Camping in the USA: National Parks vs National Forest vs ‘BLM’ land
We quickly learned some of the ins and outs of camping in national parks and other types of parks. As a summary types of camping options fall under in 4 categories:
– National Parks – are beautiful to camp in, but often you need to pay around $20 to $30 per night to use a campground, on top of the Park Entrance fee usually another $20 to $30), and they can fill up very quickly. Some popular campgrounds that take advance reservations (like in Zion NP) are filled up a good 6 months in advance! However, it never hurts to ask the local caretaker if there are any backup or overfill spots. We found some great places in places that had a ‘fully booked’ sign out the front.
– National Forests – provide a lot of flexibility and freedom with camping options. It is worthwhile downloading a good map of all the National Forrest in the area you are traveling too. Overall on my 2 months road trip, I spent most of my nights in National Forests.
– BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land – is easily the most flexible, and cheapest place to camp. Often you can camp where ever you want and for free. There is actually a lot of BLM land across the US, especially in the arid parts of the western states. One of the truly great things that the USA has done is carve out a good chunk of land to be kept public.
– Paid commercial camping chains (e.g. KOA – Camping Across America) – there a couple of extensive national networks of camping sites which are probably more appropriate for RV owners, or those traveling with children who need some more predictability and comfort with their travel destinations. I only used this as a backup when other options weren’t easy to find.
Las Vegas, Lake Mono and Yosemite
After dropping my friend off at Las Vegas Airport, it was back into solo travel mode, I decided to camp nearby. I found a great campsite in Red Rock Canyon, although only a 10 minute drive from the edge of Las Vegas, it felt like a world away from the crazy glowing hustle bustle of LV. It was very late at night when I arrived, so I didn’t really the beauty of the valley until the next morning when the sun came up.. another wow moment! I decided to spent another day there, and there were some great hikes in the local area and even more exotic rock formations.
I then got on the road, blazed my way through the very dry, flat and roads through Nevada, taking some back roads along the way to see some quaint and interesting little towns. As the sun started to set over the Sierra Nevada ranges, I saw one of the most spectacular sites I’ve ever seen in my life. The setting sun, was visible through an intense localized snow storm on the Sierra Nevada. It was a great big red glow, surrounded by blue sky, and a darkening deserted valley. Wow! I stayed the night on top of a hill, overseeing lake Mono. A beautiful night under the stars, a full moon, and far far away from any main cities or towns, or busy roads. Lake Mono changes in summer when more of the roads through the Sierra Nevada are opened up, but while those roads are closed, this is a special place to visit.
Before getting to the West Coast, I spend a few days in Yosemite knocking over a few more hikes that I didn’t have time to do last time I visited in 2008. It was loaded up with fly in-fly out tourists, and although very nice and picturesque, couldn’t really compare what what I’d seen during the previous few weeks.
Reach the West Coast, then turn back
In California, heading into San Francisco I got a flat tyre, and for the first time I forced to change a tyre myself on the side of the road. It turned out to be much easier than I had feared. But then I had a ‘donut’ – the crappy temporary tyre that rental companies put on cars to save a little $$. You can’t go far or fast with this on your car. My car rental company looked after me, in that they basically gave me a brand new replacement (it hadn’t even done 1000 miles – I was quickly going to change that!), but I had to wait overnight to wait for the office to open, and this put me on the back foot as I was due to meet up with another friend I’d be doing some hiking / camping with in Southern Colorado. I had a 24 hours to complete a 16 hr drive from San Francisco CA, to Grand Junction. I ended up making it, and the fresh, new clean car was a welcome bonus.
Blaze back across the south, with a pitstop in North Carolina
After a solid 3 nights of exploring deep into mountain ranges in Southern Colorado (another really beautiful area of the US) I dropped my camping buddy off in New Mexico and spent a night camping in Santa Fe State Forrest. I was actually the 4th time I’ve visited Santa Fe, it is right up there with my favourite places in the US.
Then the next approx 8 days was a quick drive through the South back towards the East Coast, stopping over to catchup with a couple of friends in the Research Triangle in North Carolina. That bought back many memories from my 5 months at Duke University 5 years ago. Then I completed the final dash up the infamous I-85 which was its usually vehicle clogged, crash laden self.
When returning the car it certainly felt like an accomplishment. This is the second time I’ve completed a coast to coast back to coast trip in the USA (the first one was in 2008 mostly by buses) – even longer, it was 15,000 miles rather than the 9,500 miles of this trip. I think I can safely now say I’ve been lucky enough to see more of the USA then most people have!