Wow! The Apache Creek Campground in the Gila National Forest is one of the nicest places I’ve ever camped, and there were no fees!
In September 2021 I was traveling from northern New Mexico to southern New Mexico. Temperatures were still high in the southern part of the state, so I was taking my time and seeing the sites in places where temperatures were pleasant.
I was looking for a place to stay between Datil and Silver City, New Mexico. I’d been camping in the Cibola National Forest, but my spot wasn’t ideal. I was literally miles from the pavement and it had been raining off and on for almost 24 hours. I was nervous about the road to civilization becoming too muddy to navigate. I was afraid more rain would make it difficult to get out of the forest, so I left while the road was still solid.
I checked my paper road atlas and found a town called Reserve between Datil and Silver City. I put “Reserve” into the search bar on the Free Campsites website and found Apache Creek Campground in the Gila National Forest. There was no charge to camp in the campground, its description sounded nice, and the reviews were positive, so I started heading that way.
The scenery on the drive was pretty, but nothing jaw dropping. Honestly, I was excited to see a new part of New Mexico. I really enjoy seeing new places, even when they’re regular gorgeous and not stunningly gorgeous.
Apache Creek Campground is located approximately 12 miles northeast of Reserve on the south side of New Mexico Highway 12. Just past mile marker 19, turn south onto Forest Road 94 (Cox Canyon Rd.). Apache Creek Campground is located on the right side of the road.
I was really pleased when I pulled into Apache Creek Campground. The road through the campground is dirt, but hard packed and not likely to wash away unless a true natural disaster strikes.
The campground, at 6575 feet elevation, is surrounded by trees. There are trees at each campsite, sure to provide some shade. Tree identification is not one of my strengths, but I definitely saw pines and other evergreens as well oaks and other trees with leaves changing from green to yellow.
When I visited, there were 10 campsites in the campground. Each site was flat and quite spacious. It seemed to me an RV 30 feet and under should be able to find a spot to park at Apache Creek Campground. Any campsite should be able to accommodate a couple of vehicles and three or four tents. When I pulled in, I saw only two occupied sites. One was being used by tent campers, and the other was occupied by a pull-behind trailer and the big truck that towed it.
While some sites were visible to other sites, there was a good amount of space between sites. Even if the campground was full, everyone would have enough distance between themselves and other campers to not feel as if they were constantly sitting in their neighbors’ laps. Also, the trees on and between sites helped increase the feeling of privacy. Campsites aren’t lined up in a row or around a central area. The road through the campground meanders, giving the entire camping area a less civilized and a more natural feeling.
In addition to the campsites being large, each one had an old-school wood and metal picnic table and a manufactured metal fire ring. Most of the sites also had a bench made from logs.
A pit toilet in one of those concrete, Forest Service-issued buildings was at the front of the campground. Thankfully, the door on the building closed properly and locked. The restroom was also stocked with plenty of toilet paper. It could have used a cleaning, but it was by no means disgusting. (The campground has no host, so whoever cleans that toilet has to drive in to do so.)
What the campground doesn’t have: hookups of any kind, running water, drinking water, or trash pickup. Come with everything you need, and pack out your trash. Even without trashcans, this campground was very clean during my visit. It would be wonderful to keep it that way.
The night I spent at the Apache Creek Campground was absolutely quiet and peaceful. Even though there were other campers nearby, I never heard even a peep out of any of them.
I considered staying at this campground a few nights, but the complete lack of cell phone service there sent me on my way. I hadn’t told any of my contacts where I was headed, and by the time I arrived at the campground, I was out of the range of my service. I didn’t want my people to worry about me, so I left in the morning and moved closer to Silver City. I was glad to have phone service later in the day.
I dream of going back to Apache Creek Campground and spending a week or two in nature with few distractions and lots of trees.
I stayed one night at the Bighorn Campground in the Gila National Forest in late September 2021. As I stated in my report on the campground, it was a basic free national forest campground with a pit toilet and a few campsites each with a picnic table and a fire ring. If I had driven through during the daytime and not stayed the night, I might have even said the place was boring. However, once the sun went down, I did experience some excitement there.
I’d eaten dinner and cleaned up and gotten into my van. I’d left the sliding door on the driver’s side of my van open, hoping to stay awake long enough to do some stargazing. Darkness was descending, but the last light of day lingered. I stood in the open doorway and saw a lone, bright star (probably a planet—Venus, dare I guess?) in the sky.
