Organ Pipe Cactus are a type of cactus that grows in the rocky Sonoran desert with many tall stems that grow from one short stump resembling a pipe organ. Their territory falls within the Saguaro’s territory and just like their iconic cousins the Organ Pipe Cactus only grow in southern Arizona and Northern Mexico. Out in the remote Arizona desert on the Mexico border is Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. This is one of the best places to explore these plants limited range and just like any remote National Park the best way to explore is by camping. The monument has two campgrounds, a larger one with running water and showers and RV hook ups, and a primitive one with a vault toilet and only four campsites out in a remote part of this already remote area. Naturally I chose the small remote Alamo Canyon Campground over the larger Twin Peaks Campground in my recent visit.
To reach the campground you must drive south on Highway 85, just before you enter the National Monument you will pass a border patrol checkpoint on the north side of the road, once you enter the Monument the campground is located down the unmarked dirt Alamo Canyon Road at mile marker 65.5. The road goes for 3 miles before dead ending at the campground and is suitable for most cars.
While driving down this road late at night I noticed a flashing blue light in the direction of the campground. I thought perhaps it was a police car or park ranger but as I got closer I realized it was a tall 30 foot pole with a large box bolted on. The box had a large red button with simple instruction above: “press if you need help”. This vague button with the combination of signs in the park saying that known smuggling routes exist in the park was a little disconcerting.
We arrived at the campground around 10pm and quickly set up and spent some time watching the stars. Having only seen this area at dark at this point I couldn’t help but feel a little spooked from the tall Saguaro silhouettes and the looming rocky mountain behind us but at the same time it’s hard to feel too spooked with the stars unfolding in the sky.
In the morning the place felt peaceful and quiet and we enjoyed our coffee among the tall cactus before departing. I really liked the Alamo Canyon Campground and will go back as soon as I can! There’s nothing like camping out alone in the desert wilderness!
Thanks! – Josh
The Forks Campground in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest is great for many reasons. The first being that it is free. Who doesn’t love free? It’s location just off of highway 15 makes it the perfect location when visiting the nearby Gila Cliff Dwellings. The views aren’t bad either as the campground is next to a very cool canyon formed by the West Fork Gila River. Once the sun goes down and you can’t see down into the canyon anymore then you can look up as the stars come out in the millions. The Gila is one of the darkest places in the contiguous United States so unless there are clouds you’ll be stargazing all night at this campground.
The only downside to the campground is the lack of potable water so be sure to bring enough water for your camping trip! (You can hike down to the river quite easily if you are in dire need of water but be sure to boil it before consuming!)
There are vault toilets that are fairly well maintained by the forest service and a large fire pit in the center of the campground if you want to have a party. I prefer to find a nice secluded site and hang out by the fire though. Whatever you do here though I’m sure it’ll be a great time!
PS. Be sure to check the fire hazards for the national forest. As a native New Mexican, Smokey the Bear wouldn’t be too happy if you started a wildfire in his home state.
Thanks! – Josh
The Lake McClellan Campground is located in the McClellan Creek National Grassland in the Texas panhandle. It is about 62 miles east of Amarillo on I-40 and 54 miles west of the Oklahoma-Texas border.
Camping costs $10 for a site ($15 for RV hook ups) and has very dirty restrooms with running water and showers. Most people use the National Grassland for OHV riding and fishing in the Lake McClellan reservoir. The campground is located about 20 minutes of off I-40 which makes it very convenient for a quick but cheap place to stay while road tripping. My favorite thing about this campground when I visited wasn’t really the campground itself but the surroundings. More specifically the hundreds of wind turbines that fill the plains for miles around. At night time the wind turbines synchronously flash a red light at the top a couple times a minute. This makes for a somewhat eerie appearance when the pitch black night is suddenly filled with hundreds of red dots for just a second.
Anyways this campground is the perfect place to stay on a road trip without straying from the interstate too much or spending too much money at a hotel or KOA campground in town. I don’t think it is worth a visit solely for the McClellan Creek area (unless you are really into OHVs) but it makes for a great and quick stop along the way to your adventures!
