Free Camping near Mackinac Bridge

Northern Michigan has few offerings in the way of free camping (also known as dry camping or boon docking).  That being said, French Farm Lake was a gem and we highly recommend it.

Here’s what we loved our free-camping excursion at French Farm Lake in upper Michigan:

  1. As it’s on public lands, it was very pristine (except for the large windmill across the lake, but at least that’s quiet too).
    french-farm-lake-3
  2. The camp sites were spacious and far apart with trees and sand dunes between them.  Except for  a little road traffic going by, we never saw or heard our neighbors.  The sites are also very near the lake.  Our site was within 50 yards of the lake.

    Free Campsite At French Farm Lake MI

    A lovely spot for boon docking in Michigan

  3. The sites have campfire rings (Although I did have to clean ours up a bit)

    cleaned-up-fire-ring

    Our Free Campsite Had a Nice Fire Ring

  4. You can kayak the lake, but there’s also a rustic boat launch.
  5. You can fish the lake.  In fact, it seems to be a popular place for locals.  Here’s the Division of Natural Resources Map for French Farm Lake.
  6. The park that the campsites sit on is part of the North Country Trail.  (A hiking trail, similar to the Appalachian Trail, but that runs from New York to North Dakota.)
  7. The camp sites are only about a mile walk (or drive) westward on Trail’s End (the main road) to a lovely little free state park with a beach on Lake Michigan.
  8. The camp sites are also only about a 4 mile drive (east) to Mackinaw City and Lake Huron.  Mackinaw City’s a very small tourist town, but is quaint.  If you want ice cream, fudge, pasties, or a t-shirt, you’re set there.  There’s one tiny grocery store for necessities.  There’s one fast food place (Burger King) that usually has wifi. There’s a post office in the downtown area.
    a-Mackinaw-City-Park-Lake-Huron-Straights.JPG

    Free City Parks in Mackinac City are Perfect for Picnicking on Lake Huron!

    There are several free town parks around that are perfect for picnicking on Lake Huron.  Just drive the outskirts of town along the lake and you’ll find them.

    Mackinac-Island-Ferry

    You can buy a ferry ticket to Mackinac Island from Mackinaw City

    There are several ferries that depart from Mackinaw City for Mackinac Island.  (However, the tickets are a bit pricey (~$26 per person round trip.  A local told us that there’s a merger in process that will have all the ferry companies there owned by the same parent company.)

  9. There’s a plethora of state parks and light house parks around the area also.
    mcgulpin-lighthouse2

    Enter a caption

    And, of course, the Mackinac Bridge is right there at Mackinaw City also.  (There is a toll to cross the bridge.)
    IMG_1661

A few additional notes that might be helpful as you prepare for your free camping in northern Michigan:

  • There are only 6 camp sites at French Farm Lake (Michigan).  Your chance of getting one of the sites in the height of the season probably aren’t great.  But it’s worth a try.  There were no signs indicating that a reservation or fee was required.  However, we did find an old “camp registration card” on the campsite.  So, it sounds like it’s possible to reserve a site through http://www.michigan.gov/dnre.  If you do show up and aren’t able to find a site, there are other options close by.  You’ll have passed a KOA on the way to the turn for French Farm Lake.  There are other private campground options in the near area, as well as at the state parks nearby.  They won’t be free or as quiet and pristine, but at least you’ll have a place to camp.
  • If you scout around, you can find some other free camping available up in the Upper Peninsula (across the Mackinac Bridge).
  • The nearest Walmart is in Cheboygan, about a half an hour or so away.
  • Showering when you’re camping for free is always a trick.  We found that the KOA just up the road (if you ask nicely and they’re not super busy) will let you shower there for $5 a shower.
  • (Likewise, disposing of your trash when free camping is a challenge.) We found that the gas station right off the freeway exit (Exit 337) will let you dispose of your trash there, if you discretely and politely ask the attendant (and slip him a tip).

Generally speaking, we found the people in northern Michigan to be very nice, personable, and helpful.  We had a little car trouble about 2 hours drive south of our exit.  The folks in that town were amazingly nice.  We had so many people stop and ask if they could help us.  It was refreshing and helped restore hope in humanity!

Also, if you do go camp at French Farm Lake in Michigan, please remember that it is dry camping.  That means there are no facilities.  You will not have access to running water, latrines, or a dumpster.  Please plan accordingly.  Whatever you pack in, pack it back out.  Please be courteous and don’t leave it a mess for the next person.

