If you are an outdoor enthusiast, you probably know all about the camping opportunities at your nearest KOA. But did you know that you can camp in some national park locations across the country? Some even allow you to camp free of charge.

It’s true!

Called boondocking by most people, it means camping in remote locations with no amenities except what you bring in with you. Free. Boondocking is also known as dry camping or dispersed camping.

There is even an app for that!

So if you enjoy camping and surviving on your own in remote locations without spending a fortune, strap your backpack on. It’s time for a little hike.

What Is a National Park?

Simply put, a national park is an area set aside by the government for specific purposes. Some national parks are dedicated to public use and recreation. Others may be dedicated to preserving history, environmental landscaping, or endangered animals.

There are 59 national parks in the United States. Some are well known and see millions of visitors every year. Others are full of hidden beauty and tucked away in remote corners, scarcely visited.

Majestic landscapes, rich foliage, and abundant wildlife are the things that all national parks seem to have in common.

Ownership, fees, and upkeep

So who owns these national parks? You do, of course! As a citizen of the United States, you enjoy ownership of some of the most breathtakingly beautiful sights this country has to offer.

You will need to purchase a parking pass to gain access to the national parks. The annual costs are outlined on the NPS website. These fees help to offset the park upkeep for specific programming, amenities, tours, and many programs. There may also be additional fees for permitted camping and programming determined at each site.

Taking out the trash

Upkeep of our national parks is done through the National Park Service. Your mom doesn’t work there, so you should still be picking up after yourself.

Most people who are into boondocking pack it in and they pack it out. That means that if they bring something into the area, they also leave with it, including any trash associated with their trip.

Respect the land and follow the principles of leave no trace.

The Leave No Trace initiative has seven basic principles:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
  2. Travel and camp on solid surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave nature where you find it
  5. Minimize your campfire’s impact
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate to other visitors

So, everything you learned in kindergarten will make you an exemplary national park visitor. If Bigfoot can live in our forests for centuries and leave no trace then so can you!

Backpacking or driving in – making the choice

How people get to a location to camp is too varied to cover in great detail here. Suffice it to say that all campers are welcomed at national parks with open arms.

If you want to camp for free, and stay legal, head for a park that allows boondocking. There are also places in our national forests where boondocking is permitted, but that is for a different day.

Once you decide how you are getting to your camping space, and all the other details are attended to, you’ll be ready to see the sights.

Bucket List Destinations by Region

We don’t have the room to cover all the potential destinations within the national park system. So, we divided the country by regions and selected a few of our favorites to highlight.

No matter what region of the country you plan to visit, the National Park Service offers an interactive map to help you find a national park along your route.

Because it crosses through several states and two of our regions, we opted to highlight perhaps the most famous of all national parks first.

Appalachian National Park

Image shows Steps on the Appalachian Trail leading to Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

Steps on the Appalachian Trail leading to Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

Winding through 5 national parks in 14 states, the Appalachian Trail stretches from Maine to Georgia. The footpath covers more than 2,180 miles, taking hikers through a variety of terrains including pastures, wooded areas, and scenic overlooks.

Maintained jointly by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and many state agencies, the trail was completed in 1937 after 16 years of planning and hard work. Thousands of volunteers also contribute to the maintenance and upkeep of the trail.

Several sections of the trail are easily accessed and suitable for day hikes. Other sections are more remotely located and only accessible on foot. The NPS posts advisories for day-to-day changes, weather advisories, and of course, bear alerts.

Hiking the entire length of the trail can take five to seven months at a moderate pace. In 2011, it was estimated that some 12,000 hikers had completed the entire trek. So whether you opt for a day hike or a month-long excursion, the Appalachian Trail might be your dream destination.

Northeastern states

The northeastern states include Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont. This beautiful area contains many of our nation’s historical landmarks.

Because it’s made up of many of the original 13 colonies, this region houses almost half of the National Park Service’s historic landmarks. Among the must-see sights in the northeastern region is Acadia National Park.

Acadia National Park

Image shows Landscape and scenic of mountains and lake at Acadia National Park, Maine.

Landscape and scenic of mountains and lake at Acadia National Park, Maine.

With more than 3.3 million visitors every year, Acadia boasts 158 miles of premium hiking trails. Guests can traverse 16 stone bridges located along 45 miles of carriage roads. Climbers can select from 7 mountains peaking at over 1,000 feet.

The park is open year-round, but parts may be closed periodically due to inclement weather. The park enjoys four distinct seasons with moderate temperatures (for a northern climate at least). Check local weather reports before a visit to ensure you have the appropriate clothing and gear.

The Blackwoods Campground is open from May through November. There are nightly fees for camping, and because the campground fills up fast during peak seasons, reservations are recommended.

Southern states

Our division for the southern region includes Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The Appalachian Trail passes through many of the southern states. In addition, there are national parks scattered throughout the region. Among the most well-known parks are the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee and Everglades National Park in Florida.

But if you want to see truly unique landscapes, a beautiful southern horizon, and plenty of activities, Big Bend National Park is a wonderful destination.

Big Bend National Park

Image shows the river flowing into the mountains around a bend at sunset in Big Bend National Park, Texas.

The river flowing into the mountains at sunset in Big Bend National Park, Texas.

Located in the western end of Texas, Big Bend National Park offers desert, water, birds by the hundreds, mountains, and canyons carved by the Rio Grande. Although park entrances operate 24 hours a day all year, entrance fees do vary by season.

The best seasons for weather are the spring and fall, where temperatures are moderate and the humidity isn’t horrid. It can get hot and steamy in the summer and moderately chilly during the winter months.

