Tag Archives: Free Campsites website

Free Camping in the National Forest

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US Forest Service logo sign

Last week when I shared my post about free camping near Quartzsite, Arizona, a lady in one of the Facebook groups I’m a member of mildly chastised me for not mentioning free camping in national forests. I explained that the post I had just shared was specifically about free camping in southern Arizona where there is no Forest Service land. She said when she started living nomadically she didn’t know about free camping in national forests, so she was trying to alert others to this public-land camping option. Fair enough. Oh her behalf, today I will share information about free camping in national forests for all the new nomads who don’t know it exists.

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to the Forest Service, their mission is

To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. 

brown metal sign reading Carson National Forest Information Visitors Welcome
Carson National Forest is in New Mexico.

Just how much public land is under the control of the USFS? What exactly is the USFS responsible for? According to the Free Campsites website the U.S. Forest Service

administers the 175 national forests and grasslands in the United States. They are responsible for regulating logging, grazing and mineral rights on these lands as well as maintaining roads, trails, campgrounds and law enforcement in the area. The forestry [sic] service offers many developed campgrounds as well as a large number of ‘official’ dispersed camping sites.

What exactly is dispersed camping? It’s also known as primitive camping, dry camping, and boondocking. The Fishlake National Forest webpage says,

Dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere in the National Forest OUTSIDE of a designated campground. Dispersed camping means no services; such as trash removal, and little or no facilities; such as tables and fire pits, are provided. Some popular dispersed camping areas may have toilets.

(If you’re new to boondocking, be sure to read my post “10 Fundamentals for Boondockers, which will help you through every stage of the boondocking process.”)

Smokey Bear stands next to a sign that reads Fire Danger Moderate Today! Prevent Wildfires
Smokey Bear is probably the most famous Forest Service Employee.

What I’d like to be able to do–what would be easier for me and you–is to give you some general rules for boondocking on Forest Service land, then direct you to a website with more details. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find such a website or any standard rules for dispersed camping on public land managed by the Forest Service. I searched the main Forest Service website and found nothing. This lack of centralized information was confirmed for me on the Barefoot Theory blog which says,

For information on camping on USFS locations across the country you have to check with each ranger district directly.

Apparently each national forest is managed as one or more ranger districts. Each district is managed differently according the challenges facing each area. An area with a lot of visitors might have more restrictions than a place were few folks go.

I looked at the information given about dispersed camping in five different National Forests. While the webpages for Fishlake, Coconino, and Deschutes National Forests gave explicit rules for dispersed camping in those places, practically no information was shared about the Sequoia and Carson National Forests. What’s a potential boondocker to do in order to learn about the rules and regulations in a particular area?

Dirt road leads between evergreen trees
Dispersed camping area in the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff, Arizona

The best thing to do is call or visit the Forest Service office nearest to the area where you want to camp. The employees at the office can tell you everything you need to know to stay in compliance with any restrictions in the dispersed camping areas.

Maybe you’re so new at boondocking on Forest Service land you don’t even know what questions to ask. That’s ok. I’ll guide you in the right direction. The following are some questions to ask the person staffing the desk or the phone in the Forest Service office nearest to the area where you want to camp.

How long can I occupy a campsite? When I leave, how far away must I travel before I am allowed to set up a new camp? How long do I have to wait before I can once again occupy the original campsite?

How far away from the road must I camp? Do I have to stay within a certain distance of the road? How far should I camp from a water source? How far away must I camp from a developed recreation area?

May I have a campfire? Do I need a fire permit if I am going to have a campfire? Where can I get a fire permit? May I gather down and dead wood for my campfire?

Is there anything else I need to know about camping in your district of this national forest?

Brown wooden Lincoln National Forest sign with a roughly drawn Smokey Bear on it

Now you know there aren’t any hard and fast rules for camping in national forests, that each area has different regulations. All well and good, you might be thinking, but how do I go about finding Forest Service land to camp on in the first place? I’m glad you asked!

From the U.S. Forest Service home page, you can select a state, then choose a forest or grassland in that state to learn more about. You should be able to use such a search to find out what ranger district oversees the area where you want to camp.

Both Campendium and the Free Campsites website mentioned above list free camping spots in national forests. Campendium has a “National Forests” tab at the top of the page. By clicking on the tab, you get a menu of links to each state. Click on a state and you get a list of national forests in the state. Click on the name of the forest and you get a map showing the camping options in the area. On the Free Campsites main page, type the name of the national forest in which you would like to camp in the “enter a location” bar.

Forest Service outhouse with snow on the ground all around it
Free camping at the Big Tesuque Campground in the Santa Fe National Forest

If you have a smartphone and don’t mind investing in an app, the Ultimate Public Campgrounds app might be for you. For $3.99, this app helps you find “tens of thousands PUBLICLY-owned camping locations in the United States and Canada,” which of course would include dispersed camping on U.S. Forest Service land. (Shout out to the Barefoot Theory website article “The Ultimate Guide to Finding Free Campsites in the US” where I found information about this app.)

