Beaver Campground is a great base for Washington gorge hikes deeper into the Gifford-Pinochet near Carson - including Falls Creek Falls (one of the prettiest waterfalls in the whole gorge area). If you're based in Portland and doing a weekend of hiking this is a good and easy base to keep you from having to make the 1.5 hour drive home and back to sleep. It's super accessible to get to after work for an evening camp and early start the next day.
There are a variety of sites available including group sites, single sites, double sites and 2 fully accessible sites. The campground takes reservations and also has walk ups. I was there in early June just after Memorial Day and the place was empty.
All sites have fire rings and picnic tables. Double sites have 2 tables. There is a limit to one car per single site, or you'll be charged an additional 10$ fee.
There are no showers, but it's pretty darn close to the baths at Carson Hot Spring Resort which feel nice after a long hike!
The official National Park Ozette Campground is a very small campground right on the lake and next to the ranger station in Ozette, at the upper NW quadrant of the Olympic Peninsula.
The sites are all flat and pretty much open - you will definitely see your neighbors. The toilets are a bit of a walk away at the ranger station / trail head. There is a huge parking lot full of cars but no people as this is a big place to hike out and camp on the beach (about a 3 mile hike in to the closest camping) - if you hike on the beach, you'll need a backcountry permit which you can get at the ranger station (available when it is open or closed).
It was surprising to me, but there were deer walking around the camp while we were there. Don't leave your food out. We also found it to be pretty mosquito-y here compared to other ONP camping.
This is actually in the National Park, so you'll need to have a NP pass or pay the fee to register your car. Camping is first come - no reservations.
All sites have a fire ring and picnic table. There is also a water point. For showers, you can pay at the Lost Resort up the street.
If you're planning to do the 9 mile Ozette triangle loop hike, you'll want to check the tide table at the ranger station. Low tide was very early in the morning during the summer and you'll find yourself racing the tide to get around the heads if you don't leave early enough. If you do wind up on the beach at high tide, you'll have to use the upper trails which requires some ropes and steep hills to finish the hike. If you have kids, be sure to leave early enough. If the tide is low in the morning, recommend camping here and using it as your base.
Lost Resort Campground is near the end of the road at Lake Ozette in Olympic National Park - super close to the official ONP Ozette Campground. While the Ozette campground is great because its directly on the lake, the Lost Resort campground is great because it doesn't turn anyone away.
There are some great, quiet and wooded sites at Lost Resort. There are also several very open areas where they can put campers who turn up when everything else in the neighborhood is full (ie. the NP campground and backcountry are the only other options here)
Lost Resort has a little camp store that's open into the early evening most days and serves full meals as well as coffees, espressos and has a pretty well stocked shop with camping necessities. Firewood is available for sale on an honor system even if the store is closed.
The campground is a horshoe/U shape up a hill with some private cabins that can be reserved. Sites are not numbered. Be sure to check that your site has a flat spot for your tent footprint if you're tent camping.
All sites have fire pits and tables and the ones on the far side are more wooded and dark if you like to sleep early or are hammock camping. Ozette was the only place we encountered mosquitos camping in ONP. (The store sells bug spray too).
The store also has wifi which reaches the closer parts of the campground. There isn't much of a signal anywhere in the upper NW peninsula, so this is a nice chance to connect if you need to research where you're hoping to sleep the next night!
There are 3 toilet options: One in the store open during hours, an outdoor full service near the store - open 24 hours, and 2 port a potties on top of the hill closest to the upper campground sites. There are showers available during store hours for a fee- 3$ if you're camp at the site, 6$ if you aren't.
Sites are $25 a night here (5$ more than the NP campground), and they take credit cards!
Littleton Horse Camp is on the edge of the very popular Lake Crescent area of Olympic National Park. It's hidden away from the crowds, but still super close and convenient to all of the ONP activities and hikes on the eastern part of the peninsula - and was a perfect place for me to really put my new OOFOS to the test.
