8 Unexpected Campsites Perfect for Sleeping Under the Stars

From the center of Manhattan to the depths of a Vietnamese cave, these unconventional campsites will have you pitching a tent where you’d least expect it.

The great outdoors are well-supplied with extraordinary places to stake a tent, be it on a remote mountaintop, on a secluded beach somewhere tropical, or even wilder—ever thought of sleeping on a wooden platform surrounded by reptile-ridden swamp water? How about a night of fireside storytelling smack in the middle of Central Park?

Those once-in-a-lifetime campsites, like the Saharan desert oases and Everest base camps of the world, are no doubt worthy of lines on your bucket list. But there's also a time and place for pitching your tent on the deck of a moving ferry or getting some shut-eye while hanging off a cliff in the Rockies. (Don't worry, safe and legal campsites only here.)

Pack your sleeping bag and join us on this journey to some of the most unexpected places to camp across the globe.

people pitching colorful tents onboard alaska state ferry
Alaska Marine Highway (Alaska State Ferry)

On a ferry deck while cruising the Alaska Marine Highway

The Alaska Marine Highway System is an essential means of transportation in remote parts of coastal Alaska that can be accessed only by sea. The state-run ferry that travels this off-shore route runs 3,500 miles between Bellingham, Washington, and Dutch Harbor at the tip of the Aleutian Islands—a single leg of the journey can take up to 38 hours. So, people sleep just about anywhere they can.

Those who don't rent a cabin or claim one of the recliners inside can camp right on the upper decks of the ferry. It isn't abnormal to see a kaleidoscope of tents pitched pole to pole, secured to the steel floor with duct tape. Many of the locals camp this way out of necessity, but tourists have been known to join just for fun.

Along the route, campers are treated to views of passing glaciers, evergreen forests, and wildlife from grizzlies to humpbacks. In the summer, when camping in Alaska is most palatable, you might only get a few hours of darkness a night, but other times of year are optimal for seeing the northern lights.

In the middle of Central Park in New York City

Camping in Central Park is not normally something worth romanticizing. It's not always safe, nor clean, and being in the park between 1–6 am could earn you a misdemeanor. But a select few are granted access past closing time on certain nights of the summer. All you need is a kid and you can be considered for the Urban Park Rangers' Family Camping program.

Every year, the Department of Parks & Recreation chooses urban campers using a lottery system. The winners are invited to a group campout under the city lights for free. Urban Park Rangers guide the program, provide the tents, and practically set up camp for you. They also lead nighttime nature walks around Central Park and tell stories to the campers over s'mores—not your average NYC experience.

The program opens not just Central Park but also various other green spaces around the city to campers. Families can register online, but before you get your kid's hopes up, note that spots are coveted.

interior of hang en cave, phong na, vietnam
LukeWaitPhotography/iStock/Getty Images

Inside the world's third-largest cave in Vietnam

Camping inside a cave isn't for the faint of heart. You would normally have to worry about the cold, the lack of cell service, the potential of disease-carrying bats, or flash flooding, and, you know, carbon monoxide poisoning. Unexpectedly, the camping in Vietnam's Hang Én cave, the third-largest cave in the world, is relatively commercial.

It can only be done by booking a multi-day guided hike in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park. Various tour operators lead groups to an otherworldly campground set on the sandy shore of a subterranean lake roughly half a mile from the cave entrance. A natural opening in the ceiling of the cave allows light to pour in and shimmer on the emerald water, reflecting off the nylon tent walls during the day. After the sun goes down and the flashlights are turned off, you'll sleep tight in the darkest of darkness, with sounds of the tropical rainforest echoing off the cave walls.

canoe on pearl bay chickee, everglades national park, florida
William Eugene Dummitt

Over gator-infested waters in the Florida Everglades

Another alfresco accommodation option for the brave, wooden platforms rise from the swamp in Everglades National Park, providing paddlers a place to rest in the backcountry. They're called chickees, and they can be reserved through the National Park Service just like any other campsite. But unlike any other campsite, these ones are surrounded by swamp water teeming with alligators, anacondas, and who knows what else. A few inches are all that separates campers from the water.