The Wand’rly website offers a very extensive article titled “Free Camping in the National Forests of the United States.” The article provides state-by-state national forest information and lots of links so you can learn more about different areas.

If you’re more the paper map type of person (and even if you’re not, read my post “In Praise of Paper Maps” to find out why I think you should go old school at least sometimes), you can use your atlas or state highway map to find national forests in the area where you are or to where you will travel. Public land is usually green on maps, and national forests will usually be labeled with the name.

waterfall
Nobe Young waterfall in the Sequoia National Forest.

Also check out the maps of individual national forests produced by National Geopgraphic. Those maps tend to be very complete and show forest service roads as well as local attractions.

The Forest Service itself also offers map options, both electronic and paper. First, check out the Interactive Visitor Map online. The USFS says the map

provides the public with an online view of Forest Service roads, trails, recreation sites, wilderness areas, and wild & scenic rivers. 

Also available is “A Guide To Your National Forests” a

free brochure showing locations of national forests and grasslands along with contact information. A large map of those regions (PDF, 14.3MB) is also available.

Because both maps are available as PDFs, you can print out a copies to view at home or take with you on the road.

The USFS also sells forest visitor maps, national forest atlases, and wilderness maps. These maps can be bought at National Forest Map Store, U.S. Geological Survey Store, many Forest Service offices.

Maps are also available for purchase as georeferenced PDFs on Avenza, for use on mobile devices.


Forest Visitor Maps for each national forest and grassland provide forest-wide information on attractions, facilities, services, and opportunities.


National Forest Atlases are full color atlases…available for many of the forests in California.


Wilderness Maps are topographic maps that show natural features such as mountains, valleys, plains, lakes, rivers, and vegetation using contour lines depicting elevation gain or loss.

Las Petacas Campground is a fee area, but it only cost $6 per night to camp there.

The Forest Service also provides topographic maps free as Geo-enabled PDFs and as paper copies available for purchase at some Forest Service officesU.S. Geological Survey Store, and some retail outlets.

Motor vehicle use maps are available from the Forest Service and are very important to National Forest boondockers. These are the maps that “identify those roads, trails, and areas designated for motor vehicle use.” These maps are available three ways

Once you arrive in the national forest of your choice, here are a few things to know as you drive around looking for a campsite, courtesy of the Deschutes National Forest.

If you are going to an area where others have camped before, pick a site that’s been used before… If there is no existing campsite, then follow these Leave No Trace guidelines:


Camp on bare soil if possible, to avoid damaging or killing plants and grass. Do NOT camp within 200 feet of any water source…Don’t camp in the middle of a clearing or meadow…Don’t try to level or dig trenches in the ground at your campsite.

Once you find your perfect spot for camping, follow these guidelines (also courtesy of the Deschutes National Forest) to minimize your impact on the natural environment.

Dispersed camping means no bathrooms and no outhouses…[so] extra care has to be taken in disposing of human waste. To dispose of feces, dig a hole 6 inches deep and AT LEAST 200 FEET AWAY FROM ANY WATER SOURCE (creeks, wetlands, springs, or lakes). When you’re done, fill the hole with the dirt you dug up and take your toilet paper with you to dispose of in a proper waste container.

Never defecate or leave toilet paper on top of the ground, it could easily get into the local water source and contaminate it.


Empty built-in or portable toilets at sanitary dump stations.

Wash your body, dishes, etc., and dispose of waste water AT LEAST 200 FEET AWAY FROM ANY WATER SOURCE. Do not use ANY soap directly in a water source. Use biodegradable soap.

If you need more information about how to handle life in woods, see my post “How to Stay Safe and Healthy in the Forest.”

campfire in metal fire ring

Most campers want to have a campfire while out in nature. If you are planning to enjoy a campfire, follow the rules shared by the Coconino National Forest.

[C]heck if you are in an area with campfire restrictions

Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires. Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand. Make sure to bring at least 6 gallons of water (preferably 10 gallons) and a shovel to completely extinguish your campfire. Burn all wood and coals to ash.

Extinguish campfires completely by generously dousing with water and stirring with a shovel. (video)


Never leave a campfire unattended. It is illegal to do so…You could be held liable for any firefighting/restoration costs that result from your abandoned or unattended campfire. Make certain your campfire is dead out, wet and cold to the touch, before leaving your campsite.

Now that you know the basics of dispersed camping in the national forest, get out there and give it a try. National forests belong to you and me and all of us, so enjoy them every chance you get.

A banner shows Smokey Bear waving. Text reads "I'm concerned about Wildfires" with an image of a fire and a tree.

