Five Tips for Finding the Best Campsites, No Reservations Needed

The long Memorial Day Weekend was the official start of the summer camping and outdoor recreation season. Now through September, parks and campgrounds across the country will be more crowded as families take advantage of warm weather and closed schools. Have you reserved a campsite at your favorite destination? If not, you might face competition. A recent study by the Outdoor Industry Association indicated nearly 49 million people spent at least one night in a tent or RV in 2011, and camping continues to be a recession-friendly vacation option.

Advance planning isn’t always an option, though. In our more than 300 nights on the road, we’ve only had reservations twice. Here are our top tips for finding great campsites.

Camping, boondocking, Eastern Oregon, Ochoco National Forest

1. Arrive Early Many parks offer select sites on a first-come, first-served basis. Show up when the camp office opens and you’re likely to snag a site. We were able to get spots at a popular Oregon coast state park, Zion, Bryce and even Yellowstone this way.

2.  Or Get There Late On the other hand, you can also get great sites by showing up late in the day, after camp staff has had the chance to process no-shows and reservation cancellations. At Arches National Park, where sites at the single campground are booked months in advance, we were turned down when we arrived hoping to find a spot at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday. A few hours later, after people had canceled their unneeded sites, we were lucky enough to get two nights in a beautiful site surrounded by red rocks.

Arches National Park, Arches Campground, Arches at Night

3. Know Your Public Land Looking for pristine views and solitude? Free or low-cost camping is available on National Forest or BLM land, where you’ll find a variety of sites from full-service to unimproved. It’s typically legal to camp anywhere on public land, though you should always obey posted signs. What you’ll give up in amenities you’ll more than make up for privacy. Our most beautiful campsites weren’t in real campgrounds at all – throughout the West, especially, we found myriad spots that met our highest Camp Site Wishes – free, waterfront, with a view. Gazetteers from Benchmark or DeLorme are invaluable for knowing exactly where public land boundaries fall. If you choose to boondock, please be respectful. Stay of forest roads. Pack out your trash. And, make sure to bring extra drinking water or a water filter; potable water is not often available.

boondocking, free campsites, Colorado

4. Go During the Off Season If you visit Yosemite National Park in July, it’s going to be crowded. Ditto for the Grand Canyon. Zion. The Great Smoky Mountains. Want to see more sights than busloads of tourists? Visit during the off-season.

We stopped at Mammoth Caves in December and participated in two guided tours. During the summer months, these walks sell out every hour, sending huge groups of 120 people traipsing down into the caves. Our tour? We had eight people. Not only did our guide spend more time answering questions, she also took our tiny group into a few areas off the standard tour route. We saw and learned more than we ever would have during the crush of summer high season. Now is the perfect time to start planning a post-Labor Day trip.

Can’t wait that long? Consider visiting spots off the beaten track. Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota offers great cave tours, hiking and wildlife sightings, with a fraction of the annual visitors as better-known parks.

5. Embrace Technology Constantly checking in on a Smartphone may not seem like a true camping experience, but we’ve found a few apps that make packing a phone charger worth the effort.

  • CampWhere – location-based service offers detailed descriptions of public campgrounds for both tent campers and RVers. Lists reviews, amenities and contact information.

  • AllStaysCampRV – lists public, private, government and public land campsites, as well as rest areas, service stations and scenic viewpoints. Also provides details on casinos and Wal-Mart stores that allow overnight camping. This app is geared more to RVers, but tent campers can also find some good information.

What are your favorite tips for finding great campsites? We’d love to hear them. Happy camping!



Grand Teton National Park, WY

Wildlife abounds in Grand Teton National Park. During our first few hours here, we saw a chipmunk eating flowers and a heard of elk, in addition to everything you see below. I am now faced with the terrible decision – which is the cutest National Park animal – a pika or a marmot? Or the Prairie Dogs from Wind Cave?

Yellow Bellied Marmot

We saw dozens of these dapper Yellow Bellied Marmots. I’d like to cuddle them.

Moose mother and calf, Grand Teton National Park, Tetons

Mother moose & calf, feeding beside a waterfall, which is just out of the frame. They’re standing front-to-back here, making them look like a two-headed beast.

Pika, Grand Tetons, Grand Teton National Park

Tiny, chirpy pika peeked out of his (her?) hiding hole.

Moose, Grand Tetons, Grand Teton National Park

Male moose with his growing antlers still in velvet.

