While our nation was still in its relevant adolescence, a few fellows by the name of Pinchot, Roosevelt and Muir were looking at our nation’s forests and wondering what they could do to prevent them from simply being felled to oblivion, like much of Europe had already experienced.
John Muir wanted to preserve as much wilderness as possible. Gifford Pinchot wanted to as well, but not for the purpose of letting all of us outdoorsy types have a place to play, but because he recognized the value of the forests and knew if we didn’t manage them, we would lose a longterm chunk of profitability.
Teddy Roosevelt, the same guy who essentially invented national parks, was on the fence, but eventually found commonalities with both men. Stories went long, and today we have the parks and our national forests as a result. While the national forests can be used for logging, mining, ski mountains and other commercial endeavors, there’s no doubt that they’re still one of the greatest treasures we full-time traveling RVers and vanlifers have at our disposal.
Which is precisely why, upon having written this somewhat ridiculously long piece on free camping in the national forests, I am reluctant to publish. Not because I don’t believe that these lands are for all of us to share, something I hold deeply, but simply because I am concerned with the fact of how many people don’t take care of what I see as the most beautiful patches of land on this earth. They’re not always as gorgeous as a waterfall careening a hundred feet down over some autumn-painted forested cliff, but they are typically somewhere near such sites, and peacefully serene amongst the trees enough to warrant happiness like one might only find from watching a hummingbird come and whiz its metal zoom from flower to flower.
So that said, I’d just like us all to take a brief moment to realize that we have something really special, these forests, and keeping them pristine is as much our job as anyone else who passes through, since, you know, we’re all the owners.
Without further rigamarole…
Alabama National Forests
While Alabama is home to three national forests, the William B. Bankhead, Talladega and Conecuh National Forests, none of them offer the type of free, endless camping that one might expect if they’ve spent a good amount of time in the massive forests out wests.
They all do, however, provide paid camping, at times even with electric hookups. This article is all about free camping, though, so we’ll need to keep moving on.
Alaska National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 22 million
The Last Frontier is home to an Alaskan-sized portion of the national forestland in this nation, including the Tongass National Forest which–at nearly 17 million acres–is the largest single national forest all on its own, dwarfing entire other regions of the country.
While free camping is available, many of the campgrounds in these forests cost around $18 – $28. Free camping includes Upper Lake Trail Pull-Out, near the sleepy little side of the road village of Moose Pass and spots on Portage Glacier Road, both of which offer gorgeous lake and mountain views.
There are additional free camping options near Hope, Alaska, one of those towns that is ever so worth the out of the way it takes to get there.
More camping options than you can shake a stick at, though not necessarily RV or even car camping / vandwelling / truck camper friendly can be had, many of which are listed at the Forest Service’s website.
Arizona National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 11.8 million
Arizona’s national forests are marked largely by ponderosa pine and juniper-pinyon forests, typical of deserts at elevation, but its also home to the majestic saguaro cactus, which if you’re not familiar, is essentially the big cactus with arms that, while certainly one of the less abundant cacti in the nation, is easily the most commonly conjured when the notion of these plants comes to mind.
The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest lives about half an hour south of Historic Route 66 and the peculiar, but not necessary wonderful, town of Holbrook, Arizona, which itself serves as a gateway to Petrified Forest National Park. Even that park, though, leaves one feeling more sorrow for the pillaging the petrified forest has endured versus the awe many other national parks inspire. Just up the road is Winslow, Arizona, which merits a drive through just to sing the associated Eagles song and debate who the statue is standing on the corner anyway.
Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest is stuffed full of free camping, though, mostly free, dispersed spots surrounded by ponderosa pine (sometimes referred to as Black Jacks in this part of the country.) Highlights include reservoir camping at Scott Reservoir or feral horses and other wildlife at Larson Ridge.
