Top 10 National Forests for Dispersed Camping 

We cannot think of a single National Forest without a designated campground, but what makes these public lands unique is that they allow free dispersed camping along most of their unpaved roadways.  The Forest Service requests that campers use a site with an established fire ring, pack out (do not burn) all trash, and stay a maximum of 14 days.  We have all seen people who abuse these lightly-enforced policies, but if we all are responsible then, hopefully, we will retain this camping privilege in the future.  Dispersed camping is typically not allowed near campgrounds or on private property, so watch for road signs and use the Visitor Map app.  Some areas of high usage have designated spots, like the free sites marked along Vedauwoo Road in Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest.  Click here to see all of our Top 10 Lists, including our favorite National Forest campgrounds and backpacking areas.

10. Manistee (Michigan)

The Nordhouse Dunes are a popular destination for backpacking on Lake Michigan, but not far from the developed campgrounds are flat spots for dispersed camping

9. Cibola (New Mexico)

The Manzano Mountains south of Albuquerque are a great place for dispersed camping, and there are also several campgrounds there

8. Apache (Arizona- New Mexico)

There are many dirt roads that spur from the paved Coronado Trail Scenic Byway (Highway 191) with good camping options

7. Tongass (Alaska)

Scott did his M.S. research in Tongass National Forest and camped all over the islands, which literally have thousands of miles of gravel logging roads to explore

6. Payette (Idaho)

Hells Canyon National Recreation Area is managed by Oregon’s Wallowa National Forest, but we camped before our whitewater rafting trip at an overlook on the well-maintained Kleinschmidt Grade; plus we stayed at a great site on the shores of Brundage Reservoir (see photo at top)

5. Black Hills (South Dakota-Wyoming)

There are at least half-a-dozen places we have dispersed camped in this area with fast access to Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Custer State Park, and Devils Tower National Monument

4. La Sal (Utah-Colorado)

We passed some awesome sites along the 58-mile-long Elk Ridge Scenic Backway and just off the paved La Sal Mountain Loop Road

3. Chequamegon (Wisconsin)

The Moquah Barrens is a cool place to camp, and there are some campsites on the back roads of the Bayfield Peninsula close to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

2. Sequoia (California)

There are developed campgrounds in Giant Sequoia National Monument, but our favorite dispersed sites are around Dome Rock off Highway 190

…and finally our #1 National Forest for dispersed camping:

1. Inyo (California-Nevada)

The night skies are incredible in this high-elevation region; we have dispersed camped around Mono Lake, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, and the Kearsarge Pass Trailhead

Honorable Mentions

Colville (Washington)

We found excellent dispersed campsites along the unpaved portions of Deadman Creek Road, plus good options in the Selkirk Mountains further east

Gallatin (Montana)

If you cannot find a campsite in Yellowstone National Park, try this National Forest on the west side of the park, specifically the free designated sites along Taylor Fork Road

Modoc  (California)

We have found many nice options in the northeast corner of California around Lava Beds National Monument, although snow blocks some roads well into June

Coeur d’Alene (Idaho)

We have camped at Bullion Pass and on the West Fork of Eagle Creek on the road to the Settler’s Grove of Ancient Cedars

Kaibab (Arizona)

If you want to avoid the busy campgrounds in Grand Canyon National Park, try the National Forest that sits outside its boundaries on both the North and South Rim

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