An Owner’s Manual to Camping on National Public Lands

This campsite, with the Grand Tetons towering above Jenny Lake, is hard to beat. T. Edward Nickens

This land is your land—national forests, national parks, and other treasures that comprise the 640 million acres of federal land ownership in America. Camping on public lands is an American birthright. It’s inexpensive and often free. It’s your gateway to the wildest corners of the country as well as fun activities for even the youngest kids. If you have a tent or RV, a camp stove, a sleeping bag, and a cushy pillow, you’re ready to stake your claim to a little piece of public land. And at least for a night or two, act like you own it.

Public Lands – By the Numbers

36.6 Million: Number of acres of wilderness in National Forests9,100: Miles of Scenic Byways in National Forests277,000: Number of heritage sites on National Forests13.2 Million Acres: Size of the largest national park—Wrangall-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in Alaska.35 Acre: Smallest national monument—African Burial Ground National Monument in New York City4 Million: Average annual number of visitors at Yosemite National Park in California.100: Average annual number of visitors at Aniakchak National Monument, Alaska6,000: Miles of National Scenic and Historic Trails on Bureau of Land Management lands13,500: Total miles of the 226 rivers in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system

Different Types of Public Lands

1) National Parks

There are more than 85 million acres in the U.S. National Park Service system, and more than 120 units that offer camping. These locations can be as far flung as Haleakala National Park on the Hawaiian island of Maui and Alaska’s Kobuk Valley National Park. Camping in a national park is a formative experience for many, kicking off a lifelong quest for adventure. The variety of camping experiences is as varied as the landscapes. Offerings vary from park to park, but national parks typically offer a mix of tent sites, RV sites, and backcountry options. For kids, ranger-led activities and tons of access to nature trails and visitor centers are a hit. And the costs for camping in national parks can be lower than many private campgrounds.

Why Camp Here

The fun stuff! While the wilderness experience of national parks is a huge draw, most also offer nature and history activities for every age group.

2) National Forests

U.S. National Forests make up the biggest backyard of all: 193 million acres, most of which is open to camping. National forests are managed for “multiple use,” so activities such as timber harvest, hunting, and off-road vehicle use are allowed on some units. While there are designated campgrounds in many national forests, many of the system’s 4,300 campgrounds are dispersed through the forest unit, offering an opportunity for self-sufficiency. You won’t find staffing and activities as you would at a national park. But you can find yourself in blissful solitude—and in most national forests, you won’t have to pay a dime.

Why Camp Here

A major draw of national forests is the ability to pitch a tent outside of an established campground—along old forest roads and in primitive campsites tucked into the woods.

3) National Seashores and Lakeshores

If long, gorgeous, and often empty beaches sound attractive, then head for one of the 13 U.S. national seashores and lakeshores. Think of these as national parks on a beach vacation. National seashores preserve some of the wildest, most wildlife-rich coastlines in the country, so there are plenty of opportunities to watch migrating hawks and waterfowl, fish for dinner, swim, and watch the sun set—or rise—from your campsite. Run by the National Park Service, national seashores and lakeshores offer some ranger-led activities, but the main draw is to be out there where the water meets the sky.

Why Camp Here

In a word, the beach. Whether it’s a sandy stretch of the Atlantic or a sandstone cliff towering above Lake Superior, waking up as close to the water as possible is the goal.

4) National Monuments

While national parks are created by the U.S. Congress, national monuments can be created by the president to preserve important natural and cultural sites. In fact, many beloved national parks started out as national monuments, including Grand Canyon National Park and Olympic National Park. National monuments can be managed by the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or U.S. Bureau of Land Management, among others, so you’ll need to check with each agency for camping opportunities and regulations.

Why Camp Here

Some of these national monuments are gigantic. If you want to lose yourself in empty landscapes, check out large national monuments such as Craters of the Moon in Idaho.

5) BLM Lands

Many people who don’t live in the American West have never heard of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, but this federal agency manages 245 million acres of mostly western U.S. public lands for outdoor recreation, livestock grazing, mineral development, and energy production. That’s almost as much land as there is in national parks and national forests combined. There are lots of developed campgrounds on BLM land, so there’s opportunity for RV-ers and tent campers alike. But the biggest draw to most BLM properties is the chance to strike out into the middle of the American West and make camp far from the nearest human.

Why Camp Here

Dispersed camping on most BLM properties is free of charge.

6) National Wildlife Refuges

These pristine lands are set aside by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for their value to wildlife and native fish, so camping opportunities can be limited. If you’re a serious birder or wildlife watcher, though, scoring a campsite at a refuge is definitely worth the research.

Why Camp Here

Possibly your best chance for solitude on public lands. At St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, primitive campsites are 8 miles (13km) apart. At Montana’s Red Rocks Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, there are only two primitive campgrounds on the entire 65,810 acres.

7) National Wild and Scenic Rivers

Created in 1968, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System preserves free-flowing rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values. The public lands and waters are administered most often by the U.S. National Park Service or the Bureau of Land Management, but some wild and scenic rivers have been absorbed into state park systems.