The Coconino National Forest surrounds upscale but good times Sedona, AZ, and a plethora of free camping along Loy Butte Road and its offshoots to the southwest of town. We’ve personally camped here a plethora of times, and not only can the views not be beat, but the proximity to both Sedona and quaint, hip Cottonwood make it a perfect place to spend a couple of weeks in the winter. Unlike nearby Flagstaff, it stays relatively warm here all winter long as well, though Flagstaff is well worth the visit, even as it’s slowly outgrowing its small town roots as urban sprawl walls up around it.
Coronado National Forest boasts free camping with amenities like a toilet and garbage, such as Miller Canyon, not far from the authentically old western town of Bisbee, AZ, while Forest Road 687 offers a more rugged experience north of the less authentic wild west town of Tombstone.
The Kaibab National Forest puts you just south of Grand Canyon, and offers a plentitude of free camping, mostly along forest roads. The Grand Canyon itself is spectacular, and Kaibab offers plenty of options to explore it and the surrounding area without the pesky hassle of reservations in the national park itself.
Further south from Flagstaff, Sedona and Cottonwood, Prescott is a fun town full of bars and shops, surrounded by the similarly named Prescott National Forest, where big view camping can be found at places like Wolf Creek Road, but the options are rather limitless.
Finally, Arizona’s Tonto National Forest offers dozens of free camping opportunities just northwest of Phoenix, whether you need to visit the city or just want to escape it.
Arkansas National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 2.9 million
While there is plenty of national forestland is Arkansas, free camping is not particularly abundant, though is available in places like Crystal Campground in the Ouachita National Forest. If you’re planning a trip across the country, or through the southern Midwest, the Ozarks offer beautiful views and swimming holes alongside their free camping as well.
California National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 19 million
An entire article could be written on California’s national forests alone. There are hundreds of free places to camp, spread across the state from the southern deserts to the Redwoods, the Eastern Sierras to the some parts of the coast.
Cleveland National Forest puts you in close proximity to Escondido, San Diego and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, making it a perfect place to not only explore those areas, but get ready to launch further east in Joshua Tree or make your run on the Mexican border.
There are few places as visually stunning and welcoming to those who enjoy the great outdoors than the ever-growing Lake Tahoe, and both Eldorado, Toiyabe and Tahoe National Forests are replete with places to camp for free. If you’re making your approach from the south of Tahoe, Stanislaus National Forest is a great option.
The Inyo National Forest puts you in the thick of all things Mammoth–a trendy ski town where the high school kids take skiing as part of their curriculum, Lee Vining–the perfect small town basecamp for exploring Yosemite, and the hot springs and stunning snow-capped mountains of the Eastern Sierras. From massive red firs in the Sierras to ancient bristlecone pines in the White Mountains just to the west, this is a forest campers paradise.
The Klamath Shasta-Trinity and Modoc National Forests place you in the “Great State of Jefferson” (you’ll have to go to find out) where natural wonders range from Mt. Shasta herself, to perhaps our personal favorite Lassen Volcanic National Park, and endless free camping in between. Lassen has its own national forest as well, and Plumas National Forest fills the gaps between Tahoe and Lassen.
Los Padres National Forest puts you in position to explore Big Sur. Mendocino National Forest fills the inland gap between San Francisco and Eureka, Redwoods abundant. Six Rivers National Forest also provides free camping to the west of the Redwoods National and State Parks.
San Bernardino National Forest surrounds the Palm Springs area and makes for a great start on your way to Joshua Tree.
Back in the Sierras, on the western side, Sierra National Forest provides some options, many of which have been closed for a couple of years but if you’re seeking the Sequoia-Sierra experience, then set your sites on Sequoia National Forest, where spots like Stine Cove provide access to these ancient orange giants.
If you have no idea where to start, we’d simply recommend starting anywhere but the southern coast and exploring as your heart desires from there.
Colorado National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 14.5 million
We have traveled Colorado extensively, and while in our van, never once had an issue finding not only free camping in the state’s national forests, but almost always immaculate camping. Some of the best are the big views of Twin Lakes, near Leadville and Last Dollar Road, near Telluride.
