Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks are two of my all-time favorite parks to visit. While Grand Teton isn’t as popular as Yellowstone, the close proximity of both to Jackson Hole, Wyoming make it very difficult to find camping within and around the park – unless you book it months in advance.
If you search hard enough, there are plenty of free camping spots all over Western America. Since I prefer camping alone (rather than being packed in like sardines at a paid campsite), I don’t mind foregoing facilities like drinking water and toilets for a more private camping spot.
Charles and I used an app called iOverlander to find a large majority of our free camping spots during our 3 month trip around the West. I highly recommend this app if you’re planning a road trip! Most spots listed are good for free camping, but there are some paid campsites listed as well. Each site has a description of the site, lists what facilities are available (if any), and often has reviews by other iOverlander users that have stopped at that same spot for the night.
Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park is – in my opinion – one of the most underrated national parks! Overshadowed by its neighbor to the north, it is often skipped over in favor of Yellowstone. This park is a great place to stop in on the way to Yellowstone, especially if you get to the Jackson area on a weekend. The parking area around Jenny Lake is often crowded (especially during the summer months), but there are plenty of other roads to take and hikes to do. If you really can’t miss Jenny Lake, try getting there before 8-9AM or after 4PM when there aren’t as many people.
Where We Stayed
Buffalo Valley Road
iOverlander recommended a spot just east of Grand Teton National Park that is listed as ‘Buffalo Valley Boondocking’. We ended up staying here the first night, but as it was still the peak summer season, all of the spots overlooking the river were taken. We had to take the road down a few more miles, losing elevation as we went. Where we stopped was unfortunately swarming with mosquitoes – the worst we experienced during all three months.
The road is paved the whole way, so it’s an easy place to camp no matter what type of car you’re driving. We saw plenty of big-rigs parked along the road as well, and there are both paved sites and flat, grassy sites.
The sites at higher elevation didn’t seem to have any mosquitoes, and had incredible views of the river below. I’d recommend checking out the spots along this road for free camping only if you’re not in the high season!
Bridger-Teton National Forest
Another site on iOverlander is listed just south of the park simply as ‘Elk Refuge’. This is actually inaccurate, as there are plenty of signs posted all along the elk refuge that say no overnight camping. If you drive out of Jackson into the elk refuge, keep following the road until you hit a 4-way crossroads. You take the road to the right and follow it until you see a sign (right before the road begins to climb in elevation). This sign explains the rules for camping and says you should camp in designated sites only – these sites are marked by fire rings. The road is a bit steep and windy (and dirt!), but we saw a lot of people with trailers and small sedans making the drive.
There are a few spots with fire rings before you get to the top of the hill, which we ended up choosing because of the privacy. However, if you make it all the way to the top it’s an incredible view! I recommend making the drive just for the view before choosing your spot.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is one of the most popular parks in all of America, and it shows. The park is often packed with tourists, so I recommend going on a weekday and spending most of your time driving before 10AM or after 4PM. It’s much more enjoyable if you’re not stuck in a huge group of people! We went there in mid-summer, but I find it’s even more beautiful in the off-season. Some of the roads close during the winter months, so check on road conditions before visiting in the off-season.
Where We Stayed
Carbella Recreation Area
There are a lot of paid campsites both within Yellowstone and around it, so many areas that seem as though they’d be great for free camping are actually marked “no overnight camping”. Even many of the national forest areas! Unfortunately, if you want to find a legal free camping spot around Yellowstone you’re going to have to drive at least a half hour from any of the entrances. We ended up finding Carbella Recreation Area, just a half hour (approx. 20 mile) drive from the Northern entrance of the park.
A sign at the recreation area says free camping is allowed for up to 14 consecutive days. The sites are next to a river, and most have a picnic table and fire pit! We got there too late in the night on a weekend, and all of the actual camping spots were taken. There is a very large field next to the campsites where we ended up parking our car for the night. When we were there during a weeknight, it was much quieter. Keep in mind that this is a popular boating spot, so on weekend mornings you’ll see dozens of trucks hauling boats into the site. If you don’t choose one of the ‘official’ campsites, just be sure you’re out of the way of the boat ramp.