Disbursed Camping Near Steamboat Springs CO

Disbursed Camping Getaway – Steamboat Springs, CO

Living in a resort area, it probably sounds funny to have a “get-away.” But we’ve discovered that (at least for ourselves) with working and living on grounds, there’s little separation from work.  Not that you’re working all the time, but you’re immersed in a community, with no real space of your own.  For independent people, that time away can be a precious gift.

We decided to take a van-camping trip to Steamboat Springs.  It’s an area that hubby hadn’t seen, and was only 2 hours away.  Plus fall colors were still in full bloom.

The drive over was gorgeous.  We drove through a curious little town called Kremmling.  It’s a small town, with a huge natural rock tower that watches over it.  Actually, it looks more like a castle than a tower.

On either side of the town, the road is through wide open spaces with occasional antelope herds in the distance.

The funniest part of our drive though was when we got caught behind a cattle drive.  The ranch was using the state highway to move the cattle and was blocking traffic on both sides.  City-living would easily make a person frustrated with getting stuck behind the cattle drive.  But we just sat there and laughed.  After all, how many times in life does one have a chance to get stuck behind a cattle drive up in the mountains?

Once we made it to Steamboat, we stopped in at the National Forest Office.  We’d been in the US Forest Service’s office in Granby and had a good experience with the staff there. Steamboat was a bit of a different experience.  Seems the staff in that office is a product of the area there (it’s an affluent image-focused area).  After a little prodding and having received several scornful looks, the attendant produced a few maps of the designated “disbursed camping” areas.

With disbursed camping, you drive along designated remote roads until you find a cleared camping area that suits you.  The ones we’ve found so far have pull-offs, fire pits, and no plumbing of any kind.  Pack it in, pack it out, leave no trace.

We first went over to Strawberry Hot Springs.  What a peaceful and beautiful place.  Soaking all day in the natural mineral springs was so incredibly relaxing… calmly euphoric.  Well worth the drive.

 

strawberry-hot-springs

Steamboat Springs – Strawberry Hot Springs CO

 

After soaking, we set off in search of a disbursed camping site.  The first road we tried from the forest service map took a little work to find.  It had been well-hidden by some neighbors that bordered the entrance to the road.   We did finally find it, but just a short way up the road became washed-out, narrow and steep.  We didn’t even try it.  It just wasn’t something our Ford E-150 van would be able to navigate.  So we got the map back out and went in search of another location.

As luck would have it, we ended up instead with an absolutely incredible camping spot. It was very remote, so we were completely by ourselves.  The camp site was so high up in the mountains that we got to enjoy a view that still takes my breath away thinking about it.  How wonderful that such an amazing place could be free and available as such a blessing for public use!

Just picture enjoying coffee at a morning campfire with this view (below).  I think that morning alone added years onto our lives!

 

oct-21-2016-steamboat-getaway

View from our Disbursed Camping Site near Steamboat Springs CO

 

Lessons learned from this van camping outing:

  1. Make sure that you’ve picked a spot to park that is level!  We ended up on a bit of a grade.  It didn’t seem like much of a slant at first.  But sleeping on it was a different matter.  We ended up sliding across the bed over the night, so that we were smashed together up against the side of the van.  Then again, maybe that was hubby’s plan!  🙂
  2. Make sure the place you park is one that you can get easily out of, should it rain. Actually, in this case, the ground was frozen when we got there.  It was thawed when we left.  It took a bit of planning and careful navigation to exit the site without getting stuck in the mud. Thankfully, we’d backed in the night before.  That made it so much easier to exit the site the next day.
  3. Don’t wait until dark to find your camping spot.  You may have to investigate several camping sites, before finding one that you like.  Disbursed camping is rustic camping.  There are no street lights. There are steep drop offs and obstacles.  In fact, there’s barely even a road.  Trust me.  You don’t want to be trying to pick a camping site that you’ve never seen before in the dark.
  4. Have a backup plan.  Unless you set up camp right away, there’s no guarantee your camping spot will still be available when you come back to it later.  Have a 2nd and 3rd choice in mind, just in case.
  5. Take a shovel and garbage bags.  With disbursed camping, you’re expected to leave the site exactly as you found it.  Leave no trace.  That means you bury your potty “leavings” at least 6″ in the ground, and you pack your trash back out with you.

