BLM lands have probably never been as popular as they are now. In 2020, outdoor enthusiasts turned to land managed by the Bureau of Land Management as national, state and local parks closed all around the country due to coronavirus. In 2021, these lands stand to become even more popular as people rediscover the outdoors.
With over 2400 BLM sites listed on the Bureau of Land Management website, there are plenty of opportunities for people to visit public lands. Whether it’s camping, hiking, fishing, off-roading or boating, there is much to be excited about. Since around 10 percent of the country is BLM land, there is enough space to get out into the wilderness and away from the crowds of national parks. And yet, some of these places on this list may be even more crowded than national parks due to their different set of rules on what you can do there.
Contrary to popular belief, not all BLM lands are free to visit. There are many with special designations that require permits and charge fees for certain activities like OHV use. This is probably not too big of a surprise given the fact that the BLM is probably well underfunded and needs to cover expenses. Additionally, BLM lands are under threat for privatization
BLM lands have always been a popular place for OHV recreation, dispersed camping, and recreational shooting, hunting and fishing. But, with over 245 million acres under management, hiking and climbing opportunities are plentiful. One thing to note is that the vast majority of BLM lands are concentrated on the western half of the United States and even more so in the Colorado Plateau region in Utah and outside tribal lands in Arizona and New Mexico.
Like with national parks and national forests, some areas are a lot more popular than others due to the natural beauty and recreational activities offered. We will cover 10 of the most popular BLM areas. Compared to national parks, it’s much harder to determine which places are the most popular at any given time as a lot are seasonal in nature: summer being popular for some areas, winter for others.
There are many types of BLM lands ranging from wilderness to National Conservation Areas to National Wild and Scenic Rivers. Platforms like Instagram and AllTrails have certainly contributed to the growing fame of places on this list as newly discovered wonders are shared online with the international community. The following list will hopefully help you discover some new places to check out and add on your bucket list as you plan your next adventure.
Vermillion Cliffs National Monument
This should come as no surprise. The Wave is the star of the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, located in Arizona next to the Utah Border. This rock formation is world famous and visiting this place is the envy of nearly every hiker and photographer. Part of the appeal could be due to how hard it is to visit this place. And, for those of you unfamiliar with this place, the reason why it’s hard to visit is not because of long-distance hiking or off-road challenges. Instead, it is a permit system which limits how many people can enter the area every day.
Located in the North Coyote Buttes Wilderness area, The Wave requires that you win your permit in a lottery. It used to be limited to only 20 people per day, but now as many as 64 people per day can enter. Back when it was only 20 people, there was an insane spectacle at the Kanab BLM office where half of the permits were granted through an in-person “walk-in” lottery. Fortunately, now only 16 of the 64 are done through this inconvenient system. The rest of the 48 can be obtained online. Still, there is no guarantee you’ll win a permit and you must plan many months in advance.
The Wave itself is a sight to behold. Or, at least that is what most people can guess from the pictures. Around the area you can also see The Second Wave, The Alcove, a few arches and some other formations which are beautifully unique. The Paria Canyon is another popular area which requires a permit as well but has no limits on how many day use permits are issued. Other than hiking, camping is another popular activity here. There are two developed campgrounds and dispersed camping outside the wilderness areas.
Vermillion Cliffs National Monument is not the most convenient place to get to either, hence the in-person lottery being very inconvenient. The most likely way points to get to the area are through Zion National Park and Sedona/Flagstaff if you want to make it part of a larger trip. Still, there is plenty to see in the area. However, as of this writing in 2021, the Navajo Nation has closed a lot of sites in the area such as Antelope Canyon and Monument Valley (you can still drive by).
Alabama Hills deserves a spot on our list due to its amazing views of Mt Whitney, rugged scenery and dozens of arches to explore. In 2019, Alabama Hills was designated a National Scenic Area, the only kind of which is BLM land. The area is just off Highway 395 which is located between the Sierra Nevada mountains and Death Valley in eastern California. It is a popular waypoint for travelers going from Southern California up north to Mammoth or Lake Tahoe.
