Find the Best Places to Camp in the USA – Free vs Paid Options

Are you planning an amazing trip but struggling to find the best places to camp in the USA? Are you feeling overwhelmed at the seemingly endless possibilities and aren’t sure about where to start?

Luckily you have come to the right place!

Thanks to our in-depth guide to camping in the USA, you can get a detailed overview of all of the top choices (both free and paid) across the nation. 

Camping in the United States

The United States is one of the greatest destinations for camping in the world, as the vast amount of country gives you almost an infinite amount of options. From the Atlantic Coast all the way to the Pacific Coast, and everything in between, there is plenty of country to explore.

Whether you want to camp high in the mountains, down in the deserts, the tropics, forests, or even tundras, the United States has it all. With thousands of square miles of land to explore, no matter your preference you can find it somewhere!

Camping in itself can be very rewarding, and we want you to have the best experience possible. In this article, we want to list your best options when it comes to different places and campsites. Let’s get started!

Camping in National Parks

National Parks are found on federal public land and are run by the federal National Park system. The United States is home to 62 different National Parks, scattered all around the country. But because they are all run under the same federal system, most will have similar rules and regulations. 

Camping in National Parks is a great way to be very close to some beautiful places and major attractions. The obvious advantage here is location. Imagine waking up in the morning to a beautiful sunrise at your chosen destination, without having to hike or travel to get there!

The iconic view in Zion National Park. The Watchman Campground is located 200 meters down the river.

Another great thing about camping in a National Park is knowing you will have a guaranteed place to camp if you reserve a spot beforehand. Reservations are easy to book and you can do it all online, saving you the stress and saving your spot. 

Camping at National Parks does not come without its limitations, however. In most of the popular National Parks, such as Yosemite, Zion, and Bryce, you have to make sure you make reservations months in advance and plan far ahead in the future. 

National Parks can also be extremely crowded and busy during the peak season, even in the established camping areas. You are also subject to all National Park rules and restrictions while camping within its boundaries.

To reserve the camping spot in Yosemite Valley, you have to do it 5 months in advance.

National Parks are amazing places to camp and a great option to consider when planning out a trip. As long as you don’t mind placing a reservation in advance or sharing the space with other people, you can camp right next to some of the most amazing scenery in the country!

Camping in State Parks

State Parks are located publicly owned land that belongs to the individual state where it is found. Because of this, State Parks can have drastically different rules and regulations depending on the state they are located in, and even what area of the state they are located. 

With the variety of State Park rules, it is highly recommended to do a little bit of homework and research the regulations of the specific State Park you intend to visit. For example, if you like to get great videos and photos with the help of a drone, there are plenty of state parks where their use is permitted, while others may require you to obtain a free permit, and others may prohibit it altogether. 

Kodachrome State Park in Utah offers one of the best camping experiences.

Camping in State Parks offers many of the same benefits of camping in National Parks, as well as a few more. Just like in National Parks, State Parks have the option of making online reservations to ensure you have a place to stay. 

Unlike National Parks, State Parks are often much smaller and less busy. They are much more secluded and have less foot traffic, offering more opportunities to yourself. Not only will they usually have much fewer people, but State Parks often have fewer rules and restrictions than National Parks. 

State Parks do come with a few disadvantages as well. Many State Parks (although not all) are grossly overpriced and can overcharge for both entrance and camping fees. 

State Parks are not all created equal either. Many of them do not always encompass the most inspiring locations either and might be a bit more boring than National Parks. They also might not include many services. 

With all that being said, many State Parks are amazing. Doing a little bit of research can result in finding some of the most amazing places found in State Parks, with everything you might need. Places such as Kodachrome State Park and Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Utah not only have some of the most beautiful locations, but great spots to camp, showers, and services as well. 

Camping in Private Campgrounds

Another option besides staying in a park is camping in private campgrounds. Private campgrounds are a great place for people who are looking for a variety of services, such as showers, laundry, Wifi, and kitchens. 

Unfortunately, all of these amenities come at a price, and private campgrounds can be very overpriced. For those on a budget, private campgrounds would probably be one of the more expensive options out there. They are usually not in the greatest of locations either and are further away from any interesting places. 

Private campground KOA near Bryce Canyon National Park.

