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A dispersed camper's guide to Ozark National Forest camping in Arkansas. Where to find free camping, things to do, places to see, and more!
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, the Ozark 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 National Forests offer, and what all you can do when visiting this magical, beautiful area of our home 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 south.
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.
OZARK NATIONAL FOREST 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 the 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.
Our Campsite in the Ozark Mountains
One of our favorite campsites (pictured and in the video) is located a few miles outside Salus, Arkansas.
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 site 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.
The mostly hardwood trees, with some pine interspersed, are magnificent, and bugs 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 camping spot we look for.
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 National Forest.
- 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.
- 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.
Ozark National Forest 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 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.
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.
The list could go on and on.
THINGS TO DO AND SEE IN THE OZARK 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.
- Nature Study
- And so much more…
WATCH THE FULL VIDEO!
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.
- 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.
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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