Normally, dispersed camping in National Forests is just a matter of finding a road on the Motor Vehicle Use Map with dots on each side of it and picking a likely spot, but what if it’s a forest near a large city with high use rates, and you don’t want people stomping all over?
If you’re the Forest Service, you could build lots of campgrounds and prohibit dispersed camping, like they did in the Wapiti Valley east of Yellowstone, but campgrounds cost money, are environmentally disruptive, and require campground hosts, ranger checks, infrastructure, etc. And it’s all taxpayer money. The way they’re funding the Forest Service these days, it just ain’t gonna happen.
I ran into an ingenious solution to this problem in the Coconino National Forest south of Flagstaff, Arizona called designated dispersed camping. Forest Road 237 heads east from 89A about seven miles south of town, and you’re greeted with a big “No Camping Except in Designated Areas” sign. There are four designated areas, and they’re loops off 237, each with a couple of dozen designated sites.
But these aren’t your fancy campground sites. You have one of those flexible flat brown fiberglass stakes with a campsite number out on the loop where you can easily see it driving by, and a second stake which says “you must camp within 50 feet of campsite marker – violations punishable”. No big barriers necessary to keep people from rampaging off into the woods – you have to keep vehicles and tents, etc. within a tight circle around the marker.
There’s no garbage collection, bathrooms, or campground hosts to run up costs, the campers are restricted so that they can’t wander off randomly damaging vegetation and setting fire to the woods, and people still get to use the forest. Nifty idea if you ask me.
This particular corridor is mostly used by day trippers and occasional overnighters from Flagstaff, especially on weekends. Very few fancy rigs, mostly tents, small towables, and canopies. The main activities seem to be riding ATVs and shooting various firearms – this IS Arizona, after all – but after a couple of noisy weekend days and nights, they all pack up and head back to town, leaving you alone in the wilderness.
We had one noisy weekend, but the next weekend it rained off and on, which kept all this noise back in town, where it belongs. Out of ten days there, we only had the two noisy ones, which served our purpose well. We had stuff we had to do in the Flagstaff area and wanted to stay close, but not in some Walmart parking lot. We wanted to be out in the Ponderosa forest with the oaks changing, enjoying the cool autumn nights and stars. And the Milky Way. If you can’t see the Milky Way, you’re too close to civilization.
Oh, and the cost? It’s free. Fourteen day limit. My kind of place.
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