Each winter, I wring my hands and sweat profusely trying to plan where 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 the 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 since The 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.

Ricketts Glen State Park

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 in Benton, spreads through Columbia, Luzerne, and Sullivan Counties, and is about a 2½-hour drive from Philadelphia. The falls trail takes you past 21 waterfalls and will fulfill all your Instagram selfie fantasies. But 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.”

Ganoga Falls cascades 94 feet among pines, hemlocks, and oaks in Ricketts Glen State Park.
Carolyn Kaster / AP File
Ganoga Falls cascades 94 feet among pines, hemlocks, and oaks in Ricketts Glen State Park.

Worlds End State Park

Though 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 aren’t 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 from Ricketts Glen, so you could make it a combo.

Lake Raystown Resort

Raystown Lake is about a 3½-hour drive west of Philadelphia, in Huntingdon County. It’s the biggest lake in Pennsylvania and is popular with boaters and anglers. Lake Raystown Resort is an ideal place to camp if you think you don’t 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 we once ate a spaghetti dinner on the deck of the Proud Mary showboat during a sunset cruise.

Raystown Lake.
File Photograph
Raystown Lake.

Lake Raystown Resort is one of many campgrounds listed in the Pennsylvania Campground Owners Association directory. Most are very kid-friendly.

Kettle Creek State Park

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 campsite there sits along the creek; another, where I stayed, is high above Kettle Creek Reservoir. Though it would undoubtedly be more crowded in summer, Kettle Creek is probably never too jammed.

You could see bear, otter, even Pennsylvania’s rare elk herd.

Cherry Springs State Park

Cherry Springs State Park is in Potter County, known as “God’s Country," but this little park about 250 miles northwest of Philly is famed 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.

Ari Bach (left) and Aaron Schaefer, both from Washington, observe the Milky Way in one of the darkest places east of the Mississippi, Cherry Springs State Park in the remote big woods of Pennsylvania's Potter County.
David Swanson / File Photograph
Ari Bach (left) and Aaron Schaefer, both from Washington, observe the Milky Way in one of the darkest places east of the Mississippi, Cherry Springs State Park in the remote big woods of Pennsylvania's Potter County.

The campground is no-frills, mostly just a big, empty field, but you go there to look upward. The campground was nearly 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.