Long before the place was made famous on Instagram, it was a popular filming location for TV and movies, especially Westerns. In fact, hundreds of movies have been filmed here. There even is a “Movie Road Trail” with a map provided by the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce and Film History Museum. The epic landscape with its rock formations, arches and mountain backdrop were perfect for the genre. The movie sets alone are enough to attract people to the area.
For campers, Alabama Hills is legendary. Dispersed camping is very popular here. So much so that the BLM asks for people to consider using existing campgrounds to help protect the land and the views. Not only are these views great during the day, at night you get an incredible display of stars due to its remote location.
There aren’t too many trails in the area if you are looking at AllTrails. There are plenty of hiking options however. One thing to note though is that the BLM asks that you use existing trails and roads rather than go off-path. If you find yourself passing through the area, it would be worth a stop.
Bonneville Salt Flats
On the west side of the Great Salt Lake basin in Utah are the Bonneville Salt Flats. It’s actually close to the border with Nevada off the I-80, but still a little out of the way from major cities. This Special Recreation Management Area is mostly known for vehicle activities. This place is where many land speed records were broken.
So, while this land falls under the jurisdiction of the BLM, it has special rules that you don’t see everywhere else. That is partially due to it being an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. In fact, there is no overnight camping allowed in the area and the BLM has restricted a lot of the activities here. It does make sense though as there are certain parts of the Salt Flats which are fragile where the compacted salt thins out.
There are really no trails, which wouldn’t make sense anyways. Still, it is incredibly unique giving many opportunities for photography and filming instead. Archers have been using the area to help measure how far their arrows travel which is much easier do to the flat topography.
Visiting the area is also tricky. In the summer, the temperature soars above 100 degrees and UV radiation bounces off the salt flats intensifying exposure. After rain or snow, driving conditions become prohibitive. An alternative to the Salt Flats would be Black Rock Desert, another BLM unit, in Western Nevada, also known for land speed records.
Imperial Sand Dunes (aka Glamis Dunes / Algodones Dunes)
The Imperial Sand Dunes are mostly known for off-road vehicle activities using ATVs, dirt bikes, sandrails, or side-by-side vehicles. Located in the southeastern corner of California, it is located between San Diego and the Phoenix/Tucson area. It is also near the border with Mexico. The sand dunes are instantly recognizable when driving by on the I-8 and an amazing sight to behold.
The area is fairly expansive with a length of 45 miles and around 5 miles in width. It is split up into several areas and has both the I-8 and State Route 78 cutting through it. North of the 78 highway is designated as a wilderness area which prohibits vehicle usage.
With some dunes reaching as high as 300 feet, it is not surprising why the area attracts many off-highway vehicle enthusiasts. Whether you want to challenge the limits of your vehicle or feel the exhilaration of riding up a dune, this place satisfies many. This place is so popular that it almost borders on insanity how many people visit. Thanks to dispersed camping, there are practically no limits on how many people can occupy the place. When you drive by on the freeway, you will see a lot of RVs with OHVs in tow and might wonder what the big deal is until you experience the place.
Surprisingly use of the area requires permits that cost more than National Park entrance fees. If you buy onsite, you will pay $50 versus the $35 cost online. Seasonal permits are available and useful if you live nearby.
For people who aren’t interested in flying off the tops of dunes, the area offers spectacular scenery for photographers and videographers, especially during sunrise and sunset. People with drones can also capture some stunning video. Off Highway 78 are a few places you can park. There may even still be 2 hours parking spots you can use for a quick hike. Look for the Osborne Overlook. Greys Well Rd near the I-8 has been suggested as another place you can look for parking without a permit. However, it might be best to check with the ranger.
