The Best Wild Camping Near Yellowstone
Caribou-Targhee National Forest
Coordinates: 44.665063, -111.312903
We departed Yellowstone National Park through the Western entrance in search of phone service and camping. Immediately leaving the National Park is the town of West Yellowstone. It’s a good place to restock on things your’e low on, but mostly an overpriced tourist trap.
Many of the campgrounds and KOA’s in the West Yellowstone area charge upwards of $100 a night for a cramped site with views of your neighbor. We prefer to be closer to nature and farther from neighbors. Since we’re off-grid, we only need a place to park our bus with no frills. Campground costs add up quickly. A brief search showed us an option 12 miles from the Yellowstone entrance that sounded promising. We checked it out and we do not regret it.
The camping we found is off Forest Road 057 in Island Park, Idaho. It is a relatively quiet road that has many well-spaced spots to camp. The forest road is dirt with some knobby rocks and goes to the Targhee Creek Trailhead about a mile from the highway. The first handful of camping spots are in an open field of low brush and prairie dogs. We opted for one of these so we could take advantage of the sunny days and collect solar power. An added benefit of being in the more open sites here is the nearly 360 degree mountain views and fantastic sunsets. Our spot was less than a quarter mile off the highway so it was easily accessible. The highway is more audible from the spots in the field but there isn’t much traffic by the end of the day. We never had a problem with the noise.
When we arrived there was one other group camping in the field on the crest of the hill, but most people looking for a site continued up the road into the wooded area. Although the wooded area provides some reprieve from the sun, it has more bugs and negates a lot of the breeze that helped keep us cool during our stay. There is a dozen or more sites dotted throughout the woods leading to the trailhead. At the trailhead, there is a larger opening that can fit much bigger rigs than ours.
Given its proximity to Yellowstone, there were many people who camped for a night and left early the next morning. After not having phone service for almost a week, we were happy to be able to take care of some things we had neglected and ended up staying a week. We planned our route, enjoyed the weather and scenery, and caught up on social media and blog posts.
The weather was fairly consistent here with sunny days and cloudy evening with a small rain shower. The clouds in the evening gave the sunsets more character, and cleared out overnight for some stargazing. Given the rural nature of the area, there was very little light pollution. We used this spot to test out some time lapse and night lapse photography. Aside from the forest road and Targhee Creek Trail to walk on, there is also an off road vehicle trail nearby. Be mindful of the many postings in this area about bears. While walking on some of these trails we saw bear tracks, but thankfully didn’t run into the bear that made them.
We recently noticed that someone on iOverlander wrote that this spot is considered Yellowstone Backcountry Camping and that a Backcountry Use Permit is required for overnight stays. We're not sure where this information comes from. In our experience, we did not need this permit, we don't know of any other campers who did, and the forest service did come through a couple of times and only ever waved in our direction. On Yellowstone's website about backcountry camping, this spot is not on its map precisely because it is not in Yellowstone's territory. It is its own national forest. This is the Yellowstone Backcountry map if you would like to take a look: https://www.nps.gov/maps/full.html?mapId=f926f448-9fe4-4600-b4c0-3f060737c87f
Most national forests have dispersed camping with no amenities and this location was no different. Be prepared to pack everything you need in and take it back out with you when leaving. As mentioned before, the town of West Yellowstone has gas, groceries, and other essentials.
Although we never stopped, there’s a picnic area one mile North on I-20 that has a vault toilet and water available from a fountain. We headed 22 miles South to Henry’s Fork RV Dump Station where we could dump our gray tank and refill our fresh water. It’s an easy-to-miss spot on the right side of the road if you’re heading south. There are two lanes for dumping, a hose for rinsing, and a spigot for fresh water.