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.
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’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.
I recently spent three weeks on the road traveling in New Mexico and Colorado.
I went from Taos to Taos Ski Valley to Tres Piedras, all in New Mexico. Then I went to Colorado, where I visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Crestone, and Alamosa. Back in the Land of Enchantment, I camped in the Carson National Forest near Tres Piedras for three days. Next I visited museums, thrift stores, and a friend in Santa Fe. From the capital city, I went to Moriarty, the three sites of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, the Very Large Array, the Box Recreation Area near Socorro, the Catwalk National Recreation Area, and the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. I also shopped in nine thrift stores in four towns.
Along the way, I mostly camped for free. I only paid for a campsite once, when I stayed at the Piñon Flats Campground in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Otherwise, I spent my nights boondocking at no cost.
In the next few weeks, I’ll share with you where I went, what I learned, what I saw, and where I stayed. Stay tuned for all this great new content.
I had a terrific time during my three weeks of travel. It was fun to be back on the road. However, I am glad to be at my home base, settling in for the winter. It also feels good to write blog posts again. I hope you will enjoy hearing about my adventures as much as I enjoyed living them.
What’s the difference between a national park and a national forest? What’s a national monument anyway? What can I do on BLM land? What’s the Corps of Engineers and where is their property? Can I camp in a national wildlife refuge? Are state parks federal land?
People are confused about public land, and who can blame them? There are so many state and federal agencies managing public land that it’s difficult to keep them sorted out. Today I will do my best to clear up confusion by giving you information about the different categories of public land.
The [national parks] system includes 419 areas covering more than 85 million acres in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. These areas include national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House.
Some national parks charge entrance fees, but fewer than one-third do. Click here to find a national park to visit.
National parks emphasize strict preservation of pristine areas. They focus on protecting natural and historic resources “unimpaired for future generations.”
National forests are another designation of public land. According to the U.S. Forest Service webpage called “Managing the Land“,
The Forest Service manages the National Forests and Grasslands for sustainable multiple-uses to meet the diverse needs of people, ensure the health of our natural resources, provide recreational opportunities, manage wildfire, [and] guard against invasive threats…
The aforementioned website of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park sums it up this way:
National forests…emphasize not only resource preservation, but other kinds of use as well. Under this concept of “multiple use,” national forests are managed to provide Americans with a wide variety of services and commodities, including lumber, cattle grazing, mineral products and recreation…The national forests are managed by forest rangers with the US Forest Service (USFS) under the Department of Agriculture.
The website explains,
Because they have different purposes, adjoining national parks and national forests may need to have very different rules. For example, national parks usually forbid hunting, while forests usually allow it. Dogs can be taken on national forest trails, but not those in national parks…
National parks emphasize preservation, while national forests allow for many uses of the land and its resources.
National parks fall under the authority of the Department of the Interior, while national forests fall under the authority of Department of Agriculture.
National parks and national forests have different rules.
Ok, so what about national monuments? Where do they fall in the scheme of public land? How do they differ from national parks and forests?
According to the March 2019 article “The Difference Between National Parks and Monuments” by Ashley M. Biggers,
[t]he primary difference lies in the reason for preserving the land: National parks are protected due to their scenic, inspirational, education, and recreational value. National monuments have objects of historical, cultural, and/or scientific interest…
Another big difference, according to the Biggers article, is that
the BLM administers the lands that remain from America’s original “public domain.” Created in 1946 through a government reorganization…the BLM is the successor to the General Land Office (established in 1812) and the U.S. Grazing Service (originally called the Division of Grazing and renamed in 1939).
The BLM manages for multiple use across regions and landscapes, with partners and using sound science.
The same page says the BLM’s mission is
To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.
I’d heard from several different people that the BLM manages lands “out West,” but while researching this post, I discovered this assertion is misleading. The agency is not limited to managing lands only in the West. The BLM’s “What We Manage” page states
[t]he BLM manages one in every 10 acres of land in the United States, and approximately 30 percent of the Nation’s minerals. These lands and minerals are found in every state in the country and encompass forests, mountains, rangelands, arctic tundra, and deserts.
The Army Corps of Engineers is the steward of the lands and waters at Corps water resources projects. It’s [sic] Natural Resources Management mission is to manage and conserve those natural resources, consistent with the ecosystem management principles, while providing quality public outdoor recreation experiences to serve the needs of present and future generations.
The National Wildlife Refuge System is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. According to the agency’s website,
The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and, where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.
The National Wildlife Refuge System lands and waters serve a purpose distinct from that of other U.S. public lands: Wildlife conservation drives everything on national wildlife refuges, from the purposes for which each refuge was established, to the recreational activities offered, to the resource management tools used.
National wildlife refuges from Alaska to Florida offer camping opportunities that allow visitors to see wildlife up close in a variety of natural habitats.
The aforementioned bulletin also lists a variety of camping options in national wildlife refuges.
The Bureau of Reclamation also manages public land open to recreation. According to the Bureau’s website, these Bureau of Reclamation projects
are located in the 17 Western United States of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.
Reclamation projects include approximately 6.5 million acres of land and water that is, for the most part, available for public outdoor recreation…To use and enjoy recreation areas and facilities that are open to the public, no use permits are required.
National Recreation Areas are managed by different federal agencies, including the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service.
The Empowering Parks website offers
an alphabetical listing of all our natural national recreation areas, with links to the official site of each national recreation area.
If you prefer the beach to the forest or the desert, visit national seashores and lakeshores. According to the National Park Service,
national lakeshoresand national seashores focus on the preservation of natural values while at the same time providing water-oriented recreation. Although national lakeshores can be established on any natural freshwater lake, the existing four are all located on the Great Lakes. The national seashores are on the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts.