Moose, Grand Tetons

Another shot of the handsome, hungry chap.

Buffalo, Grand Tetons, Grand Teton National Park

Big ol’ buffalo just hanging out in the road.

Grand Tetons National Park

Turning Over Stones in Wind Cave National Park, SD

Traipsing around outdoors always gives me such a sense of discovery. No matter if the trail is one I’ve hiked a hundred times or if it’s my first visit – there’s always something new to uncover. I may spot timid deer or a find a smooth rock for my pocket, see a new bird or flower. And always, no matter how far off the beaten path, I’ll find a beer can, apparently so much harder to pack out empty than it was for someone to carry it in.

Wind Cave, SD, buffalo, bison

We were roaming with the buffalo last week, where the deer and the antelope play near Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. The prairie was the color of a Yellow Lab and the curves of the distant hills made me want to reach out to and run my hand over their backs. On the advice of a friendly park ranger, we followed buffalo trails out over the grasslands where we spotted bison and meadowlarks, elk and mule deer, and hundreds of prairie dogs that squeak and bark warnings to their pals before scurrying into the safety of their holes.

Wind Cave, SD, Prairie

Prairie Dog, Robin, Wind Cave

Of course, you can also discover other things in the woods. The other day we found a boondocking spot, pulled the Minnie off on a quiet dirt road and explored our small corner of the Black Hills National Forest. Like a raccoon, I’m drawn to shiny objects and the rocks were glinting with mica so I’m poking around, looking for the prettiest stones, nudging piles of quartz with my toe.  I move one large rock and see the corner of a box. Patrick comes in to look, and we pull a small box from its hiding spot. A Geo Cache? The wooden box is wrapped with sodden red ribbon, tightly tied but decaying. Maybe it’s a time capsule? Childhood memories? I’m thinking of that scene from Amélie where she pulls a cigar box from behind a loose tile and discovers someone’s long-lost treasures. Excitedly, we pry open the lid and peer inside. And what do we find? The desiccated remains of a bird. We’d opened a bird casket. That’s what I get for being inquisitive.

We replaced the box in its cairn of quartz and said a quick “rest in peace” to someone’s departed pet bird. I may be a bit less likely to go snooping around in the woods from now on, as I prefer discoveries like a beautiful view or living animals.

East Coast Spring

Spring has arrived in a bright riot of blossoms, bursting out of branches in splashes of pink and yellow and white, delighting the bees. Yesterday the wind picked up petals and tossed them in celebration all across bare yards and roadways. I’ve had lines of this poem running through my head.

A Color of the Sky (excerpt)

by Tony Hoagland

Outside the youth center, between the liquor store   

and the police station,

a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;


overflowing with blossomfoam,   

like a sudsy mug of beer;

like a bride ripping off her clothes,


dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,


so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.   

It’s been doing that all week:

making beauty,

and throwing it away,

and making more.

(Read the full poem here)

Pensacola Beach, FL

All of Saturday the rain played the roof like a snare drum. A wet morning slid into a wet afternoon passed with Words With Friends and cups of tea. The wind slashed at the bushes. Someone put a raincoat on a dog. With dark nearing, we lumbered into town for chowder and a beer. The restaurant was an enclosed patio, excellent if there’s sunshine to bask in, but despite heat lamps and tropical shirts on all the waitresses, it felt chilly during the storm. The Minnie was warm and snug, glowing like a lantern and welcoming us back home.

Pensacola Beach, white sand beach, Florida

Pensacola Beach, White Sand Beach, Florida

Sunday dawned bright and blue as if there never were things called clouds. The sand here is the whitest in the world, if you believe the tourist information. I wouldn’t be one to argue, because the sand is amazing. Pure clean white, with a texture that begs for bare toes. All through the campground people were jolly and blinking in the sun as though the rain had stayed for months, not just a day. “This is the life,” shouted a shorts-wearing sunbather as I strolled by. At sunset the sand turned pink as the orange orb slowly sank into the sea. It was the kind of day that makes a gal feel lucky. Continue reading

Garden of the Gods, Illinois

I’d like to type while we’re driving, but it makes me carsick, so I just sit in the passenger seat, watching raindrops dance on the windshield, thinking up sentences that never make it to a page. The radio is tuned to a folk station. Beneath us the grey-black asphalt rumbles as we speed through little towns with little populations. Towns like Dale, Indiana, where I filled my belly with pancakes at Windell’s, which is closing on Sunday after serving families and church groups and Kiwanis Clubs since 1947. The cab of the RV is soothing with the heat on full-blast and the slap of the wipers setting a beat for harmonies between the radio and the hum of the pavement. I’m drowsy. Alongside the road, the Ohio River strains at its banks like a fat belly against a belt.

