We watched in quiet amazement as a bull moose emerged from the woods, cocked his antlered head in our direction, and bent down to nibble some greenery. It was enchanting, magical . . . and just another day at Moosehead Lake. This screen-saver-worthy locale is one of Maine’s finest, featuring 40 miles of silver-blue water, pine-shrouded islets, and a mountain that seems to spring from the lake itself. This is some of New England’s most spectacular real estate, but you don’t need a platinum credit card to enjoy it. Camp at a lakefront site at Lily Bay State Park and you will wake up to dazzling views for less than $25 a night.
That’s the secret kick of camping in New England: You get access to some of the region’s prime beauty spots for next to nothing. A bonus: Camping tunes you into the slow pleasures of life, and aspects of nature that no city can deliver. David Babik of Natick, who has been camping with his family for more than 10 years, says, “Sharing a bright fire under a starry sky is a unique pleasure. It’s amazing how much more interesting the nighttime sky becomes when you are away from the lights and pollution of the city.”
As authors of the “Unofficial Guide to the Best RV Tent Campgrounds in the Northeast,” we have logged hundreds of nights of camping. Here are a few of our top picks. You will notice that we are partial to state park campgrounds, thanks to their alluring blend of natural beauty and outdoor fun. Commercial campgrounds offer more in the way of amenities, such as swimming pools, but they are usually more landscaped — and less wild.
Camden Hills State Park
Oozing with yacht-y appeal, Camden’s iconic image is 800-foot Mount Battie and its sister hillocks, rising over a picture-perfect village and deep-blue Penobscot Bay. Camden is a day-tripper’s dream — and a bargain, if you are a camper. Sharing the state park with Mount Battie is a campground with 100-plus sites for tents and RVs. Some sites are wooded, some are open and grassy, but all are pretty. Sites 75M through 31M, on the far side of the property, are best for tent camping; 75M and 81M are true beauties.
Drive or hike to the summit of Mount Battie and climb 26 steps up the stone observation tower. The panoramic views of the bay, dotted with sailboats and gem-like islands, will make you feel like you are on top of the (very gorgeous) world. Look for the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem etched on a rock, inspired by this spot. Love to hike? You hit the jackpot here. There are 25 miles of trails, including the summit of Mount Megunticook (1,380 feet).
www.maine.gov/doc/parks, 207-236-3109, residents $15, nonresidents $25
Cathedral Pines, Eustis
A soft blanket of pine needles carpets the campsites here. Set in a forest of towering Norway (red) pines on the shores of Flagstaff Lake, this off-the-beaten-path beauty spot is located in the rural, western corner of the state — just 26 miles south of the Canadian border. True fact: This site was one of Benedict Arnold’s stops on his ill-fated march to Québec City in 1775.
The 300-acre campground offers 115 spacious, widely-spaced campsites set in loops. Site number 69, on the lake, is especially stunning. Sand-and-gravel sites are canopied by pines, with shrubbery offering a buffer for privacy.
Swim in the lake (campers have a private beach), go looking for moose, hike on the Appalachian Trail, go boating.
www.gopinescamping.com, 207-246-3491, lakefront tent sites $25
Lily Bay State Park, Greenville
Take New England’s largest lake, add a backdrop of mountains, a pine-dappled shoreline, and a sprinkling of moose, and you have Lily Bay State Park on Moosehead Lake. Add some waterfront campsites and you have camping nirvana. Sites are set along Dunn Point, which is good for families since it is close to the beach and a playground; and at Rowell Cove, with tent sites set close to the water. Fall asleep to the haunting cry of loons at night, and wake up to views that are beyond beautiful.
Rent a kayak from a local outfitter and paddle out to Sugar Island, and explore the nooks and crannies of this long, lovely lake. Hike up Mount Kineo, take a moose-watching safari with The Birches, and knock around the small shops in Greenville, 9 miles away.
www.maine.gov/doc/parks, 207-695-2700, residents $15, nonresidents $25
DCR Savoy Mountain State Forest, Florida
What, you didn’t know Massachusetts had its own Florida, population 676? We didn’t either, until we discovered this fabulous campground in the Berkshires, off Route 2. A ranger at another state park, with more than 30 years in the system, deems DCR’s Savoy Mountain his absolute favorite. Who’s to argue? There is incredible diversity in the landscape here, including Tannery Falls, the state’s highest waterfall, and Bog Trail, with floating bog islands. The Hoosac Mountains loom above vast fields of mountain laurel, studded with sparkling ponds. Campsites are set in an old apple orchard. Mostly, they are grassy and open, bordered by trees. Sites 13-18, nearest the beach at South Pond, fill up quickly, while sites 21-23 are set back for ample privacy. Be sure to practice bear-safe camping — you are in bear country here.
