Imagine waking up and looking out your hotel window at Half Dome's bald granite pate, the tumbling Kings River, or a dazzling desert-night sky filled with stars. On your next national park vacation, extend your playtime with an overnight stay at these centrally located lodgings and campgrounds, listed north to south.
If temperatures in the 60s sound really good right now, take a break from summer's heat by cloaking yourself in the soothing shade of coastal redwoods. Redwood National Park has no in-park hotels, but gateway towns have myriad options: Sleep among the ancient trees at Crescent City's Fern Hook Cabins or in a log cabin at Redwoods KOA. Sip your morning coffee with a herd of Roosevelt elk at Orick's Elk Meadow Cabins.
Awesome alternatives: Twenty miles south of the Orick visitor center, the town of Trinidad offers splendid Pacific views and woodsy lodging at Emerald Forest Cabins or oceanfront B&B rooms at Turtle Rocks Oceanfront Inn or Lost Whale Inn.
Lose track of time—and where you placed your cell phone—at this Shasta Cascade park filled with amazing geothermal features and the sleeping volcano of Lassen Peak. A short walk from hissing fumaroles and boiling mud pots, historic Drakesbad Guest Ranch still has openings on most weekdays and occasional weekends in summer. (Skip the online reservation system and call 530-230-3901 or 877-622-0221 to reserve.) Or camp at one of Lassen's seven campgrounds. Reserve in advance at Summit or Manzanita Lake or arrive early to Southwest Campground to score a first-come, first-served site. Bonus: Manzanita Lake's camping cabins have availability from late August to early October.
With spectacular rock formations and two sets of talus caves, this park in San Benito County is a mecca for hikers and climbers. The wilderness-like Pinnacles has no hotels, and the only campground is the privately run Pinnacles Campground, which has plenty of summer dates available. Don't have your own camping gear? Book a cozy tent cabin and give "glamping" a try. Spend cool mornings hiking in the park, then chill out in the afternoon at the campground's swimming pool.
Although most dates at Yosemite's in-park hotels and cabins tend to be booked well in advance, you can surf the concessionaire's availability calendar for openings. (Cancellations happen every day, so it's wise to check more than once.) Chances are good for the historic Wawona Hotel near Glacier Point and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, but you might even score a room or a cottage at Yosemite Valley's elegant 1927 Ahwahnee Hotel or the more budget-friendly Yosemite Valley Lodge.
Awesome alternatives: You can always visit Yosemite during the day and sleep in lodgings outside the park. Rush Creek Lodge, Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite, and the river-view Yosemite Blue Butterfly Inn are all located close to park entrance gates.
People love this High Sierra park for its giant sequoia trees, sparkling lakes, and towering summits. They love it so much that the park's stone-and-timber Wuksachi Lodge, the closest hotel to Giant Forest and the General Sherman Tree, is almost entirely booked this summer. If you can't get the dates you want, try nearby Montecito Sequoia Lodge or Stony Creek Lodge, just a few miles away. To really get away from it all, book a cabin or chalet at off-the-grid Silver City Mountain Resort in Mineral King—but be prepared for a circuitous 25-mile drive to get there.
Awesome alternatives: On the park's south side, you'll find bed-and-breakfasts and motels in Three Rivers, plus more hummingbirds than you can count. A little farther west, the town of Visalia has a wide range of brand-name lodgings high on value.
Just like its neighbor, Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon has a bounty of giant sequoia trees. With an overnight stay at Grant Grove Cabins, you'll be only one mile from the General Grant Tree, second largest in the world, and dozens more behemoths. Savor their arboreal splendor before driving the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway to Cedar Grove. Sleep to the sound of the Kings River at Cedar Grove Lodge, then get up early to hike to Mist Falls or stroll around Zumwalt Meadow.
Awesome alternatives: Pack along your tent and a camping reservation to take advantage of Grant Grove's shady campgrounds: Sunset, Azalea, and Crystal Springs have plenty of spaces available this summer.
When visiting one of these five islands, you face a binary choice at day's end: Take the boat home or pitch a tent. The majority of visitors opt for day-trips, but if you're adventurous, you'll love camping in this remote and wild park with no stores, lodgings, or services. Only two of the island campgrounds have drinking water—Scorpion Canyon on Santa Cruz Island and Water Canyon on Santa Rosa Island. Kayakers favor Santa Cruz for its sea caves; Santa Rosa has beautiful white sand beaches and fascinating native flora.
Awesome alternatives: Book a room on the mainland and take day trips to the islands via Island Packers, the park concessionaire. Boats depart from harbors in Oxnard and Ventura, where hotels are plentiful.
How about vacationing in an elegant casita in one of the world’s hottest, most extreme desert landscapes? The big thermometer by the Furnace Creek Visitor Center often registers 120 degrees, but summer at The Inn at Death Valley means discounts for multi-day stays and a respite from the crowds. The Inn's hotel rooms and restaurant are closed till October, but its 22 newly constructed casitas are available. Stake out a private cabana by the spring-fed pool or indulge in a treatment at the spa. When night falls, head outside to see a star show that will blow your mind.
Awesome alternatives: The western-themed Ranch at Death Valley has 224 rooms adjacent to the Furnace Creek Golf Course, the world's lowest-elevation golf course. A few miles away, rooms at the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel offer serene views of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
J-Tree is a much higher-elevation desert than Death Valley, which means average summer temps around 99 degrees, not 120. Take advantage of the park's quieter season to see its amazing Joshua trees and boulder formations and maybe do a little rock climbing on cool mornings. Camping is the only in-park option: Reserve in advance for sites at Black Rock, Jumbo Rocks, or Ryan campgrounds. Hidden Valley Campground is first-come, first-served.