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These 22 National Forest Campgrounds are Better (and Cheaper) Than National Parks

These 22 National Forest Campgrounds are Better (and Cheaper) Than National Parks

There are plenty of unique national forest campgrounds to explore in the United States.

Many of them are free if you’re open to boondocking or dry camping. Others offer a more traditional campground feel, with perks like electricity and trash facilities.

The landscape across the United States is so varied that making a list of unique national forest campgrounds poses an exciting challenge! Naturally, we took the plunge.

Let’s dive into our list of unique national forest campgrounds for 2022! 

The National Forest Service Stats & History

The National Forest Service, or USFS, is a federal agency working under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its motto is “Caring for the land and serving people.” The service manages 154 forests and 20 grasslands. There are 4,300 campgrounds within these millions of acres.

The U.S Congress established the Forest Service in 1905, after years of growing concern over national parks. Providing quality water and timber was one of several duties delegated to the agency. 

Over 100 years later, it’s impossible to comprehend how our nation and wildlife could exist without it. Their services include fighting fires, law enforcement, resource protection, and providing recreation.

A key part of the U.S. Forest Service centers around the Office of Tribal Relations. The USFS provides oversight across all regional offices to support communication with native tribes. The Forest Service is in consultation with Tribal leaders regarding various concerns, such as climate change and tribal sovereignty.

Another primary responsibility for the Service revolves around research. Tons of research! Subjects include but are not limited to forest and wildlife ecology, social science, nanotechnology, and agroforestry. Connection with urban communities and various regional partnerships help the public better understand how they can get involved.

The National Forest Service also provides international assistance to fellow stewardship organizations worldwide. Programs include policy guidance, disaster assistance, international visitor strategy, and monitoring illegal logging.

There is so much to be grateful for! But let’s get back to the fun stuff. Let’s look at our pick of favorite national forest campgrounds to explore.

Aerial view of National Forest trees
National forests offer unique campgrounds to stay at.

#1 El Yunque – Rio Grande, Puerto Rico

About the Campground: El Yunque is our number one unique national forest campground because it’s the only one within a tropical rainforest. Located on the eastern side of Puerto Rico, El Yunque is one of the smallest national forests. But it’s also one of the most biodiverse habitats, with over 400 different plant species and 50 bird species.

There are four campsites available currently within the grounds. Group sizes range from 2 to 18. The number of vehicles allowed also depends on which site you choose. Cell phone service is limited, and there are no restrooms. Molidero and Old Nursery have a limited number of tent pads. There are no RV hookups, and reservations are required.

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: Fans of El Yunque are overcome by its magnificent natural beauty. Visitors enjoy the waterfalls and swimming holes. The views are spectacular, and they have an education center for a deeper dive into what you’re surrounded by. Be sure to bring a raincoat, as the forest gets more than 200 inches of rain per year!

#2 Nomad View Dispersed Camping – Wall, South Dakota

About the Campground: Wow. Talk about the American dream way out west. One look at aerial shots of this stretch of land, and you might imagine the days of the old wild west. Nomad View is a stretch off Highway 240 in Wall, South Dakota. Google Maps calls this location “Badlands Boondocking Area.” 

This is the first of many areas on our list designated as dispersed. A dispersed campground in the National Forest means any location outside a developed campground where camping is permitted. Although you can effectively just drive in and park, several rules apply, so check the USDA Forest Service website for all rules and updates.

Keep in mind: People often wonder if they can dump RV Grey Water on the ground. Here’s the answer?

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: Nomad View Dispersed Campground is appropriately named. It feels like home to a wandering spirit. It’s next to Badlands National Park, a landscape filled with canyons, spires, and vast geologic formations. If you get lonely, take a drive into town. Wall Drug has everything you need.

#3 Tom’s Best Spring Dispersed Camping – Panguitch, Utah

About the Campground: Located in Southern Utah, Tom’s Best Spring is an easy area to boondock. This is within the Dixie National Forest. You essentially drive along Forest Road 117, north of Coyote Hollow Trailhead, and pick a spot. 

