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Escape the Crowds at a National Forest
It's a typical scene: A sea of crackling fires amid rows of eight-person tents, dogs run loose, a child is crying, somewhere in the distance an acoustic guitar strums the chords of Sweet Home Alabama.
The truth is that camping in National Parks rarely offers an authentic out-of-doors experience. Sure, you can find solitude on a long day hike, and most parks offer backcountry permits, a fine option for the more adventurous. But spending a night in designated campgrounds can be a frustrating and crowded experience.
A good option to avoid whirring RV generators, rowdy family reunions and cramped quarters is to check out a National Forest instead of a park. With 155 National Forests in the United States containing nearly 190 million acres of land, there are plenty of options. Most of these destinations, often bordering National Parks (and just as stunning), don't have the same nation-wide appeal as parks -- or the same crowds.
Aside from certain guidelines - e.g. the distance between your campsite and a water source - dispersed camping is allowed and welcomed in most forests. You can explore the public land on your own terms and camp wherever you see fit, or you can stick to developed campgrounds of which there are many. Not to mention, fees are usually small or nonexistent.
Here are a few options to consider:
Dixie National Forest
Southern Utah is jam-packed with incredible national parks -- eight in total. I am not saying they shouldn't be explored; some of my favorite camping memories are from time spent in Bryce Canyon, Zion and Arches. But Dixie National Forest offers a great alternative. It's less commercialized, less crowded and equally breathtaking.
This forest straddles the divide between the Great Basin and the Colorado River. One gem that stands out is Red Canyon, an oasis of crimson sandstone formations that shoot up out of a forested area. Plenty of great hiking opportunities to be had.
There are 26 developed campgrounds to choose from, with drinking water, restrooms and fire pits available.
Sierra National Forest
When I think of Sierra Nevada, the first thing that comes to mind is a delicious beer. Then I'm struck with images of one of the most captivating mountain ranges in the country.
This national forest is nestled on the western side of the mountain range in California. Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are all nearby. This may be a great place to camp in solitude before checking out some of the parks.
Dispersed camping is certainly an option, along with more than 60 developed camping areas. You'll also find thousands of miles of hiking trails at your fingertips. That's another thing about so many National Forests: they're huge. Sierra National Forest encompasses more than 1.3 million acres. Yosemite National Park is 761,268 acres to put things in perspective.
From John Muir himself, a man who explored the Sierra Nevada's more than most: "The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness." --From John of the Mountains (1938)
Bridger-Teton National Forest
You could just call this forest "The Greater Yellowstone Region." And I mean that in a good way.
Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks seem to have about as many photo-snapping tourists as elk, or bison during the peak summer months. If you are interested in avoiding those Yellowstone traffic jams and the hustle-and-bustle of one or our nation's most popular parks, the nearby Bridger-Teton National Forest in western Wyoming offers the same expansive skies, and stark, looming mountains. You'll find more than 40 peaks, with hiking trails ranging from novice to "you better know what you're doing."
There are 17 campgrounds among clear mountain lakes, rushing streams, lush vegetation and a diverse wildlife.
About the author: Eric Voorhis is a journalist, photographer and blogger living on Long Island. As a reporter and freelance writer he?s covered everything from education and local politics to recreation and the environment. He has been camping in nearly every state of the contiguous U.S., from the backwoods of Maine to the beaches of California, and hates it when people burn marshmallows.