The information in this post was correct at the time it was written. Please consider this information a starting point for your own research and not the final word on any subject. There are risks associated with camping, especially camping in areas off the beaten path. Blaize Sun is not responsible for you. Only you are responsible for you. Please think before you act.

I took the photos in this post.

Free Camping near Quartzsite, Arizona

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Two weeks ago, I wrote about the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Long-term Visitor Areas (LTVAs) located along the Colorado River in Arizona and California. La Posa (North and South, on either side of Highway 95) is the LTVA closest to Quartzsite, AZ. As I stated in the LTVA post, it costs $180 for a seasonal LTVA permit, good from September 15 to April 15. If you just want to stay at an LTVA for two weeks, you can get a permit for $40. (To learn a whole lot more about LTVAs, read my post about the Long-term Visitor Areas.)

Wait a minute!  you may have thought when you read the LTVA post. I heard there was free camping on BLM land near Quartzsite.

Well, you were right about that! There is free camping on BLM land all around Quartzsite. Sometimes people get confused because both LTVAs and free camping are on BLM land. The difference? After paying the permit fee, one can camp at an LTVA all season (or move among the LTVAs at no additional charge), while camping is allowed on the free spots for only 14 days within a 28 day period.

According to the Free Campsites website, free camping locations on BLM land in the immediate Quartzsite area are Plomosa Road, Hi Jolly, Dome Rock Mountain, Scaddan Wash and Road Runner. In addition, there are other free camping areas on BLM land within 20 miles of Quartzsite in Ehrenberg, AZ, as well as within 40 miles near Bouse and Parker, AZ. If you want to go a little further (about 75 miles), there’s also free camping on BLM land near Lake Havasu City, AZ.

Although there is no cost to camp on the BLM land near Quartzsite (other than La Posa North and South LTVA, of course), a permit is required. Getting the permit is no big deal. Each camping area has a camp host who issues permits. Simply stop at the camp host’s campsite and ask for your permit. The camp host may ask to see your driver’s license or ID. The camp host will write your name, address, and license plate number on the permit. You will get one copy to adhere to your windshield and the host will keep the other copies for the BLM’s records.

A BLM ranger might hassle someone camping on any of these free camping areas without a permit. I believe a ranger could even issue a ticket to someone camping without a permit, but I don’t know anyone this has happened to. But why risk? The permits are free and easy to obtain.

Once you get your permit, you are allowed to camp in the area for which the permit was written for up to 14 days. In the past, people have stayed on free BLM land near Quartzsite for much longer than two weeks, but in the last few years rangers have started cracking down on these long-term stays in the short-term camping areas. After two weeks, some people simply move to a different free camping area near Quartzsite and get a new permit, but technically, doing so is not permissible.

One can camp in for free on most BLM land that is not an LTVA for 14 days within a 28 day period at no cost. One can move 25 miles away and camp on BLM land for free (if allowed) for 14 days. One can return to the original camping spot on the 29th day since the first day of camping. A BLM website explains it in detail this way:

Dispersed camping is allowed on public land for a period not to exceed 14 days within a 28 consecutive day period. The 28 day period begins when a camper initially occupies a specific location on public lands. The 14 day limit may be reached either through a number of separate visits or through 14 days of continuous overnight occupation during the 28 day period. After the 14th day of occupation, the camper must move outside of a 25 mile radius of the previous location until the 29th day since the initial occupation.

(Camping rules for BLM land may vary according to the ranger district. Always check the camping rules for the particular BLM ranger district in which you want to camp.)

The free BLM camping areas near Quartzite are totally undeveloped. Like on most other BLM land in the Southwest, these public lands open to free camping require boondockers to provide for their every need. (If you don’t know the first thing about boondocking, see my post on the “10 Fundamentals for Boondockers“.) You may find a fire ring made of stones left behind by previous campers, but otherwise you are on your own. You will not find a trash can or dump station in any of the free BLM camping areas in this part of Arizona. Plan to pack out anything you pack in. Don’t look for picnic tables, pit toilets or electrical hookups because there are none. The lack of running water means you can forget about flush toilets or hot showers. (To find out where you can find a hot shower and other amenities see my post “Where to Go for What You Need in Quartzsite.”)

All sorts of folks camp in the free BLM camping areas in Quartzsite. I’ve seen plenty of RVers in motorhomes, travel trailers, and fifth wheels of all different sizes and conditions. There’s no shortage of vandwellers out there either, in everything from Roadtreks to minivans, converted cargo vans to old-school conversion vans. Skoolies make an appearance too, both full-size and short buses. Travelers stay there in truck campers, and I’ve witnessed literal car camping out there too. Some hardy souls brave the wind and chilly night to camp in tents.