I usually prefer to stay away from private campgrounds, mostly because they do not offer any interesting locations. Of course, there are always exceptions. For example, when visiting Bryce Canyon National Park, I found the best place to stay is the KOA campground in Cannonville, just outside of Bryce. This campground has services like showers, laundry, and Wifi, and it sits at a lower elevation in comparison to Bryce which results in much milder temperatures.

While private campgrounds can be the most expensive places to camp, the added services can make a trip much more pleasant. With a little research, you may even be able to find one in a good location close to your intended destination. 

Camping in Free Campgrounds

The biggest advantage of free campgrounds can be found in the name: Free! For campers that are on a budget, this is the biggest advantage of staying in a free campground and not having to owe anyone anything. 

Free campgrounds are designated campgrounds that are found on public land. In general, they will always come equipped with established fire pits and toilets. Many of them will also have plenty of picnic tables and covered shade as well. 

Stateline Free Campground is located deep inside of Vermillion Cliffs National Monument,
on the border between Utah and Arizona

Camping in free campgrounds gives you plenty of places to go, but it also means that you have to be the first one there. These work on a first-come, first-serve basis and there are no reservations. Most free campgrounds are also very small and have a very limited number of spots. There are also no services and amenities, so you will have to bring everything you will need yourself. 

There are some free campgrounds located in some National and State Parks, but most free campsites are found within BLM and National Forest areas. These campgrounds in the parks are very rare and shouldn’t be relied on, however. A few noteworthy examples include Lava Point Campground in Zion and Cathedral Valley Campground in Cathedral Valley National Park. 

The Kolob road in Zion leads to the only free campground (Lava Point) in the national park.

These free campsites are also located in some remote areas, such as Stateline Campground in Vermillion Cliffs National Monument or Warner Campground in the La Sal Mountains. No matter where you are at, free campgrounds are much more budget-friendly but might be less comfortable than the other options. 

Free Dispersed Camping 

Dispersed camping is camping done on any public land without any facilities and without any designated areas. There might be a few simple rules to follow depending on the type of public land you are on, but for the most part you are free to go and camp wherever you choose!

Just like the free campgrounds, it costs absolutely nothing for dispersed camping. And just like free campgrounds, the biggest advantage is the price or lack thereof. Dispersed camping also has the least amount of restrictions, and gives you the most options when it comes to places to find a secluded place to camp. 

Dispersed Camping near Lake Powel in Arizona

The downside to braving the elements and disperse camping on public land is that there is absolutely nothing for you there. There are no showers, laundry, tables, or even sources of water. You will need to be self-sustained and bring everything that you will need with you. 

Free Dispersed Camping on BLM Lands and in National Forests

Both BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and National Forests are considered public land and open to dispersed camping. You are free to choose where you want to go and where you want to camp. Depending on the state and the National Forest, there might be a special time and area restrictions, but for the most part, they are the most flexible in allowing you to do what you want. 

One of my favorite locations for free Dispersed Camping is Valley of the Gods in Utah.

Free Dispersed Camping in National Monuments

Each National Monument will have its own set of rules and regulations, so it is important to some research beforehand. For example, dispersed camping is allowed in Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, but you will need to acquire a free permit from a BLM office before camping at Grand Staircase Escalate National Monument. 

Dispersed Camping Outside of National Parks

National Parks generally do not allow camping outside of established campgrounds, but it can still be a good idea to use dispersed camping outside of a National Park when visiting. For example, when visiting the Grand Canyon during the busy season, it is near impossible to find a vacant camping spot. Your best option is to camp for free in the Kaibab National Forest when visiting the South Rim and the Kaibab Plateau when visiting the North Rim.

Planning Your Camping Trip to the US

Carefully planning out and researching your camping trip before leaving is going to ensure the best possible experience. But even though we all tend to rely on our electronic devices and computers when planning out our next vacation, one of the best ways to plan a camping trip to the US is by using Road and Recreations Atlas Maps from Benchmark Maps. 

These maps have well defined public areas such as BLM land and National Forests. They also indicate the difficulties of off-road driving and road conditions when looking for secluded camping spots. This is a great tool that can help you find the best possible locations for your next camping trip. 

Our in-depth guide will help you to find that next perfect location to help you accomplish the camping trip that you have been dreaming about. So sit back, find that perfect place, and start planning!