Ozark National Forest Dispersed Camping

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Our complete and comprehensive guide gives everything you need to know about Ozark National Forest dispersed camping. Find free camping spots, recreation opportunities, and area info. Know before you go!

It's really no secret that my family and I love to get away to a quiet camping spot away from all civilization and people and noise. Sometimes we go farther away, and sometimes we stick closer to home here in the Natural State.

For the longest time we didn't really know where to go camping in Arkansas. We were stuck in a rut when it came to finding good campsites that weren't in a campground.

However, we put some of our free camping skills to the test as we started digging for more info. And let me tell you, there are plenty of places to choose from, including one of our favorites, Ozark National Forest camping, right in the heart of the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest.

Now you may be looking for a campground. And if you are, The Dyrt has all “the dirt” on where to find good campgrounds in the Ozark National Forest.

But we're going to focus more on dispersed camping, where to find campsites, getting the most out of your rugged camp experience, what the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests offer, and what all you can do when visiting this magical, beautiful area of the Natural State.

Where is the Ozark National Forest?

The Ozark National Forest is located mostly in Northwest Arkansas, but part of it extends along the Arkansas River Valley to meet the Ouachita Mountains in the southern part of Arkansas.

It covers more than one million acres and was established in March of 1908.

This forest is home to a handful of National Scenic Byways, as well as wilderness areas, lakes, streams, and trails for mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking, etc.

the Ozark National Forest from a view on the Pig Trail Scenic Byway in Northwest Arkansas

Ozark National Forest Dispersed Camping

Camping in National Forests is usually our #1 choice. In fact, we plan most of our trips around being able to find good camp spots in the National Forest.

Camping in Ozark National Forest is usually good for all kinds of camping, whether you’re an RV camper, in a fifth wheel or trailer, a van, tent camper looking for tent sites, or backpacking. There are usually options for all.

Note: There are some roads in the forest that really are not conducive to longer trailers or any trailer at all. Be wise, use good judgment, and stay safe.

And be aware, there will be no amenities. We’re talking dry camping here. You won’t have access to restrooms, picnic tables, bear lockers, running water, electricity, or trash service.

The Best Camping Spot in Ozark National Forest

One of our favorite campsites (pictured and in our YouTube video below) is located a few miles outside Salus, Arkansas, at these coordinates.

Ozark National Forest camping with rooftop tent and white Toyota 4Runner at free campsite

We take a winding road, just outside the sleepy town of Salus, up the mountain and over through a small series of more gravel roads and eventually land in an area that's not too far from the Haw Creek Falls Recreation Area.

What we love about this camping spot is that it's just us and the forest. We'll see the occasional ATV ride by, but it's a quiet spot to camp and relax together as a family.

gravel road in the Ozark National Forest

Whether we're reading a book, playing badminton, or chowing down on s'mores, there's nothing like a good, roaring campfire and the quiet peace of nature all around our tent.

The mostly hardwood trees, with some pine interspersed, are magnificent, and peepers fill the trees with buzzing and chirping. You can even catch a faint whiff of pine every now and again.

This is exactly the kind of dispersed camping spot we look for.

camping in Ozark National Forest in Arkansas in tan rooftop tent on camping trailer

How to Find National Forest Campsites

Unless there is a sign stating otherwise or it's a wildlife food plot, you can find some of the best camping in Arkansas just about anywhere in the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest.

  • When searching for Ozark National Forest camping, look for light green areas on your map. You can find them in Google Maps (you may need to zoom in/out to see more detail) or in any road trip atlas or adventure atlas.
  • Use Google Earth to get a satellite view and find pull-offs or clearings, both being pretty good indicators that there are campsites in the area you’re searching.
  • Driving just about any Forest Service road (usually dirt roads) will lead to all sorts of places you can camp for free. Look for spots alongside the road, or look for sites that are tucked back into the forest more. You may even be able to backpack in to a site if that is your preference.
boy walking on road from Ozark National Forest dispersed campsite in Arkansas
  • Always look for a fire ring and an already established site. Never create your own site.
  • Locating and stopping at a ranger station enables you to get all the information you need, as well as more detailed maps and Motor Vehicle Use Maps (the best maps you can have because they’re updated regularly with road closures) of the area, which you can also find on the Gaia GPS app. Plus, you can get all of your questions answered and become aware of any problems/issues they’re experiencing at the time (example: burn bans, wildlife warnings, road closures, etc.)
  • We have a favorite YouTuber here in Arkansas, Dispersed Camper Man. He shares all the different places he likes to camp and explore here in the Natural State. You'll likely learn of quite a few new places if you give him a watch.

Here is where you can find digital, downloadable maps. You may also find this Arkansas Atlas with Detailed Topographic Maps helpful.

starting a campfire while camping in the Ozark National Forest in Arkansas

Ozark National Forest Camping Rules and Regulations

Usually, there is no fee or permit required, meaning you can camp for FREE the entire time, unless you're in a campground or recreation area!

All campsites are first come, first serve. You can not reserve these remote sites.

Rules are posted online. And you can sometimes find signs with rules and updates upon entering the area you’re visiting. You may even notice signs along the road that communicate what is and isn't allowed on certain portions of the road, in day use areas, or in recreation areas.

