What’s Going on in Your Neck of the Woods? Dispersed Camping and Covid Campground Closures

Dispersed campsite near Twin Lakes, CO


In the interest of crowdsourcing information on National Forest activities, I’m wondering how things are opening up in your neck of the woods.  Coming back through a city last Friday, I noticed almost as many campers and trailers heading for the hills as in a non-Covid year.

Governor Polis of Colorado asked travelers to be sensitive to host communities and try to avoid stopping in them. In Colorado, State Parks have been open for hiking throughout the pandemic and recently opened to camping.  National Forest campgrounds have been shut down, but dispersed camping on National Forests and BLM is very popular.

Many people  prefer dispersed camping to campgrounds. Though part of their argument is that it’s free, and I don’t think that’s fair. I wish people who do dispersed camping would pay a voluntary $70 ish fee per year (I’ve given up on fees for now), about the same as a State Park pass, that goes into costs of the program.  As part of the package, they could get discounts from nearby businesses, education on how to reduce impacts and be good neighbors, plus a link to a website to report areas that need attention by the land management agency (like this Recreation Monitoring System, currently only in Colorado). Yes,  there is a problem that there currently is no such not-for-profit set up to channel the donations, but that wouldn’t be difficult to accomplish.

What continues to amaze to me is that the massive weekend migration to the woods, not managed by anyone, works as well as it does.  Or perhaps no one is monitoring the Law Enforcement Officer reports for potential news stories.

I did notice that the Pike San Isabel Travel Management EIS (2-26) described an alternative not analyzed in detail:

“Designated Dispersed Camping Alternative
This alternative is focused on resolving confusion with short, dead end spur routes that currently provide for dispersed motorized camping.
Key ideas are as follows:
•Limit closure of short, dead end spurs currently open to dispersed camping, to limit the shift of impacts elsewhere
•Convert these routes to parking locations only if on-site vehicle camping is permitted and clearly marked to avoid impacts
•Change the current strategy on the PSI of having dispersed motorized camping forest-wide to designated dispersed motorized camping, where all locations are inventoried and clearly marked

It seems to me that many forests near me allow dispersed camping, with signage when it is not allowed in specific places (I guess open unless closed). But I don’t think that’s the case everywhere. Is it by the Region, by how urbanized the area is or some historical factor or ???? Are there groups that want to reduce dispersed (vehicle) camping on its own, or is reduction of dispersed camping just a by-product of the desire to close roads?

Please share:

(1) How about your neighboring Forests? What are their policies on dispersed camping?

(2) What did it look like out there (on the National Forest) last weekend in terms of numbers?

13 thoughts on “What’s Going on in Your Neck of the Woods? Dispersed Camping and Covid Campground Closures”

  1. Here in northern NM (Carson, Santa Fe, and Cibola NFs) dispersed camping is allowed EXCEPT where it has been prohibited for special reasons. I believe that is the case throughout R3 ( Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma).

    I have a FS LEO as a neighbor, He says numbers last weekend were “Huge”. There were huge piles of trash everywhere, and lots of illegal and unattended campfires, his worst nightmare. Fire folks have been busy since then putting out small fires.

    • Here’s what my forest says:

      “Camping outside campgrounds is permitted in many parts of the Mt. Hood National Forest. Camping is permitted for 14 consecutive days and up to 28 days total in a calendar year. Some areas are closed to camping or entry to protect the watershed or wildlife habitat. If you are uncertain whether an area is open, please contact a Forest Office.”

      “If you plan to disperse camp, make sure you follow all fire safety precautions, Leave No Trace principles and pack out everything you pack in. For more tips on safe and proper dispersed camping, please click here.”

      The “many parts” and “If you are uncertain” puts the burden on campers. I’ve seen some areas with “No Camping” signs.

      The areas near my home (5 min. from the nearest dispersed camping area) have been more heavily used that usual, in part because many dispersed camping areas are behind gates locked during the pandemic. These areas are soon to open….

