A Dirtbagger’s Guide to the American West

Photo: douglemoine

If there were a dirtbagger’s convention, it’d be held in one of these towns.

Dirtbagging is travel stripped down to its essentials. All you need is a tent, a backpack, and your favorite pair of boots. Learn to scrape by on less by scoring free campsites and taking advantage of no-cost sights like natural hot springs and hiking/biking trails.

With more public lands than any other U.S. region and loads of fee-less recreation areas and wild scenery, the West was made for all species of dirtbaggers — mountain bikers, climbers, kayakers…whatever turns you on.

Here are 5 destinations that are better than the rest:

Hiking the Wind River Range / Photo: douglemoine

Lander, Wyoming

The dirtbag friendliest city in the Western U.S., Lander is located in the Wind River Range in Wyoming, south of Yellowstone National Park and the Tetons. There’s rock climbing at Wild Iris and Sinks Canyon and amazing hiking and backpacking in the Winds.

Free camping can be found in Lander City Park just blocks from Main Street. For cheap drinks, head to the Lander Bar at happy hour, 5-6pm Monday through Friday. Take your brew outside and enjoy a Hungry Hippie (yummy pita featuring avocado and melted swiss) on the patio.

Downtown, the Maverick Motel serves $3.95 breakfast specials, $0.99 coffee, and pancakes twice the size of your head.

Bishop, California

Photo: tornatore

Bishop is well known in climbing circles for its world-class bouldering on both granite (Buttermilk Boulders) and volcanic tuff (Happy Boulders). Often overlooked, the Owens River Gorge also has some incredible sport lines.

For those seeking some geothermal activity, plenty of hippie pots grace the side of Highway 395. The area gets a good rep for mountain biking too, but the sand and Sierra “moon dust” — a product of the eroded volcanic rock — can easily spoil a ride.

Buttermilk Country, Clark Canyon, and the Pines have free camping. With better facilities (like toilets), “the Pit” charges $2 per vehicle per night and has easy access to water and more opportunities to meet fellow travelers — not to mention a generous 60-day stay limit.

On a rest day, chill at the Looney Bean on Main, browse the books at the Inyo County Library, and shower up at Keough Hot Springs.

Carbondale, Colorado

From this Western Colorado town, grab your mountain bike and head to Red Hill Recreation Area or wander through the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness Area.

You can kayak the Colorado and Crystal Rivers and then relax with a soak in Penny Hot Springs, a natural springs in the Crystal River.

The Carbondale area also makes a great base camp for climbers.

Romancing the pass / Photo: justalexanders

The limestone crags of Rifle Mountain Park, Independence Pass bouldering and climbing areas, and the riverside Redstone Boulders are all an easy drive from town.

There’s plenty of free camping on the BLM land just south of Carbondale — take the Prince Creek Road until the pavement ends and pick your spot. Several more developed, fee campgrounds can be found in White River National Forest.

Grab a killer breakfast at the Village Smithy and live music and a cheap pint of Fat Tire at White House Pizza. The Novel Tea Shop on Main Street has plenty of tent reading material, and the Carbondale Community Food Co-op can set you up with local produce.

Elko, Nevada

Elko is located just off I-80 near the halfway between Reno and Salt Lake City and is home to a burgeoning outdoors community. It’s practically surrounded by recreation areas, including the Ruby Mountains, affectionately known as the Alps of Nevada.

Photo: adie reed

Cedar Creek Clothing in downtown Elko is a good place to pick up a guidebook on the region and get trail recommendations.

Lamoille Canyon — the Rubys’ most stunning valley — has challenging and scenic mountain biking, rock climbing, backpacking, and backcountry skiing.

Serious off-road, route-finding adventure can be had by trekking out to one of the primitive hot springs in the area.

Find free camping along the creek just down-canyon from the forest service campground and along the dirt road heading to Camp Lamoille. For beers and a taste of the local cowboy culture, stop by O’Carrolls in the tiny village of Lamoille.

Moab, Utah

Moab still deserves a spot on the list, though perhaps not for long.

Photo: Tim Brink

This corner of southeastern Utah is world famous for its slickrock mountain bike trails, endless hiking and backpacking opportunities, and sandstone climbing, but also for its ever-increasing summer crowds.

Free camping is slowly being pushed farther from Moab proper, but primitive options still exist near Onion Creek, Kane Creek Canyon, Indian Creek, and off the road to the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park.

With the closure of the legendary Matrimony Springs, dirtbaggers looking for a free water fill-up should go to the GearHeads store in downtown Moab. Outside, water is scarce and the air is dry, so make sure to carry at least a gallon per person per day.

For nighttime hydration, grab a growler of Black Raven Stout from the Moab Brewery before heading out to the BLM land to set up camp. Organic and local foods are sold at the Moonflower Market; for a good book, the Edward Abbey collection at Back of Beyond Books is worth a browse.

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  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/candicew86 Candice

    AWESOME, Amiee! You’ve got such a great voice. Not sure if I’m cut out for the dirtbagging lifestyle, but pancakes twice the size of my head? I’m in.

  • http://www.southernhiker.com Justin

    Great Article. There are lots of free/cheap camping options out there. Wife and I semi-dirtbagged across the US on a roadtrip this summer. Moab is awesome, we paid $12 for a BLM campsite , but it was right on the Colorado River, and beautiful. Lots of great choices for mountain bikers of all skill levels too, not to mention some unique hiking in Arches.

  • http://nancythegnomette.com Nancy

    Great article Amiee! Congrats :)) Love your style and info you offer up. I’ve always wanted to go to Moab…

  • http://nomadneedles.wordpress.com/ Robyn

    Living in and around Boulder for the last 20 years, Moab has always been a favorite with me. It’s an easy 6 hr drive with plenty to do and see from here to there. So much great camping all over the place. Glad you included it on your list.

    (ps – wonder if the link to your site is broken – wasn’t working just now when I tried to check it out.)

  • http://www.sierrasurvey.com David Page

    Yeehaw! Great piece Amiee. Long Live The Life!

  • http://blog.irunfar.com Bryon Powell

    Great article. Elko and Carbondale are two of my favorite dirtbag destinations. Moab is great, too. I just haven’t gotten there as often.

  • http://carlo-alcos.com Carlo

    I’d never heard the term dirtbagger before reading this. Nice post!

  • Terrin

    You missed Bellingham,WA —-for dirtbaggers who yearn for mountains, hot springs AND salt water

  • http://itllbebetterdowntheroad.blogspot.com/ Tyler

    That was a very good list. I love all of those places. I personally would add Silverton and Ouray to the list as well, two places I always spend time in when I’m in Western Colorado. I was delighted to see Lander on you list as well, I fell in love with that town the first time I was there and visited frequently during my two year stint in Wyoming.
    Keep up the good work.

  • lee

    Amiee,
    Wow–you mean all this is outside the office? Great job. Your ideas and writing are so clever. Keep up your creativity and follow your heart and soul. PS Sorry, it took so long for me to read this. I am chained to my day job. ha.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=7933156 Miguel Corona

    Several years late here, but Matrimony Springs is still flowing freely, and I’ve filled up my water at several gas stations in town.  Just go to the ones off the main drag.  Also, there are an increasing number of WWOOFing opportunities in Moab for those looking to make an extended stay on a budget.