The Littleton Horse Camp is a haven in the midst of summer national park chaos! There are only a handful of actual sites - but it is a horse camp, so the sites are HUGE, and well spaced out. Each site has a table and firepit as well as an area with the posts to tie up your horses (or your hammock). There were lots of trees as well for hammocking!
Since this campground is in the national forest instead of the national park, there is a lot more flexibility. In fact, if you turn up here and there aren't any actual sites left, you can camp in any of the green space here around the trail head. When we woke up, we found a lot more tents in the common area then we did when we settled in for the night. The campground itself is the trailhead for Muller Mountain.
The campground wasn't well maintained during the weekend of our visit, there was a giant pile of trash by the trash can (which wasn't ever picked up while we were there), the drop toilet was in the kind of state that you don't want to go into unless you really have to, no one was collecting the $10 fee for the sites, and there weren't any envelopes to register.
There is no running water - or any water source, so you have to pack everything in. You're also only 4 miles from the Fairholm camp store if you have to stock up on anything.
The campground is not marked from the road, but it isn't hard to find if you're looking for it. It's 4.4 miles past Fairholm (ONP campground) going west, up a forest service road. This campground works as a great base for Lake Crescent (especially is Fairholm is packed out- and it's 12$ cheaper per night than the NP campgrounds)
Campfires were permitted here in fire rings despite the overall ban burn in the area. This changes and will be clearly marked throughout the National Park and Forest.
Overall, the only thing about camping here that wasn't optimal was that it rained for almost our entire visit! So we didn't get as outdoor time hanging out around a campfire here liked we'd hoped. When the downpour started, we drove back to the Lake Crescent lodge, ate lunch on their covered patio and did the Marymere waterfalls hike.
As a Ranger for The Dyrt, I get products to test from time to time - at the LIttleton Horse Camp (and all through my week of Olympic National Park camping and hiking) I tested out the Women's OOMG Low Shoe from OOFOS.
I was excited to test out a pair of OOFOS, because their shoes are designed to relieve pressure and speed up the recovery process for your feet. I do a lot of hiking, and was planning to hike an average of 6-10 miles per day during my Olympics camping adventure.
OOFOS come in both flip flop / slide style and a full covered slip on shoe style. I picked the full covered shoe because I'm always cold when I'm camping and I hate having dirty feet in my tent and sleeping bag. I wasn't sure if I'd like the way they look on- but I'm not super stylish in the campground anyway, so I went with the black full shoe with white sole.
The biggest challenge I had with my OOFOS was getting my size right! I'm a 9-9.5 usually, and wear my running shoes a half size up in a 10. I mistakenly went with the 9 since I wasn't planning on wearing them with socks, and they were too small upon arrival. I had to send them back for the 10, and luckily I still got them the day before I left for my trip. (note: the return process was pretty easy, customer service actually called me back when I left a message, and I see now that OOFOS has added to their site that they recommend ordering up on half sizes)
What I loved (and learned) about camping with my OOFOS:
Fairholm is a picturesque campground on the edge of Lake Crescent in a very easily accessible part of Olympic National Park for weekend getaways from Seattle and local adventures in from Port Angeles. Because the lake is pretty and easy to get to, this camp ground is POPULAR.
There are 3 loops + walk in lakeside side, but the actual size of the camp ground is small. Sites are very small and right next to one another. There is no privacy and no feeling of being out in the woods. The convenience here during the crowded month is simply proximity to Lake Crescent.
All sites here are first come, but there is not an in/out or campground host system for any of the ONP campgrounds like I've experienced in other national parks. The only way to know if a site is opening is to drive around in circles and/or to simultaneously check the reservation board to see if anyone was leaving. It's a bit of a free for all and not a very relaxing 'in the woods experience'
Sites are all equipped with picnic tables and fire rings, and there are large bathrooms, running water, and even a camp store nearby. Fires were allowed in fire rings even though there is a summer burn ban in the park.
I'd probably give this campground a much higher score (like all the other reviews) if it during any other time of the year when it wasn't absolutely crazy.