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks
The Kasha-Katuw Tent Rocks is a National Monument under the management of the BLM. As of early 2021, it remains closed due to restrictions from the pandemic, though day-use is planning to be phased in. Unlike the other places on this list, the land is subject to local, tribal regulations. It is also important to note that dogs are not allowed in the Monument.
The place is popular, although small in size. Once the place reopens, don’t be surprised if you have to wait hours just to park. The Monument also closes by 5pm everyday and is closed on tribal holidays. Definitely check before you attempt to go.
Located in New Mexico, between Albuquerque and Sante Fe, is this surreal place. Kasha-Katuwe is Peublo for “white cliffs” which kind of describes the area. The main attractions are the slot canyons and tent rocks. As you can imagine, the place is popular with local hikers.
The tent rocks are very unique rock formations that have a conical shape. The area is so spectacular, it is surprising that the place isn’t well known outside of New Mexico. Should you happen to be passing through the area (and the pandemic is over) consider stopping by this spot.
Red Rock Canyon
This National Conservation Area managed by the BLM is so popular that you need to make a reservation to access the Scenic Drive, and most of the trails and places to see. This is due to the CDC, state and local guidelines. What makes the area so popular, besides the large red rock formations, is it’s proximity to Las Vegas. This makes it an easy excursion away from the Strip for people who want to get a breath of fresh air. Unlike some of the other BLM lands on this list, you will get a good mix of international people enjoying the place.
Hikers and rock climbers can enjoy many challenges here. There are a number of trails for all difficulty levels and durations. Some of the more challenging trails, like the Turtlehead Peak Trail, give hikers great views of Las Vegas. Easier hikes, such as the Calico Tanks Trail, showcase the contrasting colors of the red rocks and the yellow rocks with some having layers of both colors. If you want to avoid the reservation system, there are 5 trails outside of the Scenic Drive you could check out.
For climbers, there are a number of options with more than 2000 climbing routes. Some of the routes might take you up to three nights to climb. Overnight permits are available for certain routes, but check for the latest regulations. Red Rock Canyon does have a campground for RV and tent camping and is fairly popular to use. Mountain bikers also have options to explore. If you’re lucky enough you’ll stumble on some desert wildlife and see some of the Joshua Trees in the area.
Bisti Badlands / De-Na-Zin Wilderness
New Mexico is a land of strange wonders. Over 350 miles away from the UFO capital of Roswell, near the Four Corners Monument, is a place that looks even more alien. The Bisti Badlands features otherworldly like rock formations called hoodoos. Strange shapes that look like flying saucers balance on rocks. Big rocks with colorful patterns are nicknamed “Cracked Eggs.” Petrified wood and fossils also have been observed in the area.
A little over eight times the size of Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks, the area gives you a lot more room to explore and stay away from the crowds. It’s also a little closer to the center of the Colorado Plateau where you have many other attractions such as the Mesa Verde National Park, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and Petrified Forest National Park.
As a Wilderness Area, this land is not for driving, off-roading or mountain biking. It’s almost exclusively used for hiking, photography and camping. Although, horseback riding is also popular. One thing to note is that campfires are not permitted and climbing is certainly not allowed on the delicate structures. If this land isn’t enough, the nearby Ah-shi-sle-pah Wilderness Study Area features some additional, mushroom-like rocks to see.
Lost Coast Trail
Within the King Range National Conservation Area is this spectacular backpacking trail. Located in Northern California, near the famous redwood national and state parks, you can find a unique opportunity to find one of the few coastal wilderness areas. There are two sections, a trail that heads north and one that heads south.
The northward trail goes from Mattole to Black Sands Beach and is 24.6 miles long. Depending on your experience and how much you want to take in the trail, you could easily spend 3 days going the full distance. Unlike with many mountain and inland trails, hiking on sand, pebbles and boulders will slow you down. Trying to do this in only sandals will not work. Another obstacle to be aware of are the tides which block your path and winter weather which can make certain areas unpassable.
