RobertAnnis
    AUG 2 2022    
11 (+1) of the Best Free Campsites in America

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I was a few miles south of Wall, South Dakota, when I finally saw the line of campers perched perilously close to a cliff ledge. After nearly two days of nonstop driving, I’d finally reached my destination, Nomad View in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands (https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/nebraska/recarea/?recid=30329).  


Gnarled rock formations rise above the low plains, the remnants of geological instability 65 million years ago and continuing erosion ever since. On this unseasonably warm October afternoon, I was dodging massive potholes in the dirt road to seek one of the prized pullouts atop these cliffs, offering views for miles. That evening, as I sat outside my own van watching the day slowly fade into twilight, a small group of bighorn sheep ambled up to the edge of the cliff, about 50 yards away from me. Properly socially distanced, we watched the sunset together.  


The popular hashtag reads #outsideisfree, but if you like to camp, it can get pricey pretty quickly. Popular RV parks can charge $60 a night or more, shoehorning campers tightly together like Teva-clad sardines. But if you’re willing to roll the dice – none of these spots offer reservations – and don’t mind often forgoing amenities like bathrooms or picnic tables, you can find free campsites throughout much of the country, some in absolutely spectacular areas. It may be free to camp at these spots, but the views are often priceless.

 

Nomad View (https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/nebraska/recreation/recarea/?recid=30329) 

Buffalo Gap National Grasslands 

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You’re not likely to find complete solitude at the top of these cliffs, but campers typically spread out and don’t bother their neighbors. The short dirt and gravel road leading to the most prized spots is filled with ruts and potholes, possibly giving visitors a taste of what the pioneers experienced in the 1800’s. Although Buffalo Gap offers some recreational opportunities like hiking, biking, and horseback riding, most visitors head toward nearby Badlands National Park to take in its impressive scenery. Badlands’ west entrance gate is only about a mile from Nomad View.


Several hours north of the Badlands, Scoria Pit in the Little Missouri National Grasslands (https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/dpg/recarea/?recid=79469) offers a very similar vibe just outside of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. If you’re planning to spend a day or less at either national park, these spots offer better views than the park’s campgrounds with no fee.



Upper Teton View – Toppings Lake Dispersed Camping

(https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/btnf/home)

Bridger-Teton National Forest



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Grand Teton National Park has one of the most stunning backdrops of any natural area in the world, so getting that view for free from a hilltop camping area is pretty awesome. I was shocked that each of the supposed dispersed sites had at least a fire ring and bear box. (It’s bear country, so lock up that food!) You’ll need to get there in the early afternoon at the latest in order to snag one of the prime viewing sites, but it’s worth it as the sun sets and the mountains are awash in yellows, oranges, and purples. Cell signal was pretty decent, so feel free to text photos to your friends and family to make them jealous.


Sugar Hill Fire Tower (https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/37446.html)

Sugar Hill State Forest


Unfortunately, due to a lesser supply of federally owned wilderness, finding free camping east of the Mississippi can sometimes be a difficult task. This state-owned spot in New York’s Sugar Hill State Forest is a nine-acre open field surrounded by lush forest. Park and camp almost anywhere – you must be at least 150 feet away from the nearest road, trail, or body of water – and if you’re lucky, you might be able to snag one of the few spots with fire rings and picnic tables. There are water spigots and flush toilets if you’re traveling with a companion averse to roughing it. Hikers will especially love the proximity to the Six Nations and Finger Lakes hiking trails.


Ant Canyon Dispersed Camping (https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/sequoia/recarea/?recid=79631)

Sequoia National Forest


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Sequoia National Park was packed when I visited during fall, but neighboring Sequoia National Forest was blissfully more quiet. Keep an eye out for an easy-to-miss sign, otherwise you might end up at one of the pay campgrounds along the Kern River. The national park might have all the famous sequoias, but I didn’t mind being surrounded by the more common firs and pines. You do need a fire permit if you plan to have a campfire. 


