We’ve visited 48 US states in a camper van – these are the 10 best

We’ve visited 48 US states in a camper van – these are the 10 best

If you crave adventure, traveling in a camper van is one of the most intimate ways to experience the USA.

In 2017, I set off on a two-year road trip with my husband and dog. 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. 

Throughout the trip, we quickly found that some states were more conducive to van life than others. The Southwest USA, for example, has 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 a unique aspect to our itinerary, there were certainly a few standouts. We’ve traversed the country logging the best from coast to coast: here are the top ten states in the US that are perfect for your next camper or RV trip.

Must-know tips for family RV road trips

Here is what you need to know to plan your first family RV trip.

1. New Mexico

Do you prefer the red or green chile?

Camping in the desert is particularly enjoyable because of the starry nights, predictable temperatures and few flying bugs. New Mexico is home to a desert landscape unlike any I’ve experienced. There are distinctive hoodoo rock formations, an unending trail system and large swaths of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas that allow free camping. New Mexico generally flies under the radar, which makes it less crowded even in the most scenic areas. A lack of trees in the north allows for excellent landscape visibility, and some of the most magnificent sunsets we have seen. An underrated food haven, New Mexico gave us vibrant and affordable cuisines that we could find in every town. It’s also home to our favorite cave system, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, on the state’s southern border.

Stellar views: stargazing in the Southwest USA

An empty road through the Arizona desert
Budget-friendly Arizona is great for adventurers in a camper van © miroslav_1 / Getty Images

2. Arizona

Natural wonders abound, off-grid living comes easy

For outdoor enthusiasts who love mountain biking, rock climbing and stunning hikes, Arizona cannot be beaten. Most people think of visiting the Grand Canyon, but the entire state is ripe for adventure. Free campsites scatter the forests surrounding SedonaFlagstaff and southern Arizona, which makes it one of the most budget-friendly places to visit year-round. One of the things we loved most about this area was the kind reception to outside explorers. Arizona is a mecca for off-grid living. Each February, the town of Quartzsite swells to accommodate nearly 2 million travelers that visit in camper vans, RVs and school bus conversions. Workshops and community events are held on the outskirts of Quartzsite so travelers can learn about van life, get help with solar panel installations and plan out future road trips. The weather, services available to nomads and sense of community make Arizona the perfect place to launch a road trip.

The best of Arizona beyond the Grand Canyon

Rock formations at Canyonlands National Park, Utah
An early start at the national parks will mean you’re ahead of the crowds, especially in peak season © Kris Wiktor / Shutterstock

3. Utah

Come for the national parks, all five of them  

Home to five national parksUtah is one of the most picturesque states we visited. We made it a goal of ours to hit all five: Capitol Reef National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park. One tip we picked up along the way is to get to the national parks early. We were able to beat many of the tourists and end up with the park to ourselves even during peak season. Climbing Angels Landing in Zion National Park had always been a goal of mine, but the trail can be crowded by 10am. Arriving early made all the difference, and it was the best way to take advantage of the mobility of a camper van.

The 7 best hikes in Utah

A camper van parked at a viewpoint in California
It’s easy to find campsites in California, the third largest state in the USA © Kate Moore / Lonely Planet

4. California

Experience a little bit of everything

California is so large and diverse that it’s almost unfair to mention. Vast amounts of land made finding campsites easy despite California being a popular tourist destination. We spent evenings under the famous redwood trees, had picnics alongside the ocean and wandered aimlessly among the cacti of Death Valley National Park. All of this could keep us occupied for any length of time. If we had to pick one state to experience a little bit of everything, California would be it. There is such a wide range of environments that you don’t need to drive too far to witness something new. Within a matter of days, we were able to rock climb in Joshua Tree National Park, take a dip in Lake Tahoe and hike among the volcanoes of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Visit all of California’s national parks in one legendary road trip

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

5. Minnesota

See the northern lights on a fall night

Coming from the west coast, Minnesota was a refreshing alternative. We were able to travel all the way north to the border of Canada and take a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters. Known as the state of 10,000 lakes, Minnesota had no shortage of fishing holes and quiet campsites by the water. Minnesota is not a state that you would typically find included in a top 10 list of road trip destinations, but to us that’s what made it so special. Winter in Minnesota is exceptionally cold, but traveling in the fall, chances are good that you can see the northern lights on a cloudless night.

A man and his dog on the shore of Lake Superior, Michigan
Playing on the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan © Kate Moore / Lonely Planet

6. Michigan

The pristine beaches of The Great Lakes

Michigan varies wildly from the southern stretches to the Upper Peninsula. This state has a surprising number of pristine beaches that are not packed with tourists like the ones we visited in California. In the summer months, there are fresh berries to pick and vibrant farmers markets to attend. In Michigan, we were able to find camping all the way north to the Upper Peninsula, and we feasted on whitefish and pasties along the way. One of my favorite memories of Michigan is camping on the shore of Lake Superior. We had dinner on a pebble beach after several days of visiting lighthouses.

Experience the Great Lakes on one epic road trip

A camper van drives on a road surrounded by red, orange and yellow fall colors in Tennessee
The back roads of Tennessee hold many surprises © Kate Moore / Lonely Planet

7. Tennessee

The Great Smoky Mountains are beautiful year-round

Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park and for good reason. Driving through Tennessee in the fall is a special treat. Rolling mountains and a vast number of waterfalls dot the landscape. We found 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 entrance to free trails, and we spent the majority of our visit hiking through the colorful forests and climbing fire towers to get the best viewpoint.

Fall-ing for Tennessee: unforgettable outdoor autumn adventures

A dog sits near a lake in New York next to a camper van
More hiking is on the itinerary for our return to New York state © Kate Moore / Lonely Planet

8. New York

Beyond the city, there’s a lot to explore upstate

New York was one of the hardest to choose for our top 10 list – not because it is lacking, but because it shares many things we loved about Vermont and New Hampshire as well. The trees are incredible in the fall, and New York has a surprising amount of geography to visit. From Eternal Flame Falls to wineries in the Finger Lakes and watchtower hikes high in the Adirondacks, we were quickly running out of time to check off everything on our list. That’s not to mention the more well-known Lake Placid Olympic village, Niagara Falls and Letchworth State Park. New York was not on our radar for hiking, but now that we’ve visited, it’s at the top of our itinerary for future road trips.

Our favorite New York historic parks and monuments

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

9. Pennsylvania

The nation’s history comes to life 

Pennsylvania turned out to be one of our most memorable states when it comes to history. We spent an entire day taking an auto tour around the Gettysburg National Military Park. Seeing the battlefields in person brought to life the history books we had read in school and made us appreciate past accounts in a new way. Visiting 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, Pennsylvania has a lot of state parks that are easily accessible for free camping.

Sunset at Deer Isle, Maine
Maine has densely packed pine forests for miles © coastalpics / Getty Images

10. Maine

The best of the forests and coasts on the Atlantic  

Driving into Maine from the northwest side, we experienced incredibly tall pine trees, skinny roads and no cell phone service for miles. The setting personified a Stephen King novel, and to us 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. Continuing to the coast, Acadia National Park is where the mountains meet the ocean. We were happy to find that this is one of the most dog-friendly parks in the USA, so we got to bring our travel companion along many of the trails.

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This article was originally published on June 19, 2020. This article was first published on June 19, 2020 and updated on October 1, 2021

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This book showcases 50 of the greatest road trips on Earth, from classic routes in America, Australia and Europe, to incredible adventures in Asia and Africa. Source: LonelyPlanet

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