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 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.
When I asked for suggestions for topics for my Wednesday posts of special interest to vandwellers, vagabonds, rubber tramps, nomads, and travelers of all kinds, my friend Laura-Marie of the dangerous compassions blog suggested I write about the basics of camping. Good idea! Camping season is upon us, so today I’ll share the steps for finding a camping spot, setting up your equipment, having a great time, and packing up to go home.
#1 Decide where you want to camp. Do you want to camp close to home, or do you want to visit a different region? Do you want to camp in a campground or hike into the back country? Do you want to camp at the beach or on top of a mountain? Do you want to camp in a forest or in a desert? Do you want to be in a remote, quiet location or close to civilization? Answering these questions will help you decide where to camp. (If you decide to camp in a forest, desert, or on top of a mountain, see my blog posts “How to Stay Safe and Healthy in the Forest,” “10 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in the Dessert,” or “Managing in the Mountains” for more tips for a pleasant camping experience.)
#2 Decide on the
amenities you need a campground to provide. Do you want to rough it in a
place with no amenities or stay some place with running water, electricity, hot
showers, and flush toilets? Do you want to stay in a yurt with real beds? Will
you be pitching a tent or staying in your motorhome, travel trailer, or 5th
wheel? Do you need to take a hot shower every morning? Do you gag at the
thought of using a pit toilet? Do you want to hike, fish, or collect rock
specimens during your trip? The answers to these questions will also help you
choose the right camping spot for you.
#3 Do research online before you hit the road. If you want to camp for free, check out both the Free Campsites and Campendium websites. These websites list free and cheap campsites across the USA and include reviews from people who’ve actually stayed in those places. Many of these camping spots are in primitive camping areas on public land, so be ready to boondock and meet all your own needs. (Not sure what it means to boondock? See my post “10 Fundamentals for Boondockers.”)
National parks, forests, and monuments often offer developed campgrounds. You can get information about and make reservations for your stay at these campgrounds at Recreation.gov. National forest campgrounds typically do not offer showers but often do offer pit toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings. Campgrounds in national parks tend to be a bit fancier and may include running water, hot showers, and flush toilets.
Another camping option is a private campground. Some private
campgrounds cater to Rvs while others have spots for tent camping too. Some
private campgrounds prohibit car camping, so if you’re a vandweller, you may
want to carry a small tent for just such occasions.
No matter what sort of campground you decide to camp in,
make sure it has the amenities you need before you make a reservation or pay a
fee. Get as much information as possible online before you make a decision.
#4 Pack everything you need. Where you camp will help determine what supplies you will need. If you’re not bringing an RV, at the very least you’re going to want a tent, food, and water. If you want even a bit of comfort, bring a sleeping bag. For extra comfort, bring a sleeping pad or air mattress to go under your sleeping bag. If you’re going to cook, you’ll need a portable stove, fuel for the stove, pots and pans, utensils, plates, ingredients, cooking oil, spices, etc. If you’re in a spot with no drinking water, you’ll have to bring your own. If there’s no water at all where you’re camping, you’ll have to bring water for washing too.
Other basic necessities: flashlight or headlamp with fresh
batteries (it’s dark out in nature, even in a campground); tarp to go under
your tent; rain gear (just in case); pillow (you can get small ones especially
for travel and camping); strong stakes to help hold down your tent; small
shovel, hand soap, and toilet paper if you are going to be primitive camping.
#5 Once you arrive at your general camping destination, find your campsite. If you’re staying
in a campground, the camp host will probably assign you a site, or maybe you
already picked your site when you made a reservation. Ask the camp host for
help finding your site, check your reservation confirmation for your site
number, or look for a placard with the name of the person who made the
reservation on it. If you’re in a first-come, first-served campground, look for
a site that’s not too close to the (possibly stinky) pit toilets and not on an
If you’re boondocking, find a spot that’s been camped on
before. Look for a place where the groundcover has been disturbed or where
there is a fire ring made of stones.
No matter where you are camping, you want a nice flat spot
for your tent. (Creeping downhill all night because your tent is pitched on
uneven ground is a special kind of hell.) Make sure you aren’t pitching your
tent on top of bumpy tree roots. When you find a spot that seems workable, look
up. You don’t want a branch falling on your tent in the event of high winds
Once you’ve found a flat spot with no dangerous branches overhead, clear away
any sticks and rocks. (Another special kind of camping hell is finding you’re
sleeping on top of rocks, sticks, and roots.)
