Any ambitious camper should get familiar with the Bureau of Land Management and the two million acres of public land they oversee. Opportunities abound there for free or cheap camping. But if you’re scratching your head, wondering why you’ve never heard of the Bureau of Land Management, you’re not alone!
To most, Bureau of Land Management land is talked about as second tier, somewhere far behind National Park and National Monuments, if it’s discussed at all. The Bureau doesn’t advertise well and many simply don’t know what it is they do. In short, they are part of the U.S. Department of The Interior and oversee some stunning public lands.
Let’s dive into what the Bureau of Land Management is, their history, and what you can do on their land.
The History Of The Bureau Of Land Management
The Bureau of Land Management was founded in 1946. It was a result of a merger between the General Land Office (GLO) and the U.S. Grazing Service. The purpose of the GLO, originally, was to encourage westward expansion and homesteading across the expanding borders of the young nation.
However, as land conservation became more important, the roles of both the GLO and the Grazing Services declined. The BLM ‘s current mission is “to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”
In a lot of ways, this is similar to National Forests. However, BLM land is often known to be less stringently managed. The land the BLM owns is also more patchwork, unlike the contiguous National Parks or forests.
Interestingly, BLM land covers approximately 30% of the total national minerals. So, when the next controversial oil and gas or mineral extraction lease dominates national headlines, there's a good chance it’s taking place on or near BLM land.
Most Striking BLM Landscapes
A lot of BLM land is spread over the desert and intermountain west. Several of the tracks see little to no traffic, but there are some stunning places on BLM land that are worth the visit.
Here are just a few examples:
- The Alabama Hills just east of the Sierra Crest in California. A collection of dry hills set against the backdrop of one of the most impressive mountain ranges in the U.S.
- The Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Numerous land speed records have been set at Bonneville due to its flat terrain. Popular racing events still occur there yearly.
- Bisti-Badlands in New Mexico. This area is full of wild landscapes, hoodoos, petrified logs, and fossils.
- Penitente Canyon, Colorado. This rock-climbing mecca features incredible rock landscapes, an arid climate and tons of iconic routes to try.
- Guffey Gorge, Colorado. A beautiful (and very popular) swimming hole with opportunities for cliff jumping. There’s a parking fee to access and the area is for day-use only. However, ample camping exists nearby.
- Imperial Sand Dunes, California. Many national parks and wilderness areas limit motorized vehicle use. However, at Imperial Dunes, ATV-ing and dirt biking off of impressive sand dunes is allowed.
- Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Nevada. This is another exceptional rock climbing area in southern Nevada with hundreds of established routes.
When people think of BLM land (if they do at all), it’s usually because of the free dispersed camping. BLM lands are often close to scenic areas like national monuments and parks but with fewer restrictions. If you can’t score a reservation at a popular campsite, check to see if there’s some BLM land around you can pitch a tent on.
Keep in mind that the majority of BLM land is not very tightly managed. You can have a great experience on BLM land, but established services and amenities may be many miles away. Pack in everything you need, and then pack it all out.
There is a camping limit of 14 days, similar to other areas. However, with so much land to choose from, shifting camp every two weeks shouldn't be an issue. The Bureau does manage established campsites, which will cost money but will include amenities.
BLM land can be leased. Since one of the founding organizations was the U.S. grazing services, you'll often see free-range cattle out there. Mining and oil extraction leases are also periodically granted since BLM lands cover mineral-rich terrain.
Recently, the Bureau has proposed a new rule that would allow conservation leases in the same manner as extraction leases. If an area was leased for conservation, through the life of the lease, no resource extraction would take place.
After the public comment period ends on June 20th 2023, the agency will work through all the considerations and come up with a final proposal.
BLM Land And Recreation
- BLM lands have a lot of free dispersed camping options near major recreational attractions across large swathes of the intermountain west.
- BLM land consists of small chunks of land that aren’t often connected. This patchwork makes it harder for agency staff to manage everything, hence, the looser restrictions.
- BLM lands are rugged, wild, and often without cell reception. If you camp out there, make sure to bring everything you need.
- A ton of activities are permitted on BLM land, like dispersed camping, mountain biking, climbing, and hiking. There are some stellar options out there, and I’d encourage you to visit the BLM site to see if any are close to you!
- If you see oil rigs or free-range cattle, they’re allowed to be there, provided they have a lease with the agency. Remember to be courteous to all who use this land.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.