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!



Zucchini & Parmesan Salad

Snow blanked the shady path on the way to Mills Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Our boots were sturdy, but still we could’ve used the extra security of hiking poles. Later, we stopped at the Continental Divide, and hiked through ear-numbing wind to 12, 875 feet. Snow-capped peaks stretched in every direction. I gasped, equal parts awe and elevation, I’m sure. We spent a few nights near Leadville, CO, at 10,152 the highest incorporated town in the US.

Colorado Rockies, Rocky Mountains, Continental Divide

Coming down out of the mountains we shed coats and sweaters when the warm air of the arid high plains came blowing through the windows. In Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, reached the bumpy way via Hwy 318, a tiny road that switches without warning from pavement to dirt at the CO/UT border, the sun bakes the sagebrush and the rocks are bright red as if collecting colors of the sunset. Damming the Green River formed the long lake there. From our site we watched boats zip around the expanse of water and smelled smoke from campfires made with fallen juniper branches. For the first time in weeks it was warm enough to eat outside.

zucchini parmesan salad

Zucchini & Parmesan Salad

1 small, thin zucchini (about 1 ½” in diameter)

Parmesan cheese

½ lemon

Olive Oil

Flat leaf parsley

Salt & Pepper

Using a vegetable peeler, shave the zucchini lengthwise into long, thin ribbons. Shave thin pieces of parmesan, to taste. Aim for about ¼ the volume of the zucchini. Pile zucchini and parmesan in a bowl. Squeeze over lemon juice and drizzle olive oil. Toss. Add a handful of parsley, salt & pepper and toss again. Serve immediately. Serves two. Tastes better when prepared & eaten outdoors.

zucchini and parmesan salad

Five Weekends in April


From the rocky coast of Maine, through bare early spring hardwood forests, into the kitchens of great friends, across grassy plains to the rising mountains of Wyoming, we traversed more than 2,000 miles in April. Wonderful as our time has been exploring the East and Midwest, and as many hugs as we’ve been able to exchange with loved ones, high-fives were exchanged when we crossed into Mountain time zone. We’ve missed the West and it’s majestic, sparsely populated places.

Maine, Wolfe's Neck, Brunswick, ME

April 1: Wolfe's Neck State Park, Brunswick, Maine

April 7: Niagara Falls, NY, Niagara Falls, Canada, Rainbow Bridge

April 7: Rainbow Bridge, Niagara Falls, New York to Canada

METRA train, Chicago, Illinois

April 14: METRA train, Chicago, Illinois

Triple Rock Social Club, Gastro Non Grata

April 20: Gastro Non Grata at the Triple Rock Social Club, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Spearfish Canyon, SD, Rod and Gun Campground

April 28: Rod & Gun Campground, Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota

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

New Orleans, LA

Window shop for chandeliers and antique suits of armor on the way to Sylvain on Royal for silky chicken liver pate and a crispy fried chicken sandwich, all washed down with a glass of rosé. Let a magician wave you in for his performance, suspend skepticism, let yourself be impressed when he cuts into a kiwi fruit to reveal a $20 bill. Hear an old man beat out the blues. Walked and walk and walk some more. Have a daiquiri in a plastic cup, because it seems like the thing to do. Café du Monde for powdered sugar deep-fried dough & chicory café au lait. Keep the energy up!

New Orleans, Jackson Square

New Orleans, daquari, French Market

New Orleans, Jazz, Drummer, Soul

New Orleans, Cafe du Monde, beignets

Nightfall. All the doors are open spilling sound to collide in the neon street the tunes of a hundred musicians amplified by booze, frozen rum rainbows in a plastic cup held by a sorority girl in a mini skirt who can’t walk in her platform shoes. Come on in! Come inside say the hucksters with their signs and flyers they want you to just come on in, hey girly, come on now, two-for-ones and just a dollar will get you through the door for tonight’s special is right on stage. You don’t need a sign post to know you’re on Bourbon Street because the balconies are dancing and someone’s still throwing beads into an entertainer’s upturned hat and the swamp smell is sticking to the edges of the gutters. Then turn the corner and all is quiet.

New Orleans, Bourbon Street

Follow a different kind of crowd tumbling down Frenchman Street. This is where we like to be. Grab a seat at The Three Muses bar to nibble crawfish beignets and sip an Old Fashioned while the band swings. At set break, the brass blare of a trombone calls from outside where a 12-piece band covers Billie Jean and the cars are honking ‘cause people are dancing right in the street. I’m enchanted. Here the notes jitterbug out onto the sidewalk with the flip of a skirt and a backward glance to lure us inside The Spotted Cat Club where a small stage is crammed with talent and soul. Everyone’s feet are tap tap tapping and even the doorman is grinning under his mustache. Hey!

New Orleans, Frenchman Street, Jazz

New Orleans, Spotted Cat, Jazz

Then it’s time to sneak past the ghosts in the high walled cemetery, feeling the music still in our tired feet, to slip through safe gates back to our Minnie to sleep.

New Orleans, Cemetery

New Orleans, Cemetery

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.

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


We woke surrounded by clouds. From the campground at the summit, the sides of Mingus Mountain dropped steeply down to the wide Verde Valley. The evening before, we’d watched gathering storm clouds turn pink over the distant red rocks of Sedona; now the edge of our campsite was a swirl of grey. The wind blew coldly. Rain gave way to the ratatatat of hail, drumming down on the roof, bouncing off the wet ground. It gathered in small white drifts while we watched from the warmth of the Minnie, eating toast with almond butter.

Mingus Mountain Campstite

About halfway down the mountain, the town of Jerome, Arizona clings to the slopes. Formerly a copper mining location, the little city is now an artist community. The old high school houses studios and the streets are lined with unique shops offering handmade jewelry, prints, clothing and more – a refreshing change from all the mass-produced tchotchkes we’ve seen at other tourist destinations.

One shop in particular is dedicated to enchantment and wonder – descriptors most often applied when talking about places for children, but this store is most definitely for adults. Nellie Bly Kaleidoscopes features gorgeous, intricate versions of the classic toy, reimagined in stained glass, brass and smooth polished woods. Though the pieces were intricate works of art, the atmosphere was quite the opposite of a stuffy fine art gallery. We were encouraged to touch everything. We spun small wheels and turned dials, peered into the mirrored scopes, watched as the colored beads and oils and chunks of colored glass formed ever-changing patterns. It was wonderful. As I looked around, I realized everyone in the store was smiling. Have you ever thought about how rare that is? Adults, just smiling, indulging in play and beauty?

Nellie Bly Kaleidoscopes

This whole planter box was a kaleidoscope – both the scope and the basin of the box spin to create beautiful designs. The atmosphere in Nellie Bly kept us smiling long after we had driven away, feeling warm and cozy despite the chill in the air. It’s definitely been one of our favorite stops so far.

Nellie Bly Kaleidoscopes

Nellie Bly Kaleidoscopes