Want to camp near a national park? National forests make it easy.

by Сашка

Camping in a national forest is an easy way to avoid the National Park Service’s labyrinth of lotteries and release dates

The first time I camped alone in my van, I drove to the Loft Mountain Campground in Shenandoah National Park and asked the ranger stationed at the entrance kiosk whether I could book a spot for two nights. She pulled out a paper notebook, a handful of note cards and a pen, then asked me to write down my license plate number, dates and last name.

It wasn’t that long ago that many national park campsites, especially the small and obscure ones, still used a low-tech method for booking. The analog, direct approach allowed for the spontaneity of a last-minute camping trip. But thanks to a continued increase of park visitors, possibly fueled by the advent of online reservation systems, even the most seasoned campers have difficulty navigating the labyrinth of lotteries and release dates. As of 2022, all campsites within a national park can only be booked using the app, thus opening all of those previously obscure spots to the roughly 21 million Recreation.gov users.

Since its sleek Booz Allen relaunch in 2018, the reservations app has become a blessing and a curse for those hoping to score a coveted camping spot within a given park’s boundary. According to the website, as many as 19,000 people may be competing to book a spot at a park with 57 campsites in a matter of minutes, leading many frustrated would-be campers to wonder whether bots are running amok (a la Ticketmaster Swiftgate). Frustrations with the app came to a head last summer when an association of some 400 organizations in the tourism industry sent a letter to National Park Service Director Chuck Sams and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to voice their concerns.

For those of us who don’t want to dig through each national park’s individual rules about campsite bookings or idle online at 7:59 a.m. to rapid-click “refresh” in hopes of securing a site in a fully booked campground, there is an alternative: staying in a national forest.

The U.S. Forest Service administers almost 200 million acres of forests and grasslands with a broad mandate to sustain health, diversity and productivity. That bigger scope means there are more options: book-in-advance formal campsites (such as the ones in national parks); first-come, first-serve campsites (offered in a few of those parks); and open, dispersed free camping (not offered in any national parks without a backcountry permit).

You’ll also probably still be close to a national park; most share a border with a national forest or grassland to help protect the parks’ ecological integrity, maintain a cohesive ecosystem and share conservation resources.

Over the past year and a half of living in my van full time, I’ve visited 42 national parks — and have only secured three formal campsites inside of one. Part of that is my fault: I’m not exactly the type to plan which city I’ll be in next, let alone which campsite. But even for the special national parks that I’d planned to visit months in advance, I was often defeated by a slow internet connection — a common issue among #vanlifers — and have watched campsites fill in real time.

Thanks to the symbiotic relationship of national parks and forests, campers who find themselves unable to book a site within a national park can, more often than not, find an empty spot in a national forest — and it may also be free. Here are some of my favorites finds:

Nantahala National Forest

Instead of competing to camp in North Carolina and Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, one of the most-visited national parks, head to its southern border to camp on Lake Santeetlah. You can book a formal campsite at Cheoah Point Recreation Area for $20 a night (or $25 for an electric hookup) or try your luck at one of the free first-come, first-serve spots along Pine Ridge Road. The Oconaluftee entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains is about an hour’s drive — or, you could skip entering the park entirely and drive north on Route 129 along the western border through the forest to access dozens of less-crowded hikes just outside the park.

Read also:
You asked: Can I fly with loose medication?

Superior National Forest

If you’re looking for a secluded — but not isolated — camping trip among old-growth forests and idyllic lakes, head to northern Minnesota, where Superior National Forest borders two of the least-visited parks. You can take the ferry from Grand Portage to Isle Royale National Park and back in a day, making an easy camping alternative for the vehicle-less island park. Camp at a formal site such as Fall Lake Campground for $28 a night or free at a dispersed site in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Then head west to Voyageurs National Park to knock two parks out in one trip.

Caribou-Targhee National Forest

Many visitors to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming are already savvy enough to find a spot in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. But about an hour’s drive from Jackson Hole will take you around the massive mountain range and into Idaho, where you can find stunning views of the famous peaks from the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. Camp for $15 at the Pine Creek Campground or informally along Idaho Highway 31 between Victor and Swan Valley. Plus, Targhee National Forest stretches all of the way north to Yellowstone National Park, home to the one of the hardest-to-book campsites in the entire National Park system.

Coconino National Forest

Camping just outside of Grand Canyon National Park is easy thanks to Kaibab National Forest, which buffers both the northern and southern entrances. (Free camping can be found just off Highway 64 along a number of quiet roads.) For a little more space and seclusion, head south from the park to Coconino National Forest, which engulfs the city of Flagstaff, Ariz. Technically — as long as there are no distinct “no parking” signs — you can stealth-camp anywhere in the city thanks to its national distinction. A great free option is the Wing Mountain Dispersed Camping area boasting its own area of hiking trails and attractions.

Flathead National Forest

You could probably throw a dart at a map of northwestern Montana and hit a beautiful, free dispersed campsite somewhere just outside of Glacier National Park. My favorite spot in the Flathead National Forest is a short drive from the West Glacier entrance to the park where the Flathead River becomes whole at the joining of its North and Middle forks, right off Route 2. This is a particularly good option for those who want to camp late in the season but don’t want to commit to a reserved spot in case the park ends the season early for snow.

The best way to find dispersed camping regardless of where you are is to use the Forest Service’s Interactive Map, and be sure to check local notices for hazard warnings such as wildfires or flooding. Just remember to stay flexible, leave no trace and share your best hidden-gem campsites with friends.

Emily Edwards is a solo “vanlifer” who writes the Stories From the Road newsletter. Follow her on Instagram: @em_inavan.

More travel tips

Vacation planning: Start with a strategy to maximize days off by taking PTO around holidays. Experts recommend taking multiple short trips for peak happiness. Want to take an ambitious trip? Here are 12 destinations to try this year — without crowds.

Cheap flights: Follow our best advice for scoring low airfare, including setting flight price alerts and subscribing to deal newsletters. If you’re set on an expensive getaway, here’s a plan to save up without straining your credit limit.

Airport chaos: We’ve got advice for every scenario, from canceled flights to lost luggage. Stuck at the rental car counter? These tips can speed up the process. And following these 52 rules of flying should make the experience better for everyone.

Expert advice: Our By The Way Concierge solves readers’ dilemmas, including whether it’s okay to ditch a partner at security, or what happens if you get caught flying with weed. Submit your question here. Or you could look to the gurus: Lonely Planet and Rick Steves.

Related Posts