I heard a rustling on my campsite, a noise larger than a mouse or a bird or a ground squirrel would have made. What the heck? I could still see the outline of the picnic table, but the fire pit had disappeared. Of course, the fire pit was where the noise seemed to be coming from.
I grabbed my Luci lantern, but it was not up for the job of illuminating outside of its immediate surroundings. I ditched Luci and grabbed a powerful flashlight I’d been given over the summer, hoping it would do the trick. I turned it on, and that sucker was bright!
I shined it around the campsite and caught movement by the picnic table. What was that? Was it a bear? No. Thankfully it was not a bear out there in the darkness just beyond my van. It was a javelina!
I shined the light around some more. No, it wasn’t a javelina. It was TWO javelinas.
I aimed the light to the far side of the fire ring. Oh no! It wasn’t two javelinas. It was THREE javelinas!
Holy shit! I exclaimed, probably loud enough for everyone in the campground to hear.
I was surprised by the first javelina. I was shocked to see the second one, and astounded to see the third. I don’t usually see large animals when I’m camping, and I’d never seen a gang on my campsite before.
Holy shit! I said loudly at least once or twice more.
According to the commentary “Javelina: What Are They, and Where Can You See One?” by Ross Morgan on the Santa Fe New Mexican Website,
Javelina, also known as the collared peccary because of their white collar around the neck, stand 20 to 24 inches at the shoulder and weigh 35 to 60 pounds…
Javelina prefer mesquite habitats with an abundance of prickly pear cactus but can also be found in semi-desert canyons, cliffs and watering holes near cactus. These animals are primarily herbivorous, animals whose primary food source is plant-based, and like to travel in small family groups feeding on roots, insects, fruits, bulbs, beans, worms, invertebrates and reptiles.
I’m not good at estimating size, but based on medium-sized dogs I’ve known, I’d say these critters weighed 30 to 40 pounds.
I kept the bright light shined on them. I couldn’t look away. I usually think animals are cute or cool, or at least I appreciate the chance to observe them. These javelinas…I thought they were just ugly, and I did not feel fortunate to have them in my campsite.
They were shaped strangely, and their wiry fur didn’t cover much of their skin. Their little eyes shone red in the beam of my flashlight. Maybe they dredged up some memory of the evil pig in the Amityville Horror, but I didn’t like them. I particularly didn’t much like being so close to them.
I realized they were congregating around the fire ring. They were snuffling through the trash previous campers had left there. I’d noticed before a few black bananas sitting on the top of the burnt pile of garbage. I hadn’t investigated closely enough to determine if the bananas had been burnt too or if they were in the late stage of decay that borders on rotten.
I saw one of the javelinas grab a banana in its mouth and run off from the other two toward the brush at the edge of the campsite. This action was minimally cute.
One of the two left behind walked away from the fire ring, closer to the picnic table and closer to my van. When I saw it was giving me the side eye, I worried that I might be in danger. I got fully into my van and closed the door. That was enough wildlife observation for me for one night. I hope the guy who’d ridden up on a bicycle at dusk hadn’t left food in or around his tent to attract them. I imagine having javelinas invade one’s tent would be an unpleasant experience.
Javelina occasionally bite humans, but incidents of bites are almost always associated with people providing the javelina with food. Javelina can inflict a serious wound. Defensive javelina behavior may include charging, teeth clacking, or a barking, growling sound. Javelina may act defensively when cornered, to protect their young, or when they hear or smell a dog.
I don’t think I was actually in danger since the javelina didn’t charge but just strolled closer. However, I think getting in the van and closing the door was a safe move.
If you encounter a javelina while camping (or even in the city if you’re in Tucson or possibly some other places in the U.S. Southwest), here’s what you should do, according to the aforementioned Arizona Game and Fish webpage:
Scare off animals by making loud noises (bang pots, yell, stomp on the floor, etc.); throwing small rocks in their direction; or spraying with vinegar, water from a garden hose, or large squirt gun filled with diluted household ammonia (1 part ammonia, and 9 parts water). The odor of the ammonia and the nasal irritation it causes will encourage the javelina to leave. Avoid spraying ammonia in the eyes as it may cause damage even at this low concentration. Ammonia should not be used around wetlands because it is toxic to fish and amphibians.
If the animal is confined, open a gate, have all people leave the area, and allow it to leave on its own. If it is still there the following day, contact a wildlife control business…
If you see javelina while walking your dog, avoid going near the javelina and quickly take your dog in a different direction.