You almost can’t go wrong in Gunnison National Forest, where spots surrounding the hoity-toity but ultimately spectacular Crested Butte–especially Washington Gulch and Slate River–just blow the pants off of most expectations.
Pike National Forest puts you in proximity to Denver, should that be on your list.
The Rio Grande National Forest has a few free spots to camp, though sometimes harder to find than usual, and the town of Pagosa Springs is a highway town full of breweries and river trips.
Roosevelt National Park is home to wildlife galore, and places like Winter Park and Grand Lake are well worth a visit. It also serves as a crescent shaped bridge between the western entrances to Rocky Mountain National Park and Boulder, Colorado.
Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest grows to the west of Steamboat Springs, in the north central portion of the state, and the scenery in this area is spectacular, even for Colorado, and the entire US Route 40 from here to Salt Lake City, Utah is one of our favorite drives in the country.
The San Isabel National Forest lives south of Leadville, with the towns of Buena Vista and Salida making great destinations.
The Uncompaghre National Forest is home to several must-visit spots. The Million Dollar Highway, a harrowing cliffhanger of an experience that connects Silverton with Ouray, will leave your heart pounding and your breaks stinking, but Ouray is a great little town in the valley to get out, take a walk, and have a beer on their rooftop brewery. Telluride is an expensive, but amazing, tourist town where you can ride a free gondola from downtown to the Mountain Town. Even up-and-coming Ridgway is worth a visit for great tacos and a fun little local market.
The White River National Forest falls just south of I-70, along the corridor that plays home to Aspen, Breckenridge and Vail.
Our favorite, though, is easily the San Juan National Forest, where the views are outstanding and the forest ranges from bristlecone pine at treeline to pinyon-junipers and all types of oak and pondos in between. Durango is a great stop in this area.
Florida National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 1.2 million
The Sunshine State’s national forestland is magical. From the Spanish moss-laden oaks and longleaf pines to the subtropical palm speckled and mangrove lined wetlands found further south, these are forests full of bizarre creatures like the manatee and crocodile, and bird watching galore.
While the state has less acreage than the big national forest country out west, some of the best free camping in Florida exists in these national forests.
In the panhandle, Apalachicola National Forest offers half a dozen places to find free camping. You can get lost in the cell service free Wood Lake with access to the water, or if you’re the hunting type, check out Buckhorn Hunt Camp. The town of Apalachicola proper is a small town, main street experience worth the stop, and the sunsets on the Gulf Coast here are violet and gold masterpieces nightly.
Finally, Osceola National Forest lives just south of the Georgia border, and is home to the most free camping in Florida’s three national forests.
Georgia National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 866,468
While Georgia is home to two national forests, and granted, watching those tall Georgia pines sway in the wind is a beautiful site, there is much less free camping than their is forestland.
The Tallulah River Road follows the similarly named river, and free, dispersed camping is available as long as you stay 150′ from the river itself. Wildcat Creek is a similar situation, however the road is not appropriate for most RVs.
A place by the name of Ball Field, more of a field than forest camping, is available near Conasauga Recreation Area. Or, if you don’t mind breaking the tent out, Bear Creek Trail has camping amongst some massive-for-the-east old growth poplar trees.
Idaho National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 20.4 million
Still one of the wildest states remaining, Idaho’s national forestland comprises a huge portion of its total area…42% of the state is covered in one of many national forests.
Near Boise, the similarly named Boise National Forest (along with nearby Sawtooth National Forest) will give you proximity to this small-town-feel big city at dispersed camping areas like Stanley Lake and Arrowrock Reservoir. North of town, the Payette National Forest has a plethora of additional free national forest camping.
East of Couer d’Alene, in the nation forest by the same name, Fernan Saddle is easy access from I-90, if not the ideal forest camping, while Old River Road provides more of a traditional, way out there experience, if a bit difficult to access. South of town, Saint Joe National Forest has even more options.