Whatever one’s living situation, there are rules to follow while staying on the public land. Be quiet during quiet hours, typically 10pm to 6am. Comply with any fire ban and do NOT gather any native wood lying on the ground. (Hopefully I don’t have to tell you not to cut down or in any way damage plants growing on BLM land.) Keep your pets leashed and under your control. (This is for your pet’s safety, as coyotes in those parts have been known to snatch unattended dogs.)

If your rig does not have toilet facilities, it is allowable to dig “cat holes” for your elimination needs. According to the Tread Lightly! website,

Human waste should be disposed of in a shallow hole six to eight inches deep at least 200 feet from water sources, campsites or trails. Cover and disguise the hole with natural materials. It is recommended to pack out your toilet paper.

However, there’s hardly any privacy on the BLM land set aside for free camping near Quartzsite. You’re in the desert out there, not the forest, so it won’t be easy to find a tree to hide behind. You can set up a privacy tent, but be aware that the winter wind can be fierce out there. I recommend you set up some sort of elimination facility in your rig. (If you have never camped in the desert before, check out my post “10 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in the Desert” to get more advice on doing it right.)

If you don’t mind being a little farther away from Quartzsite, you have a couple of other options. According to the Free Campsites website, there is dispersed camping on BLM land on Gold Nugget Road east of Quartzsite. It doesn’t seem like a permit is required to stay there. You can also camp for free in the Crystal Hill area of the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, about 8 miles south of Quartzsite on Highway 95 at milepost 95. Camping there is limited to 14 days during any 12-month period.

What if you don’t want to camp on the public lands near Quartzsite? Do you have other options? The answer is yes!

There are two truck stops in Quartzsite, a Love’s and a Pilot. I have stayed overnight at both Quartzsite travel centers. One year after the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR) I wanted to stick around for a few more days for the PowWow gem and mineral show. I’d already reached my 14 day BLM limit, so I stayed in my van at the Love’s for a couple of nights with no problems. On another occasion I stayed in town using the internet to schedule blog posts until after sunset and didn’t want to try to find my campsite after dark. I spent that night in the Pilot parking lot, again with no trouble. I’ve seen plenty of other vans and truck campers parked overnight in those travel centers too.

So yes, it’s true, you can camp for free on BLM land near Quartzsite, but technically only for two weeks before you have to move down the road, at least for a little while.

I took the photos in this post.

Free Camping Near Walnut Canyon National Monument in Arizona

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The Lady of the House jumped out of the van and took this photo for me.

The Lady of the House and I started our epic road trip by camping outside of Flagstaff in a location we found courtesy of the Free Campsites website. We planned to visit the Meteor Crater National Landmark and Winslow the next day, so the location off I-40 was perfect for us. The free camping is in the Coconino National Forest right outside Walnut Canyon National Monument.

According to Wikipedia,

Walnut Canyon National Monument (Hopi: Wupatupqa) is a United States National Monument…The canyon rim elevation is 6,690 ft (2,040 m); the canyon’s floor is 350 ft lower. A 0.9 mi (1.4 km) long loop trail descends 185 ft (56 m) into the canyon passing 25 cliff dwelling rooms constructed by the Sinagua, a pre-Columbian cultural group that lived in Walnut Canyon from about 1100 to 1250 CE.

This photo shows the well-maintained dirt road into the boondocking area. I believe this is the road Google calls Oakmont Drive and says becomes Cosnino Road.

From Interstate 40, we took exit 204 as directed by Google, then turned onto Walnut Canyon Road, which we followed to Cosnino Road. When we saw the Walnut Canyon National Monument sign, we knew we were close. We arrived before dark, so it was easy to see where we were going.

We turned off of the main road (Walnut Canyon Road) onto a well-maintained dirt road, which I believe is the road Google calls Oakmont Drive and says becomes Cosnino Road. This well-maintained dirt road had no signs, but we suspected we were in the right place because we could see RVs parked among the trees.

We hadn’t gone far down the dirt road before we saw a flat spot with evidence of previous camping (a fire ring made from stones, a log fashioned into a bench). We decided that site was good enough for our overnight, and I pulled the van in between the trees.

While we were preparing and eating dinner and later while we were getting ready for bed, something mildly strange occurred. At differnt times, a couple of different pickup trucks drove like bats-out-of-hell on the well-maintained dirt road past our camp. The trucks weren’t gone long; shortly they were driving fast in the opposite direction, ostensibly back to their camps. It was as if the drivers had gone to the end of the road, then turned right around and come back. Where did they go? Why did they come back so soon? What was the huge rush? Other than these strange drive-bys, the camping area was very peaceful. We heard no evidence of partying–no loud voices, no loud music.

Campers before us made a fire ring from stones and fashioned a bench from a log. I sat on that bench to eat my dinner.

The Lady discovered this mountain view.

The next morning The Lady went for a short run and came back to tell me she’d found a mountain view and other campsites. She said she’d show them to me, so I went on a brisk walk with her.

