Each winter, I wring my hands and sweat profusely trying to plan where exactly I'm going to camp with my children in the summer. I want to be near water. I want to be near mountains. I want the website to have a virtual-reality tour of that campsite so I can picture myself there, drinking beer and roasting hot dogs while my sons carve sticks into spears.
The choices in Pennsylvania are mind-boggling and the accommodations range from spartan, with pit toilets and no electricity, to "I don't do camping" campgrounds where you rent a cabin, sit by a pool, and play bingo at night.
I've been camping consistently since I was a teen and when the Philadelphia Inquirer sent me on the road to tell stories in rural Pennsylvania, I've gone camping even more. There are approximately 121 state parks in the Commonwealth, and the majority have camping. I'm a tent person. There are also campgrounds operated by electricity companies, the federal government, and hundreds more that are privately owned.
All told, I've been to 25 or 30 campgrounds in the state, so I'm not an expert, but if you're filled with dread at the thought of picking one, here are five I love.
Pound for pound, Ricketts Glen is the king because it has something for everyone – a lake for fishing, a beach with an ice cream stand, cabins for rent, tent and RV sites right on the water, and one of the most scenic trails in the state. It's located in Benton, spreads through Columbia, Luzerne, and Sullivan counties, and is about a 2.5 hour drive from Philadelphia. The Falls trail takes you past 21 waterfalls and will fulfill all your Instagram selfie fantasies. Please be careful. It's slippery.
If you want to rent a cabin at Ricketts Glen, it's probably too late. They're always in high demand in any park and Ricketts Glen gets crowded. The only thing Ricketts isn't perfect for is quiet seclusion, but it's still my go-to for "everything."
While not as big as Ricketts Glen, Worlds End also packs in a lot of scenery along the Loyalsock Creek, recently dubbed Pennsylvania's "river of the year." Cabins are available along the creek, though again, you have to make summer reservations for them far in advance. Tent and RV sites don't sit on the water, but the swimming area at Worlds End, carved out of the creek with a small beach and steep mountain wall in the foreground, more than makes up for it. I've sat staring at the mountain and the swimming hole for hours. Worlds End is near the town of Forskville, in Sullivan County, home to a covered bridge and, oddly, one of Pennsylvania's best cheesesteaks.
Worlds End, like Ricketts Glen, has several bathroom and shower facilities in the campground. There's a great, relatively short hike to the Loyalsock Canyon Vista from the campground. Or, you can drive up to it.
Worlds End is only about 30 miles away from Ricketts Glen. Make it a combo.
Raystown Lake is about a 3.5 hour drive west of Philadelphia, in Huntingdon County. It's the biggest lake in Pennsylvania and popular with boaters and fisherman. Lake Raystown Resort is the perfect place to camp if you don't think you like camping because the accommodations range from tent sites and yurts, to cabins and hotel rooms. The resort has a beach, arcade, small water park, and once we ate a spaghetti dinner on the deck of the Proud Mary showboat during a sunset cruise.
Lake Raystown Resort is one of many campgrounds listed in the Pennsylvania Campground Owners Association's directory. Most are very kid-friendly.
One November night, I pitched a tent in Kettle Creek State Park, about 240 miles from Philly, in the wilds of Clinton County. I was the only person there to enjoy the jaw-dropping vista and fall foliage, the only person who heard what I hope were just bobcats screaming in the woods.
One camp site there sits along the creek while another, where I stayed, sits high above Kettle Creek Reservoir. While it would undoubtedly be more crowded in the summer, Kettle Creek is probably never too jammed.
You could see bear, otter, even Pennsylvania's rare elk herd.
Cherry Springs State Park is in Potter County, known as "God's Country," but this little park about 250 miles northwest of Philly is known all over the United States for one thing. It's dark. Potter County is far from everywhere and relatively untouched by "light pollution." That makes it one of best places in the country to stargaze and see the Milky Way. That's what drew me there.
The campground is no-frills, mostly just a big, empty field, but again you go there to look upward. The campground was near-empty when we went one summer night, but crowds are dependent on astronomy and the lunar cycle. If there's no moon on a clear night, you'll see the heavens.
The astronomy observation field, across from the campground, is often more crowded, filled with telescopes that likely cost more than your car.