New Mexico certainly lives up to its name as the Land of Enchantment. There is something special about the combination of desert, mountains, and some of the most rugged wilderness in the US that gives New Mexico a certain allure that can’t be denied. Most of the state’s cities and towns have easy access to the outdoors, whether it be the Pecos Wilderness outside of Santa Fe, Cibola National Forest outside of Albuquerque, or the Organ Mountains near Las Cruces.
In our estimation, the best way to experience these unique landscapes is to spend a night out under the stars and New Mexico offers some incredible free, dispersed camping to make that happen.
This guide is designed to help you navigate the various rules and regulations and plan your perfect New Mexico dispersed camping adventure.
New Mexico Dispersed Camping Guide
- The Basics
- The Best Dispersed Camping Areas in New Mexico
Find Your Next Dispersed Campsite
Learn how to find the best campsite locations BEFORE you head out. No more showing up to crowded sites with all the good spots taken!
Easily identify camping areas
Find free camping on public land
Use offline apps to locate sites
Learn through video tutorials
The sections that follow include all of the basic information you should know when planning your trip. This includes everything from where dispersed camping is allowed in New Mexico, to what to bring, and how to minimize your impact.
We think of this as the essential information to lay a foundation for your perfect camping trip.
Where is dispersed camping allowed in New Mexico?
As with most of the Western United States, much of the public land in New Mexico is managed by two entities: The United States Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This includes all of the national forests in New Mexico (more on that below) as well as a significant amount of BLM land.
Both of these public agencies broadly permit dispersed camping on the land they manage, so are often the first place you should consider when dispersed camping.
Find additional details on dispersed camping in National Forests and on BLM land in New Mexico in the sections below:
US Forest Service Dispersed Camping in New Mexico (USFS)
There are six National Forests and one National Grassland located in New Mexico that are managed by the USFS. A few of these cross into neighboring states, with Coronado National Forest being primarily located in adjacent Arizona.
These National Forests are home to some excellent dispersed camping opportunities, and offer some of the most remote wilderness you’ll find anywhere in the world!
We’ve included a few good options for dispersed campsites in these national forest in the sections below, and have also linked to the dispersed camping regulations page for each forest below:
- Carson National Forest Dispersed Camping
- Santa Fe National Forest Dispersed Camping
- Kiowa National Grassland (administered by Cibola NF)
- Cibola National Forest Dispersed Camping
- Gila National Forest Dispersed Camping
- Lincoln National Forest Dispersed Camping
- Coronado National Forest Dispersed camping (mostly located in nearby Arizona)
To better visualize where each of these National Forests are located in New Mexico, take a look at the USFS map below:
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the other governmental agency that permits dispersed camping in New Mexico. In general, there is much less BLM land here than in some other states in the region, but it is still and excellent place to look for dispersed campsites. Most of the BLM land in the state is located east of Farmington, or down south around Las Cruces.
BLM land can be a bit harder to determine whether or not dispersed camping is permitted, so we recommend reaching out to the relevant district offices for New Mexico listed below when starting your search for a campsite:
- New Mexico State Office (Santa Fe)
- Albuquerque District Office (Albuquerque)
- Farmington District Office (Farmington)
- Las Cruces District Office (Las Cruces)
- Pecos District Office (Roswell)
You can find a good overview of BLM dispersed camping rules here.
- Dispersed camping is permitted on public lands in New Mexico for no more than 14 days within any 28-day period.
- Camping is prohibited within 900 feet of any developed water source (guzzler, watering trough, etc.)
- Fire regulations must be observed at all times.
- Please park your vehicle near existing roads or existing dispersed campsites.
- Camping is permitted in areas considered part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. However, motorized and mechanized (ie mountain bikes) are prohibited in these areas.
The map below gives you a sense of where BLM managed land is located in New Mexico:
How to find dispersed camping in New Mexico
There are many resources available to help you find dispersed camping areas in New Mexico, first and foremost of which is this guide!
