When doing a long tour of the west, some people like to plan every overnight stay, while others tend to just go for the gusto and bed down wherever the cards may fall. When just a simple place to bed down for the night is all that is needed and no accommodation reservations were made, this is when the dispersed camping options come into play. Both the National Forest Service and BLM offer designated areas for dispersed camping. Often times a dispersed camping area will be located next to a National Park that has no existing campground or next to a park that has overcrowding problems. As can be imagined, finding a dispersed camping area near a National Park can save both travel time and a lot of frustration when the official park campgrounds are booked solid and the closest town is many miles away.
Mapping systems are getting better at showing the location of dispersed camping areas, but this is not the best resource. Browsing the BLM or National Forest websites for camping options is the best way to go when making plans ahead of time. If not much information can be found on the web, then look for the location of a National Forest or BLM Ranger Station near the planned destination and give them a call. The Rangers often provide better dispersed camping options than what is listed at the official website. For those who do not plan ahead, just ask a ranger at the National Park that you are visiting. The National Park Rangers know where the neighboring dispersed camping areas are located and they can suggest what is best for an individual's comfort zone.
When I first visited the Fossil Butte National Monument in Wyoming, it was late in afternoon and the rain was coming down. Fossil Butte most definitely is way out in the middle of nowhere and the closest town is a long way down the road. There is no campground in this National Monument and there are no commercial campgrounds nearby. Since I arrived late, getting an early start the following day was the best choice, so while touring the visitor center I asked the Park Ranger about nearby dispersed camping options.
The Fossil Butte Ranger suggested a nearby BLM dispersed camping area at the top of a hill that overlooks Fossil Butte, which sounded pretty good after driving all day. I mentioned that I drive a 4x4 Jeep and he responded by saying you got a lot more options than the RV crowd! Apparently there are several BLM campsites up in the hills, but the spot with the nice view took first dib. I thanked the ranger and dropped some spare change in the tip jar, then headed on up the hill!
The BLM dispersed camping area is located about seven miles uphill from the Fossil Butte Visitor Center. This road is the official scenic drive through the park, so this is a nice way to become familiar with this place. At the top of the hill just beyond the National Monument welcome sign is an old cattle gate. The dirt access road goes through a hilltop meadow and this is where a few stone fire circles can be seen, which confirms this is the right place. The views of Fossil Butte and the rolling hills stretch out forever and this is a great place to stargaze at night.
On the downside, all of the BLM public lands surrounding Fossil Butte are leased to cattle ranchers. I noticed that the ground was plastered with cow pies outside the cattle gate, but for some reason the cattle did not seem to like the hilltop dispersed camping area. The hilltop meadow had only a few dung piles, so flies were not a problem. This made the evening dining experience all the better. A weak data signal can actually be picked up on this hilltop, so I was able to get some work done and the sleep sure was comfortable in the cool air.
The first visit was pleasant at Fossil Butte and during my return trip from Grand Teton, I decided to camp at the BLM dispersed camping area again. This time the full nature of Wyoming came to life on the hilltop in a big way. Sustained high winds over 60mph were blasting the hilltop campsite and I ended up sleeping in the Jeep, which is a real drag. That was a rough night, so I do suggest looking at the weather forecast before opting for this campsite!
No reservations are needed at the Fossil Butte BLM dispersed camping area and there are no fees. There are no facilities either, but a clean restroom is only seven miles downhill. Self reliance is necessary, because BLM leave no trace rules are in effect. It is a very long drive to Fossil Butte National Monument no matter which direction a visitor comes from. Knowing that there is a cozy little hilltop BLM campsite with a great view next to this destination will make the trip a lot easier to plan!
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