While most people plan camping trips around summer, fall is an underrated season to pitch a tent or pull the RV into a wooded oasis. There are significantly fewer bugs, the competition for coveted campsites has dwindled and you can enjoy the great outdoors sans air conditioning without breaking into a sweat.
It’s a well-kept secret that active-duty military can camp free at 300 RV parks and campgrounds around the country through Tents for Troops, a nationwide “pay-it -forward” program that grants a minimum of two nights free for service members and their immediate families.
To take advantage of the deal, you must make a reservation in advance and show a military ID at check-in.
Active-duty military members are also eligible for free entrance to National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands year-round with an annual America The Beautiful Pass. Find a campground near an attraction in the National Parks System, and you’ll have the perfect budget-friendly autumn getaway for the family.
If you’re on the hunt for the best views of fall foliage, we’ve compiled bucket-list, leaf-peeping destinations that offer free camping for active-duty military through Tents for Troops.
Captain’s Cove Resort: Gresham, Wisconsin
The Great Lakes Region is a hidden gem for fall colors. It offers miles of scenic coastline lined with trees that turn amber, red and purple when the temperatures start to dip. It’s the closest you’ll get to New England colors in middle America.
Captain’s Cove Resort is a large, year-round campground in Wisconsin with more than 175 sites. It sits on a 40-acre private body of water called Island Lake. There are canoes, row boats and paddle boats available for rental; a nature trail; a mini-golf course; an onsite bar and restaurant; and an indoor pool and hot tub.
The central location is just one hour away from Green Bay, Appleton and Wausau. It’s also a short trek from one of the best fall drives in the country, the 66-mile Door County Coastal Byway. The popular getaway sits on a peninsula in Lake Michigan packed with apple orchards, wineries and cozy restaurants. The fall colors are predicted to peak in the first week of October.
Bear Cove Village: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
This all-season resort is the perfect fall destination for military families. It’s only a mile from Dollywood and about an hour away from Clingman’s Dome, a tower that boasts the best view of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Bear Cove Village Resort is located in a wooded area with semi-private sites that offer breathtaking views of the leaves changing, plus the comforts of home. There is a camp store, two family friendly pools, a private fishing pond and a playground.
More than 100 species of trees grow in the Smoky Mountains. Leaves start changing in the higher elevations as early as mid-September. Peak colors in the mid to lower elevations typically show sometime in the middle of October to early November.
Pumpkin Patch RV Resort: Hermon, Maine
This campsite’s name makes it clear why it’s an ideal spot to enjoy the iconic New England fall colors in a tent or RV. While the campground isn’t actually a pumpkin patch, it has 85 shaded sites, a community center and a dog-exercise area. The 2022 season is open until Oct. 15.
Pumpkin Patch RV Resort is about an hour’s drive to Acadia National Park, the crown jewel of America’s autumn season. Several orchards, corn mazes and pumpkin patches are also located near the campground. The second week of October is the best time to see the fall colors in this part of Maine.
RV loaner program for camping
Suppose the cool temperatures make you nervous about sleeping on the ground. In that case, Tents for Troops also has an RV loaner program available for stationary rent at select campgrounds. To rent a camper, you must sign a liability disclaimer and pay a $35 nonrefundable deposit. The rentals are available thanks to a donation from Thor Industries, which gifted nine 2019 travel trailers to the program.
Reservations for both the RV loaner program and Tents for Troops are mandatory. Campers should reach out directly to the campgrounds to coordinate their visit. Some campgrounds may be fully booked, and some do not offer the Tents for Troops program on select dates, so it’s essential to contact the site well before you wish to book a reservation for camping.