I read for a while after I closed the van’s door on the javelina gang. I turned off my light around 9 o’clock and promptly fell asleep. I woke at 1am to the sound of a steady rain hitting the top of my minivan. There was some lighting and I heard thunder too, in the distance. I drifted back to sleep.
At 4am I woke up in the midst of what in the Southwest is sometimes called a male rain. Raindrops were pounding on the roof of the van. Lighting flashed so close and so bright, it was as if the paparazzi were shooting photos through the curtains covering my windows. Thunder boomed loudly, so close I felt the van vibrate around me. The storm stayed on top of me for an hour.
At 5am, I gave up all hope of getting back to sleep. I dressed by the light of my Luci lamp, all the while hearing a noise vaguely like the one a propane heater makes. The rain had stopped, so I decided to go outside and investigate the sound. When I opened the door to the van, the sound intensified, and I knew exactly what it was. The sound I’d been hearing was rushing water!
I grabbed the powerful flashlight and used it to navigate to what the day before had been a bone-dry arroyo. Now it was a rushing river moving fast enough to make a big noise. It hadn’t just been raining over me but upstream as well.
I decided I was ready to go. I didn’t see any reason to sit in the dark for another two hours when I was dressed and wide awake. I grabbed the few things I had left out overnight and threw them into the van. I slid into the driver’s seat and drove off into the dark.
A note on spelling: Some sources use “javelina” as both the singular and the plural of the word. Other sources add an “s” to the end of the word to make it plural. I’m following the lead of Tucson Weekly in the editor’s note “A Matter of Style” by Jimmy Boegle who says
the Official Tucson Weekly Style is that the plural of javelina is javelinas, with an “s.”
In my own writing, I made the word “javelina” plural by adding an “s” to the end. In quoting others, I did not change the way they made the word plural.
This campground report was written after I stayed there in September 2021. Some aspects of this report may have changed since then. Please do your own research before deciding to stay at this campground.
Bighorn Campground is located in the Gila National Forest, right outside the small community of Glenwood, New Mexico. It is the closest free campground to the Catwalk National Recreation Trail. It’s very small, maybe 10 sites, and it has a pit toilet.
The campground sits right next to and somewhat below Highway 180. Trees and bushes help screen the campground from the road. Most of the sites are as far from the road as possible, but the site I chose (as far from the entrance as possible) was next to and below the road. When big trucks passed, they were loud! Thankfully, Highway 180 is not very busy, at least wasn’t on the Wednesday at the end of September when I was there.
The sites seemed mostly flat, but are really designed for tent camping. I had to park my minivan 15 feet or so from the picnic table on the site in order to find adequate flatness for sleeping inside my rig. Other sites looked flatter, but I was interested in being as far away from other campers as possible. It wasn’t difficult to pick a spot away from others, as there was only one other person in the campground when I arrived. At dusk, a man on a bicycle arrived and set up a tent. When I left at 5:30 the next morning, I saw a couple other vehicles that had pulled in during the night.
Each campsite had a heavy, difficult to move picnic table made of metal, as well as a manufactured metal fire pit. The road through the campground was dirt covered in gravel and the sites had sparse wood mulch and gravel spread over them. There were trees in the campground (juniper and cedar, I think), and scrubby desert bushes. The grass was dry and yellow and did not grow on the actual campsites. The trees did offer some shade on the sites, but it wasn’t the shade of a pine forest.
I read somewhere (probably on a Free Campsites website review) that during some parts of the year water flows in a creek along the back edge of the campground. I checked out the arroyo back there when I arrived, and it was bone dry. I thought it would have been nice to have the sound of water as my backdrop, but I guess I was too late in the year.
There’s not really too much to say about this campground. Have I stayed in prettier or more interesting places? Yes. However, the price (free) was right, and it was a good, close place to spend the night after I wore myself out hiking at The Catwalk.
The pit toilet was a cute, rustic little building. There was plenty of toilet paper during my stay (but I advise you to always be prepared with your own). There was an uncomfortable number of dead flies on the interior walls of the building, but I did my best to ignore them. The door to the toilet closed and locked, and I was happy about that.
Like most free campgrounds, Bighorn has no trash receptacles. Visitors need to carry out all their trash. Please! Do not leave the burnt remains of garbage in the fire pit as previous campers at the site I chose had done. If you camp at Bighorn, please pack out everything you packed in.
