After leaving Custer State Park and Black Hills National Forest in western South Dakota, we decided to try to find a place to stay around Devil's Tower National Monument. It was late June 2012 and it was hot, somewhere north fo 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It turned out to be the hottest part of the entire trip. So we decided to continue west across northern Wyoming . We were approaching a large mountain range that I thought were too close to be the Rockies so I checked the map. They turned out to be...
Top 10 Best National Forests for Boondocking
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Boondocking is free camping on public land in locations without amenities like electrical hookups, water, or modern restrooms. Basically, you dock your RV out in the “boonies.” If you want to take a break from crowded campgrounds and RV parks and you really want to get away from it all, wild camping is the best way to do it.
The main drawback to boondocking (also known as dry docking) is that you have to haul in your water, manage your power, and deal with your sewage. While boondocking can be a little more complicated than rolling into an RV park and hooking up your rig, the rewards are priceless — solitude, absolute quiet, star-filled night skies, and closer experiences with nature.
Many national forests across the country offer prime spots and gorgeous landscapes. Although dispersed camping is allowed in most national forests, some are better suited for boondocking than others. There are few things worse than hauling a camper across the country and then struggling to find a suitable spot to park.
Here are some of the best national forests for boondocking from coast to coast.
Ocalala National Forest
Located conveniently close to Orlando, Florida, Ocalala National Forest has a mild and accommodating climate perfect for year-round camping. You’ll need to limit your stay to under 14 days, and although Rover is welcome, he’ll need to stay on a leash inside the national forest.
Sandy, narrow woods roadways can make maneuvering larger Rvs tricky, so know your limits and have a recovery plan in case you need to get your vehicle unstuck.
Camping is only allowed in designated campgrounds during the general gun season. Check with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission for more information.
George Washington and Jefferson National Forests
Covering 1.8 million acres of Appalachian forest, the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests offer some of the best boondocking opportunities in the eastern United States. These two national forests provide spectacular mountain views in parts of Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky.
With miles of dirt and gravel roads, finding a secluded spot to pull off and camp is relatively straightforward. There are no permit fees for dispersed camping, but stays are limited to 22 consecutive days, and campsites must be more than 200 yards from any water source.
Traffic picks up significantly during hunting season, so campers should use caution if staying from November through the end of December.
Cherokee National Forest
Cherokee National Forest is located in the southern Appalachians in Tennessee and North Carolina and offers some of the best boondocking opportunities in the region. The forest boasts over 600 miles of hiking trails and plenty of opportunities for fishing, swimming, and kayaking.
Several campgrounds within Cherokee National Forest offer large, level campsites for RV camping. However, if you want to really get away from it all, dispersed camping is allowed throughout the forest except in posted areas, with no fees or permits required. Keep your campsite away from trails, trailhead parking lots, and developed recreation areas. Camps must also be at least 100 feet away from water. Dispersed camping is free, and no permits are required.
Superior National Forest
Located in the Arrowhead Region of Minnesota, Superior National Forest is at the southernmost edge of the boreal forest ecosystem. It features 445,000 acres of pristine wilderness, thousands of crystal clear lakes, and gorgeous rocky landscapes.
If you like to fish, Superior National Forest (SNF) is an angler’s dream come true. Water covers 695 square miles of the area. With more than 1,300 miles of coldwater streams and 950 miles of warm water streams, walleye, northern pike, smallmouth bass, lake trout, brook trout, rainbow trout, and brown trout thrive within the SNF.
Dispersed camping is allowed anywhere inside the general forest area as long as your camp isn’t on or adjacent to a road, trail, or developed campground.
Bridger-Teton National Forest
Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF) offers 3.4 million acres of pristine wildlands. Much of this public land comprises the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the largest intact ecosystem in the contiguous United States.
Dispersed camping is allowed anywhere in the park. However, you’ll want to park your RV at least one mile from the BTNF’s developed campgrounds or picnic areas. All campsites must be at least 100 feet from any rivers, streams, or lakes.