      I like Sharon’s idea of a dispersed camping permit, because fees could be use to fund trash pickup and other maintenance — a huge problem in some locations here. I usually take a big garbage bag — and they often come home full. At least some of the beer cans/bottles are worth 10 cents in Oregon . OTOH, I’d like to see SOMEthing remain free on the national forests….

      • How about everyone reports where they are via some mechanism each night and their license plate, and they are only charged for the costs of cleanup if they leave messes. Or I can imagine a drone taking license plates. It seems friendlier to have a volunteer to it, but not everyone is friendly :(.

        • Yup, that’s why it would be voluntary. My HOA has voluntary dues and 20% of people pay. Without going into the possibly unique psychology of my HOA, 20% of the people I see out and about dispersed camping could be quite a sum.

  2. This past weekend I was dispersed camping with my family in the San Rafael Swell in Utah. We managed to find an out of the way spot where we had a whole mesa top to ourselves, but we saw plenty of Memorial day crowds at more popular developed BLM camping areas. It was a glorious time doing a normal early summer camping trip, in a place that seemed largely unaffected by everything with COVID. The previous Saturday, I spent the day Jeeping around Rampart Range and saw plenty of people out camping and driving OHVs. Probably similar numbers to what I would normally expect this time of year.

    Sadly the trend among public lands managers seems overwhelmingly toward increasingly restricting and banning dispersed camping, putting yet another great American tradition in jeopardy.

    The GMUG National Forest recently restricted dispersed camping to designated sites around Tincup and Taylor Park, and the Gunnison Ranger District has initiated a project (https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=56454) to restrict camping to designated sites around Crested Butte, which the scoping documents indicate would reduce the total number of campsites in the area by around 60%. I’ve read that is only the first half of the camping restrictions that will be put in place around Crested Butte. There will be a follow-on rulemaking to require fees for all dispersed camping in the area.

    I heard at a recent motorized planning meeting that the Pike National Forest plans to enact the same system (designated dispersed camping with fees required) for the whole Rampart Range area near Denver. Part of Rampart Range already is restricted to designated sites, but no fees.
    This is of course on top of the road closures proposed in the ongoing travel management process, which as Sharon alluded to, currently includes many short spur routes that the Forest has deemed low value and therefore unneeded because their only use is for dispersed camping (which the Forest Service impliedly believes is a worthless activity not worth accommodating).

    In the Rampart Range, one such proposed closure includes the last couple miles of Winding Stairs Road, which has some of the most spectacular dispersed campsites I’ve ever seen, perched on the side of a cliff overlooking an amazing boulder field in the valley below. That particular road is proposed for closure solely because it is a spur route that happens to be adjacent to (but not in) the Rampart East Roadless Area. When that road closes, a real dispersed camping gem will be lost.

    Back to the subject of fees, I don’t know how it’s even legal to charge fees for dispersed camping, not to mention how that is actually going to work in practice, short of requiring online reservations for every site, which completely defeats the spontaneity and flexibility of dispersed camping that makes it desirable in the first place. I haven’t researched this in depth, but I was under the impression there was a law that only allowed the Forest Service to charge fees at developed recreation sites. From what I’ve heard, in both Crested Butte and Rampart Range, the Forest Service plans to add metal fire pits at each of the designated sites and then claim that makes them developed sites so they can charge fees.

    It’s all rather depressing, since it’s just more whittling away at the freedoms Americans once had to enjoy our public lands. There’s also no end to it. Once they start down this path, it just keeps going in a never ending cascade of closures.

    If there’s anything COVID-19 should have taught us, it’s that management by closure doesn’t work, but simply reduces supply and causes increased demand elsewhere. Just as closing beaches in Los Angeles caused massive crowding at beaches in Orange County a few weeks ago, the more dispersed camping is restricted in popular areas, the more it will drive people to other areas with fewer restrictions until those too become overcrowded and have to be restricted. That is precisely what has happened around Moab after the BLM banned dispersed camping in most areas close to town, and it has since had to ban camping in wider and wider circles around Moab after campers were displaced to other areas.

