Get set for the ultimate camping face-off as we pit the East Coast against the West Coast, breaking down everything to know about weather, crowding, and more to crown the best coast for camping.
Yankees or Red Sox? Apple or Microsoft? Starbucks or Dunkin? East Coast or West Coast? Of these ageless American debates, the latter is particularly salient to yours truly, having recently married into an outdoorsy East Coast family with firm roots in North Carolina. Join us today as we take a deep dive into the tradeoffs of camping on the East Coast vs. the West Coast.
Before we dive into the details, some quick disclosures about yours truly. Born and raised in the Golden State, I’ve spent about 85% of my life under the Californian sun, but my most formative outdoorsmanship years took place in the East. My childhood memories are painted with summer retreats to the historic gold country of the Sierra Nevadas and winter ski vacations to Tahoe. However, I then transplanted myself to the East Coast for college in New England, where I spent as many nights outside backpacking and exploring the Applachians as I spent studying for exams. Those four years of young adulthood included visits to most of the major metro areas as well as spring break camping as far south as the Florida Keys. The 2010s brought me back to the West Coast, and were marked by many urban escapes from San Francisco’s hustle to the tranquility of wine country and the pet-friendly shores along Highway 1.
Now in the 2020s, with each side of the family firmly situated 3,000 miles apart, the first decision of each family camping trip involves deciding which coast is best for the occasion.
Both sides of the country present unique experiences and tradeoffs, so no matter what you want in your next camping trip, we’re laying out each coast’s strong suits to help you discover exactly what makes each a prime camping destination in its own right.
In the guide that follows, we’ll evaluate each coast from the perspective of five distinct categories related to camping. Enjoy!
The East Coast presents weather as varied as its landscapes—generally characterized by higher humidity, thunderstorms, and a saying that aptly captures its changeability: “If you don’t like the weather here, just wait a day, or sometimes a few hours.” This variability, although offering dynamic experiences, requires meticulous planning and backup strategies for campers. Influenced by the jet stream’s path and an ever-looming hurricane season, East Coast climate remains a challenge for campers.
Meanwhile, the West Coast boasts a predictable, consistent, and predominantly dry climate. While extended outdoor trips always require packing gear for any occasion, weekend getaways in the West typically allow you to be much more confident about packing light and leaving the rain jacket behind.
Unlike the uncertainty of weather, a firm distinction between campsites on the East vs. West can be found in the daily rising and falling cycles of the sun. Early risers ought to favor the East for the opportunity to catch spectacular sunrises painting the Atlantic canvas. In contrast, the West promises enchanting sunsets, especially along Southern California‘s pristine beaches, perfect for twilight campfires and romantic evenings.
🏆 Winner for the best weather: West Coast
While many envision camping as a quintessential summer activity, seasoned outdoor enthusiasts yearn for adventures all year-round, sparking the debate: which coast is best for all four seasons?
The East Coast flaunts its distinguished seasonal diversity. Its iconic fall foliage attracts millions of leaf peepers to New England, escaping the metropolitan confines of Boston and New York. As summer’s humidity engulfs all of the major East Coast cities, its mountainous regions promise invigorating, crisp air. Then, when fall turns to winter with each year’s first snowfall, traffic congestion and snowplows quickly turn the cities into a mess of brown sludge—but the more rural camping regions end up blanketed in pristine snow.
And thanks to the relative density of the Eastern Seaboard and its extensive road networks, winter camping here is much less daunting than navigating the Rockies or Sierra Nevada, where interstate highways over the summits often require carrying tire chains and regularly shut down completely during winter storms.
In contrast, the vast expanse of the West and its more predictable weather comes with the rub of not having “real seasons.” Major metro areas like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and LA bask in moderate temperatures year-round, seldom experiencing extremes. However, it lacks vibrant autumnal hues, and its most reliably attention-getting “season” of recent years has, unfortunately, been wildfire season in late summer.
Weighing the pros and cons, the East’s rich seasonal tapestry offers a more diverse camping experience, making it the preferable choice for year-round adventurers. Still not sold out snowy winter camping? Check out our top tips.
🏆 Winner for seasonal camping: East Coast
We all know the downsides of social media today—very few hidden gems are still hidden. Reality versus expectations often looks as follows:
Our Yosemite National Park plans are locked, and the itinerary is set. We’ve done the research, saw the photos online, and are eagerly anticipating that breathtaking view of Half Dome from Glacier Point. We even planned to arrive at dusk to see the setting sun kiss Half Dome goodnight. We’re expecting this:
Instead, we arrive on scene to this:
The truth is, overcrowding at our nation’s most iconic sites is a problem that’s here to stay. In analyzing crowds on the East vs. West, which side of the country is best?