This disbursed camping was rustic camping at it’s best.  We thoroughly enjoyed it and will do more of it!

Disbursed Camping – Grand County CO

Our first disbursed camping experience:

We’d been reading up on disbursed camping, and were anxious to try it. Disbursed camping is basically “dry camping” in approved areas of the national forests, BLM lands (Bureau of Land Management), or other government managed lands.  Dry camping means that there are no facilities: No clean water source, no bath houses, etc.  You’re responsible for taking along whatever you’re going to need, and you’re responsible for packing it all back out (cleaning up after yourself).

With disbursed camping, your campsite is really just a roughly cleared area just off the bumpy  dirt road.  Often times they have stone fire pits, but that’s the extent of the amenities.

We wanted to make sure we understood the rules and where to go, so we stopped in at the local US Forest Service office (Arapaho National Forest).  They were very friendly and helpful.  They stocked us up with maps showing the designated disbursed camping areas, as well as a brochure with the disbursed camping guidelines.

We picked a general area that we wanted to try for our first disbursed camping outing:   Meadow Creek Reservoir in the Arapaho National Forest.  The disbursed camping was along the long and windy dirt road up to the reservoir.  It was actually only 15 miles or so from the resort, so hubby took a day to do some reconnaissance ahead of time.  It seemed safe enough, so we invited some friends (Mickey & Joy) to meet us there.

We couldn’t get there until that evening, so Mickey & Joy went ahead of us and picked a most excellent camping location.  The spot was in a nice flat area that bordered Meadow Creek, with a couple of lovely fishing pools cradled by beaver dams.  And it was such a quiet and peaceful spot, with no other campers in the nearby area.

 

oct-7-2016-disbursed-camping-arapao-national-forest

Disbursed Camping in Colorado with Friends

It was a pretty chilly night, and we felt a little guilty.  Mickey and Joy were tent camping.  Meanwhile we were “roughing it” in our cozy, insulated van.  We even had heat!  Hubby had a catalytic heater that you fuel with campstove propane bottles.  It’s a flameless heater (no open flame), and has a safety feature that shuts the heater off if it tips over.  I didn’t smell any fumes, but just to be safe, we always crack a window when running that heater.  That little heater worked like a charm and we were toasty warm, despite the cold night.  (Hubby did have to change propane bottles about halfway through  the night though.  I imagine more expensive versions of the heater would last longer.)

We woke up to an amazing autumn morning up in the mountains.  The air was crisp and smelled like fall.  And we enjoyed a very decadent breakfast while sitting around the campfire with friends.

On our way out, we learned a lesson though. When you’re disbursed camping, you’re pretty much on your own. Make sure you’re picking a camping (parking) spot that you can easily get back out of.  Our spot was easy to get into with the van, but not quite as easy to back out of.  It wasn’t that we got stuck, it just was a little bit more challenging than we expected.  A good lesson.

 

Free Camping Granby Colorado

Time for some play time!  We’d planned our travel schedule, so that we’d get to Granby well ahead of our start date at the resort.  Our reasoning:

  1. Traveling with older cars, we wanted to allow time, in case we had any trouble on the road.
  2. We didn’t really want to be on a firm schedule for the road trip.  That just adds stress!  This gave us some wiggle room so that we didn’t have to feel pressured in our drive.
  3. We wanted some vacation time before we started our new jobs at the resort
  4. We wanted a little time to acclimate to the new area before starting our new jobs also.
  5. One of our goals with this new lifestyle is to have time to play between gigs.

Free Camping in Grand County, Colorado

Pioneer Park, Hot Sulphur Springs Colorado

hot sulphur springs camping site

View of Colorado River from Free Campsite

Before we left Florida, Hubby researched and planned out a list of free camping possibilities.  (You never know what’s going to be available or comfortable, until you get there.  It’s good to keep a list of several possibilities available, so that you’re not stuck without a place to set up camp.)

Turns out his first choice was just lovely, and had open camping spots.  It’s actually a public campground that’s owned by the local town (Hot Sulfur Springs).  You couldn’t have asked for a better camping spot.  The campground is right on the Colorado River.  Our camping spot had a river-front view and fire pit.  It was also within a very easy walking distance of a hot springs.  http://www.hotsulphursprings.com

There’s a diner style restaurant within easy walking distance of the campground.  Also, the town of Granby, CO is only maybe 20 minutes drive away.  Granby has a grocery store, Ace hardware, thrift store, auto-parts store, restaurants, and a few other odds and ends stores typical of a small tourist town.