Further north, in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, Green Bay Campground works for tenters or agile vandwellers looking to get lost in the woods, while the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest has even more free camping in Idaho’s pandhandle.
Finally, the Salmon-Challis National Forest, Idaho’s largest and the fourth largest by acreage in the US, has camping galore along Nip & Tuck Road, ghost town camping around Puzzler Gulch and no shortage of other options for free national forest camping.
Illinois National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 273,482
The Shawnee National Forest is home to a single free campground, Turkey Bayou, which includes river spots.
Indiana National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 203,627
Kentucky National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 565,129
Daniel Boone and Thomas Jefferson are both immortalized with national forests named for them, in Kentucky.
Free camping that can accommodate rigs is limited primarily to S-Tree Campground in the Daniel Boone National Forest, but the forest service has information on more primite, tent style camping areas.
Louisiana National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 607,540
The Kisatchie is an old growth pine forest, with beautiful bald cypress jutting from the bayous by way of their knees–massive buttresses that serve as the beginning of their roots, between Shreveport and Alexandria.
Custis Camp is a welcome respite from the state’s other, often lacking offerings when it comes to RV camping. Similar to Custis, Pearson Camp is a hunting camp, but closer to road noise. Alternatively, equestrians tend to flock to Ahtus Melder Camp.
Maine & New Hampshire National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 761,687
Maine and New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest plays home to Mount Washington, once believed to be the highest mountain east of the Mississippi. There is dispersed camping along Haystack Road, the backdrop sounds of rushing rivers along Old Cherry Road, and designated camping in some parts of the Gale River Loop.
North of these spots, the classically New England towns of Gorham and Berlin are worth a visit.
Michigan National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 2.9 million
Set in Michigan’s wilder, more remote Upper Peninsula, the Hiawatha National Forest borders three of the Great Lakes, and is home to one of the few free camping areas in Michigan, Hovey Lake. Most of the rest of the camping areas in the Upper Peninsula cost $8. The proximity to Munising–not only a charming little lakefront town but home to Pictured Rocks National Seashore–doesn’t hurt one bit either, and the “UP” in general is an interesting place to explore, a gateway from the eastern bustle into the more rugged side of Middle America. Further West, in Ottawa National Forest, Sparrow Rapids offers free camping in an interesting setting, though it’s always good to note that this part of the UP in general tends to be really buggy.
Headed south to the Lower Peninsula, similarly slim pickins along the state’s western edge, where it borders the Great Lake sharing the same name. Green Road in the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness, while not technically national forest, is a popular “wilderness” area, though they do still allow vehicles so the terminology is curiously dubious at best. Whelan Lake offers free camping, but for $10 a night you can camp along the Au Sable River. This is not your typical paid camping, but around 100 sites spread out over 55 miles. It would be prudent to mention that, come May 15th and all the way into September, reservations are required and there’s an additional $10 fee per reservation for that as well. That said, there’s a mitten’s full to be seen from here to the northern Leelanau Peninsula, from interesting towns like Leland and Travis City to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Minnesota National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 2.76 million
While Minnesota is home to two national forests, the Chippewa and Superior, neither are suited for any type of RV, van or in many cases even car camping. Most of Chippewa’s free camping areas require hiking, canoeing or boating, and there is no camping near a road in Superior National Forest.
Mississippi National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 1.18 million
Mississippi is home to an abundant number of national forests, however most are relatively small as forests go, and there is very little free camping accessible to vans or RVs. Airey Lake is one of the few exceptions, where just about any size of a rig can find a spot, if they’re available, and facilities like flush toilets, trash and water accompany your more recreational pursuits.
The remainder of the national forestland in Ol’ Mississip will run you around $7 / night with no hookups, though more expensive options exist where amenities are available.