    Just another way in which Americans are being systematically denied the ability to enjoy our public lands by land managers who are more focused on protecting the land *from* the people rather than *for* them.

    • Patrick, I wonder if the closures close to the Roadless Area has to do with the desire of the plaintiffs in the litigation. I think I remember reading somewhere that they wanted roads closed close to Wilderness and Roadless areas.

      • That is definitely true. The comments and talking points from the lawsuit plaintiffs heavily emphasized closing roads that are cherry-stemmed or adjacent to either wilderness areas or roadless areas, which they basically conflate and advocate for treating the same.

        That ignores the facts that roadless areas are not wilderness areas, and that neither wilderness nor roadless areas require (and in the case of wilderness expressly prohibit) buffer zones or motorized closures in adjacent areas solely because motorized activity is audible in the wilderness area. And given how politically fraught negotiations over wilderness designations are, any roads that are cherry-stemmed into wilderness were likely part of a carefully negotiated political compromise which wilderness activists are now reneging on by trying to get those roads closed after the fact on grounds of “harming wilderness values”.

        • I was just trying to point out that in some cases litigation settlements appear to drive policy or have an arguably undue influence over policy. This is a discussion Jon and I usually have about the role of litigation settlements.

  3. Illegal campfires, excess trash, human waste mar Santa Fe National Forest


    Trashed forest lands are nothing new, [Jemez District Ranger Brian] Riley said.

    In the weeks leading up to Memorial Day, rangers and others patrolling the forest saw increasing signs that people had been exploring the great outdoors.

    The problem was compounded by a [Trump administration] decision to lock restroom facilities and suspend garbage pickups because the U.S. Forest Service did not have enough personal protective equipment and supplies for workers.

    The Forest Service installed signs alerting visitors that restroom facilities were not available during the COVID-19 pandemic and directing them to take their trash home. But visitors did not pay enough attention, Riley said.

    He said Santa Fe National Forest staff received protective gear last week and have been working since then to clean up ranger stations.

  4. Matthew, it’s interesting that you added the Trump Administration to what was written in the news article. It seems like a reasonable decision to me to lock restrooms until they could be safely cleaned by workers. On the other hand, I noticed on a recent trip to a National Forest that some were still open (forgotten? rationed supplies?)

    Now, State Parks and county parks around here are capable of cleaning their restrooms safely I guess, or not, which makes me wonder whether the FS was uniquely lacking protective gear and why that was. A “Trump administration” decision to save it for firefighters?

    I guess I’m generally against putting partisanship into everything federal agencies do. Because then we’re only likely to hear about good things the Biden Administration does, and bad things the Trump Administration does, and we don’t see the whole picture of who is deciding what at what level and the myriad bureaucratic processes that are only peripherally influenced by the folks in the White House, political appointees, and their friends.

    • Thanks Sharon. I sort of put “Trump administration” in there for you.

      Then again, I put Trump administration in there because they are running the U.S. Forest Service right now, and have been for over 3 years.

      Also, the issue to me wasn’t so much the “decision to lock restroom facilities.”

      The issue to me was the fact that the “U.S. Forest Service did not have enough personal protective equipment and supplies for workers.”

      Every single day the American people are repeatedly lied to by the President of the United States and this is just another example of where the facts on the ground don’t match up with the rhetoric, or outright lies, spewing from the mouth of Donald J. Trump and some of the people he has put in positions of power.

      By the way, I’m entirely “non-partisan.” I have a very long track record of also criticizing, condemning (and even in some cases suing) decisions made by the Clinton administration, Obama administration, Bullock administration and legislative proposals from people like Senator Jon Tester.

      And for whatever it’s worth, there are plenty of folks left, right and center (including plenty of former USFS/BLM/NPS/USFWS) who think the Trump administration and some members of the GOP are doing everything in their power to F-up the management of public lands (and public schools, and public hospitals and public research) to enable the corporate and/or private take over (or “partnerships”) of public lands management. I don’t need to debate this fact with you when so many of us clearly see it.


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