Back to Cool: 5 Fave Fall Camping Destinations (+ What to Bring on Every Kind of Trip)
Repeat after me: sweater weather is better weather. And, now that it’s finally here, your friends at Kelty want to make sure you make the most of those crisp days and brisk nights with our favorite fall camping trips! We asked our in-house outdoor obessives where they absolutely LOVE to go when the leaves start turning—and here’s what they said! Read on for awesome autumn camping, and what the experts bring along on every kind of trip.
1. Cades Cove Campground
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN
The Great Smoky Mountains are home to more tree species than all of Western Europe combined—so it’s no real mystery why this park tops our list for fall camping getaways. Thanks to a varied topography with mixed elevations and a vast spectrum of microclimates, the Smokies’ leaf-peeping season is longer than most, stretching from late September through early November. Before you settle into your campground, make time for cruising along the Blue Ridge Parkway. At 469 miles long, it’s the country’s longest linear park, and the GSM routes offer spectacular panoramic views of the fiery fall colors.
All of the park’s 10 campgrounds are accessible by car, and most are open well into the month of October—with a handful, including Cades Cove, available year round. The park calls these facilities “primitive,” but we beg to differ; while there are no hookups, potable water and [gasp] flush toilets make the experience feel downright luxurious. You won’t want to miss the quickie hike (five miles roundtrip) to Abrams Falls, which takes you along a quiet pine-oak and rhododendron-shaded creek to a gorgeous, gushing waterfall. Keep an eye out for wildlife on the way, too! Elk and black bear are often spotted along this trail.
GEAR UP: You measure your beer, not your tent, in ounces—and you like both of them TALL. That’s exactly why we made the new Tallboy tent: so getting in and out of your pants doesn’t require a cardio workout. This one-door, open-plan tent has a tall tome ceiling for stand-up living space, plus X-pole design for easy setup.
2. Lost Lake Campground
Gunnison National Forest, CO
For a decidedly backcountry feel with frontcountry features—including super-spacious car (and horse!) campsites offering metal fire rings, regulation picnic tables and vault toilets—our vote is Lost Lake Campground in Colorado’s Gunnison National Forest. This ridiculously picturesque high-alpine spot is nestled in the saddle between the Ragged and West Elk Wildernesses, with breathtaking views of the surrounding Anthracite and Beckwith Peaks.
Your campsite is already at 9,600 feet, so easier hikes may be in order for those who aren’t fully acclimated to the thin mountain air. We love the Three Lakes Loop, which is under three miles and stays relatively flat for the duration of the trek. Along the way, you’ll pass Dollar Lake and Lost Lake, with several marked spurs that will take you to a vista of the third lake, as well as a couple of pretty waterfalls. Along the way, you’ll enjoy views of the Ruby Range and Marcellina Mountain as you pass through (hopefully still) vibrant stands of aspen trees.
GEAR UP: Because you’re probably not going too terribly far with our Redwing pack, we pulled out all the stops to make sure you get there with utmost organization! A handy forehead stash pocket and wing pockets keep essentials close at hand—while extra loops, bungee straps and daisy chains give you endless options for adding on at the last minute. Redwing comes in volumes of 36 and 50 liters, in specific designs for both women and men.
3. Umpqua Lighthouse Campground
Umpqua Lighthouse State Park, OR
For those of you whose very particular camping kink is fall color with a side of sand, we’ll have to forgo our hometown dunes (though Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve always gets an honorable mention) for this rewarding jaunt to the Pacific Northwest. On the shores of Lake Marie less than a mile from Winchester Bay, Umpqua Lighthouse State Park and its eponymous campground is indeed the proverbial enlightened hot dog: one with everything.
Choose from every level of roughing it, from tent-only campsites to car camping, RV hookups, cozy log cabins and even deluxe yurts—all with centrally located restrooms and, (speaking of Nirvana) actual SHOWERS. There’s a pretty little hike that anyone can do: the 1.7-mile loop around Lake Marie, which is flat and shady the whole way. And of course, you’re just a stone’s throw from Umpqua Dunes, which you can opt to explore on foot or via ATV.
GEAR UP: Let’s be straight with one another. You’re getting a yurt, right? This is obviously a glamping trip, not a no-room-for-extra-socks kind of jam. So you’re definitely bringing our popular camping couch, the amazing Low Loveseat, along for the ride. It’s got plenty of room for your and your bestie, with a comfy low clearance that keeps you under the radar.
4. Loft Mountain Campground
Shenandoah National Park, VA
With 200,000 acres to explore, less than two hours’ drive from Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park is basically the perfect fall playground. Foliage typically starts to turn in late September, and peaks about a month later. Be sure to set aside some time for a trip along world-famous Skyline Drive, which parallels the Blue Ridge Mountains for over 100 miles; there are 75 scenic overlooks, but the entire stretch is astoundingly beautiful this time of year.
Loft Mountain is one of the park’s largest campgrounds, offering full services—in these parts, that means bear boxes, so be sure to keep a tidy campsite. We like Loft Mountain for its secluded campsites and easy access to some of the most beautiful hikes in the park. Dark Hollow Falls Trail is an easy hike with a not-to-be-missed payoff: misty cascades reflecting the canopy of fiery leaves. The more adventurous may want to choose one several ways to summit Old Rag Mountain—most are relatively strenuous, and all afford worth-it views.
GEAR UP: Mid-October in the Blueys can get downright chilly at night, so you’ll need a cozy bag. Our Cosmic Down is available in 0- and 20-degree versions, a true 3-season superstar with trapezoidal baffles to help you retain even MORE heat—plus a natural-fit footbox for happy feet, a zipper draft tube to keep cold air out and a stuff-sack for quick departures.
5. Watchman Campground
Zion National Park, UT
Desert destinations may not be top-of-mind when it comes to fall colors, and everyone knows Zion is overloaded with tourists. And it is, until September—precisely when the weather turns absolutely lovely, along with the high-elevation trees! A shoulder season camping trip gives you the opportunity to discover one of this country’s great national wonders, without having to fight for elbow room; it also offers a unique take on the average fall foliage camping trip, with brilliant orange canyon walls to offset changing leaves in the same arresting palette.
The full-service Watchman Campground is open year-round with reservations required through Thanksgiving—just a short walk from the main Visitors’ Center, it’s ideally suited for exploring Zion’s impressive trail system. The Watchman Trail is just about perfect, in our view; just over three miles, moderate difficulty, with a river running alongside much of the trail. But the real must-do hike in this area is Observation Point Trail; although, at eight steep miles, it’s among the most difficult treks in the area, it also offers many of the park’s most iconic views.
Gear Up: You’ll need a great pack for your epic day-hikes, and our Asher Pack is ready to rise to the challenge! At the lower end of the volume spectrum, our Asher 55 is streamlined for shorter pursuits. Features include FitPro™ for a customized torso fit, AmpFlow ventilated back panel to keep you cool and an advanced perimeter frame for superb stability on the trail. Water bottle pockets, compression straps and more keep you organized en route.
Stay tuned for more beginning backpacker tips, with great gear to get you out there in style—and be sure to follow @keltybuilt for all kinds of cool camp content. See you out there!