The other campsites were at the top of a slightly steep incline. The

Rutted and rocky dirt road

problem getting to the sites wasn’t the road’s climb so much as the road’s poor condition. I was glad I hadn’t tried to take my van up the rutted and rocky dirt road.

The campsites up top (evident because of stone fire rings) were nicely tucked into the trees and deserted, which surprised me. Sure, it was early April, not prime camping season, but I thought someone would have camped up there on a Friday night. However, it seemed we’d had that entire part of the boondocking area to ourselves.

Unfortunately, the fire rings weren’t the only evidence of previous campers; folks had left trash on more than one of the sites. Also, not far from where we camped, we saw the remains of two sofas. I can’t imagine how anyone could have forgotten two couches out in the woods. Maybe it’s supposed to be a hunting blind? The Lady asked

Whoever left these couches on public land left a pretty big trace!

skeptically. I don’t think so. I think the sofas were hauled onto public land specifically for dumping! What a travesty!

Overall, The Lady and I were pleased with our free camping. I would absolutely stay in this boondocking area again.

 

Brantley Lake State Park

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After a long, hot day in the city of Carlsbad, NM, The Man said he really needed a shower.

Isn’t there a state park around here? he asked.

I got on FreeCampsites.net and had a look. Although staying at state parks isn’t free, it’s often cheap, so parks with campgrounds are sometimes listed on the Free Campsites website. The closest state park that showed up in the search engine was at Brantley Lake.

I don’t remember why we didn’t look for a community or rec center with a swimming pool, as those are often good places to shower for a couple of bucks. In any case, we were soon making the 20-mile drive to the state park.

When we pulled up to the entrance to the park, I read the information board, trying to figure out where we should go. It looked like the price for primitive camping was $8 and the price for developed camping was $14. I was sure the Free Campsites page said the cost of camping in the developed area was $10 Where was the $10 option?

While I was trying to figure things out, a truck pulled over behind us. The Man backed out of its way, but it didn’t go around us and into the park as we’d expected. The truck had some sort of official looking emblem on the door, and the driver looked at me expectantly.

Go talk to him, The Man urged.

Turns out, the man in the truck was the camp host at Limestone Campground, the park’s developed area.

I confirmed that the primitive camping area had no showers. There aren’t even porta-potties down there, the camp host said. I realized later I should have asked if we were allowed to camp in the primitive area but take showers in the developed campground, but it didn’t cross my mind at the time.

At other New Mexico state parks I’ve been to (Caballo Lake, Elephant Butte Lake), primitive camping costs $8, a developed campsite with no electricity costs $10, and a campsite with electricity costs $14. I was confused when I got to Limestone Campground in Brantley Lake State Park because I couldn’t find the $10 non-electric campsites. It finally dawned on me that there was no $10 option there because all sites offered electricity. As I thought more about New Mexico state parks where I’ve stayed before, I remembered Percha Dam campground offered no primitive camping. All sites at that campground were considered “developed,” and I had to pay $10 per night when I stayed there. I learned a lesson at Brantley Lake: Every state park in New Mexico is different, and I need to do a bit more research than FreeCampsites.net to find out if a particular park offers the kind of camping I want.

Brantley Lake is beautiful and large. According to http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/spd/brantleylakestatepark.html, it is the southernmost lake in New Mexico. Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brantley_Lake_State_Park) says the lake is

a man-made reservoir created when Brantley Dam was built across the Pecos River in the 1980s… It has a surface area of approximately 4,000 acres (16 km2), but that varies due to the inconsistent flow of the Pecos River and the arid climate in which the lake is located.

Brantley Lake is beautiful and large. This photo shows only a small portion of it.

The Limestone Campground is divided into two sections: one has sites that can be reserved and the other has sites that are nonreservable. We pulled into the section for folks without reservations and found several empty sites to choose from. We were visiting on a Thursday in early May, and there was plenty of room. However, if I wanted to stay at Limestone Campground on a summer weekend and I hadn’t reserved a spot, I would be sure to arrive early in the day to secure a site.

Apparently, campsites have a bar-b-que grill too. I guess I didn’t notice the one on our site.

Each site in the nonreserveable part of the campground has a flat area for parking a camper and/or a vehicle and a covered picnic table. Each site has an electrical box too, but since we didn’t need to plug in anything, we didn’t even look at the box. We took a spot next to a trail leading to the lake, but we were too tired to walk down there.

Like the rest of the campground, the women’s restroom/shower house was very clean. A woman was leaving the shower house as I arrived, and no one else came in, so I had the place to myself. I had a couple beefs about the shower, complaints I’ve also had at the other two state parks in New Mexico (Percha Dam and Elephant Butte Lake) where I’ve showered.

