sports courts found around the property. So, if you’d like to combine some Disney magic with a campground experience, then Fort Wilderness might be the place for you.
Enjoy Fort Wilderness, one of the most magical campgrounds on the east coast!
As if Wyoming weren’t stunning enough, the Longhorn Ranch keeps the magic coming. It offers plenty of grass and shade, which is not so common throughout Wyoming. The sites are spread out enough so you’ll have your own large, green space. And you can choose from a variety of sites: big rig friendly, riverfront, tent camping. Not only does this place have all the standard amenities like showers, laundry, playground, free wifi, and a general store, but you’ll get the views to go along with it. The campground is located on a gorgeous river with beautiful mountain views in the background. It’s perfect for strolling around and admiring the scenery.
But the best part: its location. Longhorn Ranch is nestled in Dubois, Wyoming – a true cowboy town. You’ll feel like you stepped into an old western movie, but without the cheesy touristic side. Dubois is charming and authentic. While staying at the Longhorn Ranch, visit the famous Cowboy Café in downtown Dubois.
When you’re ready to start exploring, Grand Teton National Park is only an hour away. Yellowstone is also within reach. Head to Jenny Lake in Grand Teton for one of the most gorgeous, and family-friendly, hikes, the Moose Ponds Trail. Admire the mountains from Schwabacher Landing. And snap your picture in front of the famous T.A. Moulton Barn in the historic Mormon Row.
The campground is the perfect distance for a relaxed stay, but close enough to enjoy all Grand Teton and Yellowstone have to offer.
Refugio State Beach Campground
Santa Barbara, California
Recommended by Melanie from SuitChase
Have you ever camped somewhere with the sound of crashing waves lulling you to sleep? If not, you’re in for a treat when you visit Refugio State Beach Campground just north of Santa Barbara in California. Easily one of the most magical campgrounds on the California coast, you’ll want to add Refugio to your camping wishlist.
While the campsites themselves are on the small side, the palm-lined beach is the starring feature of this campground. Flush toilets and coin-operated showers are a nice bonus during your stay at Refugio State Park.
Kids will enjoy bodyboarding, playing in the sand, or going on a beach walk to hunt for seashells. Kayaking, paddleboarding, and surfing are other popular water activities. There’s also plenty of room on the beach to bump a volleyball or throw a frisbee.
Refugio State Beach is popular, especially on the weekends, so make sure to secure your spot as soon as reservations are released (six months in advance). If you love sunshine, the best time to visit this enchanting campground is in the spring or fall.
If you’re on the lookout for a camping experience that offers a gorgeous backdrop and plenty of amenities, be sure to check out one of Utah’s newest state parks, Sand Hollow State Park. With options for primitive camping, tents, and full hook-up, there is something for every visitor.
After you have settled into your campground, explore the Sand Mountain Dunes by ATV, go boating or simply enjoy the red sand beach and a dip in the reservoir. The mix of modern amenities, the number of options of things to do within the park, and the Mars-like red sand make this a truly unique place to camp.
Kristina Bullock is a family travel blogger based in San Jose, California. Follow her and her family on their adventures near and far on Million Miler Mom and Instagram.
Big Basin Redwood State Park
Santa Cruz County, California
Recommended by Melanie from SuitChase
Camping in Big Basin near Santa Cruz is a fairytale experience. There are no words to describe these magical campgrounds!
Sites are fairly private, especially in the Huckleberry Campground, with plenty of space behind the campsites for exploring and playing. The campsites are nestled amongst the tallest trees in the world, the Coastal Redwoods.
These redwoods are related to the Giant Sequoias that can be found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. These awe-inspiring trees can grow to heights over 350 feet and typically live 500-700 years. However, some of these trees live up to 2,000 years!
Campgrounds boast coin-operated showers, a dish-washing area, picnic tables, fire-pits with grills, and bear boxes for food storage.
Kids will love climbing giant fallen trees, crawling inside trees hollowed out by fire, hunting for banana slugs, and hiking along the creek to a small waterfall. For added adventure, take the Roaring Camp Railroad through the redwoods to the beach and explore the Santa Cruz Boardwalk!