Thanks! – Josh
One of the many great things about Big Bend National Park is the options for camping. You can stay in a classic campground with RV hookups and pay showers, hike into the mountains and camp overlooking the entire park, or even plop your tent down somewhere in the desert far from everything and enjoy the night skies in solitary. My go-to form of camping is backcountry car camping though. There are only three paved roads in Big Bend but there are dozens of dirt roads through the parks backcountry. Scattered throughout these primitive roads are campsites that require you to have a $14 backcountry permit (the $14 is just for the permit and pricing does not change based on your number of nights camping). Some sites are miles into the desert and some you can see the main road from so there are options for everybody (most require high clearance vehicles and some require 4wd).
One of my favorite examples of this kind of camping is Grapevine Hills road. It is very close to both Panther Junction and the Chisos Basin and is about equidistant to each side of the park. Also off of the road is Balanced Rock, a large pile of rocks that seem to be balancing on one another. The road itself is maintained for the first couple miles but after that high clearance is recommended! There are five campsites off of the road and the ranger can help you pick the best site for you when you get your backcountry permit!
If you want to get away from the campgrounds and have a little more space then these primitive car camping sites are great for you! Keep in mind that none of these sites have restrooms or trash cans so be sure to pack out what you bring with you and if you aren’t comfortable with a cactus toilet the Grapevine Hills campsites are great because right down the main road you can use the always open Panther Junction restrooms!
Half asleep, making coffee.
A bad but still pretty star picture from Grapevine Hills.
Thanks! – Josh
The Rio Grande Village Campground is the largest campground in Big Bend National Park with 100 sites. It is located in the southeast part of the park and is close to Boquillas Canyon, the Boquillas border crossing, the hot springs district, and the Marufo Vega trail. In the busy months (winter) the campground fills quickly and most mornings are a scramble of waiting for someone to pack up and leave and then pouncing in their site before another camper can (also be sure to check if the site is reserved that night). 43 of the 100 sites are reservable and in the winter time that is the only way to be sure you will get a spot. In the summertime this desert campground rarely fills so you won’t need to worry about getting a spot (though you may prefer the Chisos Basin Campground in the summer because of the 115°F summer temps). My favorite part of this campground is the nature trail that leaves from the campground. The trail takes you to the top of a small hill that is perfect for looking at the stars! Mexico is no more than 100 feet away from this hill but you can’t tell it’s a different country. It just looks like the beautiful Big Bend desert with the Rio Grande peacefully flowing through!
This campground costs $14/ night and is a great option when visiting Big Bend!
Enjoying Topo Chico by the tent.
Thanks! – Josh
El Malpais is an area about an hour west of Albuquerque, New Mexico on I-40. El Malpais is made up of a National Monument run buy the National Park Service and a National Conservation Area run by the Bureau of Land Management. Backcountry camping is allowed in some remote parts of the National Monument but the only campground is the Joe Skeen Campground in the National Conservation Area (you don’t really notice the difference between the NPS and BLM land, it’s all the same pretty desert terrain). The Joe Skeen Campground has ten sites with a fire pit and covered picnic table at each one. There are also pit toilets in the campground. Despite being described as “primitive” (because there is no running water). This campground is well maintained and very clean. It sits below a large cliff with views that span the entire area if you are brave enough to climb up. This campground is also typically empty. We stayed here 4th of July weekend and there was one other person camping. The dirt road of off NM117 that leads to the campground is short but has a dip in the road that would be difficult for small cars to traverse if it was flooded. I have driven it in a Jeep Wrangler and a Honda Accord and neither had issues. This campground is awesome and is one of my favorite campgrounds to stay in. Partly because El Malpais is one of my favorite places ever and it is in my favorite state but it’s also just a great little desert campground. Camping at the Joe Skeen Campground will cost you the hefty price of zero dollars.
This picture was taken at night but ended up looking like an old film picture. You can kind of see some stars in the top left corner.
Thanks! – Josh
Sage Creek is one of two campgrounds in Badlands National Park. Unlike the luxurious Cedar Pass campground, Sage Creek is primitive with no running water and pit toilets. The campground is located at the end of Sage Creek Rim Road, a dirt road off of the main road in he park. Camping is first come-first serve and free. This campground is awesome. It is just a big circle in the plains. Bison roam through freely and prairie dogs burrow all around! The campground probably has room for twenty tents with a good bit of space between them. There is a large hill next to the campground that gives you a great view of the area. There is also a small canyon nearby that is perfect for exploring, just watch out for the massive bison that are everywhere.