A simple way to assess the overcrowding risk is to look at population density and assume that more people equals more crowds. However, that simple approach would be wrong. Despite the East’s larger and more dense population, western national parks simply attract more visitors. Among the top 10 most visited US national parks, only three lie in the East: Great Smoky Mountains, Acadia, and Cuyahoga Valley. The West boasts the remaining seven: Grand Canyon, Zion, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Glacier, and Joshua Tree.
Beyond the top 10, the west has significantly more national parks than the east overall. If we divide the country at the Mississippi River, 46 parks are in the west and just 15 are east of the Mississippi. The National Park Service explains that historical context as being due to both natural terrain and the history of Americans moving westward in the 19th century. According to the NPS, “By the late 1800s most of the land in the east was in private ownership, while much of the land in the West was (and still is) public. It was thus a much easier task to set aside vast regions of incredible scenery in the west.”
At least for our national parks, more parks means more crowds. In fact, early data from Hipcamp Alerts indicates that 9 of 10 alerts for sold-out campgrounds are for public campsites in California or Washington. Weighing these factors, the East emerges as the victor for less crowded camping experiences.
🏆 Winner for fewer crowds: East Coast
With excess popularity and overcrowding, the cost of visiting also tends to rise. So when considering accessibility and affordability for camping, the dynamics between the two coasts also differ significantly.
While Utah’s “Big Five” are certainly all deserving of being on your bucket list, embarking on a road trip to visit all five in a week or two entails heftier expenses than a short weekend trip to the Poconos, just two hours or so from both NYC and Philadelphia.
For the over 100 million Americans who reside on the East Coast, a plethora of camping options lie within a mere 2-hour drive. Contrastingly, the West demands lengthier journeys from its populous hubs to camping sites. Delving into specifics, let’s imagine two families of four—one traveling from Baltimore to Shenandoah National Park and another journeying from San Francisco to Yosemite.
For the Baltimore family, our estimated trip costs would include:
In contrast, our San Francisco family would face longer driving hours, California’s elevated gas prices, and potentially higher campsite rates based on Hipcamp’s average nightly rates.
Though national park entry fees are generally consistent throughout the country, the East does offer more state park options, which are generally less expensive and less crowded than national parks anyhow. We’ve found that the East also has a larger variety of private land camping alternatives available when popular campgrounds are sold out. All things considered, the East clearly emerges as the more accessible and cost-effective choice for campers.
🏆 Winner for accessibility & affordability: East Coast
Last but not least, the X-factor: Just how breathtaking is the natural scenery that draws so many of us outside? Despite the West’s shortcomings with crowding, accessibility, and milder seasonal transitions, its allure remains undiminished. Why?
The reality remains that the West is home to unique natural wonders like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Crater Lake, and the Grand Canyon. Their immense popularity isn’t just social media’s making—their splendor is undeniable.
Beauty may be subjective, but the West’s monumental landscapes even provide some hard data to ponder upon. When comparing elevations, the average of the top 10 peaks in California, Oregon, and Washington easily dwarf the top elevations in the Appalachians. California’s highest peak, Mt. Whitney, clocks in at 14,505 feet, and Colorado has so many peaks above 14,000 feet that outdoor enthusiasts who summit them all can barely fit all 58 names on a T-shirt. In contrast, the hills of the East are literally not even half the size. Mount Mitchell stands tallest among East Coast mountains at 6,684 feet and is one of just a dozen peaks over 6,000 feet.
While vertical feet doesn’t necessarily equate to natural beauty, yours truly very much appreciates the number of Instagrammable backgrounds the West has to offer.
Adding to the natural beauty found in the alpine wilderness above treelines, the vast expanses of the West also offer pristine dark skies, perfect for stargazing. In contrast, the East struggles to offer a 10-mile stretch without human imprint and the inevitable light pollution that comes with population centers. At the end of the day, the majestic scale and untouched terrains of the West truly set it apart.
🏆 Winner for natural beauty: West Coast
In the end, the best coast for frequent campers boils down to personal preferences. If you’re after more predictable weather and stunning natural beauty, then the West Coast might be for you. However, if you value accessibility, affordability, and fewer crowds, then the East Coast should be on your radar. Either way, the most important goal is to choose one and plan that next camping trip. The sooner you plan to find yourself outside, the sooner you get to enjoying all that the great outdoors has to offer. #everyoneoutside
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