While California wildfires in 2020 destroyed much of these campgrounds, most of the big trees survived. They are in the process of rebuilding this beautiful park, and hopefully, they’ll be open to overnight guests once again in the near future.
Of all the places in the United States, Sugar Pine Point Campground in Lake Tahoe, California is one of the most magical campgrounds. Located on the west shore of the lake, this campground offers 175 campsites with plenty of space to explore and relax. The sugar pine trees are some of the tallest in the world and can be heard beautifully swaying in the breeze. Wildlife is also abundant, so don’t be surprised if you see a black bear, and make sure to utilize those food lockers! Miles of hiking trails meander through the park, many of them paved, as well as a two-mile-long swimming beach.
This popular area requires early reservations that open six months before your arrival date. Summer weekends fill up fast so prepare to start your trip mid-week, if you can, in order to grab a spot. Luckily, every campsite in this campground is beautiful, spacious, and well-located within the park.
Across the street from the campsites, and still within Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park, is a day-use area complete with lake access, kayak rentals, the historic Hellman-Ehrman Estate that is open for touring, picnic areas, walking trails, Nature Center, and a beautiful pier. Evidence of the Washoe Native Americans that inhabited the area for many years can be seen around the park. This beautiful stretch of the Lake Tahoe area is arguably the most picturesque and peaceful, yet its water activities and hiking can also keep you busy all day!
Chris Park Group Campground
Recommended by Melanie from SuitChase
If you’re looking for a campground that will accommodate a large group (or even a small group), check out Chris Park Group Campground near Durango, Colorado.
Located in the San Juan Mountains, a range in southwestern Colorado that is part of the Rocky Mountains, these magical campgrounds are perfect for a summer getaway!
The largest of the group sites has a large pavilion with picnic tables that will keep everyone dry during afternoon thunderstorms. There is a 15amp electrical hookup, volleyball court, and horseshoe pits. Bathroom facilities are primitive, offering vault toilets and no showers. If you don’t have an RV, and swimming in the lake isn’t your thing, you can pay for a shower at the Durango Rec Center.
If you’re searching for family-friendly activities, you’ll have plenty to choose from! At the entrance of the campground, there is a stable offering horseback riding. The nearby Haviland Lake is perfect for activities like fishing, swimming, and kayaking/canoeing. Hike around the lake or explore one of the many trails in the area. For an additional adventure, ride the train from Durango to the mountain town of Silverton, where you can step back in time to the mining days of the 1800s.
Chris Park Group Campground is a wonderful place for family reunions or just to meet up with a group of friends!
Which of these magical campgrounds do you want to add to your bucket list for your next family adventure? Do you know of any other campgrounds in the United States that are perfect for adventurous families? We’d love to hear about them! Drop your recommendation in the comments below!
If you’re wanting to go on a family vacation, but don’t have a lot of cash to spare, here are five vacation ideas under $500.
Family vacations are important! Just like you need rest every night to restore yourself, taking a break from day-to-day activities is rejuvenating and great for your mental health.
There have even been studies that show a correlation between vacation time and health, happiness, and longevity. Also, we believes that it improves our relationships. Some of my fondest childhood memories stem from our family vacations. We’re finding that also true for our children!
Vacation can be pricey. We can’t all afford to stay in an over-the-water bungalow in Bora Bora for a couple of weeks every summer, but for us, budget vacations are every bit as fulfilling.
If you have only $500 to spend, here are five ideas for making the most of it!
Camping is one of the most economical vacations that you can take. Getting started with gear may take a few extra dollars, but it will provide years and years of fun for the whole family. Truly, this is one of our favorite vacation ideas under $500!
Many areas in the United States allow campers to stay overnight in national or state forest areas on the side of the road (in the boonies–thus the name). Another name for boondocking is dispersed camping.
What’s the upside to boondocking? It’s free and there aren’t as many people as you would find in a developed campground. The downside? You’ll have to bring your own water, shower, and bathroom facilities if you don’t have a self-contained RV.
Before you go, check the area where you’ll be traveling to see if permits are required for overnight stays, campfires, or to use a camp stove or grill.
