Some of the most epic hikes require hikers to lace up their hiking boots and hit the trail before the sun rises. Many hikers choose to stay as close as physically possible to the trail so they can get an early start. They may even consider parking overnight at a trailhead to roll out of bed and get going first thing in the morning. But can you park overnight at trailheads? Let’s see!
What Are Trailheads?
The dictionary definition of “trailhead” is “the point at which a trail begins.” However, many longer trails establish trailheads as public access points. They’ll typically have a parking lot and possibly even restroom facilities.
Many trailheads will provide signage and informational kiosks to educate trail users on the trail and the surrounding area. You’ll likely find bike racks, bike repair stations, and trash receptacles at trailheads. However, the quality and amenities provided at a trailhead will vary from one trailhead to the next.
What Is the Difference Between a Trail and a Trailhead?
The best way to understand the difference between a trail and a trailhead is to think of a set of train tracks. The trail is the train tracks, which trains use to travel along a given path. However, trains will pass by train stations or depots along the way. These are opportunities for passengers to board the train and use the tracks.
In this example, the trailheads are the train depots or stations. They’re opportunities for those who want to use the trail to hop on. It’s like the tracks, which serve as the path to take users where they want to go. Like the train stations and depots that provide services for those riding the train, trailheads often offer various services like drinking fountains, bathroom facilities, or information kiosks.
Can You Park Overnight at Trailheads?
Rules and regulations for parking overnight at trailheads will vary based on the trailhead. This is especially true in national and state parks. Some trailheads may have large parking lots that appear perfect spots to camp for the night but prohibit overnight parking.
You’ll want to check the rules and regulations for each specific trailhead you plan to use. The last thing you want is to get a knock on your door in the middle of the night, requiring you to move to a new spot. Even worse, you could receive a citation without warning from law enforcement for illegally camping.
Keep in mind that trailheads are intended for the use of hikers on the trail. If you are not using the trail, you should not stay at the trailhead. Many trails are also permitted and may require an overnight permit for a vehicle and your access to the trail if you plan to camp out during your hike.
Can You Park Overnight at National Park Trailheads?
National parks typically have strict rules regarding where visitors can and can’t park, especially overnight. Most national parks prohibit overnight parking outside established campgrounds or designated backcountry camping areas. Rangers frequently patrol trailhead parking lots looking for illegally parked vehicles.
Park rangers typically handle these situations on a case-by-case basis. You may get lucky, and the ranger knocks on a window and requests that you leave. However, they’re not required to issue a warning and could leave you with a hefty fine. So make sure you check the rules and regulations before getting too comfortable.
Generally, however, you will need a backcountry permit to stay overnight on the trail. These permits sometimes include overnight parking passes that you leave with your vehicle. Park rangers then know that you are supposed to be parked there and are likely out on the trail.
Pro Tip: On your way to a national park? Familiarize yourself with these 11 National Park Etiquette Rules.
Are Permits Required for Parking at Trailheads?
Permit requirements vary for parking from one trailhead to the next. Some national parks, like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, are instituting parking permits for all parking lots, including trailheads. However, other parks may not require a permit for a specific trailhead but will require a permit for certain trails. Knowing the requirements for the particular park and trailhead system you’re planning to use is essential.
Where Can You Park Overnight Near Trailheads?
If you’re not able to park overnight at a trailhead, there are several options you can consider. There’s a good chance you can use one of these options to get a good night’s sleep and hit the trail fresh in the morning.
You can find some of the best opportunities for hiking in state parks. Many of these parks have campgrounds that are relatively inexpensive places to stay for the night. You can typically find campgrounds with campsites for RVs, tents, or even car camping. Staying at one can allow you to use any of the facilities and be as comfortable as possible before you lace up your hiking boots to hit the trail.
National Park Campgrounds
There are some epic hikes in national parks you won’t want to miss. Luckily, most national parks offer campgrounds. These campgrounds vary considerably from full hook-up RV sites to primitive camping with little to no amenities. However, by booking one of the sites in places like Yosemite National Park, you don’t have to worry about driving a considerable distance in the early morning or getting a ticket based on where you’re parking.
You may need to plan months ahead of time to snag a reservation at some of these campgrounds. They’re extremely popular, especially during peak travel seasons. Some will completely sell out within minutes of available reservations.
Thousands of free camping opportunities are on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The vast majority of these lands are out west. These campsites typically provide little to no amenities, and campers must be almost entirely self-sufficient. However, despite lacking amenities, these can provide tremendous privacy and space while camping. You can find camping spots for almost any type of camping. That’s whether you prefer to stay in a tent, RV, or another type of vehicle.
➔ While BLM land may offer free overnight parking near trailheads, it’s not always ideal. Here’s the Bad News About BLM Lands.
If you’re not picky about where you’re choosing to sleep for the night, rest areas can be a great place to park overnight and get some sleep before driving to the trailhead. Rules and regulations will vary at these locations, but over-the-road truck drivers frequently use truck stops, travel centers, and rest stops to get some rest. Some rest areas will even have food, restroom, and shower facilities. They may not always be as quiet or private as you’d like, but they’ll get the job done in a pinch.
How Do You Find the Best Options for Overnight Parking Near a Trailhead?
We have had tremendous luck finding overnight parking areas using resources like Campendium, iOverlander, and AllStays. You can find free and paid camping spots you didn’t even know were there using these resources. We love being able to read reviews from other users and the tips they often provide. They help us make the most of our stays and make navigating to and from the overnight parking spot as easy as possible.
Is It Worth Parking Overnight at Trailheads?
Parking overnight at a trailhead can be a great option, as long as it’s allowed. It’s not worth getting a ticket or putting yourself in a sticky situation. However, in those instances where parking overnight is available at a trailhead, it’s well worth it. You can be one of the first ones on a trail and enjoy the benefits of having it all to yourself. Peace and quiet while hiking in nature make the entire experience much more relaxing.
If you’re considering stealth camping near a trailhead, Avoid These 7 Things That Will Give You Away.
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