There are no amenities, and cell service is good but can dip now and then. Be sure to research the surrounding areas before you go. If the dust gets to be too much, there are plenty of nearby traditional RV campgrounds to park in.

Why It’s a Favorite Campground:
Tom’s Best Spring gets high marks because it’s so close to Bryce National Park. You can park far away from other campers or join in around permitted campfires. The location is a must for stargazers. 

#4 Coconino Rim Road Dispersed Camping – Grand Canyon, Arizona

About the Campground: This dispersed camping area is within the Kaibab National Forest section of the Grand Canyon. Like all other dispersed camping areas, parking is free of charge! Kind of. 

You’ll need to pay the Grand Canyon $30 access fee unless you take the very long and bumpy forest access roads. They don’t recommend taking the alternate if you’re driving an RV. 

There are a few trash receptacles, but be prepared to take away what you produce. Verizon and T-Mobile users will do alright here.

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: There’s plenty of space, and gorgeous ponderosa pines surround you. Lookout points like Grandview Point and Moran Point are close by. It’s relatively secluded, but Rangers patrol the site. There are plenty of trails to be explored here too!

#5 Madden Peak Road Dispersed Camping – Hesperus, Colorado

About the Campground: This dispersed campground area is in San Juan National Forest in southwestern Colorado. Cell service is iffy, so check out the USFS Motor Vehicle Use maps before you hit the road. Large RVs do well here.

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: Madden Peak Road is a favorite amongst last-minute RVers and group travelers. There are spectacular views of the surrounding valley and Mountains. Remote wilderness and immersion in the Aspens are a draw. Nearby areas of interest include Madden Peak, Durango, and the four corners area of the Southwest.

#6 Forest Road 688 Dispersed Camping – Grand Canyon, Arizona

About the Campground: Forest Road 688 is one of many dispersed camping options in the Kaibab National Forest. Located 15 minutes south of Grand Canyon National Park, Forest Road is an ideal location for free camping. 

Firepits are available in some areas, and parking is easy for larger RVs. You don’t need to go far from camp if cell phone service is an issue. The maximum stay is 14 days.

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: The RV community loves Forest Road 688 for its relatively easy roads, wide-open space, and access to the Grand Canyon. The area can reportedly get dusty. On the other hand, some reviewers say it’s ideal for wet and snow-covered months with less mud than other places. 

Hikers enjoy the abundance of trails, prairies, and possible Elk sightings.

Pro Tip: Make sure to catch these 9 Most Beautiful Areas of the Grand Canyon on your next Arizona adventure.

#7 Scoria Pit Dispersed Camping – Medora, North Dakota

About the Campground: Scoria Pit Dispersed Camping is off highway 94 in Western North Dakota. The surrounding Dakota Prairie Grassland is the most extensive grassland in the country. 

The site is essentially several pull-out spots off of an open road. It’s free, with no amenities, though an occasional ranger may check in on activity during your stay. Scoria Pit is between Makoshika State Park and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: Scoria Pit is a favorite of travelers with large RVs. Verizon customers get excellent cell service while feeling far away from civilization. Stargazing is a favorite pastime, and wildlife can be active at night.

If you’re traveling cross country and want to explore the multitude of northern State Parks, Scoria Pit  Dispersed camping is a great spot to catch your breath.

#8 Steer Pasture Overlook Dispersed Camping – Wall, South Dakota

About the Campground: Are you experiencing déjà vu? No worries – there’s a reason. Our #8 pick for most unique campsites is just down the road from our #2 pick. Just minutes away from Badlands National Park, the roadways around Steer Pasture Overlook are a little more rugged than over at Nomad View. 

Cell service is good. But the area is home to high winds, so be sure to pack everything inside your camper before you go hiking or into town for supplies.

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: The views in this section of Buffalo Gap National Grassland are spectacular. Visitors come for the wide-open range and nearness to the Badlands. Steer Pasture is an excellent spot for travelers with horses, and OHVs are welcome. Be sure to close the gate behind you, so the cows don’t get out.