In addition, with a little knowledge, some basic map reading skills, and some of the excellent resources available we think you’ll have no problem finding a perfect dispersed campsite for your next trip.
When searching for a good campsite ourselves, we prefer to use a combination of several online apps/websites along with publically available USFS/BLM maps.
Our favorite resources are below:
- Freecampsites.net – Our go to resource for finding free camping in the US. Simply enter your desired location and filter through the results.
- The Dyrt – An app that let’s you filter for free and dispersed campsites.
- Campendium – A website and app that allows you to see user reviews for campsites and campgrounds across the country.
Although you may find your next campsite by simply utilizing the sources above, we also highly recommend referencing the excellent information available through public agencies maps and resources. The best way to do this is typically by reaching out directly to the relevant USFS Ranger District or BLM Office in the area you’d like to camp to inquire on camping locations.
Finally, one of the best resources, specifically for national forest dispersed camping, is to utilize Motor Vehicle Use Maps or MVUMs for short. These maps are published by the Forest Service and display the entire network of forest service roads in a given National Forest.
Many of these MVUMs also display where dispersed camping is permitted, typically indicated by two dots on either side of a given road.
The complete list of MVUMs for all New Mexico’s National Forests can be found at the links below:
- Carson National Forest MVUM
- Santa Fe National Forest MVUM
- Cibola National Forest & Kiowa National Grassland MVUM
- Gila National Forest MVUM
- Lincoln National Forest MVUM
- Coronado MVUM
We often have a motor vehicle use map open in one tab and Google Maps satellite view in the other to help find dispersed campsites. You can cross reference the two and often see areas that have established campsites in Google Maps.
Find Your Next Dispersed Campsite
Our online video course will teach you everything you need to know to find your next free, dispersed campsite.
Learn how to find the best campsite locations BEFORE you head out. No more showing up to crowded sites with all the spots taken!
In this course, we’ll show you how to research free, public campsites, read USFS maps, locate public land, and plan your next dispersed camping trip.
- How to find areas that allow free, dispersed camping
- How to use public maps to narrow down your search
- How to use online apps to identify where camping is permitted and view the surrounding terrain
- How to view your exact location in relation to camping opportunities when you’re out looking for a site – even without cell phone service!
- Confidently plan your next camping trip
Dispersed Camping Rules & Regulations
One of our favorite things about dispersed camping is the lack of permits, reservations, and other requirements you’ll often find at developed campgrounds. However, there are some basic guidelines you’ll need to adhere to.
It is best to check current regulations with the relevant USFS or BLM office, but you should plan on adhering to the following as outlined by the USFS:
- Do not camp in areas near trailheads, picnic areas, or developed campgrounds.
- Keep your campsite small.
- Use existing sites and fire rings when available.
- Pick a site where vegetation is absent.
- Do not camp within 200 feet of a water source.
- Dispersed camping is generally limited to 14 days within any continuous 30 day period.
- Only have a campfire if it is permitted, and always be sure it is completely extinguished.
- Practice Leave No Trace principles – more on that below!
Always be sure to check for current New Mexico fire regulations by visiting the New Mexico Fire Information website before setting out.
Leave No Trace Principles & Dispersed Camping
One of the most important considerations when dispersed camping in New Mexico is to follow Leave No Trace principles. This will minimize your impact and ensure your campsite can be enjoyed by future visitors. Here are the seven principles of Leave No Trace camping:
- Plan Ahead & Prepare: Have an idea of where you’d like to camp and always be sure you are camping in an area that permits dispersed camping.
- Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces: Never camp on fragile ground or create a new campsite.
- Dispose of waste properly: Pack out all of your trash and bury human waste away from water sources. Ideally, carry out human waste or use a portable toilet.
- Leave what you find: Never take anything from your campsite. Other than trash of course!
- Minimize campfire impacts: Never create new fire rings and only have fires if permitted.