Missouri National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 5 million
Missouri’s lone and lovely named Mark Twain National Forest is home to more free camping than the majority of its neighbors. Perhaps its the traveling spirit of old Samuel Clemens himself lingering about the state. About an hour or so southwest of Saint Louis, there’s something natural worth celebrating that, ahem, is a bit better than just calling a big ol’ arch a national park.
Montana National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 19.4 million
Though landlocked, Montana is home to a boatload of national forest, and the free camping comes in waves. When it comes to RV, van or car camping, every forest has at least some options save for Helena (named for the state’s capital, which it surrounds.)
Near Butte, in the Deerlodge National Forest, Flint Creek Campground is quintessential big sky camping, with a helping of spots for all sizes of RVs and certainly vandwellers and tenters. The nearby town of Philipsburg plays a daily step back in time to somewhere between old mining town life, Main Street 1960 and the occassional Prius passing through.
Outside of Bozeman, check out Battle Ridge, a formal campground surrounded by dispersed camping, but in both scenarios, the price is $0.
Hippest of all Montana towns, Missoula plays basecamp for anyone looking to surf a river, hack a sack or pretend they’re escaping from their back east hipster roots. Kreis Pond, in the Lolo National Forest, doesn’t always please everyone, but it’s a testament to getting deep into the forest for the sake of camping on a “pond” (most people would consider this a lake”) surrounded by stunning mountain views. Albertson, Montana is another little small town wild west that’s worth a visit, too.
Biterroot National Forest offers creekside camping at Black Bear Campground and a few spots near a hiking trail worth the walk at Blodgett Campground. The nearest town for supplies will be Hamilton, and it’s another one any small town lover is going to want to stroll.
Headed north from Missoula, toward Glacier National Park and Whitefish, Montana, a plethora of free camping exists longitudinally parallel with West Glacier.
Finally, in the Custer National Forest, just north of Yosemite, Inner Basin is free camping near “the Gateway to Yellowstone,” Red Lodge, Montana.
Nebraska National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 256,660
Free camping is, like finding a tree, difficult to do in Nebraska. That said, Fort Pierre National Grassland has free dispersed camping. Otherwise, there is no free camping in Nebraska’s national forestland, however fees are often as low as $5 per night.
Nevada National Forests
While parts of national forests that primarily exist in California do extend into Nevada, there is simply too little acreage for it to be of note in this article. That said, Nevada’s “Loneliest Highway,” aka US Route 50, is a joyride across the state, particularly when taken from Utah toward Lake Tahoe.
New Mexico National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: ~9 million
Despite calling itself the Land of Enchantment, New Mexico is a tragically underrated state where the secret to finding said enchantment is to stay off of the freeway towns and explore its many national forests.
The Gila National Forest is a personal favorite, particularly the whirlwind juniper drive through US 180, options like the lonesome, wide-open Cattleman Trail will introduce you to the elusive Continental Divide Trail hiker and
just get out there, you’ll dig it” Apache Creek are some of the highlights. Cosmic Campground is a designated dark sky sanctuary, but there doesn’t tend to be a lot of light bleeding into any campsite in Gila National Forest. Silver City is the anchor town here, a more laid-back, small town version of artsy New Mexican villages like Santa Fe and Taos.
Speaking of Santa Fe, the national forest surrounding it, and by the same name, is home to a handful of gems of its own. Camp along the Rio Chama in dark seclusion, camp in the aspens and get a sweeping view (all the way to Albuquerque) from Big Tesuque, or just get yourself some alone time along colorful Forest Road 88.
Outside of Albuquerque, should you be interested in visiting such a big city, a conglomeration of forest roads by the names of 462 and 242, both of which we personally, highly recommend. Between the impressively large and absolutely non-pesty giant black beetles and the thunderstorms we’ve seen in this juniper forest, we use this as an “airport hotel” every time we need to use ABQ’s airport.
