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 get started planning your adventure

View the Possibilities

A visitor to Everglades National Park enjoys the sunset over the ocean.

Everglades National Park (Taylor Howard, 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!  Read on to learn how-to select a campground.

Research Your Camping Destinations

Sunrise over a tent set-up on the Pike-San Isabel National Forests Cimarron & Comanche National Gras

Pike-San Isabel National Forests Cimarron & Comanche National Grasslands (Lance Schneider, STE)

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 tour rich with Ranger-led information and storytelling, or a self-guided tour to explore on your own. Search Recreation.gov 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

An RV navigates along a paved road with fog and mountains in the background.

Yellowstone National Park (Sanjay Mitra, Share the Experience)

If we’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that plans change quickly. To easily manage your existing Recreation.gov reservations or book a new reservation, install the Recreation.gov 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 Recreation.gov 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 and Pay capabilities for first-come, first-served campsites. This means you can pay with your credit card using the Recreation.gov mobile app. Arrive on-site, claim an available first-come, first-served campsite, and conveniently provide your digital payment.  

Get Inspired

View of Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve.

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (Josh Volponi, Share Your Story)

“…sometimes, the most incredible stops on a journey are the ones that are not initially planned. On my return lap, driving towards Boise, I spied a cryptic sign labeled “Craters of the Moon.” Curious, I decided to check it out. Before seeing that sign, I did not know anything about the “lunar” location and had no real reason to go there especially considering it was a bit out of the way. Yet stopping soon became one of the highlights of the road trip. Setting foot onto the volcanic soil, it truly looked like I was stepping onto the moon. After climbing the Inferno Cone, I was stunned by the serene surroundings as the blackened soil gave way to trees and mountains in the distance while the sun lazily gazed below.”

The unexpected surprises of a road trip often create the memories that stick with us for a lifetime, as they did for Josh Volponi in his Share Your Story essay titled, “48: A Road Trip Adventure Around the Contiguous United States.”

Read Josh’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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