#6 Pitch your tent. For a complete step-by-step guide (with pictures!) to setting up (and taking down) your tent, see the WikiHow article on the subject, but for your convenience, I’ll hit the high points here.
Practice setting up your tent before your trip. This step is especially important if you won’t arrive at your camping spot until after dark. This will also allow you to make sure all of the tent components are present.
Once you’re on your campsite and have picked a place for your tent, unpack and lay out all the items you will need to set up the tent. These items include the tent itself, rain-fly, ground cloth or tarp, tent poles, stakes, guy lines, and a mallet or rock for pounding in stakes.
Lay out the tarp or ground cloth where you want the tent to be. The ground cloth will help protect the tent floor from tears and punctures and keep it dry. This bottom layer should be as big (or nearly so) as the bottom of your tent.
Lay the tent over the ground cloth.
Assemble all the tent poles.
Put the poles through the sleeves on top of the tent. Beware: With some tents, poles of different sizes go into specific sleeves.
Once the poles are in place, the bottoms of the poles must be attached to the bottom of the tent. Look for pouches at the bottom of the tent the poles can fit into or metal pins attached to the tent that slide into the hollow end of the poles. As the poles go into place, the roof of the tent should lift off the ground
If the tent has clips used to hold its fabric close to the poles, snap the clips over the poles.
The bottom of the tent should have loops through which the stakes go. Put the stakes through the loops, then pound the stakes into the ground using your mallet or a rock.
Stretch out your guy lines and stake then down. You want your guy lines to be taut but not overstretched. Staking the guy lines will help the tent stand properly and will help the zippers slide smoothly.
Attach the rain-fly if your tent has one. You may want to leave the rain-fly off on a clear night, but if there is any chance of rain, put it on. Trust me, you do not want to go outside in a thunderstorm to attach your rain-fly.
#7 Set up your
kitchen. Your kitchen will be one of the mostly highly trafficked areas of
your camp. If your campsite has a picnic table, that’s a logical place for your
If you’re camping in bear country, you’ll need to take some extra precautions. In the book Bear Aware, author Bill Schneider offers an entire chapter detailing camping in bear country. One of the most important tips he shares is to separate your sleeping and cooking areas. If food smells attract bears, you want them as far away from sleeping people as possible.
“The sleeping area and the cooking area must be separated by at least 100 yards,” Schneider advises.
Also, he says be prepared to “hang everything that has any food smell” or store those items (including trash, toothpaste, sunscreen, lotion, etc.) in bear canisters.
#8 Keep a clean camp. Food and garbage lying around can attract flies, rodents, raccoons, ravens, and bears. Of course, you don’t want to tangle with bears, but even smaller animals can create a huge mess by dragging food and garbage all over your campsite. Flies carry disease, and no one wants to get sick while they’re supposed to be enjoying trees and birdsong. For more information about dealing with wildlife while camping, check out the great article “How to Keep Animals Out of Your Campsite” on the Camping Cooks website.
If you’re in a campground, dispose of trash in garbage cans
or dumpsters regularly. Be sure you close garbage containers securely. If
you’re camping in a place with no trash containers, tie garbage bags and stow
them securely in your vehicle until you can pack out what you’ve packed in.
#9 Once your camp is set up, you’re going to want to relax and enjoy yourself. Most campers love to sit around a campfire, maybe roasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories. Of course, before this fun can begin someone has to build a campfire. If there’s already a fire ring on your campsite, use it. Otherwise, build one with stones. Do NOT start a fire on bare ground. Also, you need a source of water, a bucket, and a shovel on hand at all times during your fire building and enjoyment.
If you are allowed, gather wood from around your campsite. Sort your wood according to size. Even if you’ve brought firewood, gather small sticks and dry leaves and needles for tinder if you are allowed to do so.
Place some tinder in the middle of the fire ring. Use sticks less than one inch around to build a teepee-like structure over the tinder. Shove balled up paper in between the sticks. Once the framework is built, light the balled up paper. You need to start your fire small, then add larger pieces of wood. Once the fire is burning strongly, you can add larger pieces. You can get more information about building a safe campfire from Smokey Bear.
Had your campfire fun and now you’re ready to go to bed? Make sure your campfire is DEAD OUT. Any time you leave your campsite, any fires must be DEAD OUT. Smokey Bear can tell you how to do this too, but briefly, pour lots of water on your fire or stir sand or dirt into the embers to bury the fire. Smokey says,
Remember: If it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave.