If you arrive there during a busy time, an alternative is Littleton Horse Camp, an unmarked National Forest campground 4.4 miles just past Fairholm, turn right on the fireroad. This is where we moved to.
When I planned my Mirror Lake hike, this is where I thought I was going to camp as I assumed that this was an actual campground at the trailhead. It actually isn't that at all.
Mirror Lake trailhead is essentially parking along HWY 26 - there are about 20 spots and on a not very busy mid-week morning I waited about 15 minutes for a hiker to finish so I could get their parking spot. The hike is super popular (and it is gorgeous), so it is worth doing. You will need a recreation pass in advance for parking here (and you cannot buy one here, and there is no turn around, and you won't want to lose your place in the parking line to go and buy one, so make sure you have one in advance)
There are technically walk in "campsites" at Mirror Lake. These are essentially a few small cleared areas around the lake. There are no tables or fire-rings or toilets, or water (apart from the lake), so you'll need to carry everything in with you - which is a 1.7 uphill hike in.
The area is beautiful for camping, and going to sleep and waking up at the lake before the crowds descend is the biggest bonus.
If you want to do this hike early in the morning without the crowds, but aren't prepared for primitive walk-in camping, Camp Creek Campground is just a few miles down HWY 26.
Midway between Welches and Government Camp, I picked Camp Creek as a my Mt. Hood hiking base for the weekend because of it's proximity to access Mirror Lake for a morning hike for a true test of my new vivobarefoot hiking shoes (see below) Note: Mirror Lake does have its own primitive walk-in campsites.
The campground is 2 loops. The loop to the left includes the day use area, and the loop to the right is smaller and quieter. It was still pretty cold at this elevation end of May, so most other campers here were RVs and we had plenty to pick from without reservations (this will not be the case in the summer or holiday weekends). Site 10 was our pick, on the quieter loop with proximity to the bathroom and water pump and alongside the creek. The water pump is an adventure. Recommend to stop by the Safeway in Sandy en-route and carry in your own water.
Nearly all of the sites are huge, and all include picnic table and fire ring. The first site when you enter the campground on the left has a gorgeous stone fire place/chimney that remains from an old building (a tradeoff for the high traffic). There is one toilet in each loop, so there is a bit of a walk to the loo from some sites.
This campground is a good National Forest campground. What makes it great to me is its location right off of Hwy 26. You can easily access Government Camp for supplies, and it's super accessible for an early morning start on any of the Mt. Hood hikes that get really crowded. Mirror Lake has very very limited parking and it's a super popular hike, so this was a perfect solution.
As a Ranger for The Dyrt, I get products to test from time to time - on this trip to Camp Creek I tested a pair of VivoBarefoot Primus Trail SG barefoot hiking shoes. SG stand for the Soft Ground sole which I chose since I'm Oregon hiking in often in wet and muddy areas.
Testing these shoes at Camp Creek let me try out the Primus Trail both for practicality in the campground as well as in action on the trail at the nearby Mirror Lake and Tom Dick & Harry Peak.
I hike quite often, and mostly do so in my running shoes since I really dislike really bulky and heavy hiking boots. I'm always searching for a better option, and have tried barefoot running in the past, so when the opportunity presented itself to test out a pair of VivoBarefoot shoes, I didn't hesitate.
I had a hard time choosing which shoes, but decided on the Primus Trail SG because of the extra traction on the sole, and I wasn't disappointed. (There is a water version as well that looks great for a SUP/Hiking/Camping trifecta, and a full ankle boot for hiking that also look amazing)
I loved that the vivobarefoot shoes are so lightweight. It truly is like you aren't wearing shoes, yet the traction of the SG is amazing. I tested them to the max by climbing up boulders, rocky trails, and navigating log crossings.
Since I'm not a regular at hiking or running barefoot, I followed the beginner instructions online to make sure I didn't over do it and get injured. I wore the shoes around a few days to get used to them before the trip, and around the camp ground with no problem. Since I didn't have time to break them in on short hikes, I did the first half of my 7 mile hike in them, then switched into my normal running shoes- which felt so heavy afterwards. Since this first hike, I've added a mile or two each time before the shoe switch. The goal is that I'll be able to do a full 10 mile hike in them soon. I've found it easiest to get used to the front of the foot strike going up-hill.
