Desert Camping Tips
BLM Long-Term Camping
For campgrounds in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Texas and New Mexico, contact the park or campground directly to make reservations. Campgrounds are listed within the park, monument, or wilderness area pages in the Places To Go section of the DesertUSA Web site.
California State Camping Reservations
- California State Parks accept reservations for campsites at the current toll-free reservation hotline,
(800) 444-PARK, between 8 am and 5 pm. Pacific Time, seven days a week. Reservations for tours at Hearst Castle and Año Nuevo State Reserve will continue to be on a first-come, first-served basis until further notice.
- Internet Reservations: http://www.parks.ca.gov/
National Park Camping Reservations
- Telephone Reservations: 1-800-365-CAMP (2267)
- Internet Reservation: http://www.recreation.gov
Reservations are suggested for camping in developed campgrounds and horse camps. Each campground offers different facilities and has its own set of policies and fees. Day use and other camp fees may also apply. Keep in mind that fees and policies change during peak and off seasons.
Make sure the campground you select allows group camping. Under the Places To Go section you will find more information about group campgrounds.
Each campground has different regulations and policies regarding camping with horses. The Horseback Riding section of Things To Do and camping content contained in the Places To Go has more detailed information about horse camps.
Some parks, monuments and recreational areas have an open camping policy which means the visitor is not restricted to a campground and does not need to worry about reservations, or neighbors. Most backcountry camping areas offer little more than a spot to park or put up a tent. Because there is no garbage collection at primitive camps you will need to pack all of your trash out when you leave.
The freedom to camp outside the confines of a developed campground is considered backcountry camping. Not all parks, monuments, and recreation areas allow backcountry camping, so make sure you check with the local services who govern the area where you plan to camp prior to your trip.
Backcountry camping provides a true wilderness experience for nature lovers who seek a more intimate interaction with our wondrous desert lands. This popularity for camping in remote areas can have a negative impact on some locations in sensitive habitats. Desert ecosystems are especially vulnerable to human impact. A desert camping ethic based on an attitude that respects the intrinsic value of arid ecosystems, and all the unique plants and animals found within, must be practiced by all to ensure survival for future generations.
The following rules and guidelines will allow backcountry camper to have a minimum impact on a valuable but fragile ecosystem:
- If you are car camping try to find a site that has been used before. There are many campsites identified by Patrol Rangers that are established and used on a steady basis by campers throughout the year. Picking a completely new campsite will inevitably lead to degradation and/or destruction of habitat. Even a small group of campers walking around a small area can trample underground burrows of mice, tarantulas, or lizards and destroy desert soil, especially the type composed of a delicate crust of lichens, algae, fungi and other microorganisms.
- Select a campsite an adequate distance from other groups. One of the joys of desert camping is the incredible silence and sense of solitude.
- Pick a campsite at least 100 feet from a stream and at least 200 feet from a spring or pond. Continual human presence will cause wildlife to abandon desert water sources.
- Avoid all archaeological sites. Treat Native American sites as respectfully as you would a church or graveyard.
- All areas posted as day-use must be avoided for over-night camping
- All garbage must be packed out and deposited in a proper receptacle. Please don't leave behind left-over food for wildlife- after all, they have survived for thousands of years without help from humans.
- Campfires are only allowed when visitors bring all of their own wood and when the fire is kept within the confines of a fireproof metal container. All coals, ash, and left over wood must be taken home when you depart. Do not bury charcoal - it takes hundreds of years to disintegrate in desert environments. your campfire should be at least 20 feet from vegetation or geological features. Soot from campfire flames is very difficult to remove from rocks or boulders - Please! Don't construct rock rings around your container. During periods of high winds refrain from having a campfire altogether. You are liable for the cost of fire suppression and damages caused by any wildfire that starts through your negligence!
- Human waste must be deposited at least 200 feet from any water source in a hole one foot deep in an area of bare mineral soil. Cover your hole with soil and pack out toilet paper. Do not bury or burn toilet paper - it does not decompose in arid environments. Wildfires have been caused in the past by burning toilet paper. Rangers recommend the use of porta-potties especially by groups of eight or more people. RV holding tanks and porta-potties must be dumped at an authorized facility.
- The desert is a difficult place to bring pets. They must be kept on a leash at all times. They are also restricted to your immediate campsite and Park roads. To protect wildlife please confine your pet in a vehicle or tent at night. Each year, unleashed pets are killed or injured by wildlife such as rattlesnakes or coyotes.
- Wood gathering is strictly prohibited. Dead wood is home for many species of insects, spiders and reptiles.
