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Tent Camping: Top 5 Budget-Friendly Campgrounds in the Ozarks

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user-avatarLyzaHayn/06-18-2022
budget campingfree campingcampingcamping guidecamping spotscamping tips

Ready to hit the great outdoors? The Ozarks are calling your name. But planning a trip can get expensive, and you don’t want your fun to break the bank. Luckily, this region has plenty of cheap and free campgrounds to enjoy. If that sounds like your cup of tea, check out my favorite spots for all the adventure you crave at a fraction of the price. 

The top 5 budget-friendly campgrounds in the Ozarks are:

  1. Erbie Campground
  2. Sam’s Throne Campground
  3. Gunner Pool Campground 
  4. South Maumee Campground
  5. Hercules Tower Trailhead Campground


Of course, there’s more to planning your trip than just knowing about a campsite. You want to come in fully prepared for your Ozark adventure. Read on to discover more about logistics, amenities, and fun things to do around each of my favorite sites. Plus, get some insider tips on how to make your visit one for the history books! 

1. Erbie Campground

Swimming in the Buffalo River is one of the top activities to enjoy at at Erbie Campground

Price: Free | Open: Year-Round | Campsites: 19 Total

Run by the National Park Service, Erbie Campground is one of those hidden gems you have to see to believe. Situated on the banks of the beautiful Buffalo River, the campground is named after the early settlers’ community of Erbie that once thrived here. If you want a little taste of history nestled between big rock bluffs and miles of hiking trails, this is the place for you. 

Getting There

GPS Coordinates: 36.0800929, -93.2342205

Getting to Erbie Campground is an adventure in and of itself. Located just north of Jasper near the Arkansas Grand Canyon, you’ll need to drive down dirt roads for about half an hour to arrive. While you don’t need four-wheel drive to conquer this road, be mindful that the grade is steep and some turns are completely blind. 

It can be challenging if you aren’t accustomed to the road conditions, but that’s just part of the adventure. Take Highway 7 northbound out of Jasper, and drive about three miles. You’ll then turn left onto County Road 79, driving around six miles until you reach Erbie Campground on the right. 

Camping Conditions

Best Time to Visit: Summer/Fall

The conditions at Erbie are much like those you would find at a paid campsite. Neatly trimmed grass and pleasantly-shaded sites are the norm here, and there are two clean vault toilets servicing the area. Each campsite is equipped with a picnic table, a grated fire ring, and a lantern hook. All in all, the sites are flat, well-maintained, and spaced far enough apart to offer a bit of privacy. 

There are 21 campsites in total, with 14 being drive-in sites and two being walk-in access only. These are all available on a first-come, first-served basis. The five remaining sites are designated for groups, with 2,3, and 4 being reservable and group sites 1 and 5 available to whoever nabs them first. To reserve a group site, call the Tyler Bend Visitor Center at (870) 439-2502 at least 5 days before you arrive. 

You won’t find any electric hookups, showers, or potable water here. This lack of amenities combined with the difficult drive in causes many RV campers to avoid Erbie altogether. This is wise if you’re in an RV over 30 feet long, but those in shorter RVs and pop-ups can brave the elements to find a bit of paradise at the end of the road.  

Things to Do

One of the main reasons Erbie is such a great site is because of its proximity to nearby attractions. You’ll be able to walk from your campsite right to the crystal-clear waters of the famous Buffalo River for some swimming, or take a hike on the Buffalo River Trail that runs through the campground. 

This 37-mile-long trail is one of astounding beauty and enchantment. It’s no easy trek, so expect to run into steep slopes and narrow ledges along the way. However, it does offer shade and serenity. You can reach the eastern section of the trail from the parking area by the water, or head west on the trailhead located between sites #9 and #10. 

The campground is also within walking distance to the ghost town of Erbie, which still stands to this day and undergoes regular renovations from the park service. It’s just a short jaunt from the campground, offering a hands-on taste of Arkansas history. You’ll be surprised at the amount of access you get to the town— there is no attendant on duty, so you can go exploring anytime. 

The town of Erbie is also the starting point for a number of pleasant hiking trails that spider away from it through the woods. The best of these is Cecil Creek Trail, which hosts another hidden gem of the Ozarks: Broadhollow Falls. The trail begins at the base of the old church-house in Erbie, and it takes just half a mile of hiking before you reach the falls.  

2. Sam’s Throne Campground 

The views from Sam's Throne are a sight to behold no matter the season

Price: Free | Open: Year-Round | Campsites: 10 Total

Perched high atop the Ozark bluffs, Sam’s Throne Recreation Area is a destination widely renowned for rock-climbing, hiking, and nature photography. The stunning vistas alone are reason enough to visit, but campers will also fall in love with the challenging hikes and one-of-a-kind scenery. 