As you may have guessed, Bighorn is also lacking running water (for washing and/or drinking), electricity, and hookups of any kind. There’s no dump station here either. Other than the pit toilet, this campground lacks all amenities. Please come prepared.
What Bighorn campground did offer, at least to me, was excitement after dark.
To read about what I encountered after the sun went down, please join me here on Friday for all the exciting details.
To be honest, this is more like a parking lot than a camping area.
Pros: Camping is free there and it’s not far from Socorro, New Mexico. There’s a restroom (pit toilet) on site. The parking area is level. The surrounding nature (especially the giant rock formations) is gorgeous. The road that leads to the area is easy to navigate. It was very quiet the night I stayed there.
Cons: When I was there, the door to the restroom didn’t close completely, which meant it couldn’t be locked. There is nowhere to park a rig where it isn’t on display to everyone else in the parking/camping area. No only is there no privacy in the parking/camping area, there is no shade.
I’d been visiting the Salinas Pueblo Missions Ruins, and Socorro was the next logical stop. I ended up buying a can of beans and dumping my trash at Walmart, fueling up the minivan, and getting a pizza at Little Caesars. I’d been driving and was tired of driving and would be driving the next day. I was ready to stop for the day, chill out, and eat some pizza.
I got on the Free Campsites website and looked for the closest free camping spot that wasn’t Walmart. That place was The Box.
The Box is not far from Socorro, right off Highway 60 and very easy to get to. Once you get off Highway 60, the road is dirt, but well-maintained and easy to navigate. I had no trouble navigating the road in my Toyota Sienna
I’d read reviews of The Box camping area that said it was basically a parking area. Still, I was a bit surprised to find the area is for all intents and purposes a parking lot. It’s not a camping area. It’s a parking area where people camp.
There were no signs that said “no camping” or “no overnight parking,” so I felt fine about staying there. Just know that there are few campground amenities save a pit toilet, a trash can (which had a sign saying there was no trash pickup while I was there), and a single fire ring made from stones. There are no picnic tables and no shade structures. There aren’t any trees to offer any shade. (I came in around 3 o’clock on an overcast afternoon and left in the morning. I didn’t experience the lack of shade myself, but I bet this place bakes at midday, especially in the summer.)
There is a restroom on site. It’s a pit toilet in one of those little square concrete buildings. It was fairly clean and even had toilet paper when I visited in mid-September of 2021. The problem came when I tried to close the door. It wouldn’t close completely. The door wouldn’t fit inside the frame. I tugged on it. I tried slamming it. Nothing worked. I don’t know if the door hadn’t been installed correctly or if a visitor had tried to tear it from its hinges and messed up the whole thing, but the end result was that it wouldn’t close. Because the door didn’t close completely, it didn’t lock either.
After spending several minutes tugging on the door and trying to get it to close properly, my use of the pit toilet had become nonnegotiable. I had to use that toilet even if the door was slightly ajar. I did what I had to do quickly and hoped no one would come along and swing the door wide open while I was in there. No one did.
Over the course of the afternoon, several cars pulled in and people, presumably hikers, disembarked and went off into the wilderness. After a while these people returned to their cars and eventually drove off.
A big group of what seemed to be locals stayed a few hours, having boisterous fun, mostly in the parking area. They left late in the afternoon.
Around twilight a van pulled in and parked next to a pickup truck that had been there for a while. Some young men hung out by the vehicles. One seemed to be cleaning out the van and fussing at the others. Two of the young men played Frisbee in the increasing dark. Other people arrived, but I couldn’t tell if everyone was interacting with each other or if people were sticking to the group they’d arrived with. I wondered if there would be partying into the wee hours, but all was quiet after about 9:30. Even when the people were active, there was no yelling and no loud music, just talking. Once the talking died down, the whole area was very quiet.
If you’re the type to sleep in a tent, there’s plenty of public land right there to pitch it on. Walk out from the parking lot and set up your tent among the majestic rocks.
If you’re like me and sleep exclusively in your rig, you’ll be happy to know the parking area here is very flat. After several nights parked at a slant, I certainly enjoyed sleeping in a bed that was perfectly level.
The Box was not a bad place to spend an afternoon and night. It beat the Walmart parking lot because after the sun set, it was dark and quiet, and I enjoy parking next to nature. I personally would not want to set up camp there for several days, but I liked it for an overnight stop.