Wilderness areas were established as places meant to stay quite untouched by humans. According to Wilderness Connect,
[w]ilderness areas are the most protected public lands in America. Managed with restraint, they are intended to be self-willed lands, both philosophically and practically…Found in most states, but concentrated in the west, they protect lush forests, arid deserts, snow-capped peaks, dank swamps and sandy beaches.
The U.S. Forest Service says,
The National Wilderness Preservation System is a network of over 109 million acres – more area than the state of California – of public land comprised of more than 760 wilderness areas administered for the American people by the federal government. These are special places where nature still calls the shots…They are final holdout refuges for a long list of rare, threatened, and endangered species, forced to the edges by modern development. They are the headwaters of critical, life-infusing rivers and streams. They are places where law mandates above all else that wildness be retained for our current generation, and those who will follow.
The last public lands I’ll cover today are state parks. According to Wikipedia,
State parks are parks or other protected areas managed at the sub-national level within those nations which use “state” as a political subdivision. State parks are typically established by a state to preserve a location on account of its natural beauty, historic interest, or recreational potential. There are state parks under the administration of the government of each U.S. state…
If you’re a senior, a person with a disability, a member of the U.S. military (or the dependent of a military member), a fourth grader, a volunteer, or even if you don’t fit in any of those categories, there is an America the Beautiful Pass available to help you save money when exploring federal recreation sites in the U.S.A. Some of these passes are free, like the ones for fourth graders, members of the U.S. military and their dependents, volunteers, and folks with disabilities. The basic America the Beautiful Pass and the Senior Pass cost money, but if you plan to visit many public lands in the U.S. in a 12-month period, your America the Beautiful Pass will pay for itself quickly.
There is a lot of information I want to share about the six passes available, so I’ve written two posts on the subject. Today’s post will cover the basic America the Beautiful Pass, the free pass for members of the military and their dependents, and the Senior Pass. Next week I’ll tell you everything you need to know about the Access Pass for people with disabilities, the 4th Grade Pass, and the Volunteer Pass.
A pass is your ticket to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. Each pass covers entrance fees at national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as standard amenity fees (day use fees) at national forests and grasslands, and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A pass covers entrance, standard amenity fees and day use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle at per vehicle fee areas (or up to four adults at sites that charge per person). Children age 15 or under are admitted free.
The fact that the standard America the Beautiful Pass did not cover camping fees or even provide a discount on the fees often tripped up my campers back in my camp host days. Many campers thought their America the Beautiful pass got them a 50% discount on camping fees, but that was not the case. It didn’t help that the reservation website allowed folks making reservations to enter their America the Beautiful pass number, then reflected a 50% discount on the reservations. When such campers showed up in my campground, guess who was expected to shake the rest of the money out of their pockets? The camp host (me!) of course. It was one of my least favorite parts of being a camp host. The lesson for you? If you make camping reservations with the America The Beautiful Pass and you seem to be getting a 50% discount, you may be in for a big surprise when you get to the campground.
By phone at: 888-ASK USGS (1-888-275-8747), extension 3 (Hours of operation are: 8 am to 4 pm Mountain Time) [$5 handling fee may be added] [or,]
Online from the USGS store! ($5 handling fee added to cost of pass)
A FREE America the Beautiful Pass is available to active members of the U.S. military and their dependents. According to the USGS Store, the following people qualify for the Pass:
Current U.S. Military personnel and their dependents who present, in person, a U.S. Department of Defense CAC identification or DD Form 1173 dependent identification and are in the following military personnel classification: • Current members of the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and National Guard • Dependents of current U.S. military members with DD Form 1173 • U.S. Military Cadets • U.S. Active Reservists (Do not need to be deployed)
[t]he following individuals/groups DO NOT Qualify for the interagency Military Annual Pass: • Foreign military members (Including those stationed in the U S and have a CAC card) • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) employees • Public Health Service (PHS) members • Inactive U S Reservists • Civilian military contractors • Civilian military employees • U S military veterans • U S military retirees
As with the basic America the Beautiful Pass, the interagency Military Annual Pass
There is only one way to acquire the FREE America the Beautiful Annual
Pass for the U.S. Military (and dependents) according to the National Forest Service. A member of the military or the dependent of a military member can obtain the pass
Owning property or paying taxes in the U.S. does not automatically qualify you for a Senior Pass. You must be a permanent U.S. resident, or a U.S. citizen with identification such as U.S. Driver’s License, Green Card or U.S. Passport.
Annual Senior Passes may be exchanged at any time for a Lifetime Senior Pass at the following exchange rates: 1 Annual Senior Pass: $60 for Senior Lifetime Pass 2 Annual Senior Pass: $40 for Senior Lifetime Pass 3 Annual Senior Pass: $20 for Senior Lifetime Pass 4 Annual Senior Pass: $0 for Senior Lifetime Pass
So basically you can buy your Lifetime Senior Pass in $20 installments. Furthermore, you get the enjoy the benefits of the Annual Pass whilce accumulating enough of them to get your Lifetime Pass.
Golden Age Passports are no longer sold, but they are lifetime passes and are still honored according to the terms of the Senior Pass.
If you found this post helpful, I’d love your support! Hit the donate button in the right toolbar or go to Patreon to become my patron.
Please note all information was correct to the best of my knowledge when this post was written. Blaize Sun is not responsible for changing prices or any other changes that may take place after this post was written. Use the information given here as the starting point of your own research. Blaize Sun is not responsible for you. Only you are responsible for you.
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.
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.