Car Camping 101

PHOTO BY BRADLY J. BONER

Five Campgrounds to Check Out

// By Whitney Royster 

Car camping is a wonderfully accessible and easy way to be in the outdoors and sleep under some of the starriest skies in the lower forty-eight. It is an inexpensive way to feel rugged without having to carry a heavy backpack. However, finding campsites is getting more difficult: Last summer, there was a huge upswing in the number of car campers in Jackson Hole as people escaped Covid-prone cities and took to spending more time in the outdoors. The expectation is for a continued rise this summer. 

Even before Covid, Grand Teton National Park’s (GTNP) six campgrounds were usually full every night, leaving car campers who arrived too late to get a spot in the park driving around the neighboring Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF) looking for a place to park and sleep. With GTNP moving from a first-come-first-served system for its campgrounds to advance reservations this past January, the only day-of camping available in the national park will be reserved spots that are no-shows. This will undoubtedly increase the pressure on adjacent national forest lands.

BTNF officials were already on duty last summer trying to educate people on camping etiquette. Forest staff found bear boxes overflowing with garbage (they’re meant for campers to safely store food, not to be trash receptacles) and campsites left full of trash. Camper behavior was so bad that the forest closed one of its most popular car camping areas, the Wedding Tree up the Gros Ventre Road. Throughout the valley, there was also car camping happening in areas where it is illegal—in roadside pullouts or even just on the side of the road. Let’s not do this again this year. Here are six very different campgrounds in the area where you can practice good camping etiquette.

Let’s go Camping!

SHADOW MOUNTIAN

PRO: Shadow Mountains offers amazing Teton views, easy access, and lots of space—and it is removed enough to feel “away from it all.” 

CON: Heavily used by rookies and local summer workers living out of their cars—two groups who can be loud and leave messy camps. 

Free. First-come/first-serve. The road on the upper two-thirds of the mountain requires a high-clearance vehicle. As of this summer, there are vault toilets.

WHERE: North of Kelly, Antelope Flats Rd. becomes Shadow Mountain Rd. and leads directly to this dispersed camping area in the BTNF.

GROS VENTRE CAMPGROUND

PRO: Jackson is only a twenty-minute drive away, there are good cottonwood trees and shade cover, and the Snake River is a short walk; thirty-nine sites here have electic hookups. 

CON: With 279 sites, this is GTNP’s biggest campground, so there’s no feeling of escaping the crowds. 

$38/night and reservations are required; these can be made six months in advance at recreation.gov. There are flush toilets and running water, but no showers.

WHERE: One of the six developed campgrounds in GTNP,  it is four miles east of the Gros Ventre Junction, en route to the community of Kelly.

HEISE HOT SPRINGS CAMPGROUND

PRO: With a 350-foot waterslide, hot spring pools, a zipline, pizzeria, and nine-hole executive golf course, this is a playground with camping.

CON: Same as what some campers think is great: it’s got a waterslide, hot spring pools, a zipline, pizzeria, and nine-
hole executive golf course. 

$25-$39/night; make reservations at heisehotsprings.net; RV site options include full hookups, electiric only, and dry. 

WHERE:About seventy miles from downtown Jackson, Heise Hot Springs is outside of Ririe, Idaho, near Idaho Falls.

MIKE HARRIS CAMPGROUND

PRO:
This campground is small (in a good way), and there is hiking, mountain biking, and fishing nearby.

CON: You can hear the traffic on Idaho Highway 33, and the ten sites here fill up fast. 

$17/night; reservations can be made starting in late May at recreation.gov. Vault toilets and drinking water.

WHERE: This campground sits in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest just at the base of the western side of Teton Pass. The town of Victor is a five-minute drive away.

CALAMITY CAMPGROUND

PRO:
The campground is on Palisades Reservoir; there are lots of bathrooms, and there’s a boat ramp.

CON: The access road is bumpy, and tent sites can be rocky.

$17/night; reservations can be made starting in late May at recreation.gov. Vault toilets and drinking water.

WHERE: At the north end of Palisades Reservoir, this campground in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest is about an hour from Jackson. 

SPREAD CREEK/TOPPINGS LAKE

PRO: Some sites have incredible Teton views, and you can get closeish to Spread Creek.

CON: Because campsites here are large, it’s likely another party will pull in and expect to share with you. 

Free. First-come/first-serve. A five-day stay limit is in effect from May 1 through Labor Day. No facilities. 

WHERE: This area is in the BTNF off Forest Service Rd. 30310 and Spread Creek Rd. Both
of these roads are several miles south of the Moran entrance to GTNP. JH

Basic Rules of Car Camping  

1. Campfires must be fully extinguished when camp is unoccupied.

2. Food and garbage must be stored in a hard-sided vehicle (or bear-proof container).

3. Human waste must be buried and toilet paper removed.

4. Motor vehicles must stay on the road and in marked campsites.

5. Trash must be taken with you when you leave. JH

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