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The Lowdown on Dispersed Camping: How and Where to Camp for Free in the US

11/6/17 by Ryan Wichelns

The Great American Road Trip is only as great as the places you spend the night along the way. While some stores will let you spend the night in their parking lots, there are plenty of free (!) campsites out there that rival the most scenic wilderness backpacking destinations. The best part? Instead of hiking for miles into untouched woods or mountains in search of alpine views or wildlife encounters, you just drive down a rough dirt road, park your car, and pitch your tent only feet away. Don’t get us wrong—backpacking makes for an amazing adventure, but it’s nearly impossible to beat the effort-to-scenery ratio you’ll find in dispersed camping.

What is "dispersed" camping?

There are tons are dispersed camping sites around the United States, with a high concentration out West.
    Lauren Danilek
There are tons are dispersed camping sites around the United States, with a high concentration out West. Lauren Danilek

The United States is peppered with federally-owned land, comprising roughly 28 percent of the entire country (and about half is in the West). Some of that consists of national parks and monuments, but it also includes lands a little lower on the totem pole like Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas or national forests. The latter make up the bulk of the federal land, but they aren’t subject to the same strict rules and regulations as more popular, established campsites. Dirt roads crisscross these places and camping it’s as easy as finding a spot.

"Dispersed" camping is the government’s way of categorizing camping that’s anywhere outside of an established campground. In a lot of land across the country, it’s free and accessible, making it the accommodation of choice for road-trippers, van-lifers, RVers, and anyone in search of good camping on a budget.

Campsites range from simple pull-offs to sites tucked further away, but most are centered around the rugged, dirt roads that wind through national forest land. In some places, high-clearance or four-wheel drive vehicles are necessary, but others are accessible by big, lumbering RVs. Most spots let campers stay for a maximum of 14 days in any 30-day period, but pay attention to the regulations of your specific campsite and the federal land that houses it.

Don’t expect luxury here—the trade off in price comes with a lack of facilities like bathrooms, showers, and even potable water in most places. Similar to wilderness campsites, you’ll need to be self-sufficient, but you’ll have the solitude, remoteness, and scenery that it usually requires a backpacking endeavor, but you’ll be mere feet from your car.

Where can I find the best campsites?

Just find a spot and park your vehicle!
    Jenna Herzog
Just find a spot and park your vehicle! Jenna Herzog

There are loads of campsites dotting the country, which means there are hidden gems all over. Check out Google maps before you head out, call the closest ranger station near your destination to find a decent area for camping, or check out our list of some of the best dispersed camping areas around the United States to help you get started.

Pacific Northwest

Bridge of the Gods Boulders Camp (Stevenson, WA)

This collection of sites surrounds a local bouldering hotspot, so bring your climbing shoes. Tucked among towering hardwoods, you’re also within hiking distance of Table Mountain and the Columbia River. You can find more information on the bouldering and camping area here.

Campbell Tree Grove (Olympic National Forest, Quinault, WA)

Set up next to the West Fork Humptulips River in this temperate rainforest, the site is a perfect home base for exploring the southwest side of Olympic National Park. The spots are first come-first served from late May until November 1, or set up elsewhere in the forest (just make sure you know the rules!).

The Sierra

Alabama Hills (BLM Land, Lone Pine, California)

The Alabama Hills is a popular spot for dispersed camping in the Sierra.
The Alabama Hills is a popular spot for dispersed camping in the Sierra. Justin Meissen

Anyone driving to the trailhead for a climb of Mount Whitney passes through these rocky hills, but take a short drive down Movie Flat Road and you’ll be in the thick of boulders and wild-looking crags—each hiding private campsites with views straight to the top of the Lower 48.

The Southwest

Grandview (Kaibab National Forest, Arizona)

Most of Grand Canyon National Park’s southern boundary abuts Kaibab National Forest, making free camping way more accessible and quiet than you would think, especially being so close to a major tourist hotspot! The best one is almost right across the road from Grandview Point which means the drive for sunrise or sunset from the rim is just minutes away (just make sure you stay at least 0.25 miles off Highway 64). Call the Tusayan Ranger District at (928) 638-2443 for information.

Loy Butte Road/FR-525 (Coconino National Forest, Sedona, Arizona)

You won’t even have to leave the bright red rocks as you wind away from downtown Sedona to a plethora of secluded campsites among the hills. You might even be woken up by hot air balloons—pilots like to use this open area as a landing zone. Make sure you know the full list of rules and regulations for dispersed camping in the Coconino National Forest before you go.

The Rockies

Blankenship Bridge (Flathead National Forest, Montana)

Just minutes outside Glacier National Park, roll right out onto the gravel riverbank of the spectacular Middle Fork of the Flathead River and spend the night on the beach listening to the water rushing by. There are several campsites as well as plenty of areas perfect for dispersed camping along the Middle Fork.

Shadow Mountain Road/FR-30340 (Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming)

Who wouldn’t want to wake up to views of the jagged Tetons?
Who wouldn’t want to wake up to views of the jagged Tetons? Nick Kramer

Weave behind the Elk Refuge and take the rough dirt road up the hillside to one of the best campsites in the Tetons, period. Pull-offs sit on the grassy hillside with views of Jackson Hole, the valley and of course the Tetons behind.

The Midwest

Green Road (Lake Michigan Recreation Area, Michigan)

Campsites in the recreation area are tucked among the ferns, but are only a short walk from the lakeshore, sand dunes, and cozy beaches that dot the coast. Wherever you camp, the state of Michigan requires you to post a Camp Registration Card. Get more information here.

The Northeast

Haystack Road/FR 304 (White Mountain National Forest, Twin Mountain, New Hampshire)

The Northeast is pretty sparing for national forest land, but close to the White Mountains are spacious campsites that are well off the main road and even have fire pits. Camping is only allowed on certain sections along Haystack Road/FR 304, so check the White Mountain National Forest Backcountry Camping Rules for specifics.

The Southeast

Yellow Gap (Pisgah National Forest, Asheville, North Carolina)

Beat the Southern heat at these sites tucked along a quiet mountain creek. This one even comes with flat tent platforms for you to set up on. There are more than 50 camping spots throughout the forest, so it’s easy to find one to use as a homebase for a weekend of hiking and mountain biking.

Editor’s note: Because these camping spots are so easily accessible, appropriate stewardship is especially important. We’ve all encountered dispersed campsites littered with beer cans or, worse, toilet paper. Always clean up after yourself, pack out your garbage, dispose of human waste correctly and strive to set a good example. Visit Leave No Trace to learn more about treading lightly in the outdoors.

Originally written by RootsRated for Marmot.