Hike along 60 miles of trails, swim in South Pond, fish in trout-stocked North Pond, and use the campground as a base for exploring the Berkshires.
www.mass.gov/dcr/parks/western/svym.htm, 413-663-8469, residents $12, nonresidents $14
DCR Shawme-Crowell State Forest, Sandwich
Yes, we like Nickerson State Park in Brewster, but that one gets booked up super fast. Pretty Shawme-Crowell is less discovered, nearly qualifying as a hidden gem. And you will get there quicker. Comprising 700 acres of pitch pine and scrub oak forest, the park is laced with hiking trails. Plus, your camping fee buys you day-use privileges at Scusset Beach, definitely a plus. Campsites (nearly 300) are arranged in two loops: Area 1, which is hilly with mixed forest, and Area 2, with sites arrayed in piney woods. It is hard to find a bad campsite here, although we are partial to the pine-scented ones, especially sites A14 and A18 (extra-pretty and big).
Visit Scusset Beach, bike along paved roads and mountain bike trails (BYO bike), hike, and take in such Sandwich attractions as the glass museum.
www.mass.gov/dcr/parks/southeast/schr.htm, 508-888-0351, campsites $12
Pawtuckaway State Park
Located near Manchester, this campground offers a wonderful nature escape: rustic campsites on the forested shores and islands of Pawtuckaway Lake. Our favorites are on Horse Island (sites 16, 41-46, 67-69 have outstanding views), but they are all quite inviting. This family beach park is a lively scene of swimming, picnicking, and pedal boats, so if your bunch likes plenty of action, you will feel right at home. For solitude, seek out the extensive network of hiking trails alongside black gum trees and Atlantic cedar swamps.
Rent a kayak or pedal boat and explore the lake, or pack a lunch and head to the top of 908-foot South Mountain for the great views from the summit fire tower. Walk the Fundy Trail bordering Burnhams Marsh in early morning or evening for a glimpse of beavers, deer, and herons.
www.nhstateparks.org, 603-895-3031, tent sites $25-$30
White Lake State Park Tamworth
This beloved state park offers the chance to relive those childhood vacation memories: swimming in a sand-bottomed lake, floating on a raft for hours, chasing fireflies, and roasting marshmallows around a campfire. The state owns the property surrounding the lake so there is no development to mar the view of a gorgeous lake ringed by mountains. Hard to believe bustling North Conway is nearby. Campsites are set into the woods (there are also a few on the water) with paths that lead to a natural sand beach. The downside: Lots of day-use visitors, but by night, it feels like a true nature escape.
Walk the 2-mile trail around the lake through the Pitch Pine National Natural Landmark, a stunning stand of virginal northern pitch pines. Rent a kayak, canoe, or pedal boat, hike nearby Mount Chocorua, or hit North Conway’s outlet shops and attractions.
www.nhstateparks.org, 603-323-7350, tent sites $25-$30
Smugglers’ Notch State Park, Stowe
Number one reason Stowe is an awesome destination in summertime: You can hike to a mountain lake, a waterfall, or a cave, even tackle the famous Long Trail — and earn the right to sample the fabulous locally-made cheeses and microbrews without guilt. This wonderfully woodsy campground puts you in the heart of the action for less than $20 a night, an amazing bargain here. Campsites have log lean-tos and stone fireplaces (built to last by the Civilian Conservation Corps), so they fit right into the forested, boulder-strewn landscape.
Ride the Stowe Alpine Slide, hike to Sterling Pond (one of the prettiest hikes in New England), take a short nature walk to Bingham Falls, bring (or rent) a bike to ride the Stowe path, visit Stowe Village, and have a drink at the Matterhorn.
www.vtstateparks.com, 802-253-4014, tent sites residents $16, nonresidents $18