- Respect Wildlife: Properly store food at all times and be aware of the area’s wildlife.
- Be considerate of Other Visitors: Pack out your trash, don’t be loud, and leave your campsite in better condition than you found it.
Our dispersed camping checklist has everything you need.
Want to know the essentials for your next camping trip?
Our dispersed camping checklist has all the camping essentials plus specific items for dispersed camping.
The Best Dispersed Camping in New Mexico
Ok, now we’re on to the fun part! You’ve got the basics down and are ready to find your perfect campsite. We’ve compiled our nine favorite dispersed campsites in New Mexico in the list below. Use them as inspiration, or make it easy on yourself and head to one of these great sites for your next camping trip.
In addition, the New Mexico Dispersed camping map below shows all of the campsite locations, with detailed descriptions following.
Restrooms: Vault toilets
The Upper Bonito Recreation Area is a great designated dispersed camping area near the White Mountain Wilderness in Lincoln National Forest. The campsites here are close enough to Bonito Lake as well as some great hiking and ATV trails in the national forest. The campsites here can accommodate just about any setup, so this is a good option if you’re in an RV or pulling a trailer.
Please do camp at an already established site in the area, as in recent year campers have been setting up further and further from the designated sites which degrades the wilderness. There are two vault toilets available at Upper Bonito, a nice feature that helps minimize human impacts.
The most tranquil campsites are locate right on Bonito Creek, making for a wonderful camping experience. This is a popular destination, so plan to arrive early on summer weekends here.
Dog Canyon Dispersed Camping
Ideally located near White Sands National Park, Lincoln National Forest, and Las Cruces, Dog Canyon is a great BLM dispersed camping area in New Mexico. You’ll take the road towards Oliver Lee Memorial State Park and the Oliver Lee developed campground to get here, and the camping area is located on the south side of the road before reaching the state park. This is BLM land, so dispersed camping is permitted, just don’t pitch your tent too close to the developed campground.
There are no facilities at Dog Canyon, although you may be able to use the facilities at Oliver Lee. However, we wouldn’t recommend counting on it since those are technically reserved for paid campers.
The views here are truly stunning and you’ll be treated to some incredible sunsets and sunrises at Dog Canyon. Do keep in mind that there is not water source (this is the desert after all) so you’ll want to come prepared with all that you’ll need for your trip.
Bosque Redondo Park
Restrooms: Vault toilets
A unique option for free camping in eastern New Mexico where public lands are more sparse is the Bosque Redondo Park near Fort Sumner and Sumner Lake State Park. There are approximately 10 campsites set up adjacent to a small lake here where free camping is permitted. There are picnic tables and even a few shade structures at some of the sites, making this an amenity rich free campsite.
You won’t get any wilderness experience camping here, but you can fish in the lake, and its always good to have options for free camping! Just be aware, the mosquitos can be pretty bad here.
Vault toilets are available on the entrance road in, and this makes a great spot to spot when visiting Fort Sumner or just passing through on your next road trip.
Located in the Sendia Ranger District of Cibola National Forest and just outside of Albuquerque you’ll find the Manzanita dispersed camping area. There are several designated dispersed sites located throughout the Manzanita Mountains that are interspersed in this excellent trail system.
The map above leads to one of the more popular dispersed sites along Forest Service road 462DC1, but there are many additional sites in the surrounding area. Your best bet is to contact the Ranger District or refer to the helpful map for Mananita that displays dispersed campsites.
This is true dispersed camping so you won’t find any amenities here. That means no water, no trash service, and no restrooms. As such, please be prepared and always practice Leave No Trace camping. These sites get a fair amount of use given their proximity to Albuquerque, so please leave them in better shape than you found them.
Joe Skeen Dispersed Camping
Restrooms: Vault toilet
The Joe Skeen Campground is located west of Albuquerque adjacent to the El Malpais National Monument on BLM land. This free campground features 10 campsites that all have picnic tables, a fire grill, and plenty of space for your tent. Although this isn’t a typical dispersed campsite, it provides great access to the surrounding wilderness while also being easy to access for a variety or rigs.