The chickees are 10 feet by 12 feet and have a roof and a portable toilet, but that's all. There's more than a dozen dotted around the waterways and bays of the Everglades, and the only way to get to them is by boat.

woman hiking through red terrain of haleakalā national park
CM/iStock/Getty Images

Inside a volcano on Maui

Imagine falling asleep inside a volcanic crater. On purpose. You can do just that in the Haleakalā Crater, the centerpiece of Maui's Haleakalā National Park. There are two campgrounds to choose from, both accessible by hiking 3.7 to 10.4 miles of backcountry trails with your gear on your back. The depression is so vast that Manhattan could fit inside it, so campsites are aptly spread out.

Having last erupted about 200 years ago, the volcano is inactive—no camping amid bubbling lava allowed. However, the National Park Service says Haleakalā is "not extinct" and "could erupt again." Presumably camping will be banned in the crater if even a sliver of activity is detected.

Campsites are grassy and comfortable, a stark contrast from the bone-dry slopes that surround them. They cost less than $10 and can be reserved through the National Park Service.

Inside a UNESCO-protected French citadel

The Blaye Citadel in southwest France is a UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to the 1600s. Despite its historical significance, you can drive right over its 300-year-old bridge, under an arch made of stone several inches thick, into the walled city. Even more surprising, you're allowed to camp there "inside the ramparts" of the citadel, either in a tent or an RV. The best campsites are the ones overlooking the 245-square-mile Gironde Estuary, the very inlet that would have drawn enemies long ago.

On the grounds, you can admire the moat and watchtower, stroll the pedestrian alleyways, and take a tour of the underground passages. Explore the city-within-a-city, then curl up inside your campervan or tent to say you've slept inside a 17th-century citadel. The campground is open from May to October and costs the equivalent of only about $7 per person, per night.

rourists relaxing in front of a tent on the white silica sand beach in whitsunday islands australia
Jackson Stock Photography

On an island in the Great Barrier Reef

Camping on a secluded tropical island in the Great Barrier Reef is an iconic way to end a day exploring the colorful underworld lying off Australia's northeast coast. According to the Queensland Department of Environment and Science, "You can camp on several islands in the Great Barrier Reef. Most are national parks and part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area." The camping here is pretty rugged and mostly kept under wraps due to the fragile environment. And there are lots of rules involved, like checking for pests before pitching your tent, washing soil from the bottom of your shoes before you walk on the island, and anchoring your boat in the mud or soil to avoid damaging the delicate reef. You normally need your own maritime transportation to get to these isolated pockets of land scattered around the Coral Sea. Most of the campsites have no amenities at all, so campers get the full bush camping experience.

pair of men cliff camping in estes park, colorado
Helen H. Richardson/Contributor/Getty Images

Suspended from a cliff in Colorado's Rocky Mountains

Some of the most extreme places to camp are on the sides of vertical cliffs. Rock climbers do it often when attempting big walls over multiple days, but to others the idea of sleeping on a platform suspended in mid-air by ropes can seem alarming. The Kent Mountain Adventure Center guides who lead "cliff camping" trips in the Colorado Rockies will have you know this unconventional style of camping is perfectly safe. Climbing shoes, sleeping bags, and the portaledge ("portable ledge") you'll be sleeping on are included in the excursion. All you need are some basic hiking layers and a good deal of bravery to participate in this adventure.

The tour includes a night's stay in the Stanley Hotel of The Shining fame, one night camping 150 to 300 feet above ground on a cliff face in Rocky Mountain National Park, plus lunch, dinner, and breakfast served to you on the portaledge. All the other rock climbers are bound to be jealous.

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Olivia Young is a contributor for Thrillist.