Is Dispersed Camping in National Parks Even Possible?

Dispersed camping in national parks is almost never possible.

The only exception I’m aware of is dispersed camping in Death Valley National Park. Other than that, you must car camp in a designated campsite in a designated campground in all other national parks.

Luckily, it’s super easy to find free dispersed campsites just outside of most national parks, especially those in the Western United States.

Why Don’t National Parks Allow Dispersed Camping?

Cooking pot heating over campfire.

So, why is Death Valley the only national park that allows dispersed camping?

The answer is simple – national parks were created with conservation in mind. The chief goal of the National Park Service is preservation.

The National Park Service strives to keep the land as unaltered as possible to protect the environment, including plant and animal life as well as historical structures and archeological remains.

The land is kept unimpaired so visitors can continue to enjoy its natural and cultural wonders for decades to come. This is why humans (and especially motorized vehicles) are only allowed in certain parts of national parks.

Although conservation is also important to other federal public land agencies, both the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management offer much more flexibility in terms of outdoor recreation.

Dispersed camping is widely available in national forests and on BLM land, including right outside the borders of many of the country’s most popular national parks.

How to Find Dispersed Camping Near National Parks

Screenshot from the FreeRoam app with BLM land and USFS map overlays turned on showing public land for dispersed camping near Yellowstone National Park.

Many national parks, especially those in the Western United States, are surrounded by public lands.

For example, the image above is a screenshot from the FreeRoam app which shows the public lands surrounding Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone is shown in light green. National forests are shown in dark green while BLM land is shown in light brown.

The vast majority of national forests and BLM land are open to dispersed camping and boondocking – usually free of charge.

In addition to FreeRoam (which I love because of the public land overlays shown above), I recommend messing around with iOverlander,, Gaia GPS, and Avenza Maps to find potential dispersed campsites near national parks.

Look for national forests and BLM land near the national park you wish to visit and you’ll almost certainly find an abundance of dispersed camping opportunities.

Related Post: My Favorite Dispersed Camping Apps

Why I Prefer Dispersed Camping – Even While Visiting National Parks 

Large orange camping tent in the woods.

Most national parks have their own campgrounds. Yet I almost always prefer to dispersed camp outside the park in national forests and on BLM land. Here’s why:

  • Beautiful – National forests and BLM lands 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 even find complete solitude if you look hard enough.
  • Free – Opting for dispersed camping in a national forest or on BLM land 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 conveniently located free camping less than an hour (often much less) from a national park’s entrances. This makes visiting the park quick and easy.
  • Unique – 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 or on BLM land, you’re enjoying an experience most others pass up without a second thought.

With these benefits in mind, it’s sometimes still worth booking a national park campground in advance, especially if you’re traveling during the busy summer months as the best nearby dispersed camping areas are likely to fill up in the peak season.

Let Me Know If You Still Have Questions

Even though it’s nearly impossible to find free camping in national parks, it’s totally possible to find dispersed campsites just outside of most national parks with our tips above.

If you still have questions, please ask in the comments below and I’ll get back to you right away!

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Post written by Jake Heller, the founder of Campnado. Read all Jake's posts. Or reach out to him directly:

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