Why Camp Here

Some of the best guided river trips in the country take place on National Wild and Scenic Rivers, so book a trip with an outfitter for a stress-free camping experience.

5 Bucket-List Camping Trips on Public Land

1) Great Smoky Mountains National Park

On my last family camping trip to the Great Smokies, the high- country wonderland of North Carolina and Tennessee, we swam at the base of tumbling waterfalls, hiked through cathedral forests so quiet even the kids were whispering, sang around the campfire, ate burned biscuits, and watched Native Americans demonstrate the fine art of shooting a blowgun. Bunking down in the Great Smokies ticks off just about every iconic family camping experience you can imagine.

Of course, a lot of other people agree. The park is within a day’s drive of 60 percent of all Americans, and there are times when it seems like 100 percent of them are in the park. But this is really big country, nearly a million acres of serious forest and rugged terrain, and it only takes a bit of planning and a small expenditure of sweat to have a memorable piece of the Great Smokies all to yourself. Here are three ways to find a little Southern Appalachian solitude in America’s finest family camping park.

Stay Late

Sure, the standard line is to hit the trail at dawn, but is your 12-year-old really up for a sunrise hike? Uh-uh. Better to toss a trail dinner in a small daypack and stay in the woods from afternoon till sunset. By late afternoon, many visitors shuffle back to the gateway towns of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina, to beat the crowds to the all-you-can- eat buffets, or head back to the campground while it’s still light enough to open a can of beans. That leaves trails void of crowds just as the deer and elk come out to play.

Go Deep

The park’s traffic jams are legendary, but the vast majority of visitors never make it farther than a couple hundred yards from their car. Hoof it down one of the park’s more than 800 miles of trail and you can leave the crowds behind quickly. And you don’t have to pile on the miles. There are tons of designated “Quiet Walkways” that aren’t longer than a half-mile, but lead to gorgeous mountain streams shaded with laurel or coves of ancient hardwoods.

Head for the Corners

The towns of Cherokee to the south and Gatlinburg to the north attract the biggest crowds, so campgrounds like Smokemont and Elkmont can get crazy. To flee the masses, head to the eastern and western corners of the park. The quietest campgrounds are Abrams Creek, Cataloochee, and Big Creek.

2) Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park is what you get when you smash all the amazing icons of the Pacific Northwest into a single, accessible, wildly improbable package: Soaring cathedral forests of old-growth fir trees draped in moss. Black sand beaches fanged with rocky cliffs. Snow-capped peaks that top 8,000 feet. You can check out tidal pool starfish in the morning and mountain goats after lunch.

This part of the world is famous for its rain, but later in the summer, big blue skies and tons of sun are more common. Over the years I’ve probably camped 30 nights in the Olympics, all in the summertime. Maybe I’m just super lucky, but I’ve not gotten wet more than a half-dozen times, so don’t let the Pacific Northwest’s reputation for soggy weather turn you away.

Take it all in with a couple of big bites. There are two separate sections to the national park: the big forests and high mountains of the interior and the coastline. My family first bunked down in a lush rainforest valley near the Hoh River and struck out for trout streams, canoe trips, and a hike along Hurricane Ridge with views into Canada. Mountain meadows in the summer almost hurt our eyes with their kaleidoscopic wildflowers. We took solar showers inside a hollow tree at our campsite and long hikes along Lake Crescent.

Then we headed to the iconic coast. In between is a wide swath of industrial timberlands, so be prepared for a few hours’ drive through big timber cuts. But once you’re on the other side of the peninsula’s midsection, all that awaits is staggering beauty. A 57-mile-long strip of cliff-armored coastline edges the Olympic peninsula shore, and the biggest challenge to a beach hike is not tripping over your bugged-out eyeballs. We spent hours and hours exploring Second Beach, Third Beach, and Rialto Beach. We skim-boarded on black sand flats at the foot of towering rock headlands and sea stacks. Massive jumbles of driftwood logs demanded serious climbing and clambering. Decades earlier I’d backpacked the Olympics with a buddy from college, and those beaches seemed just as wild, remote, and unchanged from my memory. That’s a national treasure.

3) Bahia Honda State Park

When you close your eyes and imagine what beachfront camping in the famous Florida Keys might be like, this is what you see: A white sandy beach curving nearly out of sight. Blue waters to the horizon. Kids in snorkeling gear. Dads in ridiculous hats. The challenge is to score a campsite: Sites at Bahia Honda can be reserved up to 11 months in advance, and they fill up very, very quickly.

The park stretches across 500 acres of Big Pine Key, right where the Seven Mile Bridge makes landfall in the Middle Keys. It’s a fabulous mashup of natural and human history, with a historic old railroad bridge that’s now reserved for hikers and some of the best snorkeling, beach-combing, and wade fishing along the entire archipelago. While plenty of day visitors find their way to Bahia Honda—its 2-mile-long public beach is the longest in the Keys—campers have the market cornered on sunrise and sunset views literally right from the campsite. There are three separate campgrounds on Bahia Honda, and they differ in ways large and small.

