The 8 Best Winter Camping Spots for Stargazers
Go ahead and make the coldest, darkest months a little brighter.
Winter is generally awful. While comfy sweaters and those Coca-Cola commercials have traditionally made the darkest months of the year slightly more bearable, the prospect of camping in the cold is among the handful of things that actually make the season still worth looking forward to. In fact, trekking into a snow-covered wilderness and sleeping under the stars is arguably better than embarking on an outdoor adventure during the summer. There are no ticks, spiders, or mosquitos to get into your tent. The sky is also clearer and darker during winter, which takes stargazing to a whole new level. And the tilt of the Earth gives us less ambient light—and more brilliant stars.
But winter camping isn’t something you can do on a whim. To make it all worthwhile, you’ll need a good plan (more on that in a bit) and a lead on a top-notch destination. That said, each of the following winter camping spots offers its own charm, whether it be the ability to marvel at giant icicles, pal around with a pack of sled dogs, warm up in a hot spring, or have a National Park all to yourself. Best of all, you don’t need to be outfitted for Everest to go to any of them. A number of these places have cabins, hot tents, or yurts to help you stay cozy no matter how cold it is outside. But before getting into our favorite winter camping spots, there are a few things you should know about how to overnight in the winter woods in case you haven’t tried it before.
Winter camping essentials
Most of the winter camping I’ve done has been for work while guiding others on backcountry trips. I’ve gotten it right, and I’ve gotten it wrong, but nobody ever got hurt. The first time I camped in the winter was a little scary, and it can still be daunting. But I always like to keep in mind that if I get too cold, I can walk out—and if I’m walking, I stay warm. Here are a few more tips to help you have a good time on a winter camping trip.
Water bottles can freeze overnight. I like to close mine tightly and tuck it into my sleeping bag so it doesn’t turn into a popsicle. If I’m going on a long hike, I’ll boil water before pouring it into a bottle. I don’t recommend using bladders like CamelBaks because the lines freeze quickly.
You need to know how to make a fire in wet conditions (YouTube and practice can help.) And when it comes to your fire kit, you should bring no fewer than three ways to start a fire. For example: If you’re gathering your own firewood, bring a small saw, a sturdy knife, and an ax, too.
Condensation can form on the inside of your tent, dampening your gear, and making it less warm. To prevent this, you should open vents and doors away from the wind, which will allow moisture to escape. There are also a lot of good hot tents on the market that can be used with a portable wood stove. I’ve also had success with a lean-to tarp and a fire in front of it. Just make sure to gather more than enough firewood to last the night.
Warm clothes and a sleeping bag
Stick with synthetic and wool fabrics, and never wear cotton (it cools you down when it gets wet.) If you’re hiking, dress to be a little cold at the trailhead so that you don’t sweat, and bring extra layers for when you stop. When it comes to sleeping bags, go for a temperature rating that’s lower than the temperatures you expect. I use a zero-degree bag, and I wear a down jacket, base layers, and a stocking cap to bed.
You’re going to need more food than you’d bring on a regular camping trip. Cold weather burns calories. Try to bring foods that are high in fat, like bacon and Fritos. (Pro tip: You can also start a fire with Fritos if you need to.)
Getting to your camping spot is half the fun. Make sure you have a four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicle, and stay informed of road conditions. On snowy trails, consider wearing snow gaiters, snowshoes, or skis. On icy trails, put on a set of crampons.
Winter isn’t the time to push it or take risks. Come up with a plan of where you’ll be and how long you’ll be there. Always sign in at a trailhead, and make sure somebody at home knows your plans before you take off. If you rely on electronics for navigation or anything else, remember that batteries drain faster in the cold. Sleep with them in your sleeping bag overnight, and keep them close to your body during the day.
Where to camp this winter
Once you’ve got all your ducks in a row in terms of gear and preparation, you'll need to pick a destination befitting all of your newfound skills and purchases (assuming you weren't already a seasoned pro at camping during the most unforgiving of seasons).
A couple of our picks are just a quick jaunt from major East Coast cities, some are part of National Parks that might have already been on your travel to-do list, while others are somewhat further afield. Regardless, there should be something for everyone here, as they'll all allow you a chance to get away and give the darkest, shortest days of the year a little more light. Here are eight winter camping spots around the US that are perfect for some frosty outdoor fun.
Cardigan Lodge & Campground, New Hampshire
The Cardigan Lodge & Campground is about two hours from Boston by car. The lodge has been operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) since 1934, and it offers rooms with bunks and queen-sized beds for outdoors enthusiasts. Staying at the property gives you access to a 1,200-acre nature reserve, and there are more than 50 miles of nearby trails perfect for hiking and snowshoeing. The lodge is also located near the Cardigan Mountain State Forest, which is a popular cross-country skiing destination.
Those tent camping can reserve sites that are accessible by foot. But the lodge is really the draw to this place. In the winter, the AMC does not provide meals or linens, but guests have an opportunity to reserve the entire building if they’re planning to bring a large party. Inside are hot showers, a full kitchen, and Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, dogs aren’t allowed in the building overnight.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore tops many winter hiking best-of lists—and for good reason. The shoreline there, which is located on Lake Superior in Michigan, is famous for incredible curtains of icicles and ice caves that are formed by water seeping out of sandstone cliffs. It’s also known as one of the few places in the Lower 48 to see the Northern Lights.