Getting There

GPS Coordinates: 35.87903100003879, -93.04510800002174

Unlike Erbie Campground, Sam’s Throne Recreation Area is easy to get to. Located off Highway 123 near Mt. Judea, Arkansas, it’s just a few hundred yards off the blacktop. This makes it widely accessible to many types of campers, including those with pop-up trailers or camper vans. 

Keep in mind that Highway 123 is long, winding, crooked, and very steep. Even though it’s paved, RVs over 30 feet long will likely have trouble on some of the turns and switchbacks. From Mt. Judea, head south on Highway 123 for around 4.5 miles. You’ll see a USDA Forest Service sign at the entrance of the campground on the lefthand side of the road. 

Camping Conditions

Best Time to Visit: Winter/Spring

Conditions at Sam’s Throne are pretty standard for a free campsite. It has 10 designated sites, all available on a first-come, first-served basis. There is no running water or electricity available, but all of the sites have fire rings and picnic tables. Since Mt. Judea is a small town and lacking in supplies, it’s smart to stock up on food and water beforehand in Ponca or Jasper.

Campsites in Sam’s Throne are well-maintained with a vault toilet complex to serve them all, but some of them are a bit too close for comfort. If your main focus is the recreational opportunities, this won’t matter as much. But if you’re looking for seclusion and solitude, you’ll need to arrive early to snag a prime spot. 

This destination is a Mecca of sorts for rock climbers and can get crowded during the season. This means it’s a better weekday destination, and camping in the winter or spring will yield more privacy than summer and fall. It’s worth noting that while there are ten designated sites, you can pitch a tent in several clearings off the main loop as well. It just depends on availability. 

Things to Do

The best thing about Sam’s Throne is the spectacular views. I can’t stress this enough—there’s nothing like it around. Sitting high atop Mt. Judea itself, Sam’s Throne overlooks Big Creek Valley and the rolling Ozark hills that make this region so famous. The red Atoka sandstone glimmers with an infusion of colors no matter the season, though many stress the best views are to be had in autumn. 

From the campsite, you’ll be able to take a short walk down to the throne itself to access hiking trails and rock-climbing routes. The trails here can be challenging, with a steep walk down to Big Creek Valley and an even tougher climb back up to the top. There is a 3.5-mile loop accessible through an old forest road along the bluff-line, and a shorter 1-mile route available as well. 

Rock-climbing routes are varied. You’ll find something for every level here, from short bouldering routes to hardcore challenges of over 75 feet in elevation. Even if you don’t have any climbing equipment, you can still get in on the action with a few smaller boulders—just be careful where you place your feet!

3. Gunner Pool Campground

Camping out on the peaceful shores of Gunner Pool

Price: $10/Night | Open: Year-Round | Campsites: 27 Total

Located below the steep ravines of the North Sylamore Creek Valley, the Gunner Pool Recreation Area lies hidden in plain sight for all who dare to make the drive. Here you’ll find abundant shade from massive old-growth Ozark forests and deep turquoise waters brimming with fish. The campground costs $10 a night, which is probably a disappointment to those hoping for another freebie—but I can assure you, Gunner Pool is worth it.

Getting There

GPS Coordinates: 35.99490149437982, -92.2127161713262

Getting to Gunner Pool can be a bit confusing, and you’ll be a sad camper if you believe everything you see on Google Maps. If you’re coming from Mountain View in the south, you shouldn’t have any issue—just head out along Highway 87 north and go 10 miles until you reach Highway 14, where you’ll take a left. From there, go about 2.5 miles, then you’ll see a sign for Gunner Pool on your right. You’ll drive down a forest road for about 3 miles until you hit pay dirt. 

If you’re coming from Mountain Home or Calico Rock in the north, make sure not to approach from Highway 5. Google will try and take you through Gunner Pool Road the long way. While you can technically reach the recreation area through here, the steep dirt roads, wash-outs, and fallen rocks will slow you down to a crawl. It will take you hours drive just a few miles, so be mindful to approach the pool itself from Highway 14 no matter where you’re coming from. 

Camping Conditions

Best Time to Visit: Summer/Fall

Conditions at Gunner Pool Campground are pretty sweet. There are 27 sites in total with 1-25 being drive-in and 26-28 being hike-in access only—although the “hike” is about 50 yards away from the day-use parking lot. All the sites are nice and shady, each with its own campfire, grilling grate, lantern hook, picnic table, and tent pad. 

