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Sunset's complete guide to camping

100 car-close campgrounds, the latest gear, and a skilletful of surprisingly simple recipes

Usually when people get to talking late at night around a campfire about how much things have changed in the 20th century, the conversation turns to advances in technology and vanishing open spaces. But consider this campfire topic (and technological breakthrough) described in the May 1900 issue of Sunset. In it, one Helen M. Gompertz writes about her camping vacation in California's Yosemite National Park and makes the following offhand remark:

Heavy blankets are a well-known accessory to camp comfort, but when reducing weight is an object, some other covering must be used. A down comforter covered with a strong, light-weight material then folded and sewed into a long bag, is warmer than the heaviest pair of blankets.

Today, of course, down sleeping bags are as common as traffic jams in Yosemite on Memorial Day. But if the way we sleep in camp has changed during the past century, the reasons we camp haven't. The goal is still to get away from it all, to wake up to the smell of pine needles, cowboy coffee, and cold morning air.

That's where our Complete Guide to Camping comes in. It features 100 of the West's best campgrounds, all of which are just steps away from your car but far from the bright lights and big headaches of the late 20th century. We also offer suggestions on where to shop for the newest camping equipment, and what to buy. And it wouldn't be a Sunset story without a few classic campfire recipes. So scan our list, pick out a site, pack your Gompertz sleeping bag, and head out into the wide-open West. It's still there, and still yours.

* Big Basin, California

About 23 miles north of Santa Cruz, 25 miles southwest of San Jose. From State 9, take State 236 into Big Basin State Park.

107 vehicle sites, 38 walk-ins, and 35 tent cabins. Water, picnic tables, fire rings, flush toilets, showers. RV dump. Leashed pets okay. $17-$18 for sites, $40 for tent cabins.

Reservations: (800) 444-7275.

Tent cabins: (800) 874-8368.

Info: (408) 338-8860.

With campaigns at Blooms Creek sitting in a grove of old-growth redwoods, Sempervirens Falls less than a mile away, and a nearby nature trail where kids can crawl into burned-out trees, it's no wonder that this is one of Northern California's most popular camping parks. The adventurous can hike 12 and a quarter miles to the Pacific Ocean and Waddell Beach via the Skyline to the Sea Trail.

* Escalante, Utah

Just 1 1/2 miles west of the town of Escalante off State 12 in Escalante Petrified Forest State Park.

22 sites. Water, picnic tables, fire rings and some grills, flush toilets, showers. RV dump. Leashed pets okay. $10.

Reservations: (800) 322-3770.

Info: (801) 826-4466.

Views to the pink cliffs of Barney Top are just one of the campground's many allures. Anglers go here to catch trout in Wide Hollow Reservoir. Hikers like the short trails through the petrified forest itself, as well as the proximity to longer jaunts into the recently established Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. If the campground is full, try nearby Kodachrome Basin State Park (same number for reservations) or Calf Creek Recreation Area (first come, first served).

* Fort Stevens, Oregon

Fort Stevens State Park consumes the northwesternmost tip of Oregon, about 7 miles west of Astoria, 5 miles north of U.S. 101.

253 tent sites, 343 RV sites, and 9 yurts. Water, picnic tables, fire rings, flush toilets, showers. Full RV hookups. Leashed pets okay. $17-$20, $27-$42 for a yurt.

Reservations: (800) 452-5687.

Info: (503) 861-1671.

Though it is by far Oregon's biggest campground in terms of the number of campsites, Fort Stevens never feels too crowded, thanks to its woodsy setting. Beyond the campground there's so much to do here - a broad beach for combing, a lake for swimming and fishing, paved bike trails, and a vast historic area with old gun batteries and interpretive tours (it was here that the United States was attacked by a Japanese sub during World War II).

* Hoh Rain Forest, Washington

On the western edge of Olympic National Park. From the town of Forks, drive about 11 miles south on U.S. 101, then 17 miles due east into the forest.

88 sites. Water, picnic tables, fire rings, flush toilets. RV dump. Leashed pets okay. $10, plus $10 park entrance fee. No reservations.

Info: (360) 452-0330.

The reason for all the spruce, hemlock fir; and old-growth cedar? Well, this is a rain forest, with annual rainfall of 140 inches, so make sure your rain fly is in good working order (July and August are drier months). Favorite activities here include the family-friendly walk up the Spruce Nature Trail (round trip is 1.3 miles).