Camping at and exploring Pinecrest Lake in California
Visit a Destination Near Family
My family wishes I would do this more often. At least I think they do. My siblings live in some great places that are worthy of more visits!
Planning a trip around a destination close to family allows you to have someplace to crash at night for free, AND locals make great tour guides for all the attractions.
However, there is one caveat. You’ll want to make sure you don’t wear out your welcome. The last time we stayed with my sister, we ended up getting the stomach flu…and so did they. So amazing!
National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Smithsonian Castle in Washington, D.C.
Plan a Staycation
Of the five vacation ideas under $500, taking a staycation is another great option. Personally, I find it challenging to separate myself from “must-dos” when they’re staring me in the eye (things like laundry and dishes).
I think the secret to a successful staycation is planning. Plan to have all the laundry done. Clean the house and put all the dishes put away. Turn on your vacation notification for email and update your voicemail.
Make it a goal to step away from typical household chores and promise yourself that you will treat your time like it’s sacred.
If you’re like us, there are many things in our community that we would love to do, that we haven’t even done yet! It’s crazy how you can live somewhere for 20+ years and still have so many things to see and do.
Take a Short Weekend Trip
Vacations don’t have to be lengthy to be rejuvenating. Sometimes, we’ve taken a 2-day/1-night trip, like our quick trip to Oldtown Sacramento. If you leave early in the morning the first day and don’t come home until late the next night, it can still be a great reset. In fact, after that trip to Sacramento, the kids said, “It felt like we were gone for a week!”
The secret to maximizing a weekend trip and stretching your dollars is 1) finding affordable hotels, and 2) bringing your own food.
Find a Cheap Hotel
Honestly, I’m not a fan of cheap hotels. Well, I CAN do cheap hotels as long as they are in good condition. I can’t do bad smells, dirty bedding or flooring, mold, or grunge. Usually, I stick with Booking.com to find hotels for our trips. I read the reviews and try to find something affordable that is close to a 9 rating.
If you use Booking for all your hotel reservations, you’ll eventually start getting “Genius” discounts that can save you more money on your reservation or offer free upgrades. Typically, I save 10-15% with my Genius discount.
TIP: Reserve hotels via the app on your phone, and you’ll save even more! I’ve consistently noticed that prices in the app are lower than when accessing the booking site from a desktop.
Saving Money on Food
We often choose a hotel with a free breakfast (preferably one with protein options), because we love a hearty breakfast. For lunch, we can pack something or grab a footlong sub from a store deli for $5. This leaves us with extra cash to splurge on a nicer dinner.
Packing an ice chest with drinks and some plastic shoebox totes with snacks can also save a little extra money!
Short getaway to Santa Barbara, CA
Combine a Camping Trip with a Short Hotel Stay
One of our favorite ways to get the most bang for our buck out of a vacation is to camp for 3-5 days, then stay in a hotel for 1-2 nights.
If we’re able to score a campsite for $25/night for five nights, we’re only out $125 plus gas money. That leaves around $300 to spend on a hotel and eating out a meal or two.
A California gold rush trip that was a hybrid of camping and hoteling was one of our most memorable trips! We camped three nights at Pinecrest Lake, then stayed two nights in Sonora, visiting Columbia State Historic Park and Jamestown. It was the perfect trip for younger kids and so much fun for all of us.
Columbia State Historic Park in California provides FREE activities for young gold rush enthusiasts
PLANNING A $500 VACATION IS DOABLE
Going on a vacation that doesn’t break the bank is within reach! Do you have any vacation ideas under $500? What is your family’s favorite “cheap” vacation? Tell us about it in the comments below!
Or if you’re trying to plan a trip and have questions, we’d love to hear them!
Need help planning your itinerary for Grand Teton National Park? We have you covered!
If you’re planning a road trip to Yellowstone National Park, you’ll definitely want to add Grand Teton National Park to your itinerary as well!
On our last visit to Yellowstone, we spent three days in the park and were able to see all the main attractions. After leaving Yellowstone, we made the short drive south to Grand Teton National Park to spend a couple of days exploring the area.
The Grand Tetons are known for their stunning scenery and wildlife. It’s one of those places that just makes your heart happy!