The park does have four separate camping areas with varying levels of service and fees. Only a small number of camping spots are available for reservations. Most camping areas are first-come, first served. There are also many facilities available outside the park within an easy commuting distance.

Midwest states

The Midwest has a great mixture of rolling hills, mountains, and flatlands. The region includes the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

From the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains to the Great Lakes Basin and into the plains, the midwest region offers perhaps the most varied landscapes, wildlife, and parks in the country.

Located on the shore of Lake Superior, the northernmost of the Great Lakes, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Image shows the famed rock arch formation as seen from the tour boat at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan.

Famed arch at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan.

Explore almost 100 miles of hiking trails or walk along miles of pristine beaches in this unique location. The shores of Lake Superior often appear as crystal blue as the Caribbean Sea, rivaling overseas destinations with freshwater vistas like no others.

The park is open year-round, but parts may be closed or inaccessible during the winter months due to heavy snowfall. In the spring, you can watch the forest come alive as the trees bud and turn green before your eyes. The fall brings with it autumn colors that are breathtaking to behold.

There are no entry fees for the park, but there are seasonal fees for camping. Backcountry camping requires advanced permits, so check the website and make appropriate arrangements.

The weather in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula can vary from very warm during the day to almost frigid overnight. If you’re traveling from a warmer climate, be prepared for the possibility of very cool nights and mild days. The average temperatures are quite habitable during spring, summer, and fall.

With four defined seasons, the climate at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore will have something pleasing for everyone. Don’t forget to pack your camera though.

Western states

Our final region is the western region, including the states of Alaska and Hawaii. Comprised of terrain from deserts and cacti to lush, green mountains with snow-capped peaks, this region is a poster child of diversity.

While everyone has heard of the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains, few have heard of Zion National Park in Utah. Home of the Red Canyon, this park piqued our interest for its unique blend of activities, scenic majesty, and centralized location.

Zion National Park

Image shows a two-lane roadway winding through the mountains in Zion National Park, Utah

Roadway winding through the mountains in Zion National Park, Utah

The hiking trails at Zion National Park follow some of the same trails traversed by native tribes and early pioneers. Packed with history, wilderness, sandstone cliffs, waterfalls, and a wild variety of plants and animals, there is something for everyone.

Zion experiences traffic flow issues during peak seasons. In answer to that, they’ve implemented a free shuttle system from February through November. The shuttle service allows people to access the park and make it an enjoyable visit. Park rangers are always happy to help guests navigate the huge park and find the best of the best.

Fees and permits are required to access many of the areas of the park. The park has three designated camping areas and reservations are recommended. There are also several campgrounds within a short driving distance from the park.

Zion is a dog-friendly park, but they do have specific requirements and limited areas of access, so if you bring your fur-family, please make yourself aware of the restrictions.

Preparing for Your Trip

You’ve selected your destination, made your reservations, and you’re ready to roll. As you prepare, we thought of a few things you may want to keep in mind.

Check the climate and pack the right underwear

The invention of radar technology and extended weather forecasts is great for campers. These offer us the ability to check the projected forecast in an area across the country with a reasonable amount of accuracy. That ability, in turn, allows us to pack appropriate gear, clothing, and be prepared for any weather issues you may encounter.

Having a swimsuit, throw blanket, and a few t-shirts won’t do you any good if the weather says you should be wearing long johns and sleeping in a -40-degree sleeping bag. So check that extended forecast before setting out for any destination. Your vacation will be much more enjoyable if you have the right type of clothing packed.

Gear check – what you need vs. what you want

If you’re a tent camper, this cannot be stressed enough – CHECK YOUR GEAR before you leave home. Set up the tent in your yard and make sure that all the poles, rainfly, seams, zippers, and tie-downs are in good shape. Even if your equipment was fine when you put it away or is brand new – check it before you go.

Whatever gear you camp with should be checked thoroughly before leaving. Operate the slide-outs on your RV. Check the tires for proper wear, signs of dry-rotting, and the right air pressure. Check your solar charging system and make sure it’s functioning to keep your storage batteries at peak charge. Check your tow vehicle. And check everything for a safe and enjoyable vacation.

Safety check – Don’t leave without a check-in

You’re packed and ready to roll to your destination. But something is nagging the back of your brain…

Oh, right! The most important part of traveling, especially if you will be boondocking in remote locations, is anchoring a safety line.

Let someone know your itinerary.

Give them your entire route of travel, your destination, the length of time you will be stopped at each point, and when you expect to return.

Cellular phone service is not always available in many of our national parks and forests. No cell service means no GPS locator. That means you have to do things the old fashioned way. So map out your travel plans and leave them with a trusted friend or family member.

Remember the Boy Scout’s Motto: Be Prepared

The Boy Scouts of America have a simple motto that we should all use daily – Be prepared.

  • Make lists and check them twice.
  • Check the weather at your destination.
  • Make sure that you know any fees, service charges, or permits.
  • Check all your gear before you leave.
  • Leave your itinerary with a trusted friend or family member.
  • Complete check-in procedures on-site before hikes.

There is no better insurance against potential catastrophe than proper preparation. Have a great trip. Take lots of pictures. Stay safe.

And when you return, leave us a comment and tell us all about your trip!

Shannon Minnis

Author Bio: Shannon Minnis is a writer at Green and Growing. She enjoys spending her time in the great outdoors, mostly camping and hiking. She likes to focus on the perks of green living and strives to reduce her carbon footprint to preserve this earth and all its beauty. She continues to write about her outdoor experiences and how she takes steps towards sustainability.