You’ll notice a pay station when you drive in, so you can read instructions on how to pick your site and pay up. Make sure to bring cash with you, as there is no card machine at camp. There won’t be any attendant on duty either, but park rangers do occasionally come down to sniff around and check things out. It’s very relaxed. 

Most people gravitate towards the lower level where the main swimming area is, at sites 20-24. I usually seek out sites 16 or 17. They’re right next to the water, but they’re above the dam away from the main area. This way, you can get a bit of privacy and your own secluded swimming pool. No matter where you choose to camp, you’ll have access to restrooms, a trash dump, and potable water during the summertime. Outside of summer the water is turned off, so wintertime campers must bring their own supply.

RV campers should be warned that this is not an RV-friendly access point. You can get away with a camper van or a pop-up trailer, but a full-size RV won’t make it down the road with so many switchbacks. However, you can camp along the road leading to the campground itself. There are many pull-out spots for RVs to stop, though you won’t get any amenities and you’ll need to hike down a way to the pool. 

Things to Do

As you may have guessed, swimming in Gunner Pool is a big draw here. The main swimming area is located at the back of the campground and as you drive around the loop, you’ll notice a dirt road snaking off to your right before you hit the bridge. 

Your first instinct (especially if you don’t have four-wheel drive) will be to avoid that road, but take it anyway. It looks rougher than it really is, and you’ll make it no problem in a car. Of course, you can always walk down there as well, but make sure to bring your swimsuit—these crystalline waters will call you like a siren. 

Gigantic bluffs line the pool while large trees provide shade from the gravel shore. It’s all incredibly serene and relaxed, especially if you go in the evening or during the week when there won’t be so many people. But don’t limit yourself to the main swimming area. There are over 14 miles of Sylamore Creek to discover, each twist and turn offering gigantic boulders, bluffs, and caves to explore. 

The North Sylamore Creek Trail runs through the Gunner Pool Recreation Area, and it’s one of the most beautiful hikes in the Ozarks. The 22-mile trail is shaded throughout its length but steep and rocky at times. It takes you both creekside and blufftop, offering amazing views and the chance to see native wildflowers and various forest creatures as you hike. 

4. Hercules Tower Trailhead Campground

Snag a peacefully wooded campsite at Hercules Tower Trailhead

Price: Free | Open: Year-Round | Campsites: 5 Total

It wouldn’t be a trip to the Ozarks without a foray through the Mark Twain National Forest in southern Missouri. Encompassing over 1.5 million acres of pristine natural paradise, exploring the Mark Twain will take some time. But luckily, you can experience all the highlights of this fantastic forest as you camp out at the Hercules Tower Trailhead. 

Getting There

GPS Coordinates: 36.68553516399882, -92.88243346931304

Getting to the Hercules Tower Trailhead is pretty straightforward. From Bradleyville, Missouri, take Highway 125 South for around 9.5 miles. You’ll turn right on the Hercules Fire Tower Trail Road, traveling for only a moment before reaching the campground loop. If you’re approaching from southerly Rueter, you’ll need to take Highway 125 north for 7 miles to reach the turn-off. 

Highway 125 is the only road you can take to reach the campground, and it gets rural quickly. Fuel up with gas, food, and water at the Fillin’ Station in Bradleyville on the northern side, and don’t forget to try some of their homemade biscuits and gravy before you leave. Rueter doesn’t have any stores, so those traveling from the south should stop beforehand in Gainesville or Theodosia.  

Camping Conditions

Best Time to Visit: Fall/Winter

Camping at the Hercules Tower Trailhead is a no-frills, free-of-charge way to experience the Missouri Ozarks. As you drive in, you’ll catch sight of the fire tower quickly, and under that you’ll see the vault toilet which services the campground. There are five designated campsites to choose from, but only two provide real privacy. These are the furthest along the loop, located down a set of stairs away from the parking areas. 

The campground is shaded and pleasant in the summertime, if a little overgrown. It’s imperative to bring bug spray in the warmer months, but those visiting in fall or winter will have no problem with insects. Indeed, that might be your best bet—the foliage here is stunning in the autumn, and hiking through the glades will keep you warm even in the colder months. 

Even though this campground is located nearby a paved road, it isn’t suitable for RVs. There just isn’t enough room to maneuver an RV into any of the sites, and even the parking areas won’t have the length necessary to accommodate one. However, you can drive south on Highway 123 for about 2 miles and do some dispersed camping along the Glade Top Trail Scenic Byway. 