Camping in the Grand Teton National Park
We were tent camping and opted to stay at the Colter Bay Campground located at Jackson Lake. If you want or need hook-ups for your RV, you can reserve a spot in advance, but since we were tent camping, we opted for the first-come, first-served campground. We arrived around 11:30 in the morning in the middle of July on a Wednesday and were able to secure a spot easily.
The ranger assigned us a campsite in a loop furthest from the water, but it was the quietest campground we’ve ever visited.
Plan for Mosquitos
Just like Yellowstone, the mosquitos in the Grand Tetons can be a bit of a nuisance during the summer months. Unfortunately, my son and I got eaten alive, but the rest of the family faired quite well.
The mosquitos weren’t as noticeable at the water’s edge or while hiking, but they definitely were in full force at the campground. We noticed that while they only seemed to make an appearance at dawn and dusk at Yellowstone, they hung around all day at the Colter Bay campground. I’m not sure if we just got unlucky or if that’s typical.
Bring bug repellent and long sleeves and pants to help deter the pesky little critters!
Amenities at Colter Bay Village
One of the reasons we chose to stay at Colter Bay was the amenities. While we typically enjoy areas that are lower key, we knew we would need to wash clothes and restock our ice chest. Also, showers are always a welcome amenity when you’re tent camping!
We were a week into our road trip when we arrived in the Grand Tetons and needed to do some laundry. Fortunately, the Village at Colter Bay has a decent-sized, coin-operated laundry facility.
Shower facilities at national parks aren’t always the most prestigious, but if you bring your flip-flops and set your expectations low, you’ll be thrilled with the warm water coming out of the showerhead and won’t get too critical of your surroundings. Fortunately, the showers are located right next to the laundromat and the general store, making it easy for the entire family to shower while you wash a load or two of laundry!
Enjoying ice cream at Colter Bay Village at Jackson Lake
Day 1 (half day): Grand Teton National Park Itinerary
The first day of our itinerary for Grand Teton National Park was a good introduction to the park. We arrived at Jackson Lake mid-day, secured our campground, set-up camp, then headed down to the marina area for some lunch and to explore the area.
Food and Ice Cream at Colter Bay Village
First, we grabbed some pizza and salad from the cafeteria near the marina.
Next, we restocked our ice chest with some essentials from the general store. We were excited to get some fresh berries (shipped from fields near our home in California)! After eating dried fruit for a few days, fresh fruit is always a hit. Overall, the prices were better than I expected with a good variety of foods to choose from.
Of course, the highlight of the general store was discovering the ice cream counter at the back of the store. Yes, I still dream about huckleberry ice cream.
Swim in Jackson Lake
After lunch, we went to our campsite, put on our swimsuits, and drove back to the marina. We all got an ice cream cone then headed down to the day-use area to the right of the Visitor Center.
Luckily, we found a spot on the small beach and dipped our toes in the water. It was warmer than we expected, and it didn’t take long before we were all the way in.
The views of the snow-capped mountains are absolutely breathtaking.
After swimming, we went back to the campsite, ate dinner, then moseyed back to the marina to wash laundry and shower.
Swimming in the pristine water of Jackson Lake’s Colter Bay
The Colter Bay Visitor Center sits right at the water’s edge. We chatted with the rangers to find out more about viewing wildlife in the evening.
If you have kids 12 and under, the first day is a great time to pick up their Grand Tetons National Park Junior Ranger Booklet for free from the visitor center. Getting it the first day gives them plenty of time to complete the booklet and earn their Junior Ranger badge before you leave the park.
Wildlife Viewing in Grand Tetons
An hour before dusk, we headed south on Highway 89/191 in search of wildlife.
Willow Flats is located near the Grand Teton Lodge Company. As you would expect, it a large, flat, marshy area. Moose like to graze in this area, but we didn’t see even one. However, we did see some iconic views and take a family photo.
Driving further south towards Jackson, we reached Oxbow Bend. We still didn’t see any moose or bears but we did get to watch birds, river otters, and even a beaver!
After sunset, we called it a day and headed back to the campsite.