Maybe I’m a little homesick. Maybe I need a nap or a beer or a cozy new sweater. Maybe it’s just the rain, but I’ve got this bluesy feeling and I’m worrying my Big Stuff Worries, wondering what happens when this trip ends, where we’ll live, what I’ll do, what comes next. I pop these thoughts in my mouth like a cinnamon hard candy to roll around on my tongue. I tuck them into the softness of my cheek where I taste them every time I inhale. Everything I say comes out laced with Big Stuff worries, the scent of cinnamon behind all my words. The river outside pulses and threatens to overflow.

All the state parks belong to us now. In wide river bottoms and beside hardwood-rimmed lakes hundreds of empty campsites line up in neat loops, saving space for the summer crowds, the weekend boaters and the suntanned shouting kids. The bathhouses may be locked and picnic tables turned over against impending snow, but these places are ours alone. We walk slick trails in the company of cardinals and white-tailed deer. Even now, slender roots are pushing down through the earth, small are buds forming beneath a thick layer of fallen leaves. The woods exhale a rush of wind.

Meet Me in St. Louis

I was sitting in the Shaved Duck, a little BBQ gastropub in St. Louis, when suddenly, for the first time this trip, I felt Far Away.

Was it the brick buildings? The old industrial big city feel? The obvious fact we were so close to the Mississippi? Our two-week stretch in Kansas – where we stayed with Patrick’s friends and family and explored his hometown – was the bridge that connected The West to The East, and now we are really far from home.

St. Louis was fantastic. Who knew? We planned to pass on through, but ended up staying for two nights. Cities can be tricky for budget RV travelers – it’s hard to park, campsites are far from any cool neighborhoods and, above all, cities are expensive. Not so in St. Louis, which boasts an impressive list of free activities, from tours to museums to the zoo. We also found a great little RV park right downtown, delicious food & drink and explored an incredibly unique art space. Grand total? Less than $100.

St. Louis Arch

We were awed by the beautiful mosaics at the Cathedral Basilica, which rivaled any of the churches I’ve seen in Europe. We strolled the halls of the Art Museum and whiled away several hours at St. Louis Zoo, watching baby monkeys and a sweet otter family snarf up frozen fish. But, the most marvelous thing of all, a reason to visit St. Louis in and of itself, was the City Museum.

A whimsical dreamscape created by artist Bob Cassilly, City Museum is unlike any museum you’ve ever visited. It’s more of a playground. Actually, it felt like Burning Man condensed into a single building with a more kid-friendly slant. We went down a ten-story slide. Ten stories! I was so dizzy at the bottom I had to sit down. The next morning my knees were bruised from crawling along secret passageways and through metal mesh passageways suspended over an outdoor courtyard. Enchanted caves. Giant ball pits. Thousands of hotel baking pans reimagined as a wall surface. Turtles. I’m sure this sounds absolutely crazy, so just go visit their website.

And! Beer. Specifically, the best beer we’ve had since Colorado. Schlafly Tap Room offered an abundance of craft beers and a British-style menu that included tasty beer cheese soup and a homey beef pie. I especially liked the citrusy-spicy Christmas Ale and the cask Optic Golden Ale. Patrick favored the Grand Cru. We both liked the Winter ESB, so we bought a growler and have been enjoying it ever since. Schlafly offers free tours of their brew house, too.

World Series champions and a glowing review from Propane Kitchen? St. Lou is having quite the year.

Statistics & Lessons from Four Months on the Road

We’ve now been on the road for four months, long enough that our former lives are just a hazy memory. We’re in our Winnebago Groove.

Random Statistics

  • Miles driven by Patrick: 10,000ish
  • Miles driven by Aimee:  Look! Was that a squirrel?
  • Miles hiked: 367
  • States/Provinces: 14
  • National Parks/Monuments Explored: 26
  • Scenic Byways Traveled: 22  (yes, we really have a list of all the Scenic Byways we’ve driven) Continue reading