#10 When it’s time to go home, break camp.
Make sure any rain or dew on your tent has dried completely before
packing. If your tent is damp when you put it away, you will have to set it up
again at home so it can dry, or you run the risk of unpacking a stinky, moldy
mess next time you go camping. Pack up the tent in the reverse order of setup.
Clean up your campsite. Practice the leave no trace rule of camping where you remove every hint of your presence. Pick up all trash, including microtrash. Put all trash in trashcans, or if none are available, pack out what you packed in. Don’t leave any trash in fire rings. Be a good campground steward and leave your campsite cleaner than you found it.
If you piled up rocks, sticks, leaves or pine cones before you set up your tent, spread those materials out over the big bare patch where your tent sat.
If you built a fire
ring, take it apart after you have determined that the fire is DEAD OUT. Disperse the rocks and ashes so their presence
cannot be detected.
Don’t leave any
belongings behind. Get everyone in your party to do a final walk through of
the campsite to make sure everything brought has been packed up.
I hope you had a great
camping experience! What did you learn that I left out? Share your camping tips
in the comments below.
There’s no way to imagine or prepare for every situation one might encounter on a camping trip. Remember, Blaize Sun can’t prepare you or protect you from every danger you might encounter in nature. You are responsible for our own self! Research the problems you might encounter in the area you plan to camp before you get there. If you plan to camp on Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service land, call the field office or ranger station responsible for that place and ask about hazards in the area. Think before you act. If something you’re about to do seems potentially dangerous, don’t do it!
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.
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
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.
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 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.
This is one of the cool views from our campsite on Willow Springs Road
When the Lady of the House and I were planning our epic road trip through Arizona and Utah, we wanted to spend the night at the Devil’s Garden campground in Arches National Park. Alas, when we were planning our April trip in early March, the campground was booked through August! Apparently one must book months in advance in order to spend the night in the Devil’s Garden.
Since we couldn’t stay where we wanted, I turned to the website I always use when I’m looking for a camping spot: Freecampsites.net. On that site we learned about free BLM camping on Willow Springs Road. The area is about 15 miles northweat of Moab, and approximately 21 miles from the entrance to the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. It seemed like a good spot to stay on the night after our adventure at Arches National Park and before our early morning entrance to Island in the Sky.
After our afternoon at Arches, The Lady treated me to a delicious, house-made veggie burger at the Atomic Café in Moab. After a leisurely dinner on the restaurant’s back patio, we went in search of free camping on Willow Springs Road.
Earlier in the day, The Lady and I had experienced some confusion about the camping area. She’d checked it out on Google Maps, and it seemed like we’d have to go miles into the wilderness to get to a place where we could camp for free. My recollection from the Free Campsites website was that camping was allowed not far from the highway. I used the Campendium website to cross reference, and was pleased with the ease of use. I’d never used Campendium before, although other rubber tramps had mentioned it to me. I found the website helpful and added the site to my set of finding-a-free-place-to-camp tools.
Campendium confirmed we did not have to go miles out of our way to camp on Willow Spring Road, so we decided we’d try to find a spot there for our quick overnight between national parks.
When we left Moab, we took Highway 191 north out of town. We traveled about 13 miles from the Atomic Café, passing Under Canvas Moab not long before it was time to turn onto Willow Springs Road (BLM 378), which was marked by a green street sign. When we turned onto Willow Springs Road, a brown info board marked the area as public land. The Lady hopped out of the van to read the signs on the board. We had arrived.
This is what Willow Springs Road (BLM 378) looked like when the Lady of the House and I spent the night there in April 2018.
On the right, just past the info board was an area of bare rock where camps were set up. I drove the van into the area, thinking we could park near the highway for our brief stop, but I couldn’t find a level spot. I took the van back to the road through the camping area and drove farther from the highway.
Willow Spring Road was a good dirt road when I drove on it in early April 2018. The part of it we saw was mostly smooth with some gravel. There were no large bumps or ruts in the road, but I drove slowly anyway to help keep the dust down.
There were plenty of big rigs parked just off Willow Spring Road. It didn’t’ seem to be a problem to get large RVs onto the free camping area, at least in the first mile or two off the highway.
