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6 Under the Radar Towns to Camp (for free) out West

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

Toyota Tacoma rig backcountry dispersed camping in Bonneville Salt Flats Utah with go fast camper GFC, vagabond guru

With summer winding down, you may be looking to get a few last minute camping trips in before Old Man Winter comes knocking on our doorstep once again. Or perhaps you are like me and you are already beginning to plan your camping trips for next summer.

We have 6 camping destinations that are all worthy of a trip on their own. Nearly all have free camping available, although all are what we refer to as ‘dispersed camping areas,’ meaning there is no campground, there are no facilities and, most importantly, there are much less people. These places are going to be much less crowded than what you may be used to, although this also means that there are no advance reservations available. We recommend trying to arrive ahead of the weekend crowd in order to have the best shot at finding your ideal campsite.

1) Stanley, Idaho

Stanley Idaho sawtooth mountains lake hiking trail, vagabond guru

Just north of the Sun Valley ski resort and nestled amongst three separate National Forests (Sawtooth, Boise and Salmon-Challis), Stanley has something for everyone regarding outdoor activities. Boasting a population of just 63 people, this town becomes a hub of river folk during the summer months given its proximity to the Salmon River as well as Idaho’s many creeks. Rafting, kayaking, fishing, biking and hiking are all accessible in close proximity to this town. With an array of nearby camping areas, hiking trails, amazing vistas and access to water, we cannot recommend a trip to Stanley enough. Although it is about a 5 hour drive away, the dramatic Sawtooth mountain range reminded us of the much more visited Tetons in Jackson, WY. Grab a bite and a drink while you play pool at Mountain Village, one of the best (read: only) restaurants in town. Then, head over to Stanley Lake for a swim with some of the best views of the jagged Sawtooth Mountains out there.

2) Buena Vista, Colorado

Hiking colorado high peaks 14ers Buena Vista CO mountains, vagabond guru

Pronounced locally as “Byoo-nuh Vista,” this classic Colorado town is situated in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Nestled among 15 of Colorado’s 14,000ft high peaks (known as “14ers”), BV is a hikers paradise. Brown’s Creek and Raspberry Gulch are amazing dispersed camping areas with dozens upon dozens of campsites nestled among its pine forest. The nearby Arkansas River provides plenty of rafting, kayaking and fishing opportunities to get you on the water in the summer months. Don’t forget to stop by K’s Dairy Delite downtown for burgers and soft serve ice cream. Lastly, if you are interested in the healing waters of a natural hot spring, the nearby Mt Princeton Hot Spring Resort is a must. Mountain biking is also very popular in this area and there are miles and miles of singletrack available for you to choose from.

3) La Push, Washington

Olympic national park camping second beach La Push Washington, vagabond guru

On the far Western side of the Olympic Peninsula on the Quileute Indian Reservation lies the small town of La Push. While there are no amenities in the town itself (the nearest grocery store is 15mi away in Forks, WA), the town is centered on a world-class stretch of undeveloped beaches. You will need a permit from Olympic National Park to camp here (the cost was $10 when we went), but this is no campground. First, Second and Third Beaches (their actual names) are home to immense piles of driftwood from some of the largest trees you will have ever seen. Wood gathering and beach fires are allowed in designated camping areas and the loud crash of waves mean you will not be able to hear other groups camping. Rialto Beach is another amazing option, but will require a 20min detour back towards Forks in order to cross a bridge over the Quillayute River. Be on the lookout for the many seals, otters and porpoises that call this area home. While swimming at these beaches are allowed, please be cautious as there are strong currents just offshore here. I would also recommend bringing raingear as this is an area known for its precipitation. This is the only place on this list where dogs are not allowed, so fido will need to stay at home for this one. Lastly, if you are looking to explore other areas of Olympic, Hoh Rainforest and Shi Shi Beach are within driving distance for a daytrip. PS: Twilight was filmed here as well if that is something that interests you (personally I am Team Jacob).

4) Red Lodge, Montana

Red Lodge Montana hiking timberline lake mountains, vagabond guru

Located on traditional Crow tribal lands at the base of the Beartooth Mountains, Red Lodge serves as one of the gateways to the Yellowstone National Park via the scenic Beartooth Highway. Red Lodge is home to the Red Lodge Ski Resort, although there is still plenty of recreational activities in the summer, especially if you plan on visiting Yellowstone National Park. There are a variety of dispersed camping areas to choose from and many hikes in the area to keep you busy. The Beartooth Highway entrance to Yellowstone is also the closest to Lamar Valley which is the best place in the park to spot wildlife in the park such as bison, moose, wolves and grizzly bears. Red Lodge is part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and there are estimated to be between 25-30 grizzlies in the Red Lodge area, so it is a great idea to have bear spray on you at all times. Because it is a small town, we recommend finding spray prior to your arrival, although Ace Hardware did have plenty of stock while we were there (only place in town we were able to buy some). There were encounters with 2-3 individual grizzlies on one of our hikes, so the chance of run-ins are fairly high, although incidents have been rare. Please see here for more information for camping in bear country. If you like fishing, take your pole to the beautiful Timberline Lake where the fish are hungry and the competition on the water is non-existent.

5) Lake City, Colorado

Lake City Colorado Uncompaghre Peak 14ers high peak hiking, vagabond guru

Lake City refers to itself as the “most remote town in the lower 48” and boy is it out there. However, its remoteness is part of its fun, as it also boasts 1,000 square miles of untamed wilderness. Named for the nearby Lake San Cristobal, Lake City is most famous for what it does not have: paved roads. If you are in to ATVs, UTVs or #JeepLife, this is the destination for you. Traverse the famous Cinnamon or Engineer Pass to Silverton, CO, but only if you have ample experience on 4WD, high-altitude mountain roads. Lake City is also a ‘peakbaggers paradise’ given its base camp proximity to 5 remote 14,000 ft peaks. I recommend finishing the day on the trail with a beer at Lake City Brewery followed by a dip in the lake! Be warned - the water is only 50-60 degrees, but that's part of the fun.

6) Lone Pine, California

Lone Pine California whitney portal highest peak alabama hills, vagabond guru

The jumping off point for the tallest mountain in the lower 48, Mt Whitney (14,495’), Lone Pine is a great place to explore the diverse ecosystems of the eastern Sierra Nevada. Situated on the eastern slope of the range at an elevation of 3,727ft, Lone Pine is on the border of these mountains and the Great Basin Desert of Nevada. Take the drive up to Whitney Portal for a great place to picnic and relax at the hottest part of the day. Explore the dispersed camping in the otherworldly Alabama Hills or drive out to Death Valley National Park to experience the lowest and hottest place in the US (it hit 120 degrees when we were there). You can also find the World’s oldest tree in nearby Independence, CA - a 5,000 year old grove of Bristlecone Pines. Nearby Big Pine has an amazing hike with 9 different alpine lakes with glacial blue water filled with hungry trout.

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1 comentario

21 sept 2021

La Push 😍

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