Taos, New Mexico has a reputation for being the type of small town that turquoise loving middle-aged women and upper middle class biker gangs are required to visit no less than once every two years, but the surrounding Carson National Forest is full of great camping spots. Big views can be had at Cebolla Mesa, elevated Forest Road 5 with its option-laden variety of tree-covered spots and wide open field, and secluded Tres Piedras.
Some of the best free camping can be found by strip malled over but still worth the visit Alamagordo, where you’ll not only find White Sands National Monument, but plenty of great, free camping in the Lincoln National Forest.
New York National Forests
New York’s lone national forest, Finger Lakes National Forest, is home to absolutely no free camping. However, Ithaca is a fun town to meander, and the Adirondacks are worth any fees you may end up paying to find a place to camp for the night. Otherwise, most camping in the Finger Lakes National Forest runs between $5 to $15 per night.
North Carolina National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 1.25 million
There is no doubt, North Carolina is one of the best states on the East Coast, particularly when it comes to the state’s western corner.
Not only home to a good portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the majority of the Great Smoky Mountains, the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests offer plenty of opportunity for free camping in an eastern, deciduous setting where, particularly in the fall, the forest burns to life with every hue autumn can offer.
When it comes to Pisgah National Forest, just about any spot will do you right. We recommend checking out towns like Brevard, Waynesville, Bryson City, Black Mountain (and especially make the drive up to Montreat!). We love this area so much, we decided to slow down here for a few months to have our third child in Asheville, easily the coolest town east of the Rockies.
On the coastal side of North Carolina, Croatan National Forest offers some free camping as well.
Ohio National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 243,180
Frankly, Ohio, you tend to “just be in the way.” You’ve got all of those cities and freeways and that one national park that’s kind of just a river with some houses on it that at one point we wrecked but now are saying it’s a beautiful wreck…anyway, while there is plenty of opportunity to get out there and into the woods in the Buckeye State, well, its a stretch when it comes to national forestland.
Wayne National Forest does allow primitive, dispersed, and free camping just about anywhere though.
Oklahoma National Forests
Part of the Ouachita National Forest extends into Oklahoma, but free camping is largely limited to tenters.
However, in the Rita Blanca National Grasslands, there are a couple of free places to camp.
Oregon National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 15.7 million
The Beaver State is one of our favorites. Sure, our second son was born there. Sure, its lined with foggy coastal craggy mountains on the west, the gloriously snowcapped Cascades right down the middle, the Columbia River bordering its northern edge, the Redwoods just jutting into its southern border, and some of the most interesting high desert in the nation to the east, but its also got that, I don’t know, je ne sais quoi that just makes all of its features come together into one big beautiful place you wish you could go to all the time.
While the state is so varied, much of the RV- or van-worthy, free camping will happen in the high desert, the southern border, and around Bend, Oregon.
That’s not to say the Cascades and Coast aren’t full of free camping, it’s just not typically easily accessible by anything larger than a van or truck camper, and often a little more difficult to find.
If you’re near Bend, the opportunities are abundant. While its nearly impossible to “get away from the crowd” in a city where 1067% of the population was born obsessed with the outdoors, Harrington Loop and Cyrus Horse Camp maybe be better bets for those interested in dodging the groups, though they’re also not necessarily the primest of all primo spots.
Headed south, the Fremont-Winema National Forest may be a better place to actually get some peace and quiet, if that’s what you’re after.
As you make your way east from there, Mount Ashland offers free camping near the similarly named, allegedly (can’t testify personally as Oregon has so much grandeur, we haven’t even done it all yet) super cool town nearby. Continuing east, getting damn near the coast, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest has free national forest camping options galore as well.
Should you decide to skip the coast and head north from there, the Umpqua National Forest is riddled with free camping, including everything from lakefront camping at Clearwater Forebay to Oregon’s infamous “sno-parks” like Salt Creek. Even further north, you can camp along an airstrip near Mount Hood at Trillium Lake (this is now Mount Hood National Forest.)