I discovered this free camping areaon BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land while looking for a free place to stay near the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in southern Colorado. Whenever I’m looking for a free place to camp, the first place I look is the Free Campsites website. Once again, the site helped me out, this time by directing me to Lake Como Road.
This BLM land is easy to get to. From Alamosa, CO, take Highway 160 to Highway 150 and turn left. From Fort Garland and Blanca, CO, take Highway 160 to Highway 150 and turn right. If you’re heading south on Highway 17, take a left when you see the signs directing you to Great Sand Dunes National Park . When you hit highway 150, make a right As you may have guess, this camping area is off of Highway 150. Great Sand Dunes National Park is at the the end of Highway 150, so it’s very easy to get there from this camping area.
I did a lot of looking for a free place to camp before my visit to the Great Sand Dunes. This is the closest spot I found that was truly free in that was not a State Wildlife Area (where folks are required to have a valid Colorado hunting or fishing license in order to camp) and was reported to have a road that did not require a 4 wheel drive and/or high clearance vehicle. Since I’m in a minivan now, I have to be more conscious of poor road conditions. I didn’t want to try to drive on a road I maybe couldn’t handle.
The dirt road into this boondocking area was not terrible. It had washboard ridges in places, and there were some small exposed rocks, but overall it was fine, at least as far as I went. I stayed within a mile or two of the turn off to from Highway 150, and I think any vehicle could make it as far as I did. Just take it nice and slow, which you should be doing anyway on this very dusty road. You don’t want to be the one to choke out all your neighbors.
The camping spots are just wide, dusty areas with little vegetation on the side of the dirt road. The first camping area seemed to be the biggest with room for four or five rigs. I was a little nervous about the road, but I wanted a bit more space to myself, so I drove father in. I could see rigs parked miles up the road as it climbed up the mountain, but I was not that adventurous. I just needed a place to put the van where I could cook and sleep before I went off to the park, so I didn’t feel the need to find a great spot.
It’s a good thing I didn’t need a great spot because I didn’t have one. There was zero shade where I was. Most of the spots had the same problem. There are no trees until well up the mountain road. Even in mid September, it was pretty warm there during the afternoon, especially with the sun beating down. If you’re going to camp there for a few days, plan to use your awning or bring a popup canopy or a tarp you can use to fashion a sun block.
Or maybe you shouldn’t use an awning or popup canopy or any kind of sun block after all. It was quite breezy the afternoon I was there. If you’re using a tarp, tent, or canopy out there, but sure to stake it down well. If you’re using an awning attached to your rig, keep a close eye on it so the wind doesn’t have the chance to twist it out of shape.
Cell phone service was great where I stayed. Texting worked normally, and I was able to access the internet with no problem. However, I didn’t try to stream or watch videos, so I don’t know if that would have worked out.
The view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains was beautiful, and I enjoyed the big blue sky filled with puffy white clouds.
This area is available for true dry camping. There are no amenities here: no running water (for drinking or otherwise), no electrical hookups, no shade structures, no picnic tables, no restrooms (flush toilet, pit toilet, portable toilet, or otherwise), no dump station, no trashcans. Bring with you everything you need to survive for however long you plan to stay on Lake Como Road.
There are fire rings make from rocks in some of the camping spots. Check on fire bans before you build a campfire. The area is is really dry, so please don’t build a fire if the BLM has deemed doing so dangerous.
As always when boondocking, be prepared to take all your trash with you when you leave. As I said before, there are no trashcans or dumpsters here; you really do have to pack out what you pack in.
I had a quiet night on this BLM land. I didn’t hear any music or other sounds of people partying, In the morning, I had a quick breakfast just as the sky was beginning to turn light, then took off to the Great Sand Dunes.
Some camping spots are about beauty and getting close to nature. Some camping spots are about location. For me, camping on Lake Como Road was all about location. I appreciate public land like this where I can hang out and sleep for free before going off to enjoy natural splendor.
I haven’t shared a Thankful Thursday with you in a couple of months because I’ve been so dang busy. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot for which to be grateful. So many good things have happened in the last few months. I got to visit with old friends and see new places. I got to hang out with a nice dog and make a bunch of hats. Life has been good.
Here are some things I’m thankful for right now.
I traveled through New Mexico and Colorado for three weeks and camped in 15 different places and only paid once. That’s right! I stayed in 14 different places on public land for free. I’m so thankful for free places to camp on public land and the Free Campsites website which helped me find 10 of those spots.
