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Hidden Gem Campgrounds

By Daniel Jackson, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Top ranger picks for secluded lakeside campsites.

Ideal fishing spot near a campsite on Lake Sherwood in West Virginia. (Recreation.gov)
Ideal fishing spot near a campsite on Lake Sherwood in West Virginia. (Recreation.gov)

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rangers have identified their favorite lakeside campsites, where the loudest noises are the lapping of waves and the wind in the trees. Find your way to these secluded settings or to similar locations off the beaten path.

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Gillham Lake

Gillham Lake's Cossatot Reefs Campground (Victor Kuykendall, USACE)
Campsite #17 at Gillham Lake's Cossatot Reefs Campground. (Victor Kuykendall/USACE)

Gillham Lake is about 150 miles (241.4 km) due west of Little Rock, on the Cossatot River. The lake is popular with anglers and white water enthusiasts. Cossatot Reefs Campground offers 31 sites, many with lake views. Amenities include a boat ramp, electrical and water hookups, a dump station for RVs, a playground and hot showers and flush toilets. Some tent-only campsites are also available for reservation.

Ranger's campsite pick: #17 is a spacious site that sits close to the river and offers many recreational opportunities.


Lake Sonoma

Liberty Glen Campground, Lake Sonoma (Ryan Clause)
Campsite #83 at Liberty Glen Campground, Lake Sonoma, offers an overlook view of the lake. (Ryan Clause)

Come to the heart of Sonoma County north of San Francisco and Lake Sonoma for “wine country camping on a beer budget,” according to Lake Sonoma manager Charlie Fenwick. The most secluded campsites accessible by car are in Liberty Glen which sits high above the lake and offers spectacular lake and woodland views. Hike less than a mile down a fairly steep hill to Madrona Point to go for a swim. Intermediate to expert cyclists may want to try the flowy mountain bike trails off Rock Pile Road, which leads to the Half a Canoe Loop trail and features numerous views from the lake.

Ranger's campsite picks: Cabin at #27, surrounded by redwoods, includes beds, just bring sheets. Select campsites #78 or #80 for the very best views and #87, #88, #89 are spacious campsites with hill views. For a truly rustic, unplugged experience, try the boat-in sites (temporarily closed) at the upper reaches of the lake. Many of the sites on the Warm Creek arm of the lake are linked by Southlake Trail, offering rustic sites for hikers who pack in their gear on foot; park at the Southlake Trailhead, Skaggs Spring Vista to access these sites.


Carters Lake

Campsite #45 at Doll Mountain Campground at Carters Lake near Ellijay, GA. (USACE)
Campsite #45 at Doll Mountain Campground at Carters Lake near Ellijay, GA. (USACE)

Just 90 minutes north of Atlanta, enjoy the peace and quiet of Carters Lake, a reservoir situated where the Georgia piedmont meets the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Carters Lake offers beaches, mountain bike trails, boat ramps and campgrounds that feature full service campsites. Try kayaking with the Cartecay River Experience 15 miles (24 km) away; the operator might even deliver a kayak to your campsite at Carters Lake. Just beyond the Cartecay River Experience is Amicalola Falls, one of the biggest waterfalls east of the Mississippi.

Ranger's campsite picks at Doll Mountain Campground: Tent-only, non-electric sites #18, #19 and #20 sit on a small peninsula with great water access, down a short, pedestrian-only hill. Once there, your campsite takes on a quiet secluded feel removed from the rest of the campground. Other choices for secluded sites overlooking the lake include #44 and #45, which include water and electric hookups.


Alexander Creek

One of two campsites at Libby Dam's Alexander Creek campground. (Cathy Sullivan)
One of two campsites at Libby Dam's Alexander Creek campground. (Cathy Sullivan)

Alexander Creek, just downstream on the Kootenai River from Libby Dam and Reservoir near the town of Libby doesn’t appear on most maps, but we think that’s a good thing when your goal is a thorough escape into nature. Rangers there say the two campsites are picturesque spots perfect for a quiet and restful getaway. They don’t offer much in the way of creature comforts: a fire ring and a level, graveled parking pad with a view of the trout-filled Kootenai River offer the essentials of this "last, best place in Montana."

There is a gravel boat launch nearby and others in the area for boaters. If you want to visit the countryside, try the Lake Koocanoosa Scenic Byway, which travels through beautiful countryside from Libby Dam up through Montana and into British Columbia.

Ranger's campsite picks: Campsites at the reservoir are strictly first-come, first-served. If they are occupied when you arrive, you may want to try nearby and very similar Dunn Creek (12 sites) or Blackwell Flats (seven sites). Prepare to unplug—there are no cell phone signals here.


Willamette Valley

The three locations profiled below sit in Oregon’s gorgeous Willamette Valley, a heavily forested region famous for its wineries, scenery and world-class universities.

Dorena Lake (USACE)
Dorena Lake (USACE)

Just downstream from Dorena Lake's dam on the Row (rhymes with brow) River sits Schwarz Campground, a picturesque getaway that becomes a quiet waterfront escape after the crowds leave on Sunday afternoon. Its many spacious campsites sit tucked in the woods along the river.

The campground features a playground, nature trails through the woods, a prairie restoration area and a nature area where visitors might spot endangered species such as a Western pond turtle or rare raptors. The paved 15-mile (24.1 km) Row River Trail, which connects Dorena Lake with the nearby town of Cottage Grove, offers cyclists and hikers a scenic way to navigate the area.

Hikers also like wandering up the Trestle Creek Falls Trail at the nearby Umpqua National Forest, just a 30-minute drive from the campground. The upper section of the trail leads hikers behind a 60-foot (18.2 m) waterfall.

There are no utilities at each campsite but the campground features a shower building and flush toilets.

Ranger's campsite picks: On the river, the best sites are #41 and #58. Number #41 is closest to the swim beach. Number #21 is on a quiet loop.

Cottage Grove Lake Pine Meadows Campground (USACE)
Campers at Pine Meadows Campground pull their boats up on the grass next to their campsites. (USACE)

Cottage Grove Lake is south of Eugene. Pine Meadows is a very nice campground with shower buildings and flush toilet bathrooms—it is busy on weekends and quiet during the week. Boaters like the convenience of tying up their boats next to these lakeside campsites.

Ranger's campsite picks: In the early part of the season when the lake is likely to be high, select higher ground sites such as #57, #59, #61, #67 and #68. After August, try to reserve the lower sites, including #19, #21, #30, #32, #41 and #43.

Lookout Point Lake is about 22 miles (35.4 km) southeast of Eugene. The Ivan Oakes Campground, called “Sleepy Hollow” by local rangers, offers a very quiet and rustic setting for hardy campers seeking to get away. The grounds are entirely wooded and there are no lawns. Campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis and consist of a camp pad, a picnic table and a fire ring, and campers should place their tents on the camp pad. Vault toilets and water are available.

For cyclists and hikers, the 60-mile (96.5 km) Eugene to Pacific Crest Trail runs through the campground and links up with the famous Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. Horses are also allowed on the trail.

Ranger's campsite picks: Campsite #9 is most secluded. Other picks include #2, #3 and #19-#24.

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