RV Nirvana

At the Buttonwood campground, the gravel sites are the largest in the park, and each one is outfitted with electric and water hookups, plus a picnic table and grill. Buttonwood sites have little shade, however, and many sites don’t have a lot of privacy. Still, they afford easy access to the park’s beaches, boat charters, camp store, and marina.

Small Wonder

Lots of folks love the eight sites at Bayside. Since you have to drive under the Bahia Honda Bridge, a vehicle height restriction of 6 feet, 8 inches keeps out big rigs. Some sites allow hammock camping.

See the Sunrise

Scattered through a hardwood hammock along a gorgeous beach, the 24 Sandspur sites allow mostly tents with a few sites large enough for small pop-up campers. My family has camped at Sandspur for three Spring Breaks over the years, and it’s a hands-down favorite. We string up tarps for shade, snorkel for hours, and day-trip from Bahia Honda to Key West, Marathon, and Islamorada.

4) Grand Tetons’ Jenny Lake Campground

I’ve camped at Jenny Lake Campground in Grand Tetons National Park many times over a span of 30 years, and I’m not sure I’ve stayed at another national park campground that can top it. It’s smack in the middle of the park, nestled in the big pines, on the water, with life-altering views of the Teton Range. There are only 49 sites, and they’re all for tents only. That means there’s a bit of a dance to score a patch of ground. Sites are full by early in the morning, so grab coffee and muffins and get in line by 7 a.m. Sounds crazy, I know, that you have to approach scoring a campsite like you’re camping out for concert tickets, but it’s worth it.

From the campground, Jenny Lake Trail circumnavigates one of the prettiest alpine lakes in the country, with a mid-way stopover at Inspiration Point, one of the best views in the park. Another trail heads off to String Lake, a moderate loop with awesome views of 11,000-foot (3350-m) snow- capped peaks and a great chance at spotting moose.

Jenny Lake also puts you in the heart of some of the greatest auto tours in the West. In the hour before sunset, we always take a slow tour along the Jenny Lake Scenic Drive to catch glimpses of grizzly bears moving through the lodgepole pines. Antelope Flats Road is just a few minutes’ drive away from the campground, and you can tick off pronghorn antelope and bison there amid a landscape where abandoned farms and barns speak of the Tetons’ homesteading days.

Or you can just hang at Jenny Lake Campground and take advantage of having locked down one of the country’s greatest tent sites. Some of our fondest family-camping memories at Jenny Lake had more to do with family time than the surrounding wilderness: Taking solar showers in the woods behind the campsite. Washing socks and underwear on the camp stove. Snoozing off mid-morning pancake feasts in hammocks hung from the pines. Sometimes the best thing about being in the middle of the action is kicking back and doing nothing at all.

5) Cumberland Island National Seashore

To camp on a wild island clad in ancient forests and 40-foot (12-m) dunes, and that teems with sea turtles and wild hogs and the occasional 10-foot-long (3-m) prehistoric reptile, you could fly to Indonesia…or you could head to the Georgia coast and hop the short, 15-minute foot ferry to Cumberland Island National Seashore. Nearly 18 miles (29 km) long, this salt marsh- to-seashore national park boasts canopies of live oaks, emerald groves of saw palmettos, miles of easy trails, and backcountry camping areas nestled among its near- wilderness charms. You can pitch a tent, surf fish, swim, ride bikes, or just lay on the beach for hour after blissful hour. And the kids can roam without you worrying about traffic—there are no public vehicles on the island.

Campsites and spots on the ferry can be reserved up to six months in advance, but midweek visitation is much less than on weekends all year long.

Getting to the main Sea Camp Campground is little more than a 10-minute stroll from the ferry depot, though you’ll have to schlep everything you’ll need, from food to beach toys to bug spray (a must for mosquitoes). But once you’re at Cumberland, you’ll see the wild, unsettled eastern coast like the first European explorers did. And you’ll fall in love with this new world.

Nice and Easy

The Sea Camp Campground and its stunning live oaks are a short walk from the ferry landing, and the park service provides gear carts to make it even easier. Sea Camp has a restroom with cold-water showers, and each campsite has a grill, fire ring, food cage (pesky raccoons!), and a picnic table.

Take a Hike

Stafford Campground is 3.5 miles up the island from the ferry dock and visitor contact center. It’s a flat walk, though sandy, so it’s great for beginning backpackers. There’s a small restroom at Stafford but not much more. From Stafford, the beach is a short quarter-mile walk down a good trail, and it is very uncrowded.

Away from it All

There are three backcountry sites in the island’s designated wilderness. Hickory Hill is a 5.5-mile hike from the ferry, Yankee Paradise is 7.5 miles, and Brickhill Bluff will cost you 10.6 miles of sweat from the dock. My favorite is Brickhill, where the marsh sunsets will knock your socks off.

This article was adapted from Field & Stream’s Total Camping Manual.

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