The ice formations make Pictured Rocks a hotspot for ice climbers. Winter camping is allowed within the National Lakeshore at permitted backcountry campsites. Accessibility is a challenge here, so you should expect to hike, snowshoe, or cross-country ski to your campsite. Area roads may also be closed or converted to snowmobile trails. Plan your visit before you go, and reference the NPS winter camping guide for the area. During your trip, you’ll be completely off-grid with unencumbered views of the night sky. But that's what you're there for. If you’re lucky, you’ll even catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis.
Strawberry Park Hot Springs, Colorado
Hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, and winter cycling are all great, but sometimes you just want to relax. For that kind of trip, you should check out Strawberry Park Hot Springs in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Like other natural hot springs, they are heated by thermal activity underneath the earth’s surface and thus stay warm all year. Strawberry Park has also channeled the water into large pools made from stone.
The pools stay open at night, and the park makes it a point to use a few lights around them to improve your view of the stars. Overnight campers can stay in cabins, a covered wagon, or a converted train caboose. During the spring, summer, and fall, Strawberry Park also has primitive campsites and sites for campers with vehicles.
Redfish Cabin, Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho
In 2017, DarkSky International designated an area in central Idaho as a Dark Sky Reserve. It was appropriately named the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, and it’s America’s first Gold Tier International Sky Reserve.
Most of the 1,416-square-mile area is made up of national forest land, with various maps of trailheads and campsites throughout. Check with local forest ranger stations in Jerome, Ketchum, and Stanley before you go for winter camping options and maps. Also available for reservation is Redfish Cabin, which is located on Redfish Lake and was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The lake is usually busy during summer, but during the winter, it’s possible to have the whole place to yourself. It has many modern amenities like electricity, a refrigerator, and heat. Dogs are allowed, and a maximum number of six people can stay in the cabin. There are also hot springs nearby on the Salmon River.
The Adirondack Park, New York
The Adirondack Park contains some of the largest blocks of public wilderness in the Northeast, and it’s the largest protected region in the Lower 48. The southernmost points are located about four hours from New York City, but are well worth the trip. You’ll find loads of public camping opportunities there, as well as private campsites and cabins. During the day, you can hit more than 10 ski slopes in the area—or check out miles of cross-country skiing or snowshoeing trails. There are also plenty of places for snowmobilers to ride.
Adirondack diehards join the 46ers, a club of hikers that has or aspires to climb the park’s 46 peaks over 4,000 feet. Within the 46ers, there’s a subgroup called the Winter 46ers who have summited the peaks between December 21 and March 21. Teaming up with some of these folks is a great way to see the Adirondacks in all of their winter glory. You can log onto their website for more information on events and meetups. Also, check out the NYDEC website for information on campsites and trailheads if you want to strike out on your own.
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Crater Lake National Park in Oregon has been listed as one of the best stargazing locations in the country. The lake is the deepest in the US, formed 7,700 years ago when an eruption destroyed a mountain peak and left a giant hole ringed by a high rim in its wake. The winter season at Crater Lake can bring up to 42 feet of snow between November to April. Most activities during that time happen on the crater’s rim and provide breathtaking views of the lake on clearer days. Some include snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, sledding, and downhill backcountry skiing or snowboarding for experienced riders.
Backcountry campers can access sites on foot from the East Rim Winter Route or the West Rim Drive. Keep in mind: Crater Lake is a challenging place to camp, and you should do research before you go. Beginners might also want to try a ranger-guided snowshoeing trip first to get familiar with the park and the conditions. You can find more information on winter camping at Crater Lake here, and more information about visiting the park during the winter here.
Nature’s Kennel, Michigan
Ever wanted to drive a team of sled dogs? In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, you can. Ed and Tasha Stielstra guide overnight trips for all skill levels out of their lodge, Nature’s Kennel Sled Dog Adventures, in McMillan. On the trail, you’ll drive your own sled and a team of dogs for 20 miles through a winter wilderness. The trip ends at Musher’s Village, a camp where you can stay in a heated yurt or cabin. Once there, you’ll find snowshoeing trails, or you can relax in the sauna before feeding the pups and grabbing dinner around the campfire.
Cuyuna in northern Minnesota is consistently rated as one of the best mountain biking destinations in the world. This 2000-acre area has more than 70 miles of mountain trails of all skill levels for winter cycling, plus around 100 miles of gravel and paved trails. One of the best places to camp while you’re there is the True North Basecamp in the city of Crosby. The camp’s six lakefront cabins were built to replicate mining shacks of the early 1900s and are a perfect place to take in the stars.
Inside, they’re completely modern, with Wi-Fi, heat, and USB charging ports. Best of all, they’re located right on the trail, so you can wake up and go mountain biking, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, or skiing. True North also has large canvas wall tents on platforms with electricity, as well as additional cots for rent if you want to bring friends. And if you want to rough it, you can reserve a campsite and bring your own tent. Rates are very affordable, starting at $29 a night for a campsite and up to $135 a night for a cabin.