I traveled nearly 1,000 miles through two states and didn’t have any trouble with the Silver Streak, my Toyota Sienna minivan. I got the oil changed and tires rotated before I hit the road and no problems were reported to me. I’m so grateful for the van. So far it’s been absolutely reliable and has given me no trouble.
I love seeing places I’ve never seen before, and I’m so lucky that I’ve seen so many new places recently. I just three weeks, I visited The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve; four museums in Santa Fe (The Museum of International Folk Art, The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, The New Mexico Museum of Art, and the New Mexico History Museum); The Gran Quivira, Quarai, and Abo Ruins as well as the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument Headquarters; The Very Large Array; The Box Recreation Area; The Catwalk Recreation Area; and The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Most of these places are open to the public at no charge. One thing I love more than seeing new places is seeing new places for free.
I also visited Crestone, Colorado; Alamosa, Colorado; and Silver City, New Mexico for the first time.
I’m grateful for my health that allows me to drive, hike, and set up and break down camp. Some days I was wiped out by 4 o’clock in the afternoon, but I went to bed early and woke up early excited about the upcoming day. I’m so glad I’m living well with no major health concerns.
As always, I so appreciate the people who support me each month, either through Patreon or a direst deposit into my PayPay account. Big thanks to Shannan, Keith, Theresa, Laura-Marie, Rena, Muriel, and Nancy. I appreciate you beyond the monetary contribution. I appreciate you believing in me enough to put your dollars on the line, but most of all, I appreciate you believing in me.
Thanks also to Brent and Frank who both also made monetary contributions to me recently. I so appreciate your support as well.
Big special thanks to Brent who had a long Skype call with me once I made it back to home base and talked me through every aspect of getting my solar power system up and running. I was really nervous about doing something wrong and destroying the whole system, but Brent gave me calm direction every step of the way. There is no way I can ever thank you enough, Brent.
I’m also sending thanks to everyone who has posted comments on my blog posts in the last few months. I know I’ve taken a long time to approve and respond to these comments, but believe me, I appreciate them so much. I’ve approved all of the outstanding comments and will respond to them soon.
I appreciate everyone who’s bought a hat or a necklace or postcards or anything else I’ve created. (Winter is coming! Keep your head warm with one of my colorful hats!)
Most of all, thank you to my readers. I appreciate you sticking with me even although blog posts have been few and far between this pat year. I’m hoping to remedy that situation starting now by giving you lots of new content over the next several months. Please keep reading. Please tell your friends about my blog, especially friends who are nomads, travelers, and campers. The single most important thing you can do to support me is to spread the word about my writing.
Thank you! Thank you! Thanks you all for being here and sharing this journey with me.
If you would like to support me financially, I would would really appreciate it. To make a one-time donation, click on the donate button in the column to the right. It will take you to PayPal but you don’t need a PayPal account to donate; you can use a credit or or debit card to make your donation. If you want to offer ongoing monthly support, please consider joining me on Patreon. If you join my Patreon club, you get content that other folks never see. I post photos and updates on my life every couple of days on my Patreon account. Depending on what level you offer support, you might get other gifts from me like a sticker, abracelet, or even a collage. A donation of even $2 a month will get you access to patron-only content. To join me on Patreon, just click the “Become a patron” button at the top of the column to the right.
I’ve camped off of Forest Road 64J near the Tres Piedras rocks several times, first in late August 2020, again in early May 2021, and on two occasions in September 2021. Before I camped there, The Man and I visited a few times to hike around the rocks and get some time away from home during the pandemic locked down spring and summer of 2020.
This camping spot is about 40 miles from Taos, NM and just outside the community of Tres Piedras. Don’t get too excited about the town of Tres Piedras because it’s tiny. There’s a post office, a meeting place for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Chili Line Depot which offers food and lodging. There’s no fuel for vehicles for sale in Tres Piedras, and if you’re looking for a major supply run, you’ll wan to go to Taos or Antonito, Colorado (31 miles away).
What Tres Piedras does have is a National Forest Service ranger station, cool giant rocks that folks who know what they’re doing can climb, and free camping.
The free camping area is off Highway 64. If you’re coming from the east, you’ll pass the ranger station, then look for a sign on the right that say “64J National Forest.” The next road on the right (a dirt road) is the one you want to turn onto. f you’re coming from the west, directly across from the road you want to turn down is a brown sign that reads “Carson National Forest Information Visitors Welcome Ahead.” The sign is quite weathered. One way to know you’re on the right road once you turn is the ginormous green water tank. If you’re coming from the east, you can definitely see it before you turn.
