Do you want to get away for some relaxation in Kentucky but need to save money? Or are you just passing through the state and want to rest somewhere free?
You’ve come to the right place! There are a few ways you can camp for free in Kentucky. Whether your shelter is your car, tent, or RV, unwinding for free in the backcountry or store parking lots is possible.
Read on to learn what you need to know about free camping in Kentucky and what you’ll experience during the trip!
Expectations for Free Camping in Kentucky
Before you pack your gear and head to your free campsite, prepare yourself for the following conditions for free Kentucky camping:
Lack of Water and Trash Service
Typically, free camping in any state lacks major necessities like potable water and trash services. Most of Kentucky’s free camping spots are no different.
Surprisingly, free RV camping isn’t that mainstream in Kentucky since hookups for water and electricity aren’t available. But that doesn’t mean certain wildlife management areas (WMAs) and backcountry sites won’t accept these vehicles.
You’ll mostly be dry camping in Kentucky, but you can purify water from the nearest water source or pack water bottles. Pack trash bags, too, as leaving no trace is a major requirement for camping on public lands and dispersed areas.
Permit Required for Certain Free Campsites
Even if something is free, there’s always some form of cost to it. Kentucky’s free campsites may let you camp without paying, but some of them may require a permit for free camping.
By paying only once, your permit for free camping in Kentucky will last for as long as you choose. The price increases depending on how long you want to stay. Fortunately, some of Kentucky’s backcountry permits are free, and you can pick these up at permit offices.
Free Kentucky Camping Options
RV and Vehicle Camping
Despite there being no water or electric hookups at free Kentucky campsites for RVs, that doesn’t deter campers. The fact that these spots can accommodate vehicles is enough for anybody seeking a free campsite.
Bell Farm Horse Camp
It may not have hookups or trash pickup services, but it has parking, picnic tables, and an accessible vault toilet.
Rock Creek is the nearest water source, but it’s only for the horses. But with the right water filter, you could drink it if you didn’t pack water bottles.
Swain Ridge Road
Another free RV and vehicle camping spot in Daniel Boone National Forest is Swain Ridge Road. This dispersed site has no amenities, which is an opportunity for complete off-the-grid dry camping.
It’s also an annex of the forest’s Beaver Creek Wilderness. Because Beaver Creek doesn’t allow RV camping, this rugged, pet-friendly area will gladly accept these vehicles.
Even though some campgrounds will require camping fees, they have backcountry spots that allow campers to get around those fees. That’s the beauty of boondocking in a tent or RV.
Mammoth Cave National Park
The 13 backcountry campsites at Mammoth Cave National Park require you to hike, paddle, or ride a horse to reach them. But they’re worth it in terms of privacy, scenery, and ruggedness.
These primitive sites are set on the Green River’s floodplains and on the river islands. The only amenities available are fire rings and hitching posts for horses, with one site having a nearby water source.
Mauzy Lake Campground
The clearings are primitive pull-through sites that accommodate both tents and 21–22-foot-long RVs. They’re just off the gravel roads and surrounded by trees, and the only amenity is a vault toilet.
Wilson Creek Recreation Area
This campground is in the Green River Lake WMA, offering five rustic, first-come, first-served campsites. Tents and 32-foot-long RVs are welcome here, and all that’s available are fire rings and vault toilets. Dogs are also allowed to camp here provided they’re on a leash.
Tent camping is guaranteed at a lot of free camping spots in Kentucky. It’s especially helpful if vehicles aren’t allowed on certain campgrounds.
Cumberland Gap National Park
With a backcountry permit, you can pitch your tent in the Cumberland Gap National Park’s designated campsites. Be sure to follow the forest’s regulations, such as using only USDA-cleared, heat-treated firewood and reporting bear activity to park rangers.
Unlike many free first-come, first-served campsites, the backcountry sites at Cumberland Gap require reservations 3 months in advance.
Turkey Foot Campground
With the road leading to the Turkey Foot Campground being unpaved and steep, it’s not a good idea to come in large RVs. You have 15 first-come, first-served sites to choose from. Each one has a tent pad, fire ring, picnic table, and lantern pole.
Cell phone service is unavailable, so this rugged campground serves off-grid campers well. In addition, Turkey Foot has accessible vault toilets and is walking distance from War Fork Creek.
We recommend you avoid camping in low-lying areas, which are prone to flooding. To stay safe, check the weather forecast before coming here.
Beaver Creek Wilderness
As mentioned, RV camping isn’t allowed at Beaver Creek Wilderness since motorized or mechanized equipment is forbidden. Cars, however, may be parked at nearby trailheads, such as Three Forks of Beaver, Bowman Ridge, Swain Ridge, and Middle Ridge.
Campers will have all the space they need to pitch their tents. When you do so, do it 300 feet away from roads or water. And stay out of sight of the area’s trails.
Free Camping in Kentucky Store Parking Lots
Public lands and wildlife and dispersed areas aren’t the only spots where you can camp for free in Kentucky. Your free camping adventure can also take place in parking lots of stores such as Cabela’s, Walmart, and Cracker Barrel.
These lots are perfect for campers needing a place to rest that’s not a motel as they travel throughout the state. Because free RV camping isn’t big in Kentucky, they’re useful if you’re having trouble finding a public site.
