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Camping in a National Park seems like the ultimate wilderness experience! Pitching a tent on a mossy, forest floor with a magnificent view of the stars, in the most serene natural landscape imaginable; nothing but quiet, a small fire, and millions of stars overhead. Well as some of us already know, this is rarely the reality.
While the convenience of camping in a National Park, minutes away from all the spectacular sights is unbeatable, many other travelers have the same idea. Campgrounds in National Parks are so popular that they often require reservations MONTHS in advance. Plus you'll be looking at fees of up to $30 per night in some of the more popular parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone and Zion. You risk putting up with cranky neighbors, or loud neighbors, and maybe won't have that true wilderness experience you were hoping for.
Logistically, it's pretty foolish to just arrive at a National Park and expect to find a place to settle down for the night. Most of the parks have campgrounds that are also on a first-come-first-serve basis and require no reservation, but in parks like Yosemite, in the peak summer months, if you're not there to claim a site by 6am, you might find yourself SOL.
Luckily, there are solutions to satisfy that spontaneous wanderlust road trip we all strive for. The secret is the Bureau of Land Management. They manage 1/8 of the total land mass of the U.S. a lot more than just the parklands. Your best bet will be to find areas that list dispersed camping.The best part? It's public land. So you can use it. Even to camp on. For free!
So before you look into booking a campsite within a National Park. Have a look at the BLM map and see if you can find a cheaper or even better, free alternative. https://www.blm.gov/maps Keep in mind, however, When you disperse camp, you are on your own. The only thing provided is an un-designated patch of land. You have to bring everything that you will need and pack out everything that you brought. You will have to deal with not having a potty and no drinking water. There might be a spring or body of water near by. In that case, you will want to filter it before drinking. or cooking. Reservations cannot be made for dispersed camping. It is first come, first served.
Some key things to look for are lists of campgrounds and camping regulations. Yellow land is usually the safest bet! Oftentimes you can find a complete list of campgrounds in the district along with prices and amenities. A surprising number of these campgrounds have no fees associated with them or very reasonable rates. Obviously, the more amenities a campground offers, the higher the price is likely to be. So if you decide to go the free route like I enjoy doing, prepare to forfeit that potty. Honestly, if you find a free site with an actual fire-pit, you've done good!
If you can find a list of camping regulations, often dispersed camping will be mentioned. Look for language that states camping is not allowed outside of designated campgrounds or language that states dispersed camping is permitted under certain circumstances.
BLM sites have saved my ass countless times! Nearby Zion National Park, I've stayed at a BLM dispersed campground called Hurricane Cliffs. If spending a night near Santa Fe, Diablo Canyon is a winner, and if you read my last blog post, Bisti Badlands also offers dispersed camping, but be warned that parcels of land within the area are also tribal land, so check a map before you decide where you're going to crash for the night.