Hidden Gems: Free County & City RV Parks
Hidden Gems: Free County & City RV Parks
How to find these convenient overnight stops and a few favorites!
By: Sue Ann Jaffarian
Whether you stay there or not, most RVers know about the availability of Walmart and Cracker Barrel parking lots, truck stops, and rest areas in certain states for free overnights. In 2020, at the beginning of COVID, I stumbled upon a whole new-to-me set of camping gems — free city and county RV parks. Yes, I said FREE.
At the beginning of COVID, when we were all encouraged to hunker down and stay home, I (like many other full-time RVers) was faced with the challenge of determining, exactly where is home? How should I prepare to stay there? And for how long? Being a nomadic writer, I wasn’t worried about what to do while staying in place. I can write my novels and articles from anywhere.
I decided to return to my domicile state of Texas, but state and national campgrounds were closed. Many private RV parks were limiting their capacity and, even then, only wanted people committing to at least a month at a time. And some of the private parks raised their prices, knowing they had captive customers. I was stymied. I did some research on various camping apps and came across a lot of city and county RV parks in Texas that were free and decided to give them a try. Now they are a part of my regular travel plans.
Overview of Free County & City RV Parks
Free county and city RV parks come with rules, and those rules are usually posted somewhere in the park. There is generally a time limit on staying. Most are two to four nights, with some only allowing one night, and the rare few allowing five to seven nights. Most often they come with electric and water hookups and have a dump station nearby. Some are strictly dry camping. One of my favorites has full hook ups.
You may find parks that will allow you to stay longer after the posted time limit, but will charge a per night fee for the extra nights. The need to register at a kiosk or with the local police or at city hall is another possibility. There is one I’ve visited several times where a city vehicle drives by each morning and takes down the license plates of the rigs camped there. Others don’t pay any attention to who is there and for how long.
Most of these municipal RV parks border or are within local parks and provide good walking paths, but some are simple fairly level parking lots with pedestals. Some are quite pretty and others not so much. All are a big convenience to the traveler.
For several months in 2020, I bounced from one free county or city park to another in Texas, spending a few nights here and several nights there, making a circuit and getting to know the small towns that were hosting me and Novella, my Winnebago Travato. They served me well and opened my eyes to new possibilities when I was able to get back on the road again.
However, free doesn’t always mean free. While these parks do not charge for your stay, they provide the service with the hope you will patronize their local businesses. Buy a tank of gas. Get your groceries. Eat in their restaurants. As with Harvest Hosts, they provide a place for you to stay in order to boost their local economy. Many parks will have a donation box where you can drop off a few dollars as a thank you. My rule of thumb is if I stay more than a day or two, I put some cash into the box if they provided electricity and water. After all, they need to pay their bills, too. If it’s dry camping or just an overnight, I do not.
Finding These Hidden Gem Parks
Once I left Texas and started traveling far and wide again, I started searching out these little parks and found quite a few. Sometimes I had to go a few miles out of my way, but usually not. They are out there; however, they do not advertise.
So how do you find these treasures? Mostly I use the AllStays and Campendium apps on my phone for camping sites. On AllStays these are designated with a CP. On Campendium they are noted with a simple P, or sometimes with the icon for an RV park. When I locate one of these spots along my route, I check the reviews on both apps. If the reviews are consistently good, I’ll check it out. If the reviews are consistently poor, I will give it a pass or drive by it myself if it is close by.
As with any overnight location, I use my spidey-sense. If it does not feel right, I do not stay, free or not. There have been a couple of places that I have rolled through, didn’t like the look or feel of the place, and moved on. I haven’t had a bad stay yet by paying attention to reviews and my gut instincts. Once a park passes my approval, I mark it on my Google Maps app with a flag so I can easily find it again.
Favorite Free County & City RV Parks
One of my favorite spots in Texas is Hereford. They allow three nights and have five spots, all with full hookups, on the edge of a nice lake with ducks and geese, plus a separate dump station. Note: Hereford has a lot of feedlots, so if the wind is blowing just right … well, you get the picture … or rather, the scent. The park is very close to a Walmart and grocery stores. This is a very popular park and sites fill up quickly. I have arrived around noon and an hour later it is full. Most people stay a couple of nights.
Another is Huber City Park Campground in Borger, in the upper panhandle of Texas. It has about eight sites with water and power as well as a dump station on site. There is a three-night limit within a seven-day period. It borders on a huge park with a walking path, picnic tables, playground, a Veterans Memorial, and a bird sanctuary.
The city RV park in Levelland is pretty nice also. Seven sites with a three-night stay limit that includes water and electric, with a dump station on site. This is a very popular park, like Hereford, with all the usual stores and services nearby, so get there early in the day, especially on a weekend.
