Let’s get right to the point – no, dispersed camping in national parks is not possible.
The sole exception is backpacking. Most national parks allow backcountry camping if you hike in, which is technically a type of dispersed camping.
But, for those that want drive-in dispersed car camping or boondocking in a national park, you’re out of luck.
Fortunately, it’s completely possible to find top-notch free camping at dispersed campsites just outside of most national parks in the United States.
Jump straight to how to find dispersed campsites near national parks or continue reading our full breakdown.
Why Don’t National Parks Allow Dispersed Camping?
In my experience, no national parks allow dispersed car camping or boondocking.
There might be exceptions but I’ve yet to discover or hear about them during my many camping trips or in my extensive online research.
So, why don’t national parks allow dispersed camping?
The answer is simple – national parks were created with conservation in mind.
In fact, the chief goal of the National Park Service is preservation.
National parks keep the land as unaltered as possible to protect the environment, including plant and animal life as well as any historical structures or archeological remains.
The land is kept unimpaired so that visitors can continue to enjoy the natural and cultural wonders for decades to come.
Although conservation of the land is also important to the National Forest Service, its land management is far more multi-faceted.
National forests are managed to preserve wildlife as well as for greater recreation purposes and often timber, livestock grazing, and more.
Simply put, national parks seek to limit the human impact on the land. This means humans (and especially motorized vehicles) are only allowed in certain sections of the park.
For example, vehicles are restricted to just the main roads in most national parks. Those that want to explore the backcountry can do so by hiking or backpacking (or, sometimes, horseback riding as well).
Backcountry Camping Is Available in Most National Parks
Backpacking is the one exception to the dispersed camping rule in most national parks.
Although neither dispersed car camping or boondocking are allowed, it is legal to dispersed camp via backpacking into a backcountry campsite.
Unlike dispersed camping in a national forest, backcountry camping in a national park usually isn’t free. In addition to the park entrance fee, you must usually pay a small fee for a backpacking permit.
Campnado, this website, focuses mainly on dispersed camping near cars as well as RV boondocking, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go backpacking during your national park camping trip.
Backpacking is a fantastic way to get up close and personal with the natural wonders of America’s National Park System.
How to Find Dispersed Camping Near National Parks
Most national parks are surrounded by public land.
So, look for adjacent national forests or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and you’ll almost certainly find dispersed camping opportunities.
Most national forest websites list which specific areas allow dispersed camping. For example, Bridger-Teton National Forest near Yellowstone National Park breaks down it’s dispersed camping rules on its website.
My go-to method, however, is to simply look around on Google Maps.
I use Google Maps to find national forest or BLM land near the national parks I plan to visit. I then switch to satellite view, zoom way in, and look for unpaved forest service roads.
Follow these forest roads with Google Maps. Keep your eyes open for little dirt pull-offs. You’ll usually spot vehicles, RVs, and trailers camped at some of these pull-outs. Sometimes you can even make out handmade rock fire rings on satellite view.
The only downside to using Google Maps to look for dispersed camping is it’s sometimes hard to identify national forest boundaries.
USFS Motor Vehicle Use Maps makes identifying their boundaries easy.
FreeRoam.app is another useful tool for identifying both national forest and BLM land boundaries.
FreeRoam provides a map layer tool (shown in the image above) that creates a national forest or BLM land overlay to easily identify public lands near the national parks you’re visiting.
My guide to the best camping apps and websites breaks down the above camping apps (and several others) in more detail.
Why I Prefer Dispersed Camping – Even While Visiting National Parks
Most national parks have their own campgrounds. Yet I still prefer to dispersed camp outside the park in a nearby national forest. Here’s why:
- Beautiful – National forests are usually just as beautiful as national parks in their own right. In fact, some are even more beautiful and interesting (in my opinion).
- Privacy – I hate the crowds at national park campgrounds. Dispersed camping or even camping at a developed national forest campground is much less busy. You can sometimes even find complete solitude if you look hard enough.
- FREE! – Opting for dispersed camping in a national forest is the only real way to find free camping in a national park. Although you’ll still have to pay entrance fees to visit the national park, you do away with those pesky and pricey camping fees.
- Convenient – It’s totally possible to find top-notch free camping just outside a national park’s boundaries. This makes visiting the park a cinch.
- Different – The majority of visitors drive straight to a national park without ever stopping to consider the natural wonders that lay just beyond. By camping in a nearby national forest, you’re receiving an experience most others pass up.
Enjoy Your National Park Visit!
Even though free camping in a national park doesn’t exist, it’s totally possible to free camp so close by that it feels like you’re in the park itself!
We hope that our breakdown of how to go dispersed camping near national parks helps you plan your next trip – and save some money.
Want more free camping tips? Our guide to finding free campsites near you has even more expert tips and tricks to get you started.