Most visitors look for private or national forest campgrounds when they visit the Gardiner, Livingston, Paradise Valley area in Montana. However, there are a few opportunities for free camping in this area just north of Yellowstone Park. Keep reading for our guide to free camping in Paradise Valley and along the Upper Yellowstone River.
General Camping Information for the Gardiner – Livingston area
Gardiner, MT is the north entrance to Yellowstone Park. For roughly 60 miles the Yellowstone River flows from Gardiner to Livingston, MT through the famous Paradise Valley and the Upper Yellowstone River Valley. US Hwy 89 runs along the river and provides access to hiking, biking, backpacking, fly fishing, mountain climbing, whitewater, and much more.
There are quite a few public campgrounds where you can pay to camp. Learn about these campgrounds in our Guide to public campgrounds in Paradise Valley, Gardiner & Livingston.
Dispersed Camping = Free Camping
Unless they have special regulations, all Forest Service and BLM lands are open for camping. This is called dispersed camping and, while the agencies don’t widely publicize them, they usually provide information. Some dispersed campsites are shown on maps but many more aren’t. Visit the pages featured below for more location information.
Before you seek out dispersed sites be aware that they are usually undeveloped. Don’t expect to find tables, fire pits, food storage cabinets, or toilets. Instead, you’ll typically find a fairly flat parking spot where you can pull off the road, sometimes a suitable tent site, and, often a camper-built stone fire ring.
Many dispersed sites are in Grizzly bear territory and it’s important to always be bear aware. Keep a clean camp and always carry bear spray. Yellowstone Park offers great advice for camping in bear country.
Free Campsites in Paradise Valley and Gardiner
Gardiner Area – There are quite a few dispersed camping sites and a couple of free campgrounds on the national forest near Gardiner, MT. These sites are all accessed from Jardine Road which intersects US 89 in downtown Gardiner. See the map below.
Bear Creek & Timber Camp campgrounds are at the end of the road, about 11 miles from Gardiner. Both campgrounds are free of charge and there is a lot of dispersed camping in the area.
Carbella Access Site is a BLM site located just off US 89 17 miles north of Gardiner. While it offers a developed campground with tables, fire rings, and toilets, it’s a free campground.
There are only about 15 campsites in the campground but there is a lot of flat open ground on the entrance road that could be used in a pinch.
Tom Miner Creek on the Custer Gallatin National Forest has a developed campground with a liottle dispersed camping nearby. The road up Tom Miner begins at US 89 17 miles north of Gardiner – right at the turn for the Carbella Access described above.
It’s about 10 miles of gravel to the campground, mostly through private land. There are only a couple of dispersed sites on the road as you approach the campground.
Dailey Lake Access Site has a campground administered by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. However, the Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area sits adjacent to the access site and offers dispersed camping opportunities.
Dailey Lake is about 25 miles from the North entrance to Yellowstone Park. Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area is at the back (just stay on the road).
Mill Creek Recreation Area is part of the Custer Gallatin National Forest and has a developed campground as well as dispersed campsites. Mill Creek is a major drainage entering the Yellowstone River in the middle of Paradise Valley.
The campground is about 12 miles from US 89 and the dispersed sites are scattered along the forest road past the campground. There is some private land mixed in so don’t camp on private property.
The information provided in the linked pages can be helpful in finding your way. However, I recommend these maps to help navigate forest roads.
Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness West National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map, 721 is a detailed map of most of the area but does not include the Tom Miner area.
DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer: Montana provides topographic maps of the entire state.
The Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness and the surrounding forests are special places that need our support. You can help advocate for these lands by joining the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Association. They are a positive force in support of the wilderness and we all need to give them our support!