I really loved is that these shoes fold up to almost nothing. You could literally store these hiking shoes in your purse (which is totally something I'd do). They fit in the waterbottle pocket of my day pack, and in the pocket of my travel hammock (a big campground win for summer hammock camping shoe storage).
Wearing them around the campground, my favorite part was that they are so low profile that I could put on and take off my bottom layer of sweatpants over my shorts without having to take off my shoes. This came in really handy since it was chilly when we arrived and I didn't have to waste time taking my shoes off and doing a full change before getting set up.
If you're a cold person like me, it is worth noting that the minimalist nature of these shoes aren't exactly designed to keep your feet warm. When I was moving I was fine, but sitting at the summit of my hike (where there were still patches of snow), my sock-less toes were pretty cold (I wasn't wearing socks).
Size-wise, I ordered by European size off of the size chart and the fit is pretty true on this style. They felt a little big in the toe box when I first tried them, but that's just because barefoot shoes give your toes more space. Now that I'm used to them, they feel perfect.
The only problem is that I really liked wearing them around the house, and now they're all dirty from hiking. I'm thinking about getting the Primus Lite Women's next :)
The Climbers Bivouac Campground is at the foot of the summer summit trailhead for Mt. St. Helens and predominately used for one night stays by summit hikers. Our group of nine spent the night here before our St Helens summit hike and I used the opportunity to test out 3 different Leatherman knives that I purchased with the $100 Leatherman gift card that I won in the Oregon summer camping contest.
All sites at Campers Bivouac are first come and there is no charge for camping. On the summer weekends you'll want to arrive by 3-4pm if you've got a big group and want to camp together.
At first glance the campground isn't very interesting at all--it's basically a trailhead parking lot with sites around and a few fire pits. Most groups seem to vie for the spots closest to the parking lot so they can pack in and out quickly (since the main feature is getting on the trail quickly in the morning). We opted to explore down some of the trails and found some much more interesting non-parking lot camping options with great hammocking trees and a much better site to hang out in for the evening.
There are pit toilets (that are busy in the morning when everyone is heading to the trail) and there is NO running water. Make sure you pack in enough water for all of your camping needs as well as for your climb the next day (3-4 liters per person minimum). The closest town is 15 miles of mountain road away.
Camping here is free-but you will need a NW Forest Pass, NP interagency pass, or 5$. To climb St Helens above the treeline you need a permit from the Mt St Helens Institute (these go on sale Feb 1 each year and sell out quickly)
Camping here for the night before the summit hike is highly recommended.
The Crater and the Skeletool are both single blade knives, while the the Juice is a multi-tool.
Here's how I used my different Leatherman knives and what I loved about camping (and hiking) with them:
I probably won't carry all 3 of my Leatherman on every trip, but I'll definitely be keeping one in my emergency kit and one in my car, and one with my camp gear for the future!
The campground at Ainsworth State park feels more like an RV parking lot than an exotic Columbia Gorge camping experience. The majority of the camground it rv hookups with just a few walk in tent sites. Yet, while the campground isn't impressive in itself, it is in an amazing location for exploring neighboring Eagle Creek and the rest of the gorge just steps away!
The parking for the tent sites is close to the walk in trail. There are only 6 tent sites and they can be reserved online so it is not easy to roll up to a free spot in hiking season.
The sites themselves are basic and offer much more privacy than your neighbors in the RV section of the park are getting. There is water near the tent site entrance. Toilets are a bit of a walk from the tent sites.
This site does take credit cards for campground registration.
Youre most likely to get a spot at nehalem if you reserve in advance-- of if you get lucky like we did and walk up right when someone passes by to say they are leaving their site early.
Nehalem SP is awesome because of its convenient location next to Manzanita and the campground is literally over the sand dune from the pacific.
its a crowded campground and feels more like a parking lot than a secluded nature experience and there are lots of RVs.
