These lesser-known campgrounds offer low fees, unique attractions and good availability.
We discovered a “secret” campground less than an hour away we didn’t know existed and in the process learned a new way to find amazing campgrounds.
These little gems are public campgrounds run by counties and municipalities. There are hundreds of these campgrounds across the country, but you won’t find them on popular campground reservation websites.
We spent the weekend at one of these places, Hibernia County Park, which was recommended to me by a friend. It seemed like just the kind of spot we love – low-key, woodsy with access to hiking trails and a lake, close to quaint towns with shops and restaurants.
I was a little skeptical when I booked a reservation just two days before the holiday weekend. But the campground lived up to my friend’s description, leaving me to wonder how it had escaped my radar.
How did we not know about this little gem of a campground nestled in the woods of beautiful Chester County, Pa., with a 19th-century iron plantation mansion, over 900 acres of trails and woodlands, and a 90-acre lake, less than an hour from Philadelphia?
Recreation.gov is the country’s biggest campsite reservation website, with a monopoly on public campground bookings because a majority of states rely on it for their reservation system.
Recreation.gov is notorious for the fees it tacks onto reservations. Those fees vary by state but can amount to a hefty percentage of a camping stay, especially for shorter visits.
By contrast, there’s a good chance your fees will be lower at a county campground, as ours were at Hibernia.
Our two-day, one night stay at Hibernia cost just $15.75 – $15 a night plus .75 cents for using a credit card. Pets are allowed at no extra cost. There was no booking fee, and no taxes. Score!
As far as I know, there isn’t a website or app that lets you search for county campgrounds.
Hibernia also didn’t come up in Google maps when I searched for “campgrounds” in my area.
It is listed in Google maps – so if you know about it, you can find it. Interestingly, there’s no mention of the campground in the listing.
My experience led me to a little research on how to find these hidden gems …
How to find county campgrounds
If you have a certain county in mind, start your search by visiting the county’s website. You may have to do a little digging there.
I did a little experiment on a randomly chosen county – Broward County, Florida. I visited the county website and didn’t see camping on the homepage but quickly got to it by clicking on Parks in the main menu.
That took me to this page with five campgrounds. The first, C.B. Smith, looks amazing – it’s a campground with a water park (with a 50-foot tall waterslide!), mini-golf and batting cages and more. Wow!
Yet you won’t find C.B. Smith on recreation.gov or even the Dyrt, another well-known campground directory.
In general, I found that the Dyrt had more campgrounds listed, including some that are county-run. None of the county/city campgrounds included in this post were listed on recreation.gov.
To make a camping reservation at C.B. Smith, you have to call the park office. Sites cost $45 in-season and $35 out-of-season, no extra fees added.
What if you don’t have a specific county in mind?
If you’d like to explore new areas or go on the hunt for unique campgrounds, you can search on the website ALLSTAYS.
Allstays has a filter that allows you to search for county and city campgrounds in a region or state. This is a great option for discovering cool campgrounds off the beaten path.
ALLSTAYS is the only website I found that included both Hibernia County Park and C.B. Smith.
The search is a little clunky because the map is small (you have to pay to see a larger map). But when you use the county filter to search, you can make do because there will be fewer campgrounds, so you can see them better.
Pro Tip: If you click on any of the “CP” (County Parks) circle icons, you’ll go to the page with helpful information on that specific campground, such as cost, amenities and contact information, and location details.
This page also displays all the other campgrounds in the area (including private or state-run campgrounds).
I had fun hunting for cool new campgrounds using this tool in some of my favorite states.
Here are some of the sweet spots my searches turned up:
- Waterfront camping right in Burlington, VT, on Lake Champlain at North Beach Campground for $37 a night
- Tent, trailer and RV camping in the heart of California wine country camping, Sonoma County, for $35/$37 a night, depending on season
- Incredible Hawaiian ocean camping on the island of Maui for $10 a night (note: currently not available due to COVID)
I hope you will be inspired to find some cool new places to put on your camping wish list. 🙂
If you’ve turned up any great spots you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about them!