Road Trip Tips for Exploring Public Lands

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Road trips are the quintessential summer outing often sparked by bucket list destinations and the desire to hit the open road to discover new landscapes. If you plan to enjoy your public lands and waters along the way, we offer these trip planning tips to get you started.

Use these tips to start planning your adventure on the road

View the Possibilities

A person looks through binoculars at a field of bison

Yellowstone National Park (Lauren Brougher, Share the Experience)

Trip planning can sometimes feel overwhelming, especially if the area or route is completely new to you. Ease into the planning process by exploring the possibilities. Start with our Trip Builder tool. Enter your bucket list locations and add filters to view those locations and amenities that apply to you (tent campsites, RV sites, cabins, etc.). You’ll be presented with trailheads, campgrounds, historical sites, and a variety of public land destinations along a suggested route, some of which you may never knew existed!

Research Your Camping Destinations

A red RV parked at a desert campground on a blue-sky day

Joshua Tree National Park (Gary Schwitzer, Share the Experience)

Camping with a Reservation

Careful planning is important as most campgrounds and activities must be booked in advance – often six months in advance. However, there are opportunities for spontaneity including campsites that can only be reserved a few weeks or days in advance.

Add filters to help determine which campsites suit your needs. Need an accessible site? Perhaps you’re driving a 30-foot RV? Or maybe a yurt or cabin sounds desirable? Adding filters will help narrow the search.

Tip: Read the campground reviews from previous visitors, as they can be helpful insider tips about planning and staying at that location.

Dispersed Camping

Dispersed camping means you are staying overnight on public lands outside of a designated and developed campground and without a reservation. Here’s where your research skills are necessary. If you plan to camp in a dispersed area, keep in mind this is very rustic camping and there are no services (think no restrooms, no water, no trash removal, no campfire pits, and no picnic tables). Depending on the public land managing agency (like the US Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management for example), dispersed camping is not allowed – and sometimes it is. Either way, it’s incumbent on you to know the rules and guidelines.

Tip: Driving to a dispersed camping location can be challenging too. Check with the managing agency to understand if four-wheel-drive or a high-clearance vehicle is required.

Seek Opportunities to Learn the History and Culture of the Area

View of cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park (Alexandra Cotoulas, Share the Experience)

Spark your interest in the heritage or culture of an area with a Ranger-led tour rich with information and storytelling, or a self-guided tour to explore on your own. Search for tours along your road trip route. Some of these tickets are limited, so reserving your date and time in advance is essential.

While we’re on the topic of tickets, keep in mind some high-demand locations require that you reserve a timed entry reservation ticket in advance – this may include bucket list National Parks and other public lands.

Manage Your Itinerary On-the-Go

A woman poses for a selfie at the top of a mountain ridge

Olympic National Park (Adriana Rhames, Share the Experience)

If we’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that plans change quickly. To easily manage your existing reservations or book a new reservation, install the mobile app. From hiking permits to campsites, the mobile app allows you to quickly reserve a site or activity or modify your existing reservation.

Tip: Install the mobile app while you have an internet connection. Many public land locations are in areas where cell coverage is very limited or non-existent. Many federally managed campgrounds are offering Scan & Pay capabilities for first-come, first-served campsites. This means you can pay with your credit card using the mobile app. Arrive on-site, claim an available first-come, first-served campsite, and conveniently provide your digital payment.

Get Inspired

A wide view over a desert canyon

Abraham Liandro, Share Your Story

"Each park had its own significance and beauty. We learned so much of each park and took in so many sights and hikes. I have never been more exhausted in my life than I was for this gratifying trip. Each driving mile, hiking step, hour less night of sleep was worth it. I will never forget the amazing time my wife and I had! We also met so many new friends that had similar experiences and newfound love for parks."

The unexpected surprises of a road trip often create the memories that stick with us for a lifetime, as they did for Abraham Liandro in his Share Your Story adventure writing submission titled, "Amazing National Park Road Trip."

Read Abraham's story and others in our Share Your Story library. Search “road trips” for stories that may reveal locations that interest you.

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