Elk grazing at Willow Flats near Jackson Lake, Grand Teton National Park
Day 2 (full day): Grand Teton National Park
Knowing we had a full day, we decided to make it a hiking day. Grand Tetons, like Yellowstone, has its fair share of grizzly bears, so renting a can of bear spray, or bringing your own, is always advised.
I knew from research, that one place we had to have on our itinerary for Grand Teton National Park was a visit to Jenny Lake. We packed a lunch and our backpacks and made the 30-minute drive to one of the prettiest lakes in the United States.
Hike to Hidden Falls
We had planned to hike to Hidden Falls on the other side of the lake, but, unfortunately, there was a rock slide (which occurred a few months later) and the trail closed temporarily. Several of our friends have done this hike and enjoyed it.
If you choose, there is a shuttle boat that travels between the marina and falls. If you’re not up for a hike, the shuttle is a good option. Or, if you only want to hike halfway, you can grab a one-way shuttle ticket.
Tickets cannot be reserved in advance, but can be purchased at the main boat dock (East Dock). The shuttle can drop off hikers at the West Dock near the Cascade Canyon trailhead. From there, is a short ½ mile hike to Hidden Falls. Hiking from the main (East Dock) marina to the falls is 2 ½ miles, one way.
Hike to Moose Pond
Since the trail to Hidden Falls was closed, we opted to hike to Moose Pond on the south side of the lake. We started at East Dock and followed the easy 2.7-mile (out-and-back) trail to Moose Pond.
As our luck would have it, we didn’t see any moose. We hung out for a while and bird-watched admired the amazing scenery and found plenty of moose tracks.
Fish, Swim, or Boat at Jenny Lake
In addition to hiking, guests can rent canoes or kayaks, swim, or fish! The lake has lake trout, cutthroat trout, mountain whitefish, brown trout, and Chinook salmon.
Visitors can swim in designated areas at Jenny Lake, or head back to Colter Bay for an afternoon swim!
Hiking Jenny Lake Trail
Moose-less Moose Pond
Swim in Colter Bay
Our family opted to go back to Colter Bay to swim. Ice cream may have been a contributing factor. Are you noticing a pattern, yet? Ice cream first, followed by a swim. Priorities.
Dinner at Trapper Grill
For dinner, we ate at Trapper Grill. This lovely little spot is located right on the water at the Signal Mountain Lodge. While it wasn’t phenomenal, the food was the best we had while in the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. The views were gorgeous and guests have the choice between indoor dining and patio dining. Both locations offered excellent views of the Grand Teton mountain range.
Scenic Drive in Search of Wildlife
After dinner, we went in search of wildlife, again. We drove down Teton Park Road. Then, we went back to Oxbow Bend and Willow Flats. Although we took several little dirt roads that had been recommended to us by rangers and staff, unfortunately, we never found any moose nor bears.
We didn’t see nearly as much wildlife in the Grand Teton National Park as much as we did in Yellowstone. I’m not sure we just got unlucky or if we needed to stay a few more days. Regardless, the scenery is jaw-dropping everywhere you go!
The Snake River near Jackson Lake
Day 3 (half day): Grand Teton National Park
After spending our morning packing up camp, we headed back to the Colter Bay Village
Colter Bay Vistor Center & Gift Shop
The last day is when we typically buy our souvenirs. And when I say souvenirs, I mean small mementos. For me, that meant a couple of huckleberry bonbons. Chocolate is my favorite souvenir. Though, is it considered a souvenir if it doesn’t last more than one day? The memory will stick with me for years to come, so I guess that counts!
The last day is also a great time for kids to present their completed Junior Ranger booklets and obtain their free Junior Ranger badge!
Tour the Jackson National Fish Hatchery
After leaving Jackson Lake, we made our way south toward the town of Jackson. Outside the town, we spied a fish hatchery with free tours. We enjoyed learning more about conservation endeavors and the process of raising fish.
Explore the Town of Jackson
Next, we traveled on to the quaint, touristy town of Jackson. We enjoyed eating lunch in a real town for the first time in a week, visiting art galleries, taking a stagecoach ride, and walking around the square.