Government Wash (https://www.nps.gov/lake/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm)

Lake Mead National Recreation Area


Don’t get scared off by the “no target shooting” signs; Government Wash is one of the quieter spots along Lake Mead, ideal for boaters or campers who just want to relax and stare at the water. (Others, like Kingsman Wash, are renowned for being party hubs.) Both RVers and tent campers can set up within 100 feet of the water. The area is huge, so people can spread out and still have distance from other campers. Unfortunately, some visitors don’t feel the need to pack out their trash, leaving their camp areas looking, well, trashy. Bring extra Hefty bags, just in case. Lake Mead National Recreation Area does charge a $25 entry fee, but it’s waived if you have an America the Beautiful (national park) pass.


Max Patch (https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/nfsnc/recarea/?recid=48620)

Pisgah National Forest


A popular spot on the Appalachian Trail, the bald atop Max Patch offers gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains. Camping on the bald itself is no longer allowed due to the probability of high winds and lightning strikes during inclement weather, but there are plenty of dispersed sites along nearby Cold Springs Road. Not only is the hiking great – it is on the Appalachian Trail – but the tough gravel climb is also a favorite of in-the-know cyclists. 


The Main Drag 525 (https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/coconino/home/?cid=stelprdb5313448)

Coconino National Forest


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The asphalt road turning off Highway 89A quickly turns into gravel, but don’t let that discourage you; the further you drive along Forest Road 525, the better the scenery gets. You won’t see iconic Sedona mountains like Cathedral Rock, but you can camp underneath beautiful, less known red-rock foothills that most tourists never experience. As an added bonus, Arizona’s best mountain biking is just a few pedal strokes away. Don’t expect many amenities beyond a firepit. 



Middle Fork Flathead River Dispersed (https://www.fs.usda.gov/activity/flathead/recreation/camping-cabins)

Flathead National Forest


This is a very popular boondocking spot for visitors to nearby Glacier National Park, and it’s easy to see why. This long stretch of forested land near the Flathead River offers gorgeous views of the water and enough room for campers to spread out for some solitude. If you love to fish, paddle, or just relax in front of water with a book, this is your place. The beach is covered in rocks, not sand, so it can be a little uncomfortable for tent campers want a lapping water lullaby. 



18 Road

(https://www.blm.gov/visit/18-road-north-fruita-desert)

Colorado National Monument   


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Perhaps my favorite place to camp in Colorado, and that’s saying something. The go-to site for mountain bikers for years, 18 Road’s main camping area recently became a paid site with the usual amenities that come with it. Luckily for us cheapskates, there are still plenty of free dispersed options throughout the area. In addition to the miles of stellar singletrack, you’ll also find lots and lots of ATV trails nearby. It can get pretty busy depending on the season, so have a backup plan if it’s packed. 



Mount Ashland Campground (https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/klamath/recarea/?recid=13059)

Klamath National Forest


This nine-site, high-elevation campground has it all – abundant outdoor opportunities, basic amenities, and spectacular views of both nearby Mount Shasta and the surrounding meadows teaming with wildlife, and in the right season, colorful wildflowers. The campground runs adjacent to the Pacific Crest Trail, perfect for day hikes, and is only a mile away from mountain-bike singletrack at a nearby ski area.



Wrinkled Rock Climbing Area

(https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/blackhills/recreation/recarea/?recid=30342)

Black Hills National Forest   


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Just outside of Mount Rushmore, this camping area is populated mostly by rock climbers wanting to test themselves and families testing each other patience. (Mostly the former.) This is primarily a tent-camping spot, but I slept in my camper van with no issues; bigger RVs need not apply. This area is at its peak in the fall, when you’re surrounded by golden cottonwoods.



If you want to find free camping on your next trip and you’re not near any of these spots, I’d recommend checking out the AllStays and Campendium apps, as well as freecampsites.net. Between the three of them, I rarely have to pay for a campsite when I don’t want to.

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