First, I had to press a button to start the water flow. The water ran a few minutes (3? 5?) then shut off automatically. I understand managers of state parks wanting showers to shut off automatically to cut down on pranksters or just plain forgetful people leaving the water running and flooding the place or wasting resources. However, having the water shut off during my shower harshes my mellow. Certainly, it’s not a huge problem, as I can simply reach out and push the button again, but I’d prefer a continuous water flow while I’m washing up.

The trail leading to the lake,

The second complaint is more difficult for me to shrug off. The water in New Mexico state park showers never gets hot. Yes, the water is warm. Yes, a warm shower is better (to me) than a cold one. Yes, hot water uses precious resources and opens the park to a lawsuit if someone scalds him or herself. I understand all these factors, but I love me a hot hot shower, and I can’t seem to get one at a New Mexico state park.

Of course, I was happy to get clean, even if I got a little chilly in the process. To this van dweller, a shower is always a luxury. However, I’d rather take a hot shower for $3 at a rec center instead of my paying my half of $14 or even $10 to take a warm shower at a state park.

You can also read about our experiences with primitive camping at Brantley Lake State Park.

I took all the photos in this post.

Free BLM Camping (Southern New Mexico Edition)

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The Man and I found ourselves in Roswell, NM. When he mentioned he’d never visited Carlsbad Caverns, I said we had to go. I’d been once before, six years ago, with my boyfriend who turned out to be not very nice. Carlsbad Caverns changed me in ways I cannot describe because I can barely understand it all myself. When I realized we were less than 100 miles from a natural wonder The Man hadn’t experienced, I insisted we go.

As soon as we decided to visit Carlsbad Caverns, I got on the FreeCampsites website to try to find us a nice, free place to spend the night.

When my ex and I visited the National Park, we spent the night before our adventure in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart in the town of Carlsbad. I didn’t want to do that if we could help it. First, I haven’t met a Wal-Mart parking lot that wasn’t hot, noisy, and too bright. Why spend the night in a parking lot if we could be out in nature instead? Also, the town of Carlsbad is about 20 miles from the famous caverns, meaning we’d have to start the day with a half hour of driving if we stayed in town. Better, I thought, to drive in the evening and park for the night in a quiet, dark, natural spot.

On the Free Campsites website, I found several options for free camping on BLM land near Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The place I picked doesn’t even have a name; on the website, it’s simply referred to as “Public Lands near Carlsbad Caverns.”

I used the FreeCampsites.net free app on my Android phone to search for promising camping areas. When I decided on the spot where I wanted to camp, I clicked on the “Get Directions” link on the page with the information about the camping area. This link is near the GPS coordinates for the site. When I clicked the “Get Directions” link, it opened up Google Maps which told me how to get from my location to the road where I wanted to camp. The Man taught me it’s better to click the “Get Directions” link than to put in the GPS coordinates myself because I might make a mistake transferring all those numbers. Once Google Maps opened, we let the spokesmodel (I named her Mildred Antwerp) guide us into our spot for the night.

Without Mildred Antwerp to talk us through, it would have been a bit difficult to find the place. I would have had to keep a close eye on my odometer in order to figure out where to turn because the road onto the BLM land not only doesn’t have a street sign, it doesn’t have a name! Google Maps just calls it “Unnamed Road.” There wasn’t even a sign announcing we were on BLM land.

When directed to, we turned off US-180 W/US-62 W onto a fairly well-maintained dirt road. The road was bumpy, but I’ve certainly been on worse New Mexico roads. I didn’t feel as if the van was in any danger.

It wasn’t long before we saw a pull-off–a wide dirt area–on the left side of the road. Farther ahead, we saw other vehicles parked on the left. As indicated in the description of the camping area, we saw a fire ring in the pull-off, not BLM issue as far as I could tell, simply local stones someone had gathered and arranged in a circle. We knew we had arrived.

This pipe snaked on the right side of the road, across from the free camping area.

We didn’t want to park in the first open spot because we like privacy when we can get it, so we continued up the gently climbing road. As we went up and saw other people parked in pull-offs, I worried there might not be a place for us.

All of the camping spots were on the left side of the road. On the right side, I saw a thick, dark pipe snaking across the land. Once we stopped, I was able to read a signpost near the pipe: natural gas. The government owns the land, and somebody’s making money from the sale of the natural gas being pumped out, so I guess the least they can do is let the people camp there for free.

We found a spot, the first unoccupied one past an old pickup with a slide-in camper. The Man backed in the van next to our stone fire ring. We hadn’t brought any wood and there wasn’t any lying around to gather, so we didn’t have a fire that night. We did, however, have a nice view from the back doors.

We were quite far from our nearest neighbor, and we didn’t hear any noise other campers might have made. We were also quite far from the highway and didn’t hear any sounds of traffic. The whole time we were there, only two vehicles passed our camp. Soon after we arrived, a truck drove up the road and not too long after, drove down the road and away. In the morning, a woman who must have been camped above us drove past the van as she left. Otherwise, it was easy to imagine we were the only people in the area.