While we enjoyed the town, we’re definitely not shoppers, and the town itself felt very touristy. It was good for a short visit, but definitely not someplace we would want to stay for more than half a day.
Sculptures in Jackson, Wyoming
Stagecoach ride around Jackson Square
Plan Your Grand Teton Visit
This two-day itinerary for Grand Teton National Park allowed us to see the highlights of the park and the town of Jackson! We loved the natural beauty of the park and hope to visit again someday. But, next time, we plan to stay for a few more days.
Are you planning a trip to Grand Teton National Park? Do you have any questions? I’d love to hear them and help answer them!
If you need help with planning a camping menu, you’re in the right place! One of the biggest tenting camping challenges is deciding what to eat and how to store it. Creating systems and planning helps make your tent camping experience more enjoyable!
I’ve been tent camping since I was just a few weeks old and many of these tips are lessons I learned early on from helping my mother pack for our camping trips as a child. Additionally, I’ve learned from my own mistakes as an adult (always fail forward!).
Invest in a Quality Ice Chest/Cooler
One of the first things beginning tent campers will want to invest in is a couple of quality ice chests or coolers. Of course, you’ll want to find a cooler that fits your budget. If a Yeti doesn’t fit into your budget, no worries (it doesn’t fit into mine). Fortunately, there are plenty of great choices out there.
We use the Coleman Xtreme. It’s affordable and it keeps things cold for 3-5 days.
You’ll want one cooler for food and one for drinks.
Use Plastic Totes to Organize Food, Kitchen Utinsels/Dishes, and Toiletries
For a 3 to a 5-day camping trip, I typically have one large plastic tote full of dry food. Having all the dry food in one place (rather than bags or open boxes) makes my life easier both for packing the vehicle and while at the campsite.
Plastic Totes Keep Small Critters Out of Your Food
First, a latching tote makes the food inaccessible to mice, rats, skunks, raccoons, birds, etc. These critters can be persistent when it comes to food, especially when you’re sound asleep, so the plastic tote is an excellent deterrent. It will keep your food safe, and it will keep the critters from eating things not suited to their diet.
One time, as a child, I remember camping with friends. They left a brown paper bag of food on their picnic table. Unfortunately, a cunning crow spied a bag of hamburger buns. He (or she–I’m not very good at identifying the sex of a crow mid-flight) swooped down and began aerating the package with his beak. Needless to say, the burgers went bun-less at dinner that night.
Plastic Totes Makes it Easier to Store Camping Food
Secondly, depending on where you’re camping, you may need to store all food and toiletries in a bear box. A bear box is a large metal box that has a special latch, making its contents (your food) inaccessible to bears. It’s easier to store food, move it around, and keep it from getting crushed when you keep it in a tote.
TIP: Use a small, latching plastic shoebox tote for as a s’mores kit. It makes it easy to grab all the ingredients in the dark!
Planning Food for Your Camping Menu
Planning your camping menu can be overwhelming for beginning campers. Some people like to cook one-dish meals, while others want food that they can cook over the fire.
Clearly, you should choose meals that bring you joy. If fast and easy brings your joy, do fast and easy. However, if a delectable, ornate spread brings you joy, then create a delectable, ornate spread. After all, you’re on vacation. You should enjoy it!
I love both, but I don’t like to do meal prep while I’m camping. I do as much meal prep as I can ahead of time. For our first meal, I typically stick with “fast and easy”. On the remaining nights, I like food that is grilled over the fire and well-balanced.
Write it All Down
Sit down with a pen and paper and write down your camping menu for every meal. First, I choose an entrée for each meal.
First, Choose Your Entrees (EXAMPLE MENU)
Dinner 1: Sausage Link Tortilla Wraps
Breakfast 1: French Toast
Lunch 1: Chicken Caesar Salad
Dinner 2: Hamburgers
Breakfast 2: Country Breakfast Scramble
Lunch 2: Nut Butter & Jelly Sandwiches
Dinner 3: Teriyaki Grilled Chicken
Breakfast 3: Pancakes
Next, Add Your Sides (EXAMPLE MENU)
I select and write down sides for each meal, making sure to incorporate veggies and fruits.