Here Are a Few Rules…

  • Stay on existing roads, whether paved or unpaved.
  • Check fire conditions and for burn bans before starting a fire. On that same note, drown your fire before going to bed and before leaving the campsite.
  • Check for alerts and notices before traveling to the National Forest.
  • Always camp at least 100-200 feet away from any type of water source, such as rivers, creeks, tributaries, lakes, and wetlands. Flash flooding can and does occur.
  • Leave no trace. Always pack in what you pack out. And don’t harm any vegetation or feed any wildlife.
  • All caves and mines in the Ozark National Forest are closed to prevent and slow the spread of White Nose Syndrome in our bat population.
roasting sticks with campfire in Ozark National Forest

Expert Tips and Camping FAQ's

Is the Ozark National Forest free?

Dispersed camping in the Ozark National Forest is free. If you're camping in an actual campground, then no, it won't be free and will likely cost a small fee. As far as recreation, most recreation is free of charge, but some areas will require a day-use fee. You can learn more about specific passes and permits.

Can you camp anywhere in Ozark National Forest?

Pretty much anywhere in the actual Forest is up for grabs. You're not allowed to camp in or near recreational areas, like picnic areas, trailheads, campgrounds, etc. You also have to camp at least 100 feet away from streams or any water source. There are rules you'll have to follow, but the sky's the limit when picking a spot to camp. You're allowed to stay in the same campsite up to 30 days maximum; then you have to move at least 5 miles from that spot.

Do you need a bear canister in Arkansas?

This is actually a really great question because there are bears in the Ozark National Forest. It would not hurt to follow bear safety regulations, like packing up food and toiletries where a bear cannot get to them, being bear aware, and keeping trash picked up and put away out of reach. Don't be like us when we encountered a bear while camping in Cosby Campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

What is Ozark National Forest weather like?

Weather in the Ozarks can change on a dime, so just be aware of forecasts before heading out, and if possible, stay aware of changes and updates while out and about. Winters can be cold and wet; summers can be hot, humid, and sometimes dry. Spring and fall are usually the best times to camp in Arkansas, though some would argue winter because in some areas, the weather is very mild, with temperatures hovering in the 50's or 60's for quite a bit of the winter.

Wildlife You May Encounter

Arkansas has abundant wildlife, and the National Forest is no exception.

I've been told by one of the locals that this is bear country, but we have yet to see a bear.

Other wildlife you may encounter, anywhere in the Ozark National Forest, include the following:

  • Snakes – including venomous snakes.
  • Spiders – including black widow, brown recluse and wolf spiders.
  • Insects – Ticks, mosquitoes, wasps, bees, etc.
  • Possums
  • Raccoons
  • Armadillos
  • Deer
  • Turkey

The list could go on and on.

Things to Do and See in the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest

While you're camping in this beautiful part of Arkansas, you may as well explore the area too, because there is SO much to see and do.

Just a few ideas to whet your appetite…

  • Hiking Trails – We have a soft spot for places like Hawksbill Crag, Devils Canyon, and Sam's Throne.
  • Driving – Take a ride down some of the most scenic byways you'll ever travel, including the Sylamore Scenic Byway, the Pig Trail Scenic Byway, the Boston Mountains Scenic Loop, and the Ozark Highlands Scenic Byway.
  • Horseback Riding
  • Mountain Biking
  • Floating and Kayaking – The nearby Buffalo National River, the Mulberry River, and Shores Lake are just a few places to choose from.
  • Swimming
  • Fishing
  • Nature Study
  • And so much more…

You may even want to spend an afternoon at Blanchard Springs Caverns. Or go enjoy a burger at the Oark General Store.

Oark General Store in Oark, Arkansas

Things to Know Before You Go

Before you head out for a fun few days of free camping in Arkansas, here are some things to remember, as well as suggestions for supplies you may need.

  • Some forest roads can be quite rocky and rough, so use caution and good judgment when deciding which roads to take.
  • Weather can change on a dime, so be prepared for any and all weather situations that may arise.
  • There are no bathrooms. You'll need to carry your own portable toilet or shovel. You may even want to pack along a camping shower.
  • Take your own drinking water, and pack any snacks or food you need for the trip, along with cooking gear.
dispersed camping Ozark National Forest in Arkansas with rooftop tent
  • Pack a first aid kit. On that same note, know where you last lost cell coverage (you may or may not have cell coverage at your campsite) and where the nearest hospital is, in case something happens.
  • If it's general camping supplies you need, use our camping checklist for packing. It'll ensure you have everything you need for your trip.
  • Be sure to take your camera and/or your binoculars!
  • Finally, leave no trace! Pack out what you pack in.

Watch Our YouTube Video!

The Ozark National Forest in Arkansas is a wonderful place to step back, take a deep breath, and enjoy a little time in the great outdoors. Hope to see you out there!

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8 thoughts on “Ozark National Forest Dispersed Camping”

  1. The linked “best camping spot” brought me to a crossroads! Heres what I did: if you want a great spot, take a left at that crossroads, go over the flooded creek, then follow the road til there’s a one lane bridge on the left. From there, cross the bridge and take the second left. It will be a fork in the road, where the main road goes right and the secret spot goes left! Drive down until there’s a clearing about 10 meters from the river. Enjoy! :)

  2. Can you point to a guide or even point out some hiking trails that meet all three: 1) reward with waterfalls, 2) can tent camp off of trail, and 3) that are in the ozark national forest. Also, how about the same 3 criteria but in the Ouachita mountains. Thank you, and thanks for sharing this site. Enjoyed.


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