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7 Boat-In Camping Destinations

From sea to shining sea, America’s public lands and waters offer overnight adventures for boaters who wish to cruise off the beaten track.

How-To On the Water
7 Boat-In Camping Destinations

If you’re a camping enthusiast, you likely have defined yourself as a car camper or a backpacker. Depending on your interests and your family’s needs, you might prioritize convenience and creature comforts – or a more rugged style of overnight adventuring.

What if there were a way to capture a little of both, and make priceless boating memories while you’re at it? Welcome to the world of boat-in camping.

Camping with a boat gives you more space and flexibility than if you were backpacking, and you certainly won’t have to walk for miles with a 35-pound pack on your back (while cajoling your children with, “It’s just a little bit farther.”) At the most, you’ll have to ferry your gear ashore to your designated campsite.

Unlike car camping, however, you still need to be self-sufficient. There won’t be any quick trips to the camp store if you need anything. Fortunately, that’s just part of the adventure.

Imagine: You drop the hook in a quiet cove or ghost gently into the beach, and you splash ashore to discover your little corner of the backcountry. It’s time to pitch your tent, savor a hot meal, roast marshmallows and marvel at a blazing night sky. Then you fall asleep to the gentle purling of water along the beach.

These experiences don’t have to be far from home, or even far from mainland shores. Across the country, you’ll find national parks, national seashores, national recreation areas and state parks that offer campsites designed especially with boaters in mind.

Northeast

Where: Lake George Islands, New York

What: Long, narrow Lake George lies at the base of the Adirondack Mountains and drains northward into Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River. Fondly called “The Queen of the American Lakes,” it stretches from the town of Lake George in the south to Ticonderoga in the north. Island campsites are scattered across the glacial lake, which is 32 miles long and 3 miles wide, and they are divided into the Glen Island, Long Island and Narrow Island groups. They include 42 cruiser sites for boats with overnight accommodations, and 25 mainland sites in the Glen Island Group that are accessible only by boat.

Why: Not only is Lake George known for its old-growth forests and some of the best recreational boating in the Northeast, it also features a two-story fishery. You’ll find salmon and lake trout at the 50- to 180-foot-deep levels, and pike and bass in the shallows. The lake also is home to a network of hiking trails that runs more than 50 miles.

Great Lakes

Where: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin

What: The Apostle Islands are a 22-island archipelago just off Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula. Twenty-one islands and a 12-mile stretch of mainland coast comprise the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, and they feature plenty of protected anchorages with easy, short passages between them. Camping is allowed on 18 of the islands; 16 can only be accessed by private boat. Designated campsites and dispersed backcountry camping are available.

Why: This is a magnificent wilderness of cliffs, caves, beaches, temperate and boreal forests, and the world’s largest freshwater lake. Eighty percent of the national lakeshore was added to the National Wilderness Preservation System in 2004 as the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness – it’s Wisconsin’s largest wilderness area.

Gulf Coast

Where: Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida and Mississippi

What: The national seashore stretches for 160 miles along the U.S. Gulf Coast, comprising protected mainland areas as well as portions of seven barrier islands. All Florida areas are accessible by car; boat-in camping is allowed at the Perdido Key Area. The Mississippi District, however, features several islands that are accessible only by boat. Boat-in camping is offered at Petit Bois, West Petit Bois and Horn islands, as well as the National Park Service-owned section of Cat Island. Why: This is a rich world of white sand beaches, emerald seas, salt marshes and bayous, nature trails, and historic sites. It’s a great spot for birdwatching, and for enjoying exceptionally dark skies at night. Portions of Petit Bois and Horn islands are protected within Gulf Islands Wilderness.

Southeast

Where: Devils Fork State Park, South Carolina

What: This state park provides the only public access to spring-fed, 7,565-acre Lake Jocassee, nestled in the Jocassee Gorges at the eastern edge of Sumter National Forest. Twenty-five boat-in backcountry campsites lie along the north shore of the mostly undeveloped lake, right at the base of Musterground Mountain.

Why: Blue Ridge Mountain rivers – the Whitewater, Thompson and Toxaway – feed cool Lake Jocassee, and its remarkably clear blue-green water makes it a popular destination for swimmers, snorkelers and scuba divers. It’s also a haven for anglers seeking brown and rainbow trout, sunfish, and smallmouth and largemouth bass; sightseers eager to see the many waterfalls that are only accessible by boat; and hikers hoping to spot an endangered wildflower called the Oconee bell.

Rocky Mountains

Where: Blue Mesa Reservoir, Curecanti National Recreation Area, Colorado

What: Blue Mesa sits at 7,519 feet in the high mountain desert west of Monarch Pass and the Continental Divide, the first of three reservoirs in the Curecanti National Recreation Area. It’s the largest body of water entirely within the state’s boundaries, 20 miles long with 96 miles of shoreline in a good water year. The lake has four boat-in camping areas with protected waters for mooring, and dispersed camping is allowed along designated sections of the lakeshore.

Why: Blue Mesa boasts the largest lake trout and kokanee salmon fishery in the United States. The 3.7-mile out-and-back Dillon Pinnacles Trail reveals landscapes where wind and water have sculpted 30-million-year-old volcanic lava, rock and mud into cathedral-like spires. And, winding arms and secluded coves are perfect spots to drop the hook and cool off.

Southwest

Where: Lake Powell, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona and Utah

What: When the Glen Canyon Dam was built in 1963, it flooded Glen Canyon and created a serpentine, 186-mile-long lake that has 1,960 miles of shoreline at full pool. That’s more than 150 miles of navigable Colorado River channel. Camping is allowed anywhere along the undeveloped shoreline (except in Rainbow Bridge National Monument or in archaeological sites), provided you have a head on board or a portable toilet on shore.

Why: Lake Powell is the gateway to a unique desert wilderness that features nearly 100 major side canyons, a maze of hidden slot canyons, soaring cliffs, hanging gardens, fossils, rock arches, hoodoos, Native American sacred sites – even dinosaur footprints. Today, boats are still the best way to explore much of this remote canyon country.

Northwest

Where: North Cascades National Park Service Complex, Washington

What: Although it is one of the least-visited national parks in the country, North Cascades is less than three hours from Seattle. Here, you’ll find 25 boat-in campsites tucked into the backcountry. At Lake Chelan, you won’t need reservations, but you will need a federal dock permit. You can access the Weaver Point, Flick Creek and Manly Wham camps from Stehekin Landing. At Ross Lake, you’ll need a backcountry permit and an engine with four-stroke or direct-injection two-stroke technology. The lake has 19 boat-in campsites; road access is only available from the British Columbia side.

Why: Both lakes offer seclusion and jaw-dropping scenery, along with myriad coves, bays and islands to explore. The larger NPS complex offers world-class (and wildly underrated) hiking in pristine alpine wilderness. Plus, this park has a whopping 300 glaciers, more than any other park in the contiguous United States.

Plan Your Trip

If your chosen destination is a reservoir west of the Mississippi River, contact the National Park Service or state parks office prior to your trip. Due to the ongoing drought, access may be limited to some boat-in camping areas. Be aware that regulations regarding permits and access outlined in this article are subject to change. Do your research ahead of time.

Be an early bird with your planning. These days, campsites in popular destinations can fill up many months in advance. If your preferred site is booked, keep an eye out for cancellations. They do happen! Then prepare for the unique experience of boat-in camping amid some of the nation’s most treasured natural resources.

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