Where to go tent camping is a question that crops up frequently. In reality, as seen in the article below, you can just set out and camp where your feet, truck or car take you.
The guys in the story below each took their own light weight tent. You can do the same thing with a family tent. Just be sure to avoid the most popular stated parks and campgrounds in the busy seasons, and you are good to go.
Cross Country Tent Camping
It was a trip I’ll never forget. At the ripe age of eighteen, I set out on a cross-country excursion from Virginia to Oregon with my best friend and his dog, Odessa. The starting point was Richmond, Virginia. The final destination was to be Portland, Oregon.
Ultimately, we would end up renting a house from his dad in Portland, but decided to make an epic cross-country trip of it considering the fact we may not get the chance to make this trek again. I didn’t know at the time that this trip would be one of many.
Well Prepared – Not Much?
Our transportation was a 1998 GMC Sierra.
Not the best on gas (or most reliable as we would later find out), but we were confident in our odds to make it to Portland. We each had a lightweight tent. Cold temperatures wouldn’t be much of an issue since the trip was taking place in July.
The van was loaded down with plenty of groceries and snacks so we could avoid buying restaurant food as often as possible. We planned to hit two or three highlights on the way to do some tent camping in Yellowstone National Park where we would stay for three days before making the final journey to Portland.
Together we had about $2,800 for a 3,500 mile trip for a party of three including the dog, in a van that had seen better days.
Stage 1. The Shenandoah Valley/Appalachian Mountains – 135 Miles
Our first stop was still in the state we departed from. Although we could have put a lot more miles between us and Richmond, we figured no cross-country outdoors trip would be complete without tent camping in the Shenandoah Valley.
There are more beautiful parts of the year for this area. I still prefer the fall season. The colors of the leaves changing in this area are beautiful.
We arrived near Staunton, Virginia where we found a campground near a small river we could swim in. Setting up camp for the night, we made dinner and talked about what laid ahead of us for the rest of the journey. Nearly unable to sleep from the excitement, I laid down eagerly awaiting the morning.
There are great campgrounds all over Virginia. Near Staunton, we recommend:
- North River Campground – our first-night stopver
- Stokesville Campground
- Todd Lake Recreation Area Campground
Stage 2 Western Tennessee/Arkansas 749 Miles
My friend’s mom lived in Memphis so we decided to kill two birds with one stone. After leaving Virginia we drove nearly 14 hours straight into Memphis, Tennessee. Pulling in late we decided to stay at his moms’ for the night instead of finding a campground.
There was an area of caves we read about in Eastern Arkansas with camping areas that we decided to check out. Both of us were huge fans of gemstones so anything cave and gemstone related was a yes. We left Memphis the next day and arrived at the cave attraction at about 4 in the afternoon. There were a lot of outdoor mysteries to explore so we set out on foot with Odessa and took it all in.
After making a fire we decided that our next stop would be a campground in Western Missouri near Kansas City.
There are many caves in Easter Arkansas. Some of the best known include:
Changing Course – To Kansas City and Beyond – 1089 miles
After cleaning up camp in Arkansas we drove west. We made our way across Arkansas and eventually crossed into Missouri. As we approached Kansas City we ran into a heavy rainstorm.
A group vote shifted our plan. Instead of stopping to camp outside of Kansas City, we would drive past it and drive through the large state of Kansas overnight. This would put us in Colorado the following afternoon where we decided we would foot the bill for a hotel room where we could get a good night’s rest and regroup.
Looking back, cross country road trips are for the young. Spending almost 24 hours, non-stop in the truck was crazy. I’m sure we looked like zombies when we stopped
We arrived in Denver sometime around noon. Deciding to splurge, we ate lunch at a popular barbecue restaurant in Denver. We booked a hotel room then decided to take Odessa to a city park. After allowing Odessa to exercise for a while, we chose a location for dinner and retired for the evening. The next morning we would leave early and drive through Wyoming which would put us at Yellowstone National Park the following afternoon.
Onto Yellowstone – With a Major Wrench In the Spokes – 543 Miles
Before fully making it to Yellowstone National Park we decided to stop in a small town somewhere in Wyoming. At this point, the tires on the van were pretty bald. After a good rainstorm, the red clay back roads in Wyoming can become pretty slick. The van got stuck and the power steering pump went out while we were attempting to free ourselves.
