If you are car camping across the Southwest, here are some recommendations and recollections of great forest service campgrounds where we have stayed. You can usually drive right in and find a spot, and be surrounded by the beauty of the area.
California: During a recent road trip to California, we were pleasantly surprised by the Sage Flat Campground, on the other side of U.S. 395 in Big Pine Creek canyon on the Inyo National Forest. It was a little pricier than most forest service campgrounds where we’ve stayed, but it was a gorgeous spot right next to Big Pine Creek. We were the only tent campers there that night ($21; www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo). We drove right in, found our site, pitched a tent, and cooked up a great dinner. We were lulled to sleep by the rushing water of the creek. It was delightful, and a perfect staging area to prepare for the next leg of the trip into Yosemite.
Arizona: If you find yourself driving across the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in eastern Arizona, there are two great campgrounds right by Big Lake in the White Mountains ($12 or $16; www.fs.fed.us/r3/asnf ). You have your choice of either Cutthroat Campground for tents, or Rainbow Campground right by the lake for RVs (there are some tent-friendly spots). A note of caution: if you go during mid-to-late September, be prepared to be kept awake for some time by bugling elk. They gather by the lake during the night and are quite vocal in their quest to find a mate. This was the case when we spent a night there; also, an owl kept hooting right over our tent. I loved it, but by 1:00 in the morning I was ready for a respite from the wildlife.
Colorado: Elbert Creek Campground ($13; opens late May; www.fs.fed.us/r2/recreation) outside of Leadville, Colorado, was the first place I ever camped in the west. I was sixteen on a church trip, and we got up one morning and caught trout in nearby Emerald Lake. I was on a roll, and caught some beauties. I remember cleaning the fish and being miserable from having my hands nearly half-frozen with slimy fish guts, as it was very cold there in the mornings. Misery aside, we fried those trout up with some eggs for breakfast. The fishing was so good! I could actually see the fish biting the hook, that’s how close they were and how clear the water in the lake was.
Utah: If you are visiting Escalante during summer months, my favorite drive-in gem of a campsite is the Blue Spruce campground on Dixie National Forest ($8; http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/dixie/recreation/). Just take the Hell’s Backbone Road (FR 153) up and out of Escalante and keep driving until you see the Blue Spruce sign. This high-elevation campground has five spots right on Pine Creek. It has drinking water from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and bear boxes for food and trash. It is a welcome cooler spot from the deserts and canyons, especially during July and August. You can always get a site there.
New Mexico: We found a great place to camp on a trip to scout around New Mexico. The Three Rivers Campground on Lincoln National Forest ($6; http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/lincoln/) is at the western base of Sierra Blanca, just north of Tularosa. It is accessible by driving in from Highway 54 (or by hiking or riding in on the Three Rivers Canyon Trail from the Ruidoso side). You always have a shot at getting a camp site at this campground as it is off the highway some distance, and off the radar of Texans trying to get to Ruidoso or Cloudcroft. Be sure to stop at the Three Rivers Petroglyph site on the way in or out–it’s interesting hiking among the unique rock carvings.