The campground from above.
Making coffee at the picnic table.
Bison in the road held us up for 20 minutes
Thanks! – Josh
Camping in Biscayne National Park is a unique experience because the only way to reach the campgrounds is by sea. So to reach the campground on Elliot Key you need to own a boat, pay for the ferry from the mainland, or have incredible swimming skills. I chose the ferry option and took a 20ish minute boat ride to Elliot Key (also when they say ferry don’t expect anything fancy. It’s a small motorboat with a shark painted on the side). The camping area is small with picnic tables. There is a small visitors center that was closed when I visited and looked like it hadn’t been used in a while. There is also a bathroom with running water! Most of the island is forest with a trail system running throughout. At the moment the trails are mostly inaccessible because of recent hurricanes. On a weekday night you will likely have the whole place to yourself! However there isn’t much to do on Elliot Key unless you have a boat. The Biscayne National Park Institute charges a small fee to bring your kayak along and when I get the chance to go back I will for sure do that! I would love to kayak around the island and snorkel at the reefs (something that costs a lot of money to be ferried to). Most of Biscayne is underwater but even if you don’t have access to snorkel gear and a boat it can still be a relaxing camping trip on an island to yourself (unless it’s a weekend). Just be sure to bring bug spray!
To camp at Elliot Key it is $25 to dock your boat and a tent site.
If you don’t have a boat like me then you will have to pay the ferry fee of $59 per person (kinda pricey) plus a $15 dollar camping fee.
All docking/camping fees are waived from May 1st to September 30th.
Thanks! – Josh
Congaree National Park near Columbia, South Carolina is one of the newest of the 59 US National Parks (The only newer ones are Pinnacles and Great Sand Dunes). The park has two campgrounds with only 20 campsites (including group camping) between the two. The first campground, Longleaf Campground, is located maybe half a mile past the park entrance. Here you can park in a gravel parking lot and have a short walk between 10-50 feet to your site depending on which one you choose. This campground does not have running water (But you can get water from the nearby visitor center 24/7), and vault toilets. Each site also has a picnic table and a fire ring. There are plenty of fallen tree limbs in the area to make a nice fire too! This campground rarely fills up but the sites are so few and close together that even if half the campground is full you will no doubt have close by neighbors. The Longleaf Campground will run you $10.
Our fire at the Longleaf Campground
The second campground, the Bluff Campground, is located in the park’s wilderness and can only be reached by a 1 mile hike from the Longleaf Campground or the Visitors Center. Here there are six campsites spread out on the edges of a large grassy circle in the forest.
Each site has a fire ring and a picnic table but once again no running water and this time not even a vault toilet! There is a trail that circles the campground and if you walk along that picking up all the sticks you see then you will have more than enough fuel for your fire!
Despite sacrificing the convenience of a toilet and a nearby vehicle here you only have to pay $5 for your stay and will most likely be alone. Of the two I prefer the Bluff Campground due to its remoteness compared to the Longleaf. Both are very nice though and either one you choose I am sure you will be happy with it. Just be sure to bring bug spray if you are visiting in the summertime.
Our tent at the Bluff Campground
Pictures from the hike to the Bluff Campground
Thanks! – Josh
The Chisos Basin Campground is one of three frontcountry campgrounds in Big Bend National Park. There are 60 campsites (26 are reservable online), restrooms, and water. The campground is a well maintained typical National Park campground. All sites are $14 and don’t have RV hooks ups. It is a short but steep walk up to the park lodge, visitor center, and camp store where you can find all the snacks, equipment, souvenirs, and information you can handle. What really makes the campground great are the views! Most sites have a great view through “The Window” looking down to the desert below and on the other side you have the steep cliffs of the Chisos Mountains rising 2,000 feet above you. Overall this is the perfect frontcountry campground to me being small, having restrooms, immediate access to trails, great views, and fairly inexpensive!
My tent with the Window behind
Making coffee with a Butte
Sunset behind the Window
P.S. Thanks to Big Bend being a Dark Sky Park you can see the stars extremely well from anywhere in the park including the Chisos Basin despite its close proximity to the lodge. So if you catch a clear night you will be enjoying the stars from your Chisos Basin campground!