As with most free camping, it was “dry camping” (meaning there’s no running water).  But we have a big (potable) water jug, and the town provided a place to get water in one of their nearby parks.  Also a bonus:  There were a several porta-potties in the campground.

Downsides to this location:

  • It bordered the train tracks.  There are few routes for the trains to take up in the Colorado mountains, so this was a bit of a train thorough-fare.  It did take away from the serenity of the location, but it was still worth it, and the price was right.
  • Also, weekends were a bit of a nuthouse there.  Not only was every campsite full, but some thoughtless people came up for a weekend party and stuffed 6 cars and tents to each campsite.  They then subjected everyone in the campground to their fiesta party.  They trashed the campground as well as the latrines. I suppose that could happen anywhere – and probably does.  Sad.  Don’t know that there’s much to do about it.  So the moral of the story there is to plan to enjoy your quiet time at the camp during the week.  When the weekend comes, plan to either just hunker down or  else to be away from the campsite as much as you can.

Even still, we had a decadent two weeks of relaxing by the river, campfires, fishing, and soaking in the hot springs.

browntroutfromcoloradoriver_10-2016

Hubby with Fresh Caught Brown Trout while Van Camping in Colorado

It doesn’t get much better than that!

PS.  We actually camped here a couple of times, we liked the location so much.  Here are a few other photos:

oct-8-2016-co-river-picnic-spot

sept-16-2016-hot-sulphur-springs-co7

 

Finally There! Granby Colorado

I always love crossing state borders.  Somehow, the invisible lines on the map become real with the “welcome” signs and give a satisfying sense of accomplishment.  Today, we crossed from KS into CO.  Frankly, the welcome sign is about the only way you know that you’ve actually crossed over into Colorado.  (It still looks just like Kansas for about a half a day’s drive into Colorado.)

colorado welcome sign

Still, it was a sign of progress and that we were nearing this particular journey’s end.  Although, there were mixed emotions, particularly as that stretch of road always makes me nervous.  For whatever reason, Limon CO seems to have a propensity to attract automotive troubles.  (Have you ever noticed that sometimes, for an unexplainable reason, there are certain stretches of road that always have broken down cars on them?)  I can’t begin to imagine why that would be.  Probably best not to even think about it!

Limon is one of those places: I can personally vouch for it, having had several automotive encounters with it of my own.  Every time we get past that area, I breath a huge sigh of relief.

Shortly after that, we decided to hop off the freeway (namely because we wanted to skip Denver’s traffic congestion).  So, we took a country-road detour.  It really didn’t add much mileage and was well worth it.  The scenery was gorgeous, and even saw antelope grazing along the way as we made our way westward, and up into the mountains.

As a side note if you’ve never seen Colorado’s antelope (also called Pronghorn), watch for their white backsides as you’re passing wide open grazing land.  They’re such curious animals – I’m always delighted when I spot some and feel like I’ve won the jackpot for the day.  Borrowing a picture of one, for your enjoyment here:

220px-Antilocapra_americana_male_(Wyoming,_2012)

Yup.  That’s really what they look like.  You can learn more about them by clicking on the photo.

Mountain Driving Tips

Also, an important driving tip for anyone that’s new to driving through mountain passes.  Keep an eye on your car’s gauges and don’t let them cross over into the “red” zone.  It’s probably no surprise, but most folks drive just like they do in the city (even when traversing mountain ranges).  Aside from clearly identifying yourself as a city person to everyone else on the road, this puts an incredible strain on your vehicle’s motor.  We’re not talking about driving over a little hill here either – mountain passes are a whole ‘nuther story.

The truth is that it’s very common for city drivers to blow a motor beyond the point of reasonable repair.  Better to put your pride aside, get in the right lane, and just take it easy on the way up the mountain.

Also, when going down steep grades, put the car in lower gear.  The car will slow down and you won’t have to use up all your brakes getting down the mountain side.  (Save your brakes for when you really need them!)

Anyhow, it wasn’t long before we were up over the continental divide, down the other side, and searching for our camping spot for the evening.