The only automotive business in town was a bit on the expensive side. Something tells me their prices changed when they found out we were stranded and from out of town. This setback took almost a thousand dollar chunk from our money stash. However, we were determined to limp it into Yellowstone so we waited while the mechanic replaced the power steering pump.
We arrived in Yellowstone after dark. Our arrival was a little later than we expected but we made it nonetheless.
Yellowstone National Park
Approaching one of the main entry gates to Yellowstone my breath was taken away.
The Teton Mountain range glistened in the background. The green grass was brilliant on the rolling foothills and the air smelled amazing. We decided we would do some back-country camping for one night, then normal tent camping in the designated campgrounds that Yellowstone charged for.
Yellowstone – Truly Amazing Campgrounds
There are so many amazing campgrounds in Yellowstone that we are just going to quote from the National Park Service Website:
Yellowstone offers 12 campgrounds with over 2,000 sites. Yellowstone National Park Lodges takes reservations for five of these campgrounds.
- Bridge Bay Campground
- Canyon Campground
- Fishing Bridge RV Park
- Grant Village Campground
- Madison Campground
The National Park Service manages the other seven campgrounds. Beginning in 2021, reservations for three of the campground managed by the National Park Service can be done through Recreation.gov.
- Mammoth Campground (Reservable)
- Norris Campground (Closed for 2021)
- Slough Creek Campground (Reservable)
- Pebble Creek Campground (Sites 1-16 Reservable)
- Tower Fall Campground (Closed for 2021)
- Indian Creek Campground
- Lewis Lake Campground
Yellowstone Wild Camping
Wild Camping is possible in Yellowstone. There are over 300 designated backcountry campsites. Some are reservable.
You must camp in one of the defined campsites and you must get a permit first.
Yellowstone is famous for so many things. Top of the heap has to be the incredible geysers. Seeing old Faithful is one of those things you just have to do.
I had my sights set on the obsidian pools from the beginning. I had been doing my research on the attractions in Yellowstone and my love for gemstones naturally drew me to the color and brilliance of the obsidian pools.
When you enter Yellowstone you can grab brochures that give you a list of all the wildlife you may potentially see. They also list the percentage chances of seeing each different type of animal. If I remember correctly, the grizzly bear was the animal with the lowest odds. Amazingly we were able to see a grizzly bear mom and her cubs from the van as we drove the roads in the park. I couldn’t help but marvel at the slim chances of this.
We were also able to see a black bear, a ton of bison, a bald eagle, and mountain goats.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Admittedly, I never knew that Yellowstone had a grand canyon of its own until I arrived. Looking at pictures left me in awe at the sheer magnitude of this giant. I can assure you no matter how amazing the pictures are, there is something lost in the translation. I’ve been to the real Grand Canyon and I still consider the Yellowstone version to be more amazing to visit. The incredible rock formations create some sort of jagged juggernaut that almost looks fake.
Finishing Our Trip
It was hard to leave Yellowstone National Park, but I vowed that I would be back soon. This was a vow that I would end up fulfilling two years later and many more times after that. We threw a wild card in the mix after leaving Yellowstone.
We still had the itch for outdoor adventure, so we drove north into Montana. Montana would end up becoming the state I admired the most. The sprawling mountains and never-ending wilderness were a camper’s dream. North Yellowstone is located in Montana and has other outdoor attractions separate from the main part of the park.
We ended up finding a lake with a small restaurant on it. The unique thing about this restaurant was that you had to catch your meal. There were several different types of fish in a stocked portion of their lake. I ended up landing a trout that the chef cooked to perfection. There was a small lodge attached to the restaurant, so we decided to rent a cabin.
Our itinerary was supposed to include one more stop in Eastern Washington for camping, but at this point, we were both too exhausted and broke to make it happen. We continued over Snoqualmie Pass then jumped on Interstate-5 where we made our way south into Portland. It took nearly a whole day to get from the Yellowstone area to Portland.
The drive over Snoqualmie Pass was beautiful. This area would end up being another location I would frequent quite often over the years. About two years after this trip I would make a permanent home in Seattle, which I had no plan on doing at the time of this trip.
We drove into Portland with about four dollars between the two of us and a quarter tank of gas. We couldn’t have done this again if we tried. It was a perfect ending to a perfect trip, full of adventure and random excitement. This would be the beginning of a whole new run of adventures, as I made the west coast my permanent home over the next decade. This was a defining moment in my life, a life that started with a spark from tent camping in amazing locations across the country.
Images are largely from Pixabay.