Alex and I are in limbo at the moment as we prepare for our future travels in Australia. We will be flying to Sydney on May 1st. Until then, Alex and I are home in New York with my family, and I am working a temporary job to save money for our travels, and we continue to wait for updates on Alex’s immigration status. Van life is on hold for now, although we are still sleeping each night in our comfortable van bed (yes, even though it’s winter).
As I go about each day, I recall many vivid moments from my travels with a deep fondness. More often than not, the moments I spent in solitude with nature at some of the incredible campsites I discovered come to mind.
I’ve slept in my van in everything from Wal-Mart parking lots and city streets to rest stops, road pull-offs, and sketchy woodland “campgrounds” in the middle of nowhere. Primarily, I used freecampsites.net while I was on the road to find free places to bunk down for the night. It was always hit or miss, but I did find quite a few gems.
More than anything, I enjoyed these campsites because of their remoteness and the solitude they offered. That liberating feeling of escape can easily be ruined by trash, loud neighbors, scaring off the wildlife, and decimation of natural formations. So please, if you do go to any of these places on my recommendation, don’t make me regret writing this blog post. Leave it in as good of condition or better so it can be enjoyed by the next person.
1. Badger Creek Campground near Marble Canyon, Arizona
GPS coordinates: 36.77642, -111.659206
Although I have broken this rule more times than I have followed it, it’s always a good idea to get to your campsite before dark, especially if you haven’t been there before and you know it’s remote and may be difficult to find. The discreet dirt road leading to this site was nearly impossible to find in the dark.
The turn off comes shortly after Lee’s Ferry Lodge if you’re heading west on 89A. There is a gate that must be opened and closed behind you. The road in is rough, but 4-wheel drive is not needed. High clearance is preferable, but if you drive slowly and carefully, a low clearance vehicle (like my van) will make it.
I was unable to find specific campsites, but I also didn’t drive all the way to the end of the road. I found a small pull-off that seemed sufficient and parked there. Again, arriving in the daytime can be very helpful with finding discrete campsites.
At the time I visited in June, it was too hot inside the van, even at night. I found that the temperature was bearable if I was outside the van, where the occasional breeze swept through to cool me off. Worried about snakes and biting insects, I took a blanket and pillow and slept on the roof of my van under the endless starry sky (this was before I had installed my solar panel). It was a night I’ll never forget.
In the morning I was delighted to see monolithic red and orange cliffs all around me, as though I had woken up on Mars. A short walk away from where I was parked, I came to the edge of Marble Canyon with the Colorado River roaring below. Exploring the rim of the canyon and climbing around was a wonderful start to the day. I was utterly alone, my thoughts uninterrupted.
2. Badlands Overlook near Badlands National Park, South Dakota
GPS coordinates: 43.890031, -102.226789
This campsite, just outside the entrance to Badlands National Park near Wall, SD, may be the mother of all overlooks. You can drive right up to the edge of the cliff, park, and soak it all in. Despite what the name of the local geography might imply, the badlands of North and South Dakota are sites to behold. I stayed here for two nights with another person, and one of the best moments came the second day. The sunset that evening, painting the sky in deep red and vibrant orange, was like adding frosting onto an already delicious cake.
The road is dirt, and 4-wheel drive and high clearance are a plus, but not needed. The road leads through an open stretch of grassland (the site is located in Buffalo Gap National Grasslands). There is a cell tower off to the left, providing fantastic signal and a landmark to help you find the place. The site is located conveniently close to the Pinnacles Entrance of the park on Highway 240. The turn-off is on the left when heading south from Wall, just before the toll booth for the park.
There were other people camping while we were there, but there was so much space to camp in that there was no feeling of being crowded.
3. Chico Flat Campground in Sequoia National Forest, California
GPS coordinates: 35.8235, -118.462
Amenities: toilets and trash receptacles provided in summer
I found this campsite while I was en route from Death Valley National Park to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. I had planned to stay at a different campsite, but it was getting dark and I had already passed a couple of others along Mountain Highway 99. I stopped, and, unable to find a self-pay fee booth, decided to stay. Some other campers there confirmed it was a free campground.
The decision to stop here for the night was a rewarding one. I was delighted to find a campsite that was close enough to the river that I could hear the current rushing all through the night (be mindful: camping within 25 feet of the river is prohibited).
In the morning, I drank a cup of tea and took in my environment with awe. The surrounding mountains were shrouded in morning mist, and as I drove on that day along winding mountain roads, I would be greeted with an impressive rainstorm. But everything was calm that morning, and I enjoyed a refreshing rinse in the chilly river water before I packed up camp. A part of me longed to stay here for a night or two more, and I hope someday I can return to do just that.
4. Caja del Rio Plateau in Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico
GPS coordinates: 35.691879, -106.21582
Getting to this site requires many miles of driving on unnamed, barely-there dirt roads through the Santa Fe National Forest. I continued down the road for a while after my phone announced “you have reached your destination” because I couldn’t see anything that looked like a campsite around. Eventually, I chose an open area with thin vegetation, so I wouldn’t disturb much with my van.
I sat on the roof of my van to eat dinner and enjoy the colorful sunset that reflected on the land. The romantic desert forest all around me was one reason I loved this site, but the primary reason was that I was utterly alone, I imagine for at least 5–10 miles all around me. I think in my eight months of travel, this was the moment I felt most alone and separated from the rest of the world. I had only the long-eared jackrabbits and the faint cries of a coyote pack to keep me company. I felt small and humbled, drowning in the vast sky and space around me.
The night I stayed there was warm and clear, so I slept under the stars on a tarp beneath the large bush you can see in the picture. I woke to find a swarm of flies around my face, but not even they could ruin my time there.
5. Thorndike Campground in Death Valley National Park, California
Amenities: pit toilets, picnic tables, fire pits, trash receptacles
Death Valley National Park has four free campgrounds: Emigrant, Wildrose, Thorndike, and Mahogany Flats. I stayed at the first three, and was impressed with the quality of all of them. They each had picnic tables, trash receptacles, and pit toilets. Emigrant’s campsites are all tightly packed together, so you feel like you’re breathing down your neighbor’s necks. Wildrose is much more spread out, but still tends to have a lot of people there. Thorndike and Mahogany Flats are higher up in elevation, and 4-wheel drive definitely comes in handy to get to them. Good quality tires are also needed, because the road is cluttered with large, sharp rocks.
I enjoyed my stay at Thorndike the most. Each night I was there, there was only one other person in the campground. This campground is higher up in elevation, so the temperature is far more pleasant than inside the desert valley. There are also more trees and shrubs here, providing cover, privacy, and shade (sorry, somehow it slipped my mind to photograph this campground).
Many of the people who visit Death Valley choose to stay at a couple of resorts that are offered within the park’s massive boundaries. You can even rent Jeeps to go on 4-wheel drive, high clearance only roads. Thorndike Campground was a nice respite from the more tourist-heavy areas of the park.
Thanks for reading, and happy camping!