Other Texas free parks that I have stayed at include Muleshoe, Yoakum County Park, Littlefield, Floydada, Silverton, and Brownfield. There are also free RV parks in LaMesa, Perryton, and Andrews. I have never stayed in these, but friends have.
Tip: Even if you do not stay, most of these RV parks have public dump stations. Do not be shy about swooping in and dumping your tanks. Some will ask for donations for this service, but most do not.
Once I was able to leave Texas in mid 2020, I started looking for these freebie parks in other states and found many. As with the Texas parks, they varied on services and surroundings.
Marysville in Kansas is one of my favorites. They only have a couple of sites and they are difficult to determine when you come into the park. None are suitable for large rigs, but it is a very pleasant place to stay.
I also found a couple in North Dakota that I liked. One is the Pierce County Fair Grounds in Rugby. It is free and there are many electric pedestals. Most county fairgrounds are not free, but this one was. However, you must pay attention to any events they might be having because then they may not welcome overnighters. I have used this location three times as a base for sightseeing and had great stays each time. It’s a perfect location for visiting Bottineau and the Turtle Mountains, as well as the International Peace Garden, at the U.S./Canada border. Even though Canada was closed to tourists when I was there, the park entrance is between the U.S. checkpoint and the Canadian checkpoint and visiting the gardens (which are spectacular) was allowed, but you will still need your passport to return to the U.S.
Sometimes you simply stumble across great finds. Last Fourth of July, I was traveling with a friend and we wanted to get off the road before all the holiday partying began. We were in eastern Montana and spotted a tiny free park in Culbertson on AllStays. It was dry camping with only a couple of sites next to the Bruegger Centennial Park. The park was perfect for strolling. And when it got dark, we were treated to incredible fireworks displays put on by the local residents.
Another unexpected treat was Meade City Park in Kansas. I was on my way to visit Dodge City and stopped in Meade to grab some lunch. The waitress told me about the park. There were no hookups, but my overnight stay was quiet and the park lovely. Plus, right down the street was the hideout of the Dalton Gang, which was well worth the visit.
Bonus Perk of Local Hidden Gem RV Parks
Which brings me to another reason to look into these small-town parks. I have discovered a lot of fun local information in some of them. Maryville, KS, for instance, is known for its black squirrels, both real ones and the decorated black squirrel statues placed all over town.
It is also located on the Oregon Trail and the route of the Pony Express. There is an original Pony Express station in town which is now a museum. During my stay, I was even treated to a practice of the local high school marching band.
Littlefield, TX, is the hometown of country star Waylon Jennings. The free city park is called the Waylon Jennings Free RV Park. A block up the street is the Waylon Jennings Museum, housed in the Waymore Liquor Store, which is owned by Waylon’s brother. In Rugby, ND, the town that contains the Pierce County Fairgrounds, there is a nice Prairie Village Museum, as well as the Geographical Center of North America.
Remember: Be on the Lookout During Your Travels!
Even if I am not looking for a place to stop, sometimes I drive by some of these city and county freebies just to see if I should make note of them for the future. Not far from Pierce County Fair Grounds in North Dakota is the small town of Towner which has a few free sites tucked into their small city park. I didn’t stay there but certainly would consider it in the future.
Another is Ansley City Park in Nebraska. This was closed when I went by due to COVID, but I would definitely check it out another time. Another that I checked out was Monango City Park in Monango, ND, population less than 50. If you blink you will not only miss the park, but the town. However, the park appeared safe and good enough for a quick overnight.
Not to be overlooked are the city parks that charge small nightly fees. There are more of these than the free ones. They can range from $5-$20 a night. One of my favorites is McKnight Park Campground in the small town of Alma, KS, west of Topeka. There are only three tor four sites, each with water and electric. The fee is a few dollars a day, but if you are looking for a quiet place off the beaten path to simply regroup and recharge, this is the place. I only intended to stay one night, but ended up there for four, during which I thoroughly cleaned my van and wrote up a storm. Except for one night, I was the only RV there. There is also a creamery in town with great cheese.
I have been full-time RVing for almost three years. My top preferences for camping are Army Corp of Engineer campgrounds and national parks or forests for longer stays. But for shorter stays, I look for these small local campgrounds. I love that they are small and usually not very busy. The price is right and I see a lot of interesting things I might have missed if I stayed on major highways. This year, I plan on adding more to my list.
So, stray off the beaten path and visit some of these small towns and their RV parks. You will find them quite interesting and as warm and welcoming as a slice of apple pie!
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