Rest Areas: Van Camping in Kansas

After a few days of rest and visiting family, we were ready to continue on our journey.  Only really 2 days of driving left to go.  Up to this point, we’d been doing nice easy driving days.  But, we were starting to get a bit antsy about getting to Colorado (our destination), and wanted to make some time on the road. At least, as much as we could, with two vehicles fully loaded.

We considered stopping and checking out a free camping spot in Kansas for our last night on the road.  But, in the end, we decided that we really just wanted to get as far as we could through Kansas.  So picking a destination for stopping for the evening didn’t fit what we wanted that day.  We figured we could always find a rest area, a truck stop, or a 24-hr Walmart along the way somewhere.

kansas rest stop

And so, we drove long and hard across Missouri & Kansas, making it almost to the Kansas/Colorado border before we were too tired to go further.  We found a clean and quiet rest stop there.  (We weren’t the only ones who thought so, as there were other cars and trucks sleeping there already also.)

Not all rest stops are ones that I’d consider safe, but this one was.  For starters, it wasn’t near a city.  In fact, that’s a bit of an understatement.  This one wasn’t near anything (which was probably why there were so many other people sleeping over in their vehicles there).  This rest stop was well-lit, to the point that it felt very safe.  It was also pretty quiet, so it made for a restful night’s sleep.

I also liked this rest stop had covered areas with picnic tables.  We didn’t end up using them, but I like having them available.  More than once, I’ve set up a picnic on a sunny day on a picnic table at a rest stop, for a meal that’s much more enjoyable (and healthy) than anything you’d get in a restaurant.  If you have your camp stove with you, you can even do hot meals if you choose (whether breakfast, lunch, or dinner).  Sometimes, I just set up the camp stove and brew a pot of coffee for the road.

(Note:  As true for any place you stop – take a minute to observe your surroundings, and trust your instincts.  If something doesn’t seem right, keep moving on.)

One other plus for us was that we were now 1,000+ miles into our journey and away from the squelching heat of summer in the south.  We didn’t mind a little time in the heat, but it had been a very long summer of extreme summer temperatures with no reprieve (remember, our journey started in Florida).  This was the first cool night we’d had in a long, long time and it caught us a little by surprise.  The change in temperature (from what we were used to) was exhilarating.  It sounds silly, but sometimes it’s those little things that remind you that you’re alive!  The cool night was so comforting – it felt like a tall cool glass of water on a dry day.  We slept like babies and woke up refreshed and ready for our new day!

Van Camping – Arkansas Continued

By the time we left the unfriendly Arkansas casino, it was the end of the day.  We’d already spent the better part of the day driving, and we were tired.  Now we had no place to sleep, and no backup plan.  So we drove until we found something that would work (aka: was safe, hassle-free, relatively quiet).

Rest areas are sometimes good in those kinds of situations, but the rest area we passed was full.  We were exhausted and having a hard time staying awake.  Thankfully, we found a truck stop.  Most truck stops are open 24 hours.  While busy, well-lit, and a bit noisy, the plus to that is that the restrooms are available to you when you need them.  You’ll usually find a spot where the trucks (18 wheelers) park off to the side that’s a little quieter.  (They sleep there in their big fancy rigs.)  Truckers sometimes get a bit of a bad rap, but (like everyone else) for the most part they’re good people.  When car or van-camping, as long as you’re quiet and leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone.

So we parked in the truck stop and camped overnight next to a bunch of semi-trucks that were sleeping there also. We were so tired that the noise and lights didn’t bother us one bit.  We were surprised to find that it was actually fairly comfortable, and very convenient.

Showering while on the road

It turned out to be a great find, with a wonderful silver lining to the experience (after our frustrating experience with the Arkansas casino).  As it turns out, truck stops have cheap coffee (bonus!).  But the best part about this experience was our discovery that you can buy a private shower for ~$11 at the truck stops.  We totally indulged.

I have to say that it was the best $11 we’d spent in a long while.  For that bargain price, you get a huge private bathroom (not a locker-room style shower, but an entire bathroom as a separate and very secure room with a locking door that you have the key to).   It was big enough that we could share it.  They provided clean towels and a wonderful and seemingly endless supply of very hot water.

It’s definitely a road-travel tip that we’ll take advantage of another day.  With all the road trips we’ve taken in the past, I’m surprised we’d not come across it sooner. There’s nothing like a clean, hot shower as the perfect start the new day.

And we were just a short drive to St. Louis to stay with family for a couple of days. A nice easy driving day, and a clean hot shower.  What a great day!