About that sign that says “Visitors Welcome…” As of September 2021, the visitor center at the ranger station was still closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were several bulletin boards outside the ranger station offering lots of information about the surrounding area, but I couldn’t pick up a map or say hi to a ranger while I was there.
There is a trail that goes from the side of the ranger station and crosses road 64J and picks up on the other side. I walked the trail from the ranger station to 64J once during my evening constitutional. It was not very exciting. The most exciting thing I saw while walking the trail were some animal (cow?) bones. I did not take the trail after it crossed 64J, so I don[‘t know what it’s like over there.
Once you turn onto road 64J, find a flat and empty dirt spot off the road and among the pine trees to camp on. There are spots to pull over all along the road. If you go all the way to the end before the road splits, you will see a couple of sites with picnic tales and three or four fire pits constructed from rocks. These are sort of designated camping spots, but everything is quite informal back there.
64J is a pretty good dirt road. The last time I was on it, there were some ruts and wash boarding, but I was able to easily navigate it in my Toyota Sienna minivan.
If you make a very sharp left turn onto the less defined road right before you come to where the road Ts, you can follow it back and find places to camp right next to big rock formations. Picturesque! While these rock formations are big and cool, when you see these, you haven’t really seen anything yet.
If you take either of the more well-defined roads to the left at the T, you will find more places to camp, and before too long come to the Tres Piedras rocks. Calling them “rocks” is something of a misnomer. These are not just a few little rocks or even some boulders. This is a massive rock formation. Rock climbers climb these rocks. They are very, very big!
The access to the rock formation is on private property. I’m unclear as to how the far the private land extends, but the land owner allows folks on the private land in order to get to the rocks. However, there’s a fence, so you’re not going to be able to drive your rig right up to the rocks to camp or for a photo opp. Park or camp elsewhere and walk through the access gate to get to the rocks.
This area of Carson National Forest is grazing land for cattle. When The Man and I spent a week right off road 64J in the travel trailer in late August of 2020, there were cows all over the place. If you see cows here or on any public land, don’t harass them. The cows have every right to be there. In fact, the cows are the paying customers, as someone has bought a permit from the forest service to graze them there. Also, you don’t want to get between a mamma and her calf. Cows are typically calm and docile, but they’re also big and protective of their young. If you don’t hassle the cattle, they’ll likely leave you alone.
I’ve seen wildlife in the area too. Peregrine falcons nest in the crevices of the rock formation during some parts of the year, and The Man and I saw some flying around the first time we visited. In the camping area where the fire pits and picnic tables are, I’ve seen woodpeckers and robins and bluebirds and bluejays and other birds I couldn’t identify. Although I’ve heard coyotes yip and howl in the distance, I haven’t seen any while camping near Tres Piedras. While I was writing the rough draft of this post from the comfy warmth of my bed, I saw something in my peripheral vision. I looked out of the van’s side window and I saw two deer off in the distance walking among the trees.
I’ve never known the camping area to be crowded. (Of course “crowded” is a subjective idea. My “not crowded” might be your “too much.”) Even on Labor Day weekend of 2020, the place was mellow. There tends to be a mix of folks sleeping in tents, vans and minivans, small motorhomes, and pull-behind travel trailers. I’ve not seen any really big Class A motorhomes or 5th wheels parked nearby.
I think it’s not crowded because it’s quite a ways from Taos, where most of the action in the area is. Also, I’ve noticed campers tend to gravitate to water, and there’s no stream or lake near the Tres Piedras rocks. That’s ok with me. I’d rather have peaceful bliss with few neighbors over a crowded body of water any day (or-especially-night).
My cell phone signal (provided by Verizon) was weak in the area and sometimes disappeared entirely. When I tried to have a voice conversation, I could hear the person on the other end fine, but after a few minutes, she said my voice was breaking up. Outgoing texts were sometimes delayed, but eventually went thought. Internet access was best in the early morning. I didn’t try to stream anything.
Other than a few picnic tables and fire pits, camping in this part of the Carson National Forest is a true boondocking experience. There are no hookups and no toilets. There’s no running water, no drinking water, and no showers. There are no trash cans, so prepare to pack out all your trash.