In the area we saw, camping was happening on either side of the road. People had found spots to park their rigs just off the main road. I was trying to stay a respectful distance from other campers, so I passed up several flat spots that would have worked for our needs. The place we settled on was a little closer to the next camp than I usually park, but the ground was flat and there was a rock fire ring showing that particular slice of land had been camped on before. I figured that because we wouldn’t be up late cooking dinner or sitting by a campfire, we’d be up and out early in the morning, and we’d only stay for one night, we wouldn’t be too disruptive to our neighbors.
I parked the van so this is what we saw through the windshield.
We saw a portable toilet on the side of the main road between the highway and where we camped. Neither The Lady nor I utilized it, so I have no report on its cleanliness or the availability of toilet paper there. I can only say that there was a portable toilet in the area when we visited.
The land in the camping area is dusty with some scrubby bushes and a few small trees. The landscape around the camping area was majestic Utah in all its glory. We could see the Las Sal mountains from where we camped (although, unfortunately, I was not able to get a decent photo of them with the light conditions we experience while we were there), and beautiful red rock walls.
Since we didn’t have to cook dinner, we were in the van fairly early. We set up one of my folding tables and put a jug of water and a bottle of soap on it as a handwashing station then went to bed. I must have fallen asleep immediately and deeply because I don’t remember hearing a sound, but The Lady said she heard vehicles driving on Willow Springs Road deep into the night.
In the morning we awoke early as we’d planned and found frost on the table. The morning was cold, but we cooked and ate our breakfast so we could move on to our adventure at Canyonlands.
Other than an inconsiderate neighbor across the way who let her dog run free and did not let the sounds of nature prevail, I found Willow Springs Road a fine free camping spot. I suspect it’s quite hot out there in the summer when the heat beats down on little shade, but it was a nice spot for an overnight during our early spring travels.
If you live nomadically, you have more freedom to visit tourist attractions across the U.S.A. From Arcadia National Park on the coast of Maine to Disneyland in Southern California, nomads can spend their days basking in natural beauty and having fun in amusement parks and at roadside attractions. Since fun often comes at a price, and nomads aren’t the only people on a tight budget, today I offer tips on saving money while visiting tourist attractions. The tips are aimed at nomads, but will be helpful for anyone trying to save money while on vacation.
#1 Visit in the off-season, Peak tourist season is usually Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day Weekend when lots of kids are out of school, but some places (I’m looking at you, Southern Arizona!) have the opposite peak season because of the ultra-hot summers and the mild winters. Some places (like Taos, NM) have two peak seasons—one during family vacation season in the summer and another during ski season in the winter. Do some research on the places you want to visit to find out when they’re less likely to be busy.
#2 Sleep cheap. Find free or super cheap camping near the places you want to visit. You can save a bundle by camping instead of staying in a hotel or motel. I’ve found free camping close to several national parks (Arches, Canyonlands, Carlsbad Caverns) using the Free Campsites and Campendium websites. On occasions when I couldn’t find a free campsite, I’ve found campgrounds listed on those sites (like the Super Bowl campground right outside the Needles District of Canyonlands) with a nightly fee under $10.
#3 Keep your food cost down. Bring your own snacks and drinks into the attraction if you can. Most national parks and monuments allow visitors to bring in food and beverages, so stock up before you arrive and don’t pay gift shop prices for granola bars and trail mix. Many amusement and theme parks do allow visitors to bring in a limited number of bottles of water, small snacks, and medically necessary food.
If possible, cook for yourself instead of eating out. If you’re boondocking or staying in a campground, cooking for yourself will probably be part of your normal rubber tramp routine. If you’re sleeping in a hostel, use of a community kitchen is often included in the nightly fee. If you do stay in a hotel or motel and the room includes a microwave, take advantage of it to make a simple meal. Also take advantage of any free breakfast the hotel/motel offers, as well as any free coffee or tea available to start your day.
Remember: food will usually cost less in supermarkets than in convenience stores or small grocery stores, so stock up on food before you hit the road or you might end up spending a lot of money on food in a remote location.
#4 Buy all your gear before you head to a tourist attraction. Similarly, supplies are going to cost more in remote locations. Avoid paying gift shop and small town prices for sunscreen, insect repellent, propane, fire starter, and batteries by planning ahead. Save money by getting supplies before you leave civilization.
You may also find better prices on fuel for your rig if you buy it in a place where several gas stations compete for business. If you can even find fuel in the middle of nowhere, you’re going to pay more for it. Top off your tank before you leave civilization.
#5 If you’re going to visit several attractions in one area, look for a bundle pass that offers access to multiple places for a one-time price.