#9 Forest Road 302 Dispersed Camping – Grand Canyon, Arizona

About the Campground: Forest Road 302 Dispersed Camping area is off Route 64 near the Grand Canyon National Park Airport. Although the grounds aren’t quite as spectacular as those at Coconino Rim, it’s a great plan b and is probably less crowded. Cell service is limited, and GPS can get dodgy. 

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: Travelers choose Forest Road 302 for easy boondocking near the Grand Canyon. Biking, hiking, and horseback riding are typical activities. The gravel roads are well maintained, and you’re a five-minute drive from town. It’s an excellent option for anyone new to boondocking. 

#10 Red Shale Campground – Ashland, Montana

About the Campground: Red Shale Campground is in the Custer Gallatin National Forest, close to Bighorn National Forest. There are 14 campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis. Camping is free, and you’ll find restrooms and picnic tables here. Cell service is spotty, though.

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: Lovers of isolation flock here. That said, if you go on the weekends, you might run into a full campground. This is a remote area but an official geocaching site. Red Shale is a great choice to lay your weary head for a few days between far away destinations.

#11 Ward Mountain Campground – Ruth, Nevada

About the Campground: This campground is in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Reservations are required for most campsites and cost $8. Available amenities are robust in comparison to our other picks. You’ll find potable water, vault restrooms, a volleyball court, a horseshoe pit, and even a historic amphitheater. Reviewers give internet speed high stars.

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: Campers enjoy using the entire 14-day allowance here, as there are so many things to do. Cooking becomes extra fun with the underground BBQ pits. Dogs must remain on their leashes, especially because horses are also permitted. 

Unique attractions like the Northern Railway Museum and the Ward Charcoal Ovens are less than 30 minutes away.

#12 Stony Fork Campground – Wytheville, Virginia

About the Campground: The Stony Fork Recreation area is within the Jefferson National Forest in Southeastern West Virginia. Surrounded by dense Appalachian forests, the creekside campground is ideal for those wanting to feel nestled in a peaceful woodland setting.

The campground website is impressive, with an interactive availability grid for planning. Amenities include accessible flush toilets, electricity hookups, showers, and a dump station. Daily rates range from $20-$30, depending on site type.

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: Fans of Stony Fork choose this site for its cleanliness, lush surroundings, and helpful staff. The Appalachian Trail and loads of smaller trails are within ten miles of the campground. Walking along the creek is another favorite activity. The variety of site types makes Stony Fork an excellent option for almost any camper.

#13 Forest Road 171 Dispersed Camping – Flagstaff, Arizona

About the Campground: Forest Road 171 is in the Coconino National Forest, northeast of Flagstaff. In addition to diverse landscapes, the location sets you close to numerous attractions. This unique national forest campground is close to Hart Prairie Preserve, an arboretum, and the Lowell Observatory. 

Visitors should take advantage of the MVUM map app or grab a free hard copy at the Coconino Forest Office.

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: Campers delight in being immersed in towering ponderosa pine under the incredible starlit sky. The campground is clean and well maintained. Cell service is hit-or-miss, but most people report feeling very safe. FR 171 Dispersed Campground is inside one of Arizona’s most popular recreation areas.

#14 Cinder Hills OHV Area – Flagstaff, Arizona

About the Campground: We head back to the Coconino National Forest for another unique national forest campground. Cinder Hills OHV area. Off-Highway Vehicle areas are designated roads or areas appropriate for RVs, ATVs, and dirt bikes. Forest rangers manage and maintain the space to protect the park’s unique volcanic cinder cones and craters.

This is a dry camping area with irregular cell service. No reservations and no fees mean come prepared to take out everything you bring in. There are bathrooms and trash service in the nearby Bonito campground. 

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: Visitors love the unique landscape in and around the Cinder Hills Recreation Area. It’s close to Sunset Crater, Wupatki, and Walnut Canyon National Monuments. The beauty of the dark sand, red rocks, and dunes alongside the tall forest trees are something to behold.

Pro Tip: No RV to camp in? We uncovered if you can sleep in your car in a national forest. Check it out!