Boondockers in the BTNF can view the area’s abundant wildlife and breathtaking views. Elk, bald eagles, trumpeter swans, coyotes, moose, and mule deer all live within the BTNF and are often seen by visitors. Bring your binoculars to maximize your wildlife viewing experience.
White River National Forest
Colorado’s White River National Forest (WRNF) encompasses 2.3 million acres of public land. The area includes 11 ski resorts, ten separate peaks that tower above 14,000 feet, and eight pristine wilderness areas. Some of WRNF’s more popular spots include the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area (requires a day or season pass from November to May), Sweetwater Lake (the state’s second-largest natural lake), and the Maroon Bells Scenic Area, which offers jaw-dropping views.
Dispersed camping is permitted throughout WRNF, with beautifully scenic spots along Forest roads. Visitors are encouraged to use established sites to minimize human impact. Boondockers can drive vehicles up to 300 feet off the Forest roads “as long as no resource damage is incurred in the process.”
Campsites must be at least 100 feet from lakes, streams, and forest system trails, and the maximum stay is 14 days. As always, campers should follow Leave No Trace principles.
Coconino National Forest
One of the most diverse national forests in the U.S., Coconino National Forest (CNF) features rolling hills of ponderosa pine forests, broad open prairies, rocky canyons, and cool natural lakes. The CNF stretches across 1.8 million acres of some of the most picturesque parts of Arizona.
Visitors can enjoy scenic drives, ancient cliff cities, and petroglyphs. They can even check out a dormant volcano and explore an Apollo training site. The Red Rock Ranger District is a must-see for its colorful buttes, mesas, and canyons. The crimson cliffs will make you feel like you’ve fallen into an old western movie.
Much of the CNF is open for boondocking. However, campers should stick to designated dispersed camping areas.
Boise National Forest
Located just northeast of Idaho’s largest city, Boise National Forest (BNF) spans over 2.6 million acres. With more than 500 trails and 250 lakes and reservoirs, there’s plenty to explore. Campers can wander through North Fork Payette River Canyon at 2,800 feet in elevation or climb to the nearly 10,000-foot peak of Trinity Mountain to enjoy the views.
There are plenty of places within BNF to pull off a forest road, set up camp, and feel completely isolated from the rest of the world. The distance you can drive off the road and the maximum number of days you can stay varies by district.
Deschutes National Forest
Deschutes, one of America’s most beautiful national forests, boasts 1.6 million acres of public land. Located east of Eugene, Oregon, Deschutes National Forest (DNF) offers plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities. The DNF features six wild rivers, five natural wilderness areas, and more than 350,000 acres of old-growth forests to explore.
Boondocking is allowed in the DNF, and there are plenty of places to park and enjoy nature. The Forest Service recommends picking a site where others have camped before to minimize the impact on the soil and plant life. Campsites must be at least 200 feet away from any water source since plants near the water’s edge tend to be extra fragile.
If you plan to boondock in the DNF during winter, be advised that the weather can be unpredictable. The Forest Service does not plow or maintain forest roads during the winter months.
Stanislaus National Forest
Located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Northern California, the 898,000-acre Stanislaus National Forest (SNF) features more than 1,000 miles of hiking trails, 811 miles of streams and rivers, and 78 freshwater lakes. The SNF also offers prime trout fishing in the Mokelumne River, several scenic by-ways, and areas perfect for snowshoeing or snowmobiling.
Vehicles cannot drive off roads within the SNF. However, boondockers can park an RV adjacent to and parallel to the road. You're good to go if you aren’t blocking traffic. Campers can stay for up to 21 days in any forest ranger district.
Dispersed camping is prohibited along Clark Fork Road, Highway 108 between Clark Fork and Kennedy Meadows Roads, or within one mile of Pinecrest Basin.
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