Before parking your RV, car, or truck in these lots, speak with the store managers for their consent. When you do, treat the place like you would public lands and pack in and out.
Make a point to get acquainted with local law enforcement patrolling the parking lots so they don’t mistake your camping for loitering.
Things to Do While Camping for Free in Kentucky
Besides resting in an open, serene area in a tent or vehicle, entertain yourself with camping activities. Before you book a free Kentucky campsite, let’s go over a few places that are ideal for the following activities:
Hiking and Biking
For boondockers settled near Mammoth Cave National Park, there are 70 miles of hiking trails. In the backcountry, you’ll be hiking through forest ridges, valleys, and river vistas. You can also bike through two of those trails for an additional workout.
Cumberland Gap National Park has 80 miles of hiking and backpacking trails. They range from easy to strenuous hikes, and each trail provides scenic views of the park’s wildlife and historic sites.
Fishing and Hunting
Check what fish, deer, rabbit, fowl, or other game is in season before packing your tackle box or hunting gear. Above all, have your fishing and hunting licenses in hand when you arrive at your free Kentucky campsite!
At the Wilson Creek Recreation Area and the Mauzy Lake Campground, fishing is popular at their lakes. They contain many kinds of fish, including catfish, walleyes, and a few species of bass and crappie.
The Beaver Creek WMA surrounds the Beaver Creek Wilderness, and offers small and large game-hunting opportunities.
Lake Mauzy isn’t just for fishing on your free Kentucky camping trip. With the lake’s 80 acres, it’s perfect for kayaking, canoeing, and motorized boating—provided the motor is 10hp or less.
Besides fishing, Wilson Creek Recreation Area’s Green River Lake is also an ideal spot for boating and swimming.
Horse Camping and Riding
The Bell Farm Horse Camp is the perfect free camping spot in Kentucky for horse camping and riding. There are five group sites, and nearby is the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, which has horse trails.
Mammoth Cave National Park also lets you ride horses through the backcountry trails, but keep your backcountry permit in hand!
At any horse campsite, tie your horse to a hitching post when you’re not riding it. Dispose of its waste 100 feet from your campsite before you go home, too.
Kentucky’s official state bird is the cardinal; a bright red bird you can spot almost anywhere. But it’s not the only bird worth watching, especially if you’re free camping in Kentucky.
Mammoth Cave and Cumberland Gap have over 150 bird species for you to see, including birds of prey, waterfowl, and more. For guaranteed waterfowl watching, the lakes at Kentucky’s WMAs are ideal locations.
Keep your eyes peeled during your camping trip and you may spot Kentucky’s rare bird, the whooping crane!
Common Kentucky Wildlife
Birds aren’t the only wildlife to watch in Kentucky. As you’re camping, keep your eyes open for a variety of animals that frequent the grounds or pass by.
If you’re visiting Mammoth Cave National Park, you’ll get glimpses of brown bats and salamanders if you visit the cave. Cumberland Gap also has a wide variety of wildlife such as birds, elk, foxes, turtles, and many others.
At campgrounds and WMAs, you’ll see white-tailed deer, rabbits, beavers, and many rodent, reptilian, and amphibious species.
Wildlife to Watch Out For
Seeing animals at a distance is one thing, but seeing animals that could intrude or harm you is another.
Skunks and opossums really put a damper on camping trips. And predators such as bobcats, coyotes, and black bears are definite risks. Even black widow spiders and Kentucky’s four types of venomous snakes can be a problem.
Practice proper food and trash storage and seal them in a vehicle or bear-resistant container. Shake out your gear, close your shelter(s), and wear sturdy shoes or boots to protect against bites. Above all, keep your site clean, and if you do encounter wildlife, keep your distance!
Kentucky Vegetation and Geography
Kentucky’s eastern region is forested and rugged and is composed of Appalachian Mountain foothills. The state also includes lakes, rivers, wetlands, caves, sandstone cliffs, and rock arches!
Some campsites are wooded with mixed hardwoods and many species of walnut, oak, and pine trees. Kentucky also has hemlock groves, wildflower fields, and rhododendron meadows that are worth camping in or around.
The native shrubs you’ll see while free camping in Kentucky include winterberries, wild hydrangeas, and fragrant sumacs. Speaking of sumacs, poisonous plants are also a thing in Kentucky, so learn about them before your trip.
Embark on a Free Camping Trip in Kentucky!
Many options for free camping in Kentucky are available to you, whether you’re planning to stay a while or passing through. Take in the Bluegrass state’s various landscapes at no price, and take advantage of the scenery beyond the parks’ designated sites.
- About the Author
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Sarah Keck is a long-time resident of the Midwest and loves its warm and cool atmosphere. She takes any walking or hiking opportunity with open arms and likes to learn and write about the best trails.
Sarah’s first camping experience was her church’s teens’ and twenties’ summer conference years ago. Her favorite activities were exploring the campground and sitting by the fire, listening to the wildlife.
As time went on, Sarah looked forward to camping and other vacation opportunities. Writing for Beyond the Tent has opened her eyes and mind to the country’s many beautiful destinations.