#15 Jug Hollow Dispersed Camping – Dutch John, Utah

About the Campground: Although Jug Hollow is certainly a destination-based campground, a stay at this remote space is worth the trip. The free campsite is at the tip of a gorge and surrounded by water. Jog Hollow is part of the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area and is open year-round. 

Like most dispersed camping sites, cell service is spotty, and there are no amenities aside from potable water. But most people who stay here are too overcome by its unique beauty to give a darn.

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: The landscape at Jug Hollow is unique from most campsites. It’s certainly for lovers of all things water. And the sightline is clear for miles because most of the trees are in the distance. Antelope and cows roam freely. If you’re planning a trip to Flaming Gorge or are exploring Northern Utah, this campsite is a must.

#16 Twin Lakes View Dispersed Camping – Twin Lakes, Colorado

About the Campground: Up at high elevation lies Twin Lakes View Dispersed Camping. This seasonal camping area is southwest of Denver, next to Mt. Elbert Forebay. The surrounding Pike & San Isabel National Forest is host to abundant trees, streams, and lakes.

This free campsite is well maintained and patrolled. Some campers have reported issues with driving large RVs in the area, though. Check with the local ranger’s station about regulations and road closures before you travel.

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: Twin Lakes is a mountain lover’s paradise. You don’t need to hike them. In fact, there are plenty of peaks to see from your cozy hammock. The views are spectacular! The location makes for a unique overnight stay for explorers of the rugged Colorado Mountains.

#17 Fremont Lake Campground – Pinedale, Wyoming

About the Campground: Fremont Lake Campground is a popular lakeside campsite in western Wyoming. Fees range from $12 to $35 per night. This is a dry camping site with room for vehicles of all sizes. Cell service is mixed, but vault bathrooms are on site. Reservations are required.

Fremont Lake Campground is an excellent stopover between Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. 

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: This campground remains popular because it’s private, yet the town is easily accessible. The grounds are spread out enough to feel a bit of solitude, though neighbors will be in sight. Guests enjoy fishing, boating, swimming, beaches, and dunes. Fremont Lake is a great choice for the whole family.

#18 Last Dollar Road Dispersed Camping – Telluride, Colorado

About the Campground: Let’s get real – the name alone makes us want to go there. Who needs skiing when you can keep it simple and camp out at Last Dollar Road? This dispersed camping area is in the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre National Forest. 

Last Dollar Road is a historic winding path through ranch country. The site is free and has no amenities. Trailers should enter via the Telluride side.

This unique national forest campground positions you right along one of the most scenic drives in Telluride. Bring your Weboost or any cell service booster, and you’re good to go.

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: This is one of a few options for RVers around Telluride. The views are spectacular, and the scenery alone is worth multiple visits. Tent campers and folks with small trailers can find some super sweet spots. The overall vibe will make you feel like you’re in a John Wayne movie.

#19 Forest Road 689 Dispersed Camping – Rimrock, Arizona

About the Campground: Forest Road 689 is located just south of Highway 17, near Montezuma Castle National Monument. In addition, Sedona is about a 30-minute drive north. The site is a dusty pull-off from the main road, but it’s beautiful. Petroglyphs are but one unique treasure you’ll find there.

Forest Road 689 is the only place we’ve found where AT&T service outranks Verizon. However, you’re still good on Verizon with or without a cell booster.

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: Travelers love the ease and simplicity of this dry campsite. It’s close to several Arizona conservation areas. Large RVs have room to move, and a couple of group locations are available. Campers report that Forest Road 689 is a surprisingly quiet place to pull over, relax, and enjoy.

#20 Brick House Campground – Whitmire, South Carolina

About the Campground: How could you go wrong with a name like Brick House? This South Carolina campground is open all year round. Campsites are a mix of reserved spots and first-come, first-served. Overnight stays are $5, and the monthly and seasonal rates are a bargain. 

Amenities include vault restrooms, pull-through spaces, and firepits. Payment is available via “scan and pay” on the recreation.gov website.

Be warned: If you play Brick House by The Commodores too loudly, you’ll get kicked out. Just kidding! Sort of. Still, it’s best to be a good neighbor and keep disco parties at low volume.