View from the back of the van

Staying on this BLM land was a true boondocking experience. There was no water, potable or otherwise. There were no toilets of either the pit, the flush, or the portable variety. There were no garbage cans or electricity. It was totally a case of bring in everything you need and take out all the waste you produce. The fire rings were the only indication people had camped there before.

Ocotillo plants and clumps of grass

I did have service for my Net 10 phone the entire time we were on the BLM land. I was even able to post a picture to Facebook and view updates from friends.

I’ve stayed in prettier free camping spots, but this place was not completely lacking beauty. We were in a sort of deserty area with clusters of grass, small cacti, and ocotillo plants growing from rocky ground.  Below us, flat land with no trees stretched as far as my eyes could see. What the area lacked in beauty, it made up for in silence and darkness.

It was also in a great location. In the morning we woke up, ate our cereal and milk, then drove about five miles to the entrance of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Spending the night on this BLM land beat staying in the Carlsbad Wal-Mart’s parking lot on every count.

The night we stayed on the BLM land, we were blessed with a red moon above us.

I took all the photos in this post.

 

 

 

Free Camping at the Big Tesuque Campground

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The Man and I were going to be in Santa Fe for a few days, so I got on the Free Campsites website and found us a beautiful, free campground on the outskirts of the city.

If you’ve never used Free Campsites, you should check out the website the next time you need to stay somewhere overnight. Whether you want to boondock one evening or plan a multi-stop vacation, Free Campsites can help you find what you need. The website moves beyond Wal-Marts and truck stops and focuses on public land.

According to the site,

Our community provides the best free camping information available. Free campgrounds can be hard to find. Freecampsites.net makes it easy. We give you a simple, map based search engine to find free and cheap camping areas. Community reviews and ratings provide you with up to date information and help you select the best camp site for your next camping trip.

We believe that free camping areas are often the most beautiful and peaceful camp sites. Our focus is on public lands. You own these lands and you are entitled to use them. We especially like camping on Forest Service land, BLM (Bureau of Land Management) areas, WMA’s (Wildlife Management Areas) and county or city parks.

Contrary to the name of the website, not all camping spots listed on the Free Campsites websites are actually free. Some sites included cost up to $15 or so, which is still quite a bit less expensive than the average RV park. Of course, I’m cheap (like my mawmaw, about whom my father said more than once, she could hold onto a nickel so tight the buffalo would moan), so it’s a rare penny I spend to park my van and sleep. However, Free Campsites gives the option of inexpensive campgrounds to travelers who like the extra amenities offered and have a bit of spending money to put down.

I’ve used the Free Campsites listings on my laptop quite a bit but recently installed the free app on my (Android) phone so I can use it on the go. The app is a little slow, but I blame that on my 3G phone.

This photo shows NM Hwy 475, aka the Santa Fe Scenic Byway, as it snakes up the mountain.

When I looked at the options for free camping near Santa Fe, I found several spots on Highway 475, aka the Santa Fe Scenic Byway.

We chose to stay at the Big Tesuque (pronounced [tuh-SOO-key] Campground. It’s part of the Santa Fe National Forest. The campground’s GPS coordinates are 35.76917, -105.80861, and it’s located near milepost 13. It’s small but does include two pit toilets and bear-proof trash cans. There is no drinking water available there.

The campground is really intended for people in tents; there’s no space to park vehicles at the camp sites. The parking area has room for about a dozen vehicles. Campers are meant to park in the small lot, then carry their equipment and supplies up to the sites to unpack and set up.

We simply parked the van in the parking area. When we were ready to cook, we unfolded one of our tables next to the van and set up our stove and equipment. Only four or five cars pulled into the campground’s parking area during our stay, and nobody else spent the night. Even during busy times, I think it would be fine for a van dweller to take an empty parking space and stay there for the night.

Even if we had been tent campers, the entire campground was covered in snow while we were there! It was May 1, but there were several inches of snow all over the camping area. I guess at over 9700 feet in elevation, snow can come late into the spring. Despite the snow, it wasn’t too cold out, at least until the sun set. After dark, we hunkered down in bed and got to sleep early.

I was quite impressed with the cleanliness of the restroom I used. It even had plenty of toilet paper! (Were I a better campground reporter, I would have checked both restrooms for cleanliness and toilet paper.) Although Big Tesuque Campground has no camp host, someone was cleaning, restocking toilet paper, and scrubbing the pit toilet, even during the slow season.

My favorite feature of the campground was the brook/creek/stream/river (one of these days I am going to learn what makes those bodies of water different) running alongside it. There were even two small waterfalls of sorts where the water tumbled down to lower levels. The sound of flowing water helps me sleep peacefully, and I had a very good night in the parking lot of the Big Tesuque Campground.