Dinner 1: Sausage link tortilla wraps, raw veggies, and grapes
Breakfast 1: French toast, bacon, and strawberries
Lunch 1: Chicken Caesar salad, watermelon
Dinner 2: Hamburgers, potato salad, grapes
Breakfast 2: Country breakfast scramble and blueberries
Lunch 2: Nut butter & jelly sandwiches, chips, raw veggies, apples
This list will become your camping menu packing list. Look at each meal, again, and write down EVERY SINGLE ingredient you will need for that meal. After it’s written down, separate it into two categories: dry food and cold food.
Because it makes my life easier, I created a Google spreadsheet with menu plans and packing lists. Whenever we’re planning a camping trip, I cut and paste the items I’ll need, so I don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time.
Camping Menu Grocery & Packing List (1st Day)
-Sausage links (cold–freeze)
-Torn Romaine lettuce (cold)
-Caesar dressing (cold)
-Grilled, cubed chicken (cold–freeze)
-Parmesan cheese (cold)
Camping Menu Grocery & Packing List (2nd Day)
-Beef patties (cold–freeze)
-Garlic powder (dry)
-Sliced cheese (cold)
-Grilled onions (cold)
-Mayo (cold–if open)
-Ketchup (cold–if open)
-BBQ sauce (cold–if open)
-Potato salad (cold)
-Baked potatoes (cold)
-Breakfast sausage (cold–freeze)
-Onion, chopped and sautéed (cold)
-Peppers, chopped and sautéed (cold)
-Cheese, grated (cold)
-Olive oil (dry)
-Sandwich bread (dry)
-Nut butter (dry)
Camping Menu Grocery & Packing List (3rd Day)
-Chicken breasts (cold–freeze)
-Teriyaki marinade (cold–marinade chicken before freezing)
-Vegetable medley (olive oil, squash, zucchini, onion, bell pepper, mushrooms, and garlic) (cold)
-Pancake batter (dry)
-Breakfast sausage links (cold–freeze)
-Mixed berries (cold)
Usually, we have to pack up before lunch in order to be out of the campground by the checkout time, so we usually opt to eat a snacking lunch on the final day (crackers, cheese, fruits, veggies, etc.) or eat out on our way home.
Having all these details (it seems like a lot) helps create your grocery list and makes food packing SO MUCH easier!
In addition to your main menu, don’t forget to create a beverage and snack list!
Prep as Much Food as Possible
I like to prepare everything that I can for my camping menu ahead of time. This allows me to enjoy my time camping, hiking, swimming, and exploring rather than cooking and cleaning up.
I go meal by meal and prep whatever I can. For example, a day or two before we leave, I’ll cut up all my veggies, bake my potatoes for home fries, shape my beef patties, cook the breakfast sausage, make potato salad, mix up the marinade, slice cheese, grate cheese, etc.
Freeze as Much Food as Possible
To help keep your food cold and prevent premature thawing, I like to freeze any foods that can be frozen. Typically, it’s my proteins…things like beef patties, sausages, cooked breakfast sausage, etc.
TIP: Instead of using block ice, freeze 1-gallon plastic milk jugs or water jugs. Block ice will fill your ice chest with water as it melts, while jugs keep the water contained.
Only Pack What You Need
Save space by only packing what you need. For example, if we’re only having pickles with hamburgers, I’ll only pack enough pickle slices for our burgers. If I only need ½ c. of mayo, I’ll pack it in a small mason jar rather than take a 32oz tub.
Not only does this save space, it saves time on clean-up when you’re unpacking. Additionally, it eliminates the possibility of having to toss an entire jar if the contents go bad.
TIP: Place all items should be in sealed, waterproof containers. Zipped bags, latching containers, and mason/canning jars are all good choices.
Group items by meal
Digging through your ice chest to find the items you need for a meal can be a pain. As much as possible, I like to group camping menu items together.
For example, I’ll place the hamburger toppings in individual bags inside of a larger zipped bag that contains everything I need for that meal.
The Hard Work is Done!
Food prep is the most time-consuming portion of getting ready to go camping. But, once you develop a system and have some tried-and-true camping meals that you use, it becomes easier and faster.