Things to Do

Named after the 100-foot-tall fire tower constructed on-site in 1936, the Hercules Tower Trailhead is the best starting point to hike the Hercules-Glades Wilderness in all its glory. You’ll be able to access over 12,400 acres of forest via the 32-mile trail system which starts right from the campsite—but it’s important to know which features you’re setting out to see before you go. 

I’ve got a soft spot for waterfalls, so I definitely recommend hiking down to see the falls on Long Creek. The straightest shot will be taking the Long Creek trail for a 4-mile out-and back journey. With plenty of water crossings and a few treacherous scrambles, his hike isn’t for the faint of heart. 

If you’re feeling even more adventurous, you can embark on longer journeys from your base camp at the Tower Trailhead. The Hercules-Glades Backpacking Loop leads you through ten miles of trails, and you can expect to spend all day if you undertake it. This strenuous hike winds through trickling streams, rock outcroppings, and numerous moss-covered grottos. It’s a secluded and difficult hike, but well-worth the effort. 

If you feel like a shorter hike, the 6-mile Pees Hollow Loop trail is your best bet. Take the Pees loop from the west (counter-clockwise from the trailhead) rather than from the east for a more pleasant hike, and keep your eyes peeled for an old truck cab and a spring on your way. 

5. South Maumee Campground

You can drive right in to the campsites at South Maumee

Price: Free | Open: Year-Round | Campsites: 5 Total

Situated on a wide white beach and gravel bar, the South Maumee Campground is probably the most scenic free campground on the Buffalo River. Here you’ll bear witness to an abundance of Ozark wildlife, and it’s a great starting point for kayaking, canoeing, and floating trips. Opportunities abound for swimming, fishing, hiking and lazing about. Whether you’re looking to get active or just looking to relax, South Maumee has a bit of everything. 

Getting There

GPS Coordinates: 36.0394107, -92.6299021

South Maumee Campground lies down a 7-mile gravel road near the town of Harriet, Arkansas. From Harriet, you’ll take Highway 27 South for around 5 miles. Then you’ll turn right on Highway 52, also known as South Maumee Road. From there it’s a straight shot of around seven miles to reach the campground at the bottom.

Like Erbie Campground, South Maumee is located down several miles of dirt roads. However, you’ll find that these roads are well-maintained and very wide, so the going is pretty easy. RV campers and trailers shouldn’t have any problems navigating the road down to the campsite, and lighter trucks and cars can make it in with ease.

Camping Conditions

Best Time to Visit: Summer

The South Maumee Campground has five designated campsites, all available on a first-come, first-served basis. There are no reservations available, but you may not even need them—though the site is popular during the summer months, I’ve seen weekends without a soul around. This could be because it’s pretty far off the beaten path, but I’m not complaining. 

You’ll find a large parking area at the bottom of the road. Surrounding the parking area in the nearby forest are the campsites, none of which are marked particularly well. Each one has a fire ring, a picnic table, and a camp hook to hang your food bags and the like. While many sites are labelled “walk-in”, you can drive your car, truck, or pop-up camper into nearly every site to pitch a tent. 

You’ll have access to a vault toilet, but there is no water, electricity, or trash service available here. It’s also smart to note that the campground is located in Searcy County, which is a dry county. If you want to bring a box of wine of a few cans of beer to enjoy during your camping trip, you need to pick it up before you hit the county line. Depending on where you’re coming from, you can stock up in nearby Harrison, Clinton, or Mountain View. 

Things to Do

Beyond the parking area lies the Buffalo River and a particularly spectacular piece of Ozarks bluff-line. The South Maumee is not listed as a put-in spot and doesn’t have a boat launch, but you’ll still see many people launching kayaks, rafts, and canoes. Since the water here is deep and relatively slow, it’s a great spot for these kinds of watersports. You can even hire a float service if that’s more your speed. If you go this route, Wild Bills Outfitter does a fantastic job. 

Birdwatching and nature photography are quite popular in this area. The unique geography and rock formations make it a stellar home for several species of birds including the blue heron, and you can even spot eagles and hawks on occasion. The beach and large gravel bar also provide the perfect setting for simple relaxation, and many families flock to grill and chill on the banks of the Buffalo. 

The South Maumee Campground is a difficult spot for fishing because the water is so clear, but skilled fishermen can expect to pull out sizeable smallmouth bass. Keep in mind that you will need an Arkansas fishing license to fish in this area, which you can purchase online before you arrive. 

Ready, Set, Camp!

Ready for your Ozarks adventure? Now that you know how to camp out on a shoestring budget, it’s time to get started planning your trip. Don’t be afraid to give me some feedback on my favorite spots, and leave a comment below if you have your own Ozark gems to share!

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