On 64J road, you may find yourself–like I did the morning I wrote the first draft of this post–alone with the breeze, the trees, the gentle tapping of a woodpecker, and deer in the distance.
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.
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.
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.”)
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The public land around Flagstaff, AZ has offered me and The Man (and Jerico the dog) places to stop over (for a night or a week or even two weeks) on our way to new adventures. In April of 2017, we left Ajo, AZ and spent a night outside of Flagstaff on our way to Taos, NM. Later that year in late June we spent a few days and nights near Flagstaff on our way to jobs in the mountains of California. In April of 2018 we again found ourselves in Flagstaff area for a couple of weeks before we went to our Cali jobs. We stayed until the prospect of an early May snowstorm sent us packing. We found ourselves in the area again in late September of 2018 when our jobs in the California mountains ended. We hung out near Flagstaff until the temperature dropped and it was cool enough go back to our fifth wheel in Why, AZ.
During one of our 2018 stays, The Man decided he wanted to try to sell some of the pendants he’d made in Heritage Square. According to the Heritage Square Trust website,
We arrived fairly early on a Saturday morning and stopped
the van close enough to drop off a table as well as The Man’s jewelry and
jewelry-making supplies. Then The Man parked the van farther away where we
wouldn’t get a ticket while I stood guard over his belongings. After setting up
his table and arranging his pendants, The Man began working on a new piece. I
wandered around Heritage Square taking photos.
There’s a cool statue of a colorful cat in Heritage Square called Asset #15. According to the Encircle Photos website, it is part of the PAWS project.
This is one of the eventual 40, life-size painted mountain lions found around Flagstaff…The PAWS project is sponsored by the Coconino Coalition for Children and Youth. Each sculpture portrays one of the developmental assets essential to raising a healthy and successful child. For example, this is “Asset #15 – Positive Peer Influence.”
I also like the exhibit of the Grand Canyon strata. It’s a nice display of information about the natural wonder only 81 miles away. According to the aforementioned Heritage Square Trust website,
The base of the flag pole contains actual rocks from the Grand Canyon placed carefully to reflect the geologic strata of the Canyon, with Vishnu schist on the bottom and Kaibab limestone on the top.
My favorite part of Heritage Square was the Little Free Library (LFL) I was pleasantly surprised to find there. Little Free Libraries are grassroots gift economy projects. LFLS are places where people can leave books they don’t want; anyone is allowed to take one or more books from the libraries. According to the Little Free Library organization,
A Little Free Library is a “take a book, return a book” free book exchange. They come in many shapes and sizes, but the most common version is a small wooden box of books. Anyone may take a book or bring a book to share.
I thought this was a registered Little Free Library with a
charter number, but after looking at the photos I took of it, I see that it is
a renegade LFL! I do love me a renegade! The LFL is a project of Oasis
Flagstaff and the Downtown Business Alliance. It goes to show that a Little
Free Library doesn’t have to be “official” to be built well and look nice.
I appreciate its sturdy construction, which surely makes it less attractive to thieves and vandals.
Let me say here, anyone who steals or vandalizes a Little Free Library has problems and needs prayers. According to the Little Free Library FAQs,
Small incidents of vandalism are common. Things like having a guest book stolen or a few books damaged are going to happen at one point or another. Bigger problems, like having all of your books “stolen” or your entire Library damaged, are much less common. In our annual survey of Little Free Library stewards, more than 80% of stewards reported never dealing with significant vandalism.
I didn’t take any
books from the LFL that day or leave any behind either, but I paid another
visit to it before we left town. I dropped off one book (The Unincorporated Man) and took one to replace it (a historical
romance set in Chicago during World War II, the title of which I cannot
I love visiting Little Free Libraries, even if I don’t take or leave books. I’ve visited LFLs in Los Gatos, CA; Phoenix and Mesa, AZ; Santa Fe, NM; and Taos County, NM. The LFL in Heritage Square was my first (but not my last) in Flagstaff. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to see it.
As for The Man’s jewelry sales, it was a bust. He didn’t
sell a single thing. Hardly any people walked through the square, and the ones
who did didn’t even stop to look. Maybe we were too early. The last time we’d
gone there and found traveling kids making jewelry, playing drums and guitars,
and generally hanging out, it had been later in the day.
There’s no shade in Heritage Square, and we hadn’t brought an umbrella or an awning. By noon the sun was beating down, and we were quite hot, so we packed up and drove a few miles back to the woods.