Hitting the road in a camper van is one of the most intimate – and exciting – ways to experience the USA.

Which is why I set off on a two-year road trip with my husband and dog in 2017. We camped in 48 states, hiked countless national parks, ate in local towns and drove from coast to coast in our 1996 retro camper van. 

As our trip unfolded, we learned that certain states suited us van campers better than others. The states of the Southwest, for example, contain a wide diversity of landscapes within their free public lands. The East Coast amazed us with stunning fall colors and historic towns we had previously only seen in books.

While every state added something unique to our adventure, a few really stood out. Having now crossed the entire continental United States, we’re delighted to share the 10 best US states that are perfect for your next camper or RV trip.

Where to find the best US national parks for RV campers this summer

A family around a campfire by evening, Maine, USA
With so many pine forests, much of Maine smells like Christmas trees © Onne van der Wal / Getty Images

1. Maine

Pine forests and craggy coasts  

Driving into Maine from its northwest side brings tall pine trees, skinny roads and no cell phone service for miles. This was the stuff of a novel by famous Mainer Stephen King – and to us West Coast folks, it was the unfamiliar territory that made the trip that much more exciting. In northern Maine, the entire landscape smells like Christmas trees. (We learned from a fellow camper that balsam fir collected from Maine provides the largest supply of Christmas wreaths in the country.) Heading toward the coast, we reached Acadia National Park, where the mountains meet the ocean. We were happy to find that this is one of the most dog-friendly parks in the USA, which meant we got to bring our travel companion along many of the trails.

The 10 best parks in Maine to hike, snowshoe or swim

A hiker in fall in the Adirondack Mountains, New York State, USA
More hiking is on the itinerary for our return to New York State © Walter Bibikow / Getty Images

2. New York

Forget the city, and head upstate

Putting New York State on our top-10 list was a tough call, since it shares so many things we loved about Vermont and New Hampshire as well, like incredible fall foliage. Yet New York makes the cut thanks to its surprising (to us) range of geography. From Eternal Flame Falls in the state’s far west to wineries in the Finger Lakes and watchtower hikes high in the the Adirondacks, we barely had enough time to check off everything on our must-visit list. And that’s not to mention the more well-known Lake Placid Olympic sites, Niagara Falls and Letchworth State Park. What’s more the hiking trails all over the state really impressed us. Now that we’ve sampled a bit of all the state has to offer, it’s at the top of our itinerary for future road trips.

6 Hudson Valley road trips for every type of traveler

Gorgeous rainbow on an autumn day along the Foothills Parkway in Wears Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, USA
The back roads through the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee hold many surprises © jadimages / Shutterstock

3. Tennessee

The Great Smoky Mountains are especially beautiful in fall

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited one in the whole country – and for good reason. As we visited the park and drove through Tennessee in the fall, we took in the rolling mountains and waterfalls that dot the landscape, finding countless surprises around each corner of the twisty back roads.

Traveling in a camper van, we’re always on the lookout for affordable things to do. The mountain town of Gatlinburg is the perfect gateway for enjoying free trails in and around the national park. We spent the majority of our visit hiking through the colorful forests and climbing fire towers to get the best viewpoint.

Where to celebrate Dolly Parton in Tennessee

A camper van parked at a viewpoint in California
It's easy to find campsites among the varied landscapes of California © Kate Moore / Lonely Planet

4. California

Experience a little bit of everything

If we had to pick one state to experience a little bit of everything, it would be California. Its ecosystems are so varied that you don’t need to drive too far to witness something new; in fact, the place is so large and diverse that it shouldn’t even count as a single state. Despite the state’s famous popularity, the vast size of its public lands made finding campsites easy. Within the space of a few days, we spent evenings under the famous redwood trees, had picnics by the ocean and wandered aimlessly among the cacti of Death Valley National Park. Oh, and rock climbed in Joshua Tree National Park, took a dip in Lake Tahoe and hiked among the rocks of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Here’s what you need to know before your trip to California

A cannon at Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania
Connect with history at the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania © drnadig / Getty Images

5. Pennsylvania

A cradle of American history 

Pennsylvania turned out to be one of the most memorable states we visited, thanks to its role in the USA’s story. We spent an entire day taking an auto tour around the Gettysburg National Military Park, and seeing the battlefields in person brought to life the history we had read in school. Eastern State Penitentiary and Valley Forge National Historic Park were other stops we hadn’t considered before rolling into Pennsylvania. While federal public land is sparse here, Pennsylvania has numerous state parks that offer free, easily accessible camping.

