Finding Free or Nearly Free Campsites
Federal lands such as forest service and public lands, Bureau of Land Management and Wildlife Management areas, have a variety of free (or almost free) campsites. BLM sites offer lake or river access while forest service and state lands can provide free camping in the forest or mountain wilderness. If you are tent camping you can rough it by parking off the road in almost any public land area. Trailer or RV camping gets a bit more involved. Check it out at recreation.gov.
Finding free or nearly free campsites is easy. I found over two thousand free campgrounds throughout the U.S. listed on just one website. Many of these campgrounds are situated near a rural bar or restaurant, a city or county park for a minimal fee or donation.
If you are looking for a rural setting with amenities, try a city or county park where shopping, play equipment and the town swimming pool are close by. Astonishing scenery can be found at many national recreation areas where wildlife observation, hiking and fishing may be on your agenda.
A Quick Review of Free Campsites
While it is not possible to review all the listings found for camping in the Northwest. For our purposes we will consider two sites available in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming.
- IItch-Kep City Park is located near Columbus, Montana. It has at least 48 sites available in two areas (pull-through and tent) with the Yellowstone River on one side and a golf course on the other. Amenities include water, restrooms and a boat ramp. Each site is large with a table and fire pit. Big Cottonwoods provide luxurious shade. Hiking, golfing, fishing and checking out the local scenery are favorite activities. You can walk downtown for grocery shopping and have breakfast at the local cafe. Billings is only 50 miles away featuring super shopping, big city amenities and Zoo Montana. No fee is required but donations are requested.
- Clark Canyon Reservoir, located 20 miles south of Dillon offers nine campgrounds with 96 sites in a lovely scenic area. From rustic to upgraded RV sites, water and restrooms are available while each site has a fire ring and tables (many of which are covered). Activities include observing seasonal waterfowl on the Cattail Marsh Nature Trail, hiking and fishing. Or motor into Dillon to visit the local museum or into Butte to tour the old buildings, frontier town and the mining museum at Montana’s University of Mines. There is a minimal camping fee and a 14 day per stay limit.
- Beaver Dick Park in Madison County Park is five miles west of Rexburg on State Highway 30. Located along Henry’s Fork of the Snake River the park was named after “Beaver Dick” Richard Leigh, the last of the real Idaho mountain men. Graveled pads, fire pits, tables, water, restrooms and a children’s playground are available for the 30 campsites located on this 12-acre preserve. The area is noted for superior fishing while hiking and wildlife viewing are recommended. Recently a $5 per day (or $15 for five days) site fee has been instituted to help with grounds upkeep.
- Craters of the Moon National Preserve is located in central Idaho near Idaho Falls. Water, dump stations, children’s playground and restrooms are included in the amenities where you camp in the lava formations. Walk the many trails through the lava, explore the lava tubes (short caves) and view some of the over 280 animal species or 660 plant types. Camp permits are required prior to entering any of the caves. This is a truly unique landscape with lava swirls, cinder cones and sagebrush onsite. Campsites can be warm in the summer so one might consider a spring or fall visit. Don’t forget the flashlights for cave exploring. Fifty-one campsites are available for $10/day or 1/2 price with senior or access permits.
- Chehalis City Park offers 20 back-in spaces each with its own fire pit and table, water and power. Restrooms and showers are also available. The shaded sites are near the river for swimming and fishing.
- Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, Moses Lake is a wonderful “roughing it” area with numerous sites throughout the Columbia Wildlife Refuge and Pots Hole Reservoir. Water and restrooms are available on some sites. Other sites you must provide your own water. Enjoy this scenic area, fish, hike, canoe, kayak, boat or watersport among the wildlife for a $5 use permit. Boating permits may be required.
- Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area near Lovell surrounds the lakes formed by Yellowstone Dam. Astounding canyon scenery, lake sites and red sandstone cliffs are unique to the variety of campsites available. There are picnic tables, fire pits on most sites with comfort stations with toilets and sinks on the grounds. Hiking, cliff climbing and swimming are among the favorite activities. Take note that rattlesnakes are found in the area during the warm summer months. A $5 per day fee or National Park Pass required.
- Potts Landing, Lake Desmet is located seven miles north of Buffalo. Located in the eastern (flat) part of the state the campground offers a quiet lake setting, views of the Bighorn Mountains and a “get away from it all” ambience. Bushes surround most campsites providing privacy. While water may not be available at all campsites, picnic tables and fire pits are. There are restrooms onsite. Swimming, hiking and rock hounding are favorite pastimes. There is an $8 fee May through September.
For those of you looking for budget trailer/RV sites we have reviewed a few here. There are many more available in every state in the union. Check out the reviewed sites to see if they meet your requirements or find your own budget camping spot. But do go camping!