Even when you have to pay for a campsite in an Oregonian national forest, though, which typically runs around $15 – $20 a night, it’s well worth it, the state is so lush, much of the camping has either a river to play in or a mountain peak to view, and gosh darnit, people just love it.
Pennsylvania National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 513,655
PA–as those of us born and raised there call it–has but one national forest. But, its a pretty good one. Small towns like Tionesta and the good city of Erie, along the shores of the similarly named Great Lake, make for fun stops back through time or just at a brewery. While not the type of national forest you may expect to find unlimited wild camping at, like out west, there are certainly options for camping in Allegheny National Forest.
Still, and I can say this because I grew up here, free camping in PA’s national forestlands is not going to be quite the same experience as what you may expect from out west, or even nearish-by states like Michigan and North Carolina.
South Carolina National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 631,451
While there is opportunity to camp for free in a tent, primarily, in South Carolina’s Sumter National Forest, nearly all of the free camping suitable for vans and RVs will be found in the coastal Francis Marion National Forest, north of the lovely city of Charleston, South Carolina. If you decide to make the drive down, we’d recommend going even further to the miniature version, Beaufort.
South Dakota National Forests
The Black Hills are a rolling wonderland of which we’ve touted the virtues countless times throughout our years spent chasing yellow lines. Small town meets biker tourists, big forest meets sleeping bison, ice cream shop meets ancestral burial lands, the gamut is run and whatever you come out of the experience believing, the bet has been made you’ll find it a place worth visiting again.
Custer, the town, anchors a state park by the same name, where a should-be infamous “Wildlife Loop” promises, if not nearly guarantees, enough bison sitings to make you wonder if you should kind of hurry it up a bit. Sylvan Lake is a rock jumping summer day’s worth of fun, and an interesting read should you want to dive into it’s history as well.
Trains and the Old West, a national park that feels dwarfed by its surroundings, and a general sense of being somewhere special surrounded by state’s worth of middle of nowhere, and you start to realize this is one of those places where not everyone has discovered just yet.
Slightly to the east, Badlands National Park isn’t a bad day trip either, if you can pull yourself out of the Black Hills proper.
Texas National Forests
Texas is not known for free anything, and that includes camping. When the state became part of the US, most of the land was already owned by Americans who immigrated to Mexico, only to then request that their new homes be annexed by the US…anyway, it’s a long story and not necessarily a favorable one when it comes to freedom, but a few gems do exist, mostly in the Rita Blanca National Grasslands, as the other true national forests allow very little RV or van friendly camping.
If you’re desperate for a good, free experience in Texas, skip the national forests and head to Big Bend National Park. If you don’t mind dropping a Jackson or less, check out the Lone Star State’s state park system, one of our favorite.
Utah National Forests
Pinyon pines (you know them for their yield, the “pine nuts” you buy in stores) and junipers dance regularly across Utah, but this is no flat desert state. Utah’s big red rock backdrops are complimented by massive orange Ponderosa pines, their puzzle piece bark separated by what appears to be nature’s wood burner, bristly needles contrasting against it all. Cottonwoods grow thicker than Volkswagen Buses where streams or rivers fight to flow, and Stellar’s jays show their black mohawks off while their perfectly blue feathers disappear into the sky behind them.
There are few places as magical as Utah. Mountain bikers with 2-liter thick calves mingle with deadheads who chat up Jeep enthusiasts over organic coffee, meanwhile any of them could be as conservative as a pickle or liberal as a two sided coin and you’d never know until you got to know them. It’s a place that challenges stereotypes as much as it challenges your eyes to believe what they’re seeing.
While the state may be more recognizable for its slick rock, canyons, stacked boulders and arches, there’s plenty of free camping in the state’s abundant national forests.
North of US 40, in the northeastern portion of the state (and one of our favorite scenic drives), the Ashley National Forest has a dump truck’s worth of free camping.