- Large groups of backcountry campers can have a tremendous negative impact on our fragile desert. All large groups should camp in specific areas recommended by the Patrol Rangers. Contact the Visitor Center or Park Headquarters for a list and map of suitable locations. Groups of 25 or more people must obtain a special-use permit prior to arrival. All large groups should use porta-potties or chemical toilets at all times. Large groups can generate a lot of noise so please be considerate of wildlife and for other campers who desire a quiet night in the desert.
- When car camping in the backcountry vehicles may be parked up to 25 feet from roadways as long as desert vegetation remains undamaged. Please note that many established campsites have spur roads leading up to them. In this situation it is permissible to park your vehicle more than 25 feet from designated roads shown on the official park map. If you observe a row of boulders across a track - they were placed there by Ranger staff to stop vehicle traffic. Please do not drive beyond any row of rocks or closed area signs.
- At the end of your stay please take the time to thoroughly clean up your backcountry campsite. Cigarette butts, used matches, banana peels, horse droppings, etc. should be picked-up and disposed of with your other garbage.
- Backpackers must use portable stoves for all of their cooking needs.
- Set up your tent or ground tarp in an area devoid of all vegetation. Many desert wildflowers are small, delicate, and easily trampled by careless visitors. Trenches dug around the perimeter of your tent are not necessary and can frequently damage the shallow roots of desert plants such as the Ocotillo.
With your help the uniqueness of a desert camping experience will be preserved not only for ourselves, but for those who will follow.
Source: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Long-Term Camping on your Public Lands
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) welcomes you to the warmth and sunshine of the beautiful desert Southwest. Every year, thousands of visitors come to enjoy the natural beauty and recreational opportunities offered at BLM's Long-Term Visitor Areas (LTVAs), where visitors may camp for as long as seven months.
A growing number of visitors choose to stay on public lands in the Arizona and California deserts and along the lower Colorado River where they enjoy the mild winter climate, an independent lifestyle, and the companionship of fellow winter visitors.
Recreational and leisure-time activities abound -- hiking, fishing, boating, enjoying the beauty of desert wildlife, and the simple pleasure of visiting with old friends.
Management of Desert Lands
The BLM is responsible for managing public lands for the benefit of all. Traditionally, most recreational visitor use has been in established campground areas, but in the past few years much more use has been in the open desert where facilities are scarce. Here, the impact on the desert environment can be severe. BLM urges visitors to use and protect public lands for all to enjoy.
BLM's Long-Term Visitor Use Program
To meet the long-term needs of winter visitors while at the same time protecting the desert environment, the BLM has established eight Long-Term Visitor Areas where visitors may camp for the entire winters. This program was initiated in 1983 and continues today thanks in large part to many of the winter visitors themselves who volunteer to help BLM carry out the LTVA program.
Winter visitors who wish to stay in an LTVA must purchase a long-term visitor permit for $100 or a short-visit permit for $20. The long-term permit is valid for the entire season or any part of the season while the short-visit permit is valid for seven consecutive days with the option to purchase an unlimited quantity of additional permits. Both permits are valid in any of the designated LTVAs. The permit covers the long-term use season from September 15 to April 15. Permit holders may move from one LTVA to another without incurring additional user fees.
Golden Eagle, Golden Age, and Golden Access Passport discounts DO NOT apply to LTVA fees.
Campers who wish to stay on the desert outside of an LTVA may camp in one location on undeveloped public lands for up to 14 days in any 28-day period at no charge, unless otherwise posted. After 14 days, short-term campers must move to a new site outside of a 25-mile radius of their original campsite. Short-term camping in the Quartzite area is limited, but there are two designated camping areas at Mile Marker 99 and Mile Marker 112 adjoining Highway 95.
Location of Long-Term Visitor Areas
The areas designated as LTVAs were chosen because of their past popularity with winter visitors and because access roads have been developed and facilities are available nearby.
The map and legend on this page illustrate the location of each LTVA, and the map contains a key of camping facilities available at each site.
Since only minimum facilities are available at most of the sites, visitors should plan to arrive in a self-contained camping unit. Self-contained units are those with a permanently affixed waste water holding take of 10-gallon minimum capacity. Non-self-contained units are allowed only at Mule Mountain, Imperial, and La Posa LTVAs. In most cases, running water, showers and bathrooms are not available on site. Garbage and sewage must be transported by visitors to the nearest disposal site. (see map)
Where to Obtain Your Long-Term Visitor Permit
Campers may obtain permits at LTVA host entrance stations, or by contacting the following BLM offices in Arizona and southern California. Permits are not available through the mail. For furthers information on the LTVA program please contact one of the following offices.
Yuma Field Office
2555 Gila Ridge Road
Yuma, AZ 85365
Palm Springs-South Coast Resource Area Office
690 W. Garnet Ave.
P.O. Box 2000
N. Palm Springs, CA 92258
El Centro Resource Area Office
1661 South 4th Street
El Centro, CA 92243
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