When my host family visited Utah in the summer of 2017, they planned to visit Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Natural Bridges National Monument. Admission to each park costs $15 to $30 per vehicle, but the Southeast Utah Parks Pass was only $55 and allowed unlimited access to the three attractions the family wanted to visit, plus Hovenweep National Monument. Because the pass was valid for 12 months, The Lady of the House used it again in April 2018 to get us into those places during our epic Arizona-Utah road trip.
#6 If the price of admission allows you to enter the attraction for multiple days, take advantage of this option. Most national parks are expensive to visit, usually $25 to $35 per vehicle (and probably more in some places), but most national parks I’ve visited have allowed visitors to enter for five days to a week after paying the admission fee. Spending $35 to visit an attraction seven days in a row is a much better deal than spending $35 to stay in the place for just a few hours. Especially if you have a free or cheap camping spot nearby, slow down and get your money’s worth by exploring a place for as many days as your admission fee allows.
#7 Find out if the place you want to visit offers birthday discounts or freebies. Out of Africa wildlife park in Camp Verde, AZ charges between $18.95 (for kids 3-12) and $33.95 (for adults, with discounts for seniors and active duty members of the military and veterans) for admission, but offers folks free visits any day during their birth month. While such birthday gifts may not be typical, it’s worth checking into at privately owned attractions.
#8 If you’re eligible for a federal senior pass or access pass, get it! The access pass is available for free to U.S. citizens or permanent residents who are legally blind or permanently disabled. The senior pass is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents 62 years or age or older. The senior pass now costs $80, but that’s a one-time fee, and the pass is valid for the pass holder’s lifetime.
Both of these passes admit the pass holder and passengers (in a private, noncommercial vehicle) to national parks and other federally managed lands. These passes also provide 50% off camping fees in many campgrounds on public land. Even at $80, the senior pass could pay for itself after only a couple of visits to national parks or a few nights in a campground.
#9 Participate in activities included in the price of admission. When my friend and I visited Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Southern Arizona, we found ranger-led van tours were included in the cost of admission. We rode in a passenger van driven by a ranger while another ranger told us about the desert scenes we saw through the windows. On another day we returned to the monument and went on a hike led by a ranger. The ranger drove a group of us to the trailhead and we hiked together while the expert shared information about the plants and animals we saw.
The visitor centers at most national parks and monuments—and at some state parks too—have educational exhibits and movies. These exhibits and movies are offered at no extra charge and allow visitors to learn about the area at their own pace.
The visitor center should also have information about upcoming ranger talks or ranger-led activities. The last time I was at Sequoia National Park, I attended a free ranger talk about woodpeckers. It lasted about half an hour and was fun and informative.
#10 If you must have souvenirs, buy small, less expensive items. At only 51 cents each, pressed pennies come for a price that’s hard to beat. At the Utah national parks and monument gift shops I visited, quarter-sized tokens depicting famous landmarks were going for 99 cents each. I also found strips of six postcards at the same gift shops for $1.99 and individual postcards for about the same cost per card at a supermarket in Moab. Not only were these items the least expensive souvenirs, they take up very little of the limited space in my van.
If you’re attracted to larger (and usually overpriced) souvenirs like sweatshirts, water bottles, and coffee table books, ask yourself these questions before you buy: Do I need it? Where am I going to put it? Will I really use it? Can I really afford it? What will I have to give up in order to bring this into my life?
#11 If you’re visiting with kids, set spending limits before you walk into a gift shop or step up to the snack shack. Offer options within the set price range, such as You can spend $5 on lunch, which means you can have a slice of pizza or a hot dog and fries. or You can spend $10 on a souvenir. Do you want the flashlight or the Smokey Bear compass?
If you and the kids are visiting national parks, collect all the Junior Rangers freebies available and do your best to convince the children the free stuff is better than anything for sale in the gift shop.
Being on a budget does not have to stop you from having fun. By planning ahead and using skills you already have as a rubber tramp (such as knowing how to find free camping and cooking for yourself) you can have fun and see gorgeous places without breaking the bank.
Blaize Sun has been a rubber tramp for almost a decade, but has been a tightwad for a lot longer than that. Blaize comes from a long line of tightwads, including a grandma who could squeeze a nickel so tight the buffalo would groan. Blaize knows how to have a good time on the cheap and firmly believes if she can do it, you can too!
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.
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.
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.
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.