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: Travelers love Brick House Campground for its low price and peaceful environment. It’s no-frills and no-fuss, and it’s ideal for travelers with horses. It’s also a great midway stop when driving from Myrtle Beach to the Great Smoky Mountains National Forest.

#21 North Pole Road Dispersed Camping – Custer, South Dakota

About the Campground: We wish we could tell you we’ve found a campground in the North Pole. This spot is still great, however. Located in Black Hills National Forest, North Pole Road gets you close to several South Dakota attractions such as Jewel Cave, Wind Cave, the Crazy Horse Monument, and Mount Rushmore.

This boondocking site is free and has no amenities. Cell service is available, though iffy. However, the location is incredible. Some campers don’t love that you can see a house or two. But never mind that. North Pole Road is long, and there are plenty of camping options.

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: North Pole Road is a favorite for big rigs. The sunsets are amazing, and the grounds are relatively flat. The main attraction is the peace and quiet provided while visiting heavy tourist areas like Mount Rushmore. The surrounding Black Hills National Forest is filled with rugged rock formations and tumbling streams.

#22 Upper Teton View – Toppings Lake Dispersed Campsites #8 – 16 – Moose, Wyoming

About the Campground: Last but not least are the Toppings Lake Dispersed Campsites #8 through #16. This location is so popular that your stay is limited to five days. The dry campsite has spectacular views of the Grand Tetons. As a result, you may need to do some muscling between RVs. In other words, be mindful when parking your vehicle and don’t block the view!

The area is free to park in and offers spots for group camping with fire pits alongside. Due to overuse, rangers have restricted camping in several places and monitor the park carefully. Camping etiquette is an absolute must!

Why It’s a Favorite Campground: Upper Teton View Campsites at Toppings Lake are a favorite due to the views and natural grandeur. If you can’t find an ideal spot, keep driving until you do. You can always just wander up to the preferred viewing areas. This campsite is perfect for those who want to meet others in the RV community.

National Forest Campgrounds Offer Unique Options

There are so many unique national forest campgrounds to explore. While most of our choices involve boondocking, the majority of these locations are close to other campgrounds with amenities should you need them. The takeaway is inexpensive camping while exploring the great outdoors.

We’d love to hear your feedback! Have you stayed at any of these campgrounds? Drop a comment below!

Discover the Best Free Camping Across the USA

To be honest with you, we hate paying for camping. There are so many free campsites in America (with complete privacy).

You should give it a try!

As a matter of fact, these free campsites are yours. Every time you pay federal taxes, you’re contributing to these lands.

Become a FREE CAMPING INSIDER and join the 100,000 campers that love to score the best site! 

We’ll send you the 50 Best Free Campsites in the USA (one per state). Access the list by submitting your email below:

RoadTripEddie

Sunday 6th of February 2022

I love my National Forest. It saddens me when others disrespect the land we have. We have to stay proactive and assertive when we see abuses in action, please. Before we loose more of this land.

Jim

Sunday 6th of February 2022

Only 2 of these are east of the Mississippi. I have hiked and camped thousands of miles of National Forest in Virginia alone. When it comes to National Forests, primitive camping is legal pretty much anywhere!

marc Valley

Sunday 6th of February 2022

I camped at a Campsite 1.8 Miles past the Badlands Boondock area at a location called Boondocks Camping. I stayed there for 4 days. The road at that time had 4 pot holes, but if you were careful you could maneuver around them.

Jerry M Minchey

Saturday 5th of February 2022

Curtis Creek Campground near Old Fort, NC, is nice. I've stayed there many times. It's $10 a night, but it's only $5 a night with the Senior Pass. It's in a National Forest.

Bob

Saturday 5th of February 2022

Thanks. I've camped at many of these, but others I did not know about. Places to check out in the mountains when the snow us gone. I did get a kick out of the comment in one of them that even though cell coverage was sketchy people felt safe. My first camping trip was at 4 weeks old in the boundary waters of MN. Camping all my life, but was 50 years old before the advent of any cell phone. Are people really afraid to camp without a signal? Jeez!

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