Each site has picnic tables and plugins and water access. The electric came in handy to charge my laptop :)
Bathrooms were far away from my site but there are great facilities and a nice playground. The best part is that you can walk over the dune and be on the coast to watch the sunset in 2 minutes from your tent!
The Old Mill RV Park feels much more like a trailer park than a costal campground, but they do allow tent camping. I wouldn't recommend it as a destination place to camp, but if everything at the coast is totally full this one will do in a pinch. It's perfectly fine for sleeping.
We used Old Mill as a jumping off point for Cape Lookout (because their campground was totally full) -- it's a 20 minute-ish drive away through rural farm land and gorgeous coast. It's also convenient for fishing and clamming in the Tilamook bay if you're bringing your own boat.
The Old Mill is right off of the 101 in Girabaldi--super convenient to the little downtown. The bathrooms are really far away from most sites. We drove when we went there.
There aren't exactly "sites" more of a really big field with picnic tables and markings. This did come in handy since we my friends had a boat trailer, and we were able to also park that in our "site".
All of the sites at saddle mountain are walk-in, and since there are only 10 of them I was super surprised that it was easy to get one on a Thursday afternoon at the start of a very busy summer weekend.
The campground is right at the trailhead of the hike and there is a lot of foot traffic since every hiker who undertakes this popular hike has to walk by. There are trees and shrubs that create a barrier between the sites and the trail, so even though everyone walks by it still feels private. All of the sites are walk in, you can't drive your car up and will have to carry your gear in a short ways.
Site #10 is less private and next to the road where you can park adjacent to the site. We thought about staying here at first, but it is also next to some shed that we thought was weird. All sites have a picnic table and firepit. There are pit toilets that are shared with the trailhead.
If you want to watch the sunrise of sunset from the top of saddle mountain this is a great place to hike. Be sure to bring your headlamp and shoes with great tread if you're walking in the dark. It's a pretty steep hike with lots of loose gravel.
The campground/hike is about 10 miles off of 26- and about 10 miles from the turn off to 101. If you want to camp in the woods in a not-rv park but still be close to Cannon Beach, this is a great option.
We wound up camping at Kelly's when all of Portland decided to escape the summer heat and every single campsite that took reservations on the coast was full--and it turned out to be a great option.
Kelly's does not have a campground in the woods feel--it has a camping at a marina feel because that'e exactly what you're doing. There are RV hookups and a dozen or so campsites. Most of the campsites are on the north end of the marina on a grassy area with trees where you can drive up to the site. There are also a few unmarked sites along the water on the south side of the marina by the boat ramp.
Every site has a fire pit and picnic table. There are separate bathrooms and showers for campers with a key code in addition to the marina bathrooms. Campers also have access to the main marina which has a giant fire pit and wifi. We opted to sit around the community fire at night in lieu of building our own.
Tent sites were $30 and we even managed to find a place to hang up the hammock on the sea wall posts.
Pretty standard campground in the Tilamook Forest. Sites have pretty good privacy and a number of them had a decent number of trees for hammocking. Camp hosts sell firewood for 5$. Bathrooms were close to sites and decent. The site was pretty quiet. There are ATV trails nearby so lots of dirt bikers in the camp.
We stayed at this campground after attending an event at the Smith Homestead which is on the adjacent property. It is very convenient, and right off of Highway 6 about half way between Portland and the coast. If you get a late start to the coast, it's a great site to stopever on your way.
The lower loop near the river is currently under construction and much of it was closed. There is a trailhead for the Willson River trail within the campground which makes for a great early morning hike.
Oxbow feels like it is in the middle of nowhere but it's easy to get to and practically within the city limits of Portland. Accessibility and quiet is why I chose it for a weekday beginning of the season camping adventure to air out my gear and try out my new Lily Trotters.
