In the last article we looked at a bunch of acronyms representing federal and state land agencies and what passes and permits were required on each. While it would take a novel-sized book to adequately outline all your camping options for each agency, in this article we will take a quick overview in the hopes of introducing readers to new places to find campsites.

NPS (National Park Service) who also operates National Monuments and National Recreation Areas: We are all familiar with paid campgrounds within our National Parks and National Monuments, but also be aware that many National Monuments and National Recreation Areas offer free areas (overflow and dispersed camping) to camp just by displaying your America the Beautiful Pass. Go to the park, monument or recreation areas website and perform a search for “camping”.

USFS (United States Forest Service) oversees National Forests and National Grasslands. You will find an assortment of camping opportunities on lands under the jurisdiction of the USFS from paid campgrounds and free campgrounds for those displaying a Forest Pass or America The Beautiful pass, to dispersed camping at developed facilities like boat launches and trailheads to dispersed camping in the forest where there are no amenities. A list of camping options will be found on their “Recreation” website page.  For example, here in Western Washington you can camp at Evans Creek for free when you display a Northwest Forest Pass or America the Beautiful pass.


USFS Recreation Page


USFS Boondocking Spot

BLM (Bureau of Land Management) controls huge amounts of land in the Western states. BLM operates inexpensive or free campgrounds and is the most boondocking (dispersed camping) friendly of all the federal agencies. In the Pacific Northwest, you are more likely to need your American the Beautiful pass to use day-use facilities than campgrounds. For example you will need to display a pass at Yakima River boat launches, but can camp for free without a pass at Liberty Campground.


BLM Free Campground

COE (Corps of Engineers) operates dams, locks and canals throughout the United States and is the largest provider of water-based outdoor recreation in the nation which includes boat launches, hiking trails and campgrounds. Dispersed camping is permitted at many of their locations. An America the Beautiful Pass is required at many of their day use facilities but is not required when paying for overnight camping. Click here for a list of developed COE campgrounds and where dispersed camping is allowed along the Columbia River on COE lands. An example of free camping offered by the corps is Rufus Landing in Oregon (see photo).


Boondocking on COE Land

USBR – (United States Bureau of Reclamation) has projects located in the 17 Western United States. In most cases, USBR allows state agencies to oversee recreational opportunities in their project areas and you will need the pass for that agency to recreate or camp.  One exception is New Melones Lake in California where you will need to display a federal America the Beautiful Pass for day- use facilities. An example in Washington State is Conconully Lake Campground which is managed by Washington State Parks on behalf of the USBR.


Beautiful Sunset on USBR Land

NWR  (National Wildlife Refuge) The agency oversees 569 refuges which encompass 150 million acres across the United States. Click here to select an NWR from a map of the entire US, then click “Plan Your Visit” to see which refuges allow you to camp. While NWR is a federal agency, an America the Beautiful Pass is typically not required to visit or camp. A couple of examples of NWRs in the west are Pahranagat which offers a free campground and KOFA which allows dispersed camping within its boundaries. Neither requires a pass for entry or overnight stays.


Free Campground on NWR Land

DOD (Department of Defense) controls each military branch, except for the Coast Guard, and the military installations / reservations they utilize. Developed campgrounds are available for active and retired military personnel across the United States, click here for a listing. Civilians will also find camping options if they spend the time to seek them out. Typically you will need a special permit from the military agency in charge and not an America the Beautiful Pass.

Example: In Washington State you may camp for free at Cascades to Palouse Trail (formerly Iron Horse Trail) trailheads where the trail crosses the (YTC) Yakima Training Center. Click here to learn more.


Yakima Training Center

BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) and the tribal lands they hold in trust. Permits vary by tribe – some are self issued at the site, others are available online. A Pacific Northwest example; The Yakima Nation will let you camp in tribal campgrounds with a self-issued permit. Click here for a list of campgrounds, fees and how to obtain a permit.

WDFW (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) controls hundreds of water access sites and dozens of wildlife areas across the state with many offering free camping areas or permit dispersed camping when you display a Discover Pass or Vehicle Access Pass. Click here for a searchable database listing water access sites by name, county or body of water. The listing will detail what activities / amenities are available including overnight camping (see photo). Click here for a listing of Wildlife areas and to see which ones allow camping.


WDFW Water Access Site Example


WDFW Boondocking Spot

WDNR (Washington Department of Natural Resources) manages 3.3 million acres of state trust lands. Among the over 100 recreation sites that can be accessed via a Discover Pass, over 70 of those sites include campgrounds where there are no additional fees charged to camp. Click here to view an interactive map of campgrounds, huts and yurts operated by the WDNR.

Washington State Parks operates over 100 parks in Washington with a fair amount of them offering overnight camping. A Discover Pass is required for day use only, those paying an overnight camping fee are not required to display a Discover Pass.

Washington State Parks also operates more than 120 Winter Sno-Parks for motorized and non-motorized snow sport enthusiasts. A Sno-Park permit allows day use and overnight privileges. Click here for a list of Sno-Parks across the state.  Camping is typically permitted unless posted otherwise.  Sno-Park permits are included with annual snowmobile registrations or click here for how/where to purchase.

A good resource for finding obscure government operated campsites is UltimateCampgrounds.com, click here to be taken directly to a map showing campgrounds across North America. 

Hopefully this review of government agencies and the large tracts of land they oversee provides you with ideas on where to find new places to camp outside of the norm.

Dave Helgeson
Author: Dave Helgeson
Dave Helgeson is the MHRV Show Director. He and his wife love to travel across the west in their RV. Dave writes about all things RVing but loves to share destinations and boondocking advice.

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