The 5 best road trips in the Poconos

Cups of fresh cherries for sale in Traverse City, Michigan, USA
In the summer months, Michigan abounds with farmers markets and fresh produce © Gary Ennis / iStockphoto / Getty Images

6. Michigan

Great Lakes and pristine beaches

From its southern stretches to the Upper PeninsulaMichigan has a surprising number of pristine beaches that are not packed with tourists like the ones we visited in California. One of my favorite memories is camping on the shore of Lake Superior, having dinner on a pebble beach after several days of visiting Great Lakes lighthouses.

We were able to find camping spots all the way north to the UP, feasting on whitefish and pasties (meat pies) along the way. In the summer months, bushes brim with fresh berries to pick, and farmers markets abound with fresh produce.

11 of the best places to visit in Michigan

Tent camping under the northern lights in Minnesota
Staying in the Minnesota wilderness means you might spot the northern lights © Steve Burns / Getty Images

7. Minnesota

See the northern lights on a fall night

We just loved Minnesota, which rarely makes the list of top road-trip spots in the USA. Known as the state of 10,000 lakes, Minnesota had no shortage of fishing holes and quiet campsites by the water. We were able to travel all the way north to the border of Canada and take a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters. While Minnesota winters are exceptionally cold, fall is lovely here. And the chances are high that you can see the northern lights on a cloudless night.

Minnesota’s best – and most underrated – state parks

A camper van with open rear doors in the Monument Valley Desert, Utah & Arizona, USA
Arizona makes nomadic and off-grid travelers feel right at home © grandriver / Getty Images

8. Arizona

Natural wonders for everyone; off-grid travelers most welcome

For outdoor enthusiasts who love mountain biking, rock climbing and stunning hikes, Arizona is a gem. While most people (rightly) associate the state with the Grand Canyon, all of it is ripe for adventure. Free campsites are scattered in the forests surrounding Sedona, Flagstaff and southern Arizona, which makes it one of the most budget-friendly places to visit year-round.

We loved Arizona’s warmth and hospitality toward explorers from elsewhere. Indeed, the state is a magnet for anyone interested in off-grid living. Each February, the town of Quartzsite swells to accommodate nearly 2 million travelers, who visit in camper vans, RVs and converted school buses. Workshops and community events held on the outskirts of town teach travelers about van life, provide help with solar-panel installations and bring people together to share tips on future road trips. All these services for nomads provide a sense of community  – which, together with the fair weather, make Arizona the perfect launchpad for an epic road trip.

Introducing Arizona’s national parks and monuments

A camper on the dunes, White Sands National Park, New Mexico, USA
Camping in the deserts of New Mexico brings many advantages – and adventures © YayaErnst / iStockphoto / Getty Images

9. New Mexico

Do you prefer red or green chile?

Starry nights. Predictable (even if chilly) temperatures. Few flying bugs. What’s not to love about camping in the desert? And when it comes to spectacular desert vistas, New Mexico is in a class of its own. Endless trails lead through spire-like hoodoo rock formations, while a lack of trees in the north allows for excellent landscape visibility, and some of the most magnificent sunsets we’ve ever seen. It’s also home to our favorite cave system, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, on the state’s southern border.

New Mexico’s camping logistics are appealing, too. Large swaths of Bureau of Land Management (BLM)–managed areas allow free camping, and the state generally flies under the radar, which makes it less crowded even in the most scenic areas. And we ate vibrant cuisine at affordable prices all over the state, an underrated food haven. Red or green chile? We’ll take both.

How to take a perfect spring-break road trip through New Mexico

A woman stands outside her RV parked on the side of the road in Monument Valley, Utah, USA
In Utah, five extraordinary national parks are yours to discover © DanielGonzalezPhoto / Shutterstock

10. Utah

Come for the national parks. All five of them 

Home to five national parks, Utah might be the most picturesque state we visited. Our goal? Getting to all of the Mighty 5: Capitol Reef National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park. An essential tip we picked up along the way: get to the national parks early. By following this advice, we were able to beat the crowds; it often felt like we had the park to ourselves. Climbing Angels Landing in Zion had always been a goal of mine – but the trail can be overly packed by 10am. Arriving early made all the difference; here was a fantastic way to take advantage of the mobility a camper van affords you.

15 unique activities to add to your Utah bucket list

This article was first published Jun 19, 2020 and updated Apr 14, 2024.

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