At the opposite corner of the state, near the western entrance to the Mighty Five (Utah’s string of national parks, and an abundance of national and state “whatevers” in-between), the curiously named Dixie National Forest isn’t lacking in free spots to camp either, some high enough to elicit fir trees and snow even in the warmer months.
North of there, Fishlake National Forest has free camping galore and nearby Manti-La Sal National Forest continues this trend. Following a northern migration, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache gets you a little closer to Salt Lake, for whatever reasons may drive you toward such a city.
Vermont National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 408,419
The Green Mountains rival famous American roads like US 101 for their beauty, and even beat others–say Historic 66–for their actual authenticity when it comes to the smiling faces on farmer’s market attendees and avid hunters alike. More or less adjacent to everything Burlington and Lake Champlain have to offer, and then on to the forested Americana wonderland that is the Adirondacks, they’re the kind of place you can get lost in your rig for months, whiling away the small towns and good conversation until fall bleeds brilliant across the state, one last warning to head south before the snow–and the snow is serious here–sends us all back south.
As would be prudent with a state that is named for them, the Green Mountain National Forest has free camping options for tenters, vandwellers and RVs alike.
Virginia & West Virginia National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 1.8 million
Virginia and West Virginia share the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, and while Virginia is home to a national park, for our money (or lack thereof), we’ll go Wild and Wonderful West Virginia every time.
In an overpopulated (from a nature lover’s perspective) Eastern United States, West Virginia still feels like true nature. Along with North Carolina and Vermont, we rank it among our top three states east of the Mississippi. A mixed hardwood and conifer forest, pouring over rolling mountains and loaded with a surprising amount of cool small towns dotting winding roads through it all, WV may be the best example of what life in America was like before the modern world took hold.
The button cute towns of Thomas and Fayetteville in particular are worth a mark on the map.
Washington National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 7 million
The lush woodlands of Washington State are–along with the other West Coast states–among the most beautiful, dense forest in this nation. West of the Cascades, expect thick conifers trees with mossy blanket forest floors, dew for days and the rushing sound of some glacial-fed river always within earshot. This is the domain of the Douglas-fir, specimens of which once stood taller than even the redwoods before logging decimated every one in the 1800s.
The state’s more eastern forests are largely ponderosa pine, thick and orange and prone to wildfires, yet still a testament to the Pacific Northwest’s amazing woods.
On the high desert side, free camping in the Wenatchee National Forest tends to circle around Leavenworth, a replica of an old German town known for selling brats, beers and more brats.
Head north, on the way to North Cascades National Park, and the small, definitely visitable towns of Twisp and Winthrop are surrounded by the Okanogan National Forest. Just watch for wildfires in this highly prone area come the dryer months.
Headed west again, the Cascade Mountains of Washington offer the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, where you’ll leave the pondos and enter a mixed conifer steep mountain forestland, where little towns like Glacier, WA make you wonder if you could live far from civilization, amongst the snow and the bears.
There are few places as mystical, fog-laden and big trees, where you can get lost in a salmon run or just the amount of moss clinging between each gigantic Doug-fir, as the Olympic National Forest.
And not even nearly the least, the Gifford Pinchot, home to Mount Rainier National Park.
Wisconsin National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: 1,523,704
While there is plenty of primitive camping in Wisconsin’s Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, it is largely unsuitable for RVs, though some car camping and vandwelling can be found.
Wyoming National Forests
Total National Forest Acreage: ~10 million
Wyoming is so wild west, they have a picture of a cowboy on their license plate. And a picture of a bison on their flag. Who killed all the bison anyway? Anyway…slide, hides, but that’s the past, we got something brand new for today.
Or not. I’m kind of over this whole thing, all of these states later, and by now you should have gotten the gist — get out there, find it! If you just want to start from scratch and figure it out on your own, free camping in Wyoming’s national forests is some of the most rewarding finds you’ll ever put your jackstands onto.