You can book sites online up to 24 hours in advance, or you can show up to camp one night at one of the few non-reservable first come sites. When I arrived the board read CAMPING FULL, but when I went to the campground I found it to be pretty empty. Check in time is 2pm and and sites are $22 (There are 67 sites). There are toilets in each loop and one block of showers for the whole campground. My site #31 was next to the toilets and therefore close to the water point and trash (good when the campground is empty, but may be a busy and loud location on the weekend). Each site has a table, fire ring, grill and hook to hang your food or trash. Most sites had good trees for hammocking! I also saw some sites designated for campers with disabilities.
Oxbow is well maintained with lots of picnic/day use areas, a beach and lots of nature trails (more for walking than hiking). Since it was the weekday I had most of the campground to myself--there were only a handful of other campers and some deer (when I left nearly all the sites had reserved signs for the upcoming weekend). On most weekend it seems to be the kind of place that would cater to families. There are strict no dogs and no alcohol policies (and lots of rules posted everywhere)
As a Ranger for The Dyrt, I get to test products. At Oxbow, I tested two pairs of compression socks from Lily Trotters: The Lily Trotters Om Denim and the Lily Trotters Candy Stripes Grey. (I give the compression socks 5 stars even though the campground only gets 4)
What I loved about camping with my Lily Trotters:
I will be definitely wearing my Lily Trotters for camping, hiking, traveling and under my fishing boots in the future!
I discovered this campground by accident when an avid camper/ bartender in Maui pointed me in this direction with a hand-drawn map (see photos) It was easily my favorite camping spot during my week in Maui.
The campground itself is nothing to speak of- it looks mostly like a big green field with sites designated by grills and parked cars. From the parking/grill area however, you could wander off the path and find sites right on the cliffs under big trees with picnic tables. As a hammock camper, I found a tree to sleep under towards the edge of the cliff with a view of the ocean from my bed--and I was able to watch the sunrise over the Pacific without even getting out of my sleeping bag!
Amenities at the campground are basic- but you get what you pay for. There is no fee to camp here for up to 3 days as long as you've paid the Haleakala NP entrance fee --which of course everyone who makes it to the end of the Hana highway does anyway!
There's plenty of hiking around the campground in the national park- the most popular is the Waimoku falls that you reach by hiking through the bamboo forest up the Pipiwai trail. Camping at Kipahulu means that you can hit the trail early before the resort /day visitors make it to this side of the island. The campground is also very close to the Seven Sacred Pools (which were more mud than sacred looking during our visit).
For sunset, there is an unmarked trail that begins in the South East corner of the campground and will take you up over the cliffs for a good evening view. You can also hike down to some pools to swim if the tide is low.
Note that this campground is pretty far away from the closest town so you'll want to be sure you're all stocked up on fuel, water, and all the things you need when you pass through Hana. There aren't any showers, but if you're driving back north, you can always pop into Waianapapana State Park and hit their outdoor shower.
Since the big resorts are on the opposite side of the island, most visitors to Maui travel the Hanna Highway as a day trip. Camping on the eastern shore along the highway at Waianapanapa State Park means you get to wake up early, watch the sunrise, and get a start on your day's adventures before the rest of Maui's visitors arrive for the day.
The location is the best thing that Waianapanapa has going for it. It's a pretty basic campground which looks more like a park set right along the coast. There's some small beach inlets you can explore, but it's mostly lava rock and cliff with the campground set up high.
You'll need a permit to camp. The cost is $18 per night for up to 6 people, and there is a discount if you're actually from Hawaii. You can get the permit online and you'll need to print it out and attach it to your tent once you arrive. The process is super easy but requires a little bit of pre-planning.
There aren't many (if any) actual sites- but there are a few grills scattered around that people tend to make camp around. We picked a "site" near a couple of trees so we could sleep in our hammocks of course. The campground does have bathrooms and cold outdoor showers.
My favorite part of camping at Waianapanapa was waking up in the morning to watch the colors of the sunrise and then exploring the park while it was still pretty quiet. There are blow holes, lava tubes, some caves you can swim in, and a hike up and around the coastal cliffs. And of course, there is everything else on the Hana highway just a super short drive away.
This is the best site location for non-group tent camping for an early morning or late evening summit of Ryan Mountain.
