In the more popular areas of our National Forests, established public campgrounds occupy the most sought after scenic areas.
Forest Service campgrounds are often near the shores of lakes that are popular for fishing or other water based recreational activities. Some campgrounds sit near hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, or ATV trail heads. Still others occupy scenic tableaus, or scenic overlooks. These are locations that the Forest Service has determined appropriate for camping, and were often conceived for accessibility and convenience, hopefully without compromising the environmental well being of the land.
They can encompass as few as a hand full, to as many as over a hundred campsites with a varying range of amenities: Picnic tables (sometimes covered), campfire rings, BBQ grills, potable water hydrants, restrooms with pit toilets, sometimes even flush toilets and showers, level parking pads for large RV’s, and even electrical hookups. These conveniences are not free by any stretch of the imagination, and campground fees will rise according to the number and type of services available.
The same Forest Service campground that is a peaceful retreat one week can be the setting for a rollicking fiesta the next.
These campgrounds are very popular with the RV crowd, families with children, and groups of friends or special interest clubs. These are the “social community” campers and a big part of the experience for them is sharing the experience with a group, and reveling in the group dynamic that inevitably develops. This is a very popular way to enjoy the outdoors and the recreational activities that are close at hand, and can often result in a festival like environment. Late night reveling, loud music and laughter, and the cacophony of various types of ATVs are just part of the merriment. Some of these campgrounds have volunteers acting as campground “hosts” who will supposedly keep the frolicking from getting out of hand, while others do not. But even a hosted campground can end up being raucous depending on the willingness and effectiveness of the hosts.
The National Forests and the BLM lands abound with easily accessible but seldom used, and often nearly hidden, pristine camping areas.
The very reason many people go camping is to get away from the crowds and enjoy a little solitude. Many opportunities exist for avoiding the Forest Service campground crowds and their possible inconveniences and aggravations, but they are not without a bit of effort and planning. “Dispersed Camping” is permitted near most any established road or four wheel-drive vehicle accessible trail in the National Forests and on BLM land, unless specifically posted as being prohibited. These are ultimately the most private, secluded, and undisturbed campsites available. Generally there will be no facilities except possibly a pullout spot and a fire ring. This means that you have to provide at a minimum, your own table, chairs, and toilet facilities.
It’s probably not the best idea to just meander out into the backcountry without a little beforehand reconnaissance:
- First determine the general area for your camping excursion, and acquire some form of detailed map (National Forest, BLM, or USGS Topographic maps), a GPS device, or at the very least spend some serious time with Google Earth.
- Next decide which of the scenic or geographical features you would like to camp at or near, avoiding of course, areas too near any established campgrounds or major thoroughfares.
- At least a couple weeks in advance, (but not too far in advance if possible), spend at least a couple days exploring all the accessible roads, jeep trails, and side pullouts that spur your interests and curiosities. Avoid any accesses that are beyond the basic capabilities of your vehicle, or the vehicle you will take camping.
- If you find an interesting possibility, get out and look around; Look for a decent parking spot, a clear and level area to set up your camp (away from possible drainages) with no large overhanging dead trees or branches, nearby sources of firewood (and if necessary, water), and ways to access the geographic features that drew you to this area.
- Take a few notes about each site and mark them on your map.
- Have alternatives to your favorites, just in case someone else has the same ideas and schedule.
- Have alternatives that are more easily accessed in case of inclement weather, especially during the times you are going in and coming out. (What seems to be an easy jeep trail on a nice day may turn into a real nightmare in a rain storm.)
Keep your distance from other campers already in the area.
Chances are that these campers have chosen a “dispersed camp site” for the sake of privacy, to avoid the noise of other campers, and to enjoy a vista uncluttered with other people’s paraphernalia. That should be respected. Don’t set up your camp with in ear-shot and try to stay out of their field of view as well. Staying at least 200 yards away is a good guideline.
It’s possible, following these suggestions, to end up in a campsite where you might possibly not see another person for the duration of your adventure. (If that’s what you are into.)
The crowds and commotion that can accompany a stay at an established public campground can easily be avoided. A moderate amount of reconnaissance, insight, and planning, can nearly assure a quiet, and tranquil camping trip “far from the madding crowd”. Take the road less traveled… It can turn your next camping trip into a lifelong memory.