Snow! Trees! Waterfalls! All at the Big Tesuque Campground, less than 20 miles from the Santa Fe Plaza.

I took all of the photos in this post.

 

 

 

Saddle Mountain

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IMG_5146I first heard about the Saddle Mountain BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land at the 2015 Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. I ran into a guy I’d previously met in New Mexico, and he told me about the BLM land surrounding Saddle Mountain, but I didn’t make it out there before I set out for my summer job. In early winter 2016, my friend Coyote Sue took a trip to the area, and I decided I REALLY wanted to go there.

IMG_5179One reason I hadn’t gone sooner was because I didn’t have very good directions. The guy who first told me about the place pointed to it on an old Arizona map, but he wasn’t able to tell me what roads to take. I was a little worried about going out there and getting myself lost. Before I set out on my trip, I did some research by searching “saddle mountain free camping Arizona” on Google. I got a hit on the Free Campsites website.

On Free Campsties I found the GPS coordinates (33.458626, -113.055023) and plugged those right into Google maps.  (Thanks Google!)

I’ll just go ahead and give directions so nobody has to do all that work him/her self.

From Interstate 10 in Arizona, take exit 94 toward Tonapah. Turn left onto 411th Avenue. Keep  going south for almost three miles, passing Osborn Road and the Saddle Mountain RV Park. You’ll get to a T in the road. Turn right onto West Salome Highway. (If you go left, you will end up in Buckeye, AZ.) Drive for 5.2 miles, then turn left onto Courthouse Road. Both West Salome Highway and West Courthouse Road are paved and both have official street signs. After 1.8 miles on West Courthouse Road, turn left onto the Saddle Mountain BLM land. IMG_5172

Like a dumbass, I had not written down the distances I was supposed to go on each road. I found Salome Highway easy enough (411th Avenue ends, go left or right, no big deal), but I’d gotten a little worried after a couple of miles that Courthouse Road wasn’t signed, and I’d missed it. I kept going, then saw the sign for Courthouse Road and breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn’t lost. However, because I didn’t know how far I was supposed to go on that road and my last direction was simply “turn left,” I didn’t know where to turn onto BLM land.

I drove slowly and kept an eye to the left, hoping to see a sign. I didn’t see a sign, but I did see a kiosk. IMG_5132Although I couldn’t read the words Saddle Mountain on the top of the kiosk, I suspected I was in the right place and turned down the road. When I got closer and read the words up there, I knew I’d made it.

The kiosk didn’t have any information on it, other than one sign saying this is a pack-in/pack out area. (There are no amenities in this area, not even a trash can or a pit toilet.)

I drove south on the road, which I later found out is Route 8211. IMG_5169This road is not paved, but is what I would describe as a “good” dirt road. My conversion van had no trouble getting down it.

As I drove down Route 8211, I saw one RV, an older, medium size motor home which was about to pull out of its spot. The people in it waved to me as I drove by. During the time I was there (Wednesday afternoon to Saturday morning), I didn’t see any other folks camping in the area.

As I was trying to find a spot, I realized I could see bits of civilization to the north. Sure, I wasn’t looking at a metro area, but I could see vehicles (including many 18-wheelers) driving past on I-10. I could also see a couple of large industrial operations between my location and the interstate. I decided to park the van so my side doors opened to the south, which offered a view of mountains and cacti, not the trappings of humanity.

IMG_5137Once the sun went down, I could see a good number of ligths to the north and the northeast, which also detracted from the sense of being alone in the wilderness. Sure, Saddle Mountain is well out of the city, but I didn’t feel as if I were in the middle of nowhere. IMG_5142

That situation might have been remedied if I had driven farther down Route 8211. On Friday evening, I went for a walk to the south on that road and found many other places where folks had obviously boondocked before. There were plenty of flat spots to park a rig, and I saw fire rings made from rocks obviously gathered in the area.  I didn’t move the van; I was much too lazy for that. However, next time I stay there, I will drive to the end of the road and try to find a place where I can’t see one bit of civilization.

Although I could see vehicles on the interstate, thankfully, I couldn’t hear them. I didn’t hear much human noise out there. The sound  of a car engine passing on the road in front of the van did wake me up on Wednesday night. When IMG_5171I looked at my watch, I saw it was 11:30. I thought it was a weird time to go exploring, but whatever. I heard the car pass by again, headed to the main road, before too long. On Thursday morning, a couple and their dogs walked on the road in front of the van; the woman and I waved at each other. Several hours later, they walked past again, going back to their vehicle, I assume. On Friday the sound of a man and a little boy walking by caught my attention, but other than those situations, maybe two other cars driving on Route 8211, and a few aircraft flying overhead, I only heard the sounds of nature.

I absolutely enjoyed my time in the Saddle Mountain area, and hope to stay there again.

 

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I took all of the photos in this post. They were all taken in the area around where I camped near Saddle Mountain.