If you’re someone who enjoys boondocking, you’re sure to have discovered the treasures to be found in the US National Forests. Some of these tracts are huge, and most of them include at least some variety of campsites.
The Wayne National Forest, in our home state of Ohio, is small compared to some of the western lands. Nevertheless, it offers several options. Some National Forest campgrounds are developed, with running water and even a showerhouse here and there. Mostly, though, they’re primitive, with simple sites that include a picnic table and a nearby vault toilet.
Lane Farm Campground near Marietta, Ohio is one of these. Four tree-shaded sites with picnic tables and fire rings, a ten minute drive from the first city settled on the Ohio River. Even better, the Hidden Hills Orchard is just three miles down the road, offering fresh fruit throughout the camping season.
National Forests encompass some of the most dramatic and unspoiled scenery on the continent, and even though they’re managed for resource production (among other things), the vistas to be seen while traveling through them are often spectacular.
For many years, we’ve relied on a set of books to help us include these out of the way gems on our travels. National Forest Scenic Byways has been extended into several volumes since it first came out in 1990, and now there are even detailed guides to some of the longer drives. There’s also a website that offers an interactive map.
But let’s get back to camping. One of our favorite spots is just west of the Continental Divide on the edge of Colorado’s South Park. Jefferson Lake is a stunning and pristine alpine lake nestled at about 11,000 feet in the Pike National Forest. There are a couple of Forest Service Campgrounds nearby, but we’ve not seen a sign prohibiting overnight stays in the picnic area that overlooks the lake itself.
Flipping pancakes on a Coleman stove under the watchful eyes of the scrub jays and the chipmunks, while looking over the lake, makes for an unforgettable morning. Our last visit even include sighting a moose.
We really like the Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway through the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina, which passes by Sliding Rock and the Forest History Center. Just recently we traveled the King’s Hill Scenic Byway in Montana, and there were small streamside campgrounds every few miles.
Another favorite is the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway, a loop that includes Taos, NM and some of the nearby ski areas in the Santa Fe National Forest. Part of the old Taos Trail runs through it, so it has interesting history as well as mountain views.
Don’t forget that many of the busiest National Parks adjoin National Forests that have nice campgrounds. These are frequently less crowded and more available on short notice than the sites in the parks themselves.
Sites on the water often offer boat launches, good fishing spots, and immediate access to hiking trails. No matter what you’re looking for, there’s a good chance you’ll find it in a National Forest.