You will want to do your research before taking on this trail. It might end up being harder than you think. But it will be worth it as you will be rewarded with opportunities to see sea lions and other marine life, camp in excellent spots and experience an unforgettable backpacking trip. Some have even reported spotting whales and others have seen bears on the beach. Tidepools, wildflowers and scenic views are other opportunities.
To the south, from Hidden Valley to Needle Rock is 9 miles of trail that heads towards Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. The scenery is different as you head into the inland areas where you go through some old-growth forests and gain elevation. It is even possible to extend the hike by heading into the state park where you can see redwood groves.
Over 500 tufa spires, a type of geological feature made from limestone, cover this BLM area. Some of these columns are as high as 140 ft tall with many shorter and fatter. This makes for a popular photography spot within the California desert, nearby Death Valley. It’s also a well known filming location for science fiction movies and shows and a good place to stargaze.
One of the most popular activities here is camping as dispersed camping is allowed. It makes a lot of sense too because you can wake up with a beautiful sunrise that transforms spires into silhouettes. Since this is in the desert, you’ll want to time your trip here accordingly. Water must be brought in and leave-no-trace practices should be followed. Also, keep in mind that rain can make roads difficult to drive on without 4WD.
Compared to Death Valley and Joshua Tree, far fewer people camp here which can give you the opportunity to enjoy solitude, or just an alternative if campgrounds are full in the national parks. Also, since it’s only a little over an hour from the Death Valley entrance, you can use it as a base camp for further desert exploration.
BLM Lands Around Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is an internationally renowned national park known for its strange looking Joshua trees, nine campgrounds, numerous hiking trails, rock climbing areas and dark skies for stargazing. However, the park tends to attract so many visitors that getting a camping site can prove a challenge. Because of this, surrounding BLM lands have been gaining popularity as an alternative. They offer dispersed tent camping, solitude, and opportunities to watch a variety of wildlife similar to what you’d find in the national park along with other species.
Here is a list of the surrounding BLM lands:
- Cleghorn Lakes Wilderness Area
- Pinto Mountains Wilderness Area
- Mecca Mountains Wilderness Area
- Orocopia Mountains Wilderness Area
- Sheephole Valley Wilderness Area
Note that Joshua Tree National Monument is actually BLM land but is located in Utah.
It is also important to disclaim that these surrounding lands are designated as wilderness which means that a special set of rules are in place. Generally speaking, all forms of motorized vehicles are prohibited in wilderness areas. This means that to enjoy these areas you should hike, bike or ride your horse into the sunset.
Where can you find BLM land?
Online, of course. Navigating the BLM website can take a little getting used to. Instead, you may want to rely on this BLM map which will give you a better way to find nearby land. One thing that you will need to do is modify the layer list and make sure that “Recreation Sites and and Facilities” are checked, otherwise you get a bunch of stuff that may not interest you.
As mentioned earlier, since the vast majority of the BLM lands are west of the Rocky Mountains, you will probably want to look for alternatives in the eastern portion of the US. It’s not that there are less resources or lands to conserve. Rather, the effects of history such as Native American lands being ceded, land being purchased from other countries, and original public lands being given away has meant that most public land today is in the western half. The BLM wasn’t even founded until 1946.
Which states have the most popular BLM lands?
BLM statistics place California at the top of the list in terms of the number of visits on BLM land. This is not a surprise as the most populated state in the country. Following California is Colorado, Utah, Oregon and Nevada in that order.
The eastern portion of the US has far fewer visits than any single western state, much of which are near Washington, D.C.
What are the most popular activities on BLM lands
It is estimated that “viewing public land resources” is the top activity on BLM lands. That is a little bit vague but makes some sense. Grazing, timber harvesting and mining are big on these public lands. We do have clues for some of the other top activities. Camping and picnicking, specialized sports, events and activities, interpretation and education, non-motorized travel and motorized boating are most popular in that order.
Fishing, driving and off-highway travel are other popular activities as well as swimming and kayaking. At the bottom of the list are hunting and winter activities such as snowmobiling and skiing.