Unfortunately, I didn't do enough research when planning my trip to Ryan apart from getting excited about the proximity to the popular Joshua Tree Ryan Mountain hike. I was focused on getting up the hill as early as possible before the sun got too hot. Because the sites are first come, I didn't think I wouldn't have a problem because things aren't too full in the summer. Unfortunately, to my surprise, this campground is closed in the summer.
As an alternative next stop, tried Sheep Pass (which has a trail that connects to the Ryan Mtn trailhead) and quickly learned that this is a group only campground which requires reservation (and is also closed in the summer). Finally wound up at White Tank which is a bit further away, but still a great site and close enough to get to Ryan Mountain early in the day. It turned out to be a good summer alternative.
If you happen to be lucky enough to get a site at Ryan in the season when it is open, it's a "primitive campground", $15 per site, no water (you'll need a lot to drink if you're hiking Ryan Mtn in the sun as well as some to wash off the dust when you get to the bottom) and each site has a table and fire pit (which seems to be the standard across JT). I didn't get to check out the bathrooms, they were also closed.
A positive note for hammockers- this campground is further into the northwestern side of the park where the Joshua Trees become more dense, so you might get lucky and find a great spot in or near you site for hammocking. I found a great one!
The southern part of Joshua tree is the quieter end of the park (especially in the summer). We got up to watch the sunrise and didn't see another car for 2 HOURS.
The campground is sandy and dusty (as is the whole park since it's a desert), and each site has a concrete picnic table and a fire ring. Unlike most of Joshua Tree's campground, Cottonwood does have a water point (and flushing toilets)-- and it is just down the road from the Cottonwood Visitor Center (a very basic ranger station that also has bathrooms -- but no fancy gift shop of cafes like some other NPs)
Cottonwood is a great site if you are coming in from Palm Springs/Palm Desert/Coachella and you want to spend an incredible night under the stars. It's just 7 miles off of I-10, but there aren't any cities around so there isn't any distracting light in the sky. Also, because there aren't any cities around, bring whatever food and fuel you need. It's 40+ miles out of the park heading north to get gas, so make sure you get gas in Indio or Coachella when driving in.
Cottonwood is 20$ a night, (the other campgrounds without water are $15). During the summer sites are first come, and there were plenty to choose from -- There were only 3 other campers we saw there. Rumor is that this site is also last to fill up in the busy months because it is much further out of the way from the other campgrounds. Don't forget to fill up your water jugs before you leave if you're headed north deeper into the park.
If you want to make the Mastodon Peak hike (3 miles) or do the Lost Palms Oasis Trail (8 miles) this is best place to stay for an early morning start. I was lazy, and opted for a drive to the Cholla Cactus Garden, and a walk around the nature path.
There's not much privacy between sites since there aren't any trees -- and also no places to hang hammocks without some creativity.
Camping at White Tank during a Joshua Tree summer is a great location in the middle of the park (easy to get there from any of the 3 entrances) and perfectly positions you for some early morning hiking before the sun gets to hot.
The campground is set in the middle of a boulder field- very dusty and sandy--with no trees (sorry hammock campers). Some sites have more privacy than others and most are separated by big boulders. Each site has a concrete picnic table and a fire pit (some sites also have a grill). There is a pit toilet (which I compulsively checked for rattlesnakes (did't see any).
There is NO water access at all-- you will have to bring in all the water you need for drinking, cooking, washing. The closest places to buy food, gas, firewood, supplies are about 25 miles away. Bring more than you need.
A fun feature of this campground is that it is also the trail head to Arch Rock. The hike is very short, but it's fun to be able to see it at different times of the day and night, and to play around in the boulder field. We also did the Ryan Mountain hike from here and were glad to be able to get there early in the morning before it got too hot. Note--sites that are close to the Arch Rock trailhead get a lot of non-campground vehicle and foot traffic during the morning. If you want to sleep in, pick a site further from the trail head.
If you're planning to hang out in the campsite during the day, you'll want to pick a site where you'll have midday shade from the boulders.