This is the perfect place to camp before visiting El Malpais, but also makes a great stop for those on a longer road trip and you’re just a short distance off of I-40 here.
Most of the campsites enjoy some decent privacy and all have access to a vault toilet. Overall, this is a great option for free camping in the region!
Caja del Rio Dispersed Camping
If you’re looking for dispersed camping near Santa Fe, then the “Caja” should be high on your short list. Caja del Rio sits at a lower elevation compared to much of the surrounding National Forest so is a popular place to camp during the shoulder seasons. The map linked above brings you to the largest camping area, although there are many more opportunities if you venture further in.
Be warned, after rain or a lot of melting snow the dirt here turns to a think sludge than can stick even the burliest of tires!
The road to get here is easily passable for trailers and RVs, so this is a good option if you’re traveling in a larger vehicle. There aren’t any facilities here so be sure to stock up on supplies before setting up camp. Given that Santa Fe is only 15 minutes away, you should have no problem finding everything you need for your trip.
Tres Piedras Dispersed Camping
The Tres Piedras dispersed camping area is located approximately 30 minutes northwest of Taos and just inside Carson National Forest. There are several great dispersed campsites if you continue further into the national forest, but the ones located on Forest Service Road 64 J are easy to access and close to services making them a good option.
Tres Piedras couldn’t be easier to get to, simply take Highway 64 west (if coming from Taos area) until you pass the Tres Piedras Ranger Station. The next right is FSR 64 J, which as several dispersed campsites along its length.
You’re just a few minutes from some excellent climbing and the Continental Divide trail is nearby for those hoping to do some hiking. Overall, this is a wonderful part of the state and a great place for dispersed camping.
Given what a gem Tres Piedras is, please be sure to Leave No Trace and keep this forest open to dispersed camping for generations to come.
Restrooms: Vault toilet
If you’re looking for an incredible free campsite with stunning views of Angel Peak and the badlands, look now further than the BLM managed Angel Peak Scenic Area. Though not dispersed camping in the traditional sense, the 10 campsites here are all free and have some basic amenities such as picnic tables, a covered shelter, and access to restrooms.
Don’t let these amenities fool you though as these sites are remote and give you a true wilderness experience. You aren’t far from both Bloomfield and Farmington when camping here, which makes it fairly easy to stock up on everything you need before heading out.
If you do decide to camp here be sure to explore the surrounding Angel Peak area. The landscapes are otherworldly and not overrun with visitors, making this a classic New Mexico destination.
Restrooms: Vault toilet
Our final New Mexico dispersed campsite in this guide isn’t actually a dispersed site. Rather, we chose to include the Cosmic Campground because it is free and also one of the most spectacular places to spend a night in the state. The first International Dark Sky Sanctuary to be located on USFS lands means that you’ll be treated to some of the best stargazing in the world here, an experience not to be missed!
The campground is located within Gila National Forest, which is already one of the most remote and rugged wilderness areas in the United States. However, the campground is relatively easy to access and has some basic amenities to make your stay a bit more comfortable.
In addition to the basic pit toilet, there are four ‘cosmic observation pads’ where you can set up your telescope or simply enjoy the night sky. There is an otherworldly aura to camping here, so please be respectful, Leave No Trace, and enjoy this wonderful place in our public lands.
Download Our FREE Dispersed Camping Cheat Sheet
Our free printable cheat sheet outlines how to find the perfect dispersed campsite for your next trip.
Have a great trip!
That’s it! We hope we’ve provided all of the information you need to plan a great dispersed camping trip in New Mexico.
Be sure to let us know in the comments below if you have any questions and be sure to tell us about your trip!
Looking for more dispersed camping content? Don’t forget to check out our other state specific dispersed camping guides: