Whether you prefer to rough it in a tent or embrace the creature comforts of an RV, if you’re willing to literally go the extra mile (or miles), you’ll find plenty of options for free camping. National Forests or public lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management offer truly breathtaking sights (and sites), typically with absolutely no charge. Just pay attention to the local restrictions – every area’s a little different. Here’s a small sampling from a deep pool of riches.
Finger Lakes National Forest, New York
Located between Seneca and Cayuga lakes and just a few miles northeast of Watkins Glen, Finger Lakes is a hiker’s haven. At over 550 miles long, the Finger Lakes Trail runs between the Catskill and Allegheny mountain ranges. It’s also part of the North Country National Scenic Trail that begins in New York and passes through seven states, ending in North Dakota.
Alabama Hills (BLM), California
John Wayne. Clint Eastwood. Johnny Depp. They’re just a few of the stars who spent time making movies (usually Westerns) in the Alabama Hills. Located in the shadow of Mt. Whitney, the area boasts a number of quirky natural arches. The Museum of Western Film History in nearby Lone Pine displays memorabilia from the over 400 films shot here and gets high marks from visitors.
Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina
The largest of North Carolina’s four national forests, Nantahala is not far from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but it’s a million miles from the tourist bustle of that area. At Nantahala, you can walk portions of the Appalachian Trail, go whitewater rafting, or enjoy swimming, biking, fishing, horseback riding, and rock climbing. And that’s just a partial list.
Gallatin National Forest, Montana
It’s not Yellowstone. And that’s not such a bad thing. If crowds or campsite scarcity keep you out of the nearby national park, the 3-million-acre Gallatin offers a quieter and more affordable option with much of the same spectacular scenery, including plenty of mountains, waterfalls, and Hyalite Lake and Canyon.
Wisconsin River Islands (BLM), Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin
In a stretch of the Wisconsin River from Nekoosa to Stevens Point, the BLM owns over 60 public islands, many near the town of Wisconsin Rapids. While some are so small they’re inappropriate for camping, other larger islands with stands of pine and hardwoods are perfect for overnight camping. But do your homework. Not all islands are BLM-owned.