Whether you’re traveling full-time, are a weekend warrior, or are still finding your way into the vanlife lifestyle, you probably have some major spots you’re looking to hit, like National Parks or popular monuments. Fortunately, there is a wealth of public land where you can park; however, some areas are becoming too popular too fast, causing them to be shut down to boondocking and dry camping. No matter where you stay, be sure to Leave No Trace, pack out your trash, and leave the area better than you found it.
In the quest to visit all of the hot spots, the fastest ways to get around in the US are, of course, interstates and major highways. But I propose you break the mold. Visit states and places you might not have thought of, take some scenic drives on America’s beautiful byways, check out the random spots that everyone else doesn’t! I have found those to be some of my favorite places.
Here are six states you might not have considered for boondocking or dry camping in a van that will happily surprise you.
Cue the potato jokes. Yes, Idaho is known for potatoes. As a matter of fact, I even visited the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, ID. I have taken a picture with a giant potato, seen the largest Pringle ever made, and tried lots of potato goodies, like chips, baked potatoes, French fries, and even potato ice cream. But that’s not why I recommend boondocking and dry camping in Idaho!
Once you get past the potatoes, you’ll find that Idaho is also known for two other, much more exciting things – huckleberries and hot springs. And there’s an abundance of free dry camping around both!
Drive through the jagged Sawtooth Mountain peaks and post up in free campsites surrounding Stanley, ID. Beautiful hikes, lakes for swimming and paddling, and iconic hot springs are all accessible within a few minute’s drive, if not from your campsite!
The drive down Route 75, the Sawtooth Scenic Byway, between Stanley and Hailey is gorgeous and peppered with campsites perfect for boondocking in a van. I also highly recommend stopping in a small town for some huckleberry ice cream!
When I think of my best boondocking memories I’ve made with road friends, I always think of a random spot along the Snake River in Ririe, ID. Nope, we had never heard of it before going there either! We spent a few lovely days soaking in the sun, taking quick river dips, and watching moose float and swim by. It was incredible!
Just an hour outside the bustling Strip and bright lights of Las Vegas, you’ll find Lake Mead, with gorgeous blue water, red rock canyons, and wild burros. Yep, when you boondock along Lake Mead, you’re likely to have some braying visitors. My dog was not a fan and they are pretty bold, walking right up to your rig!
The Lake Mead area can be quite popular, particularly in the winter, when folks flock to the desert to escape the cold. However, I’ve always been able to find a spot with a view that was adequately distanced from others. Many of these free dry camping spots have access to a pit toilet and beautiful sunset views. Some are even right on the water where you can swim or paddle to your heart’s content.
Always check for soft sand or sinking gravel before you drive your rig into a dry camping spot. Some of those epic-looking boondocking sites are difficult or impossible to access in a 2WD van. While I haven’t gotten stuck at Lake Mead, I have seen others get buried!
If fall foliage is on your vanlife bucket list, do not sleep on New Hampshire! My absolute favorite place to boondock in New Hampshire is just outside of Bethlehem. There are several free, gorgeous, and easily accessible campsites just off scenic Route 3 at the Gale River Loop and Gale River Campground.
If you venture into town, Bethlehem is home to Rek-Lis brewing, which is dog-friendly, has excellent beers, and probably the best food I’ve ever had at a brewery. While in NH, be sure to drive Route 112, the Kancamagus Highway, through the White Mountains. Its picturesque peaks, leaves, and waterfalls will take your breath away.
It took me nearly two years of living in a van before I spent time in South Dakota. I happened to be traveling during the infamous Sturgis motorcycle rally, which I wouldn’t recommend if you don’t like noise and hundreds of thousands of people and bikes everywhere you look!
However, these crowds led me to find one of my favorite boondocking spots ever – near Buffalo, SD! About two hours north of Rapid City, you’ll find Reva Gap Campground. It is free, has a plethora of pit toilets, stunning vistas, and hiking opportunities. And if you plan better than I did and are there when it is not rally time (early to mid August), carve out a few hours to drive 14A, the twisty, curvy, scenic route from Sturgis to Spearfish. It is worth your time!
Just north of Spearfish, Belle Fourche is the geographic center of the United States. There is a pretty cool monument and rest area to check out if you’re passing through. I mean, how many times can you say you’ve been through the geographic center of the country?
Texas is gigantic and I will not even pretend to know about all of it. However, one of my favorite boondocking areas in the whole country is along the eastern shore of this massive state. The Bolivar Peninsula is such a hidden gem! You do need a beach parking pass, but it’s pretty cheap at $10 for the entire year. If you go before the busy season starts, in February like I did, passes were $5 for the whole year. That pass allows you to park and camp anywhere on the beach for as long as you want! Sand is hard-packed and easy to drive on and perfect for a campfire if you catch a day that’s not too windy.
Further south, you can camp along the beach in Port Aransas, Padre Island National Seashore, and South Padre Island. I visited South Padre Island early on in my vanlife journey, and since I didn’t grow up near an ocean, I knew nothing about tides. I spent my entire first night terrified, shaking, and incessantly opening up the slider door to see if the water had reached the van. Needless to say, I learned to read tide charts quickly, thank goodness!
Everyone knows about Jackson Hole and Grand Teton (my personal favorite National Park), but have you heard of Lander, WY? It’s a super cute little town that I would have never found had I not stopped at a dealership for a transmission fluid change!
Lander City Park allows boondocking or dry camping for up to three nights along a beautiful little creek. If you’re there in summer, there are free concerts scheduled right in the park that you can walk to! I was lucky enough to see the Futurebirds there on a beautiful August night. A quick drive down the road from Lander, you’ll find Sinks Canyon, referred to lovingly as “The Sinks,” with windy mountain roads and breathtaking boondocking spots.
Further east in Wyoming are the idyllic Bighorn Mountains with dense, lush forests on top, and crazy cool rock formations at the base. Boondocking and dry camping abound in this area, and the Castle Gardens Scenic Area is a particular favorite of mine. There are picnic tables, fire pits, and shade structures, plus a pit toilet, all for free!
Brooke is a full-time van dweller living in a 2018 Promaster with her 16-year-old scruffy sidekick, Tressel. She loves the arts, local coffee shops, craft breweries, live music, and farmer’s markets and prefers to take the scenic route over the highway. You can usually find her in the mountains, but once it gets cold, she’s anywhere there is sunshine, warmth, and good vibes.