* Kirk Creek, California

Off State 1 on the Big Sur coast 4 miles south of Lucia.

33 sites Water, picnic tables, grills, flush toilets. No RV hookups. Leashed pets okay. $16, $4 for cyclists. No reservations.

Info: (805) 995-1976.

This is one of the Sunset staff's favorite places to camp, although people practically fell over each other apologizing for it ("nothing special" was one suspiciously deprecating comment). The Lime Kiln State Park campground a few miles to the north (800/ 444-7275 for reservations.) gets higher marks in some guidebooks, but our site spotters prefer Kirk Creek's low-key feeling, sweeping Pacific Ocean view from its perch on a bluff, and easy beach access.

* Lake McDonald, Montana

In Glacier National Park, on the southwest shore of Lake McDonald. 180 sites. Water, picnic tables, grills, flush toilets. No RV hookups. Leashed pets okay. $12, plus $10 for park entrance. No reservations.

Info: (406) 888-7800.

The Fish Creek campground here in grizzly country has more sites than nearby Sprague Creek, but it's quieter, thanks to its distance from Going-to-the-Sun Road. Due to heavy snowfall in this part of the Rockies, the campgrounds here won't open for the season until late June.

* Steamboat Lake, Colorado

From U.S. 40 in Steamboat Springs, take County 129 north about 25 miles until you reach Steamboat Lake State Park.

183 sites. Water, picnic tables, fire rings, flush toilets, showers. RV hookups. Leashed pets okay. $11-$14.

Reservations: (800) 678-2267.

Info: (970) 879-3922.

Campsites sit under a canopy of spruce, fir, and lodgepole pine. Beyond are meadows filled with wildlife and wildflowers. Despite its size, this is a very, quiet family place, popular with water-skiers and boaters. Snow keeps the place buttoned up until spring, but usually everything's open by Memorial Day weekend.

* Timothy Lake, Oregon

From Portland take U.S. 26 about 39 miles past Sandy, turn south on Forest Road 42 for 9 miles, then west on ER. 57 for about 2 miles. The lake and its five campgrounds are on your right.

170 sites. Water, picnic tables, fire rings, vault toilets. No RV hookups. Leashed pets okay. $10-$12.

Reservations: (800) 280-2267.

Info: (503) 622-3360.

Lots of lakes circle Mount Hood - Timothy Lake in Mt. Hood National Forest is one of the nicest. Because it's bigger than popular Trillium and Lost lakes, it can support more campgrounds. Hoodview and Gone Creek campgrounds are especially scenic. What to do? Bring a small sailboat or a canoe, fish for rainbow trout, or hike the trail that circles the lake (most of it is open to mountain bikes).

* Tuweep, Arizona

On the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, 55 miles by graded dirt road from State 389 at Colorado City.

11 sites. No water, no RVs, no gas, no kidding. Free. No reservations.

Info: (520) 638-7888.

Don't let the lack of pavement or services intimidate you. In dry weather the road is easy for most two-wheel-drive cars (except low-slung sports models), and a ranger is on hand in case of emergencies. Two sites allow you to pitch a tent on the canyon rim, from which a 1/4-mile trail leads to an overlook of Lava Falls (it's 3 miles away, but you can easily hear it). Still, if Tuweep sounds too remote but you don't want to deal with crowds on the canyon's South Rim, try any of the 83 sites at the North Rim campground ($12, plus park fee of $20). For reservations there, call (800) 3652267.

* Valley of Fire, Nevada

About 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas. From I-15, take State 169 east to Valley of Fire State Park.

53 sites. Water, picnic tables, grills, shade ramadas, flush toilets, showers. No RV hookups. Leashed pets okay. $11. No reservations.

Info: (702) 397-2088.

Long before Glitter Gulch and Lake Mead altered the landscape, native people left their marks in the Valley of Fire. You can see their petroglyphs in several places here, or just hike through the incredible red rock topography that gives the park its name. Because of summer temperatures that regularly top 110 [degrees], go right now or plan your trip for this fall.

90 great CAMPGROUNDS

A state-by-state list of car-camping sites - from primitive spots to campgrounds that take reservations

Arizona

* Bonito

10 miles north of Flagstaff off U.S. 89.

43 sites. Water, picnic tables, grills, toilets. $10.

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