Primitive Camping in California
Primitive campgrounds are ideal for campers who want to get far away from the crowds that often throng popular outdoor areas. A primitive campground is a camping area in a state park, national park, national forest, or BLM land where there are (almost) no utilities or amenities.
Primitive campsites can be designated, or they can be an area in which you are simply allowed to pitch a tent.
There is no drinking water, electricity, etc., at most primitive campsites. Most primitive campgrounds are first-come, first-serve, so you risk spots being full. Sometimes, you can access these sites only by hiking.
Yes, all of this may sound pretty tough, but if you are among those few campers that choose to go primitive camping, you know for a fact that it’s worth it.
Primitive camping allows you to enjoy nature on a different level. It’s the best way to enjoy a bit more peace and quiet, free from modern distractions.
Compared to states like Texas, California more opportunities for free, dispersed camping. Whether you want to camp just one night, the whole weekend, or a fortnight, you can easily find a way to do it without paying a penny.
Thanks to the Bureau of Land Management and the USDA Forest Service, there are many public lands in the Golden State where you can set up camp without having to make reservations and pay exorbitant fees just to spend the night.
In California, many full-service campgrounds also offer more remote primitive/tent-only/hike-in sites.
Ever since the Gold Rush, California has been a paradise for campers who enjoy pristine nature.
You can hang a hammock somewhere on a secluded beach, gaze up at the night sky, and roast marshmallows, or you can choose a campsite on a picturesque meadow surrounded by beautiful mountains and colorful autumn foliage.
From lush forests to mesmerizing desert landscapes, California has it all.
Choosing a Primitive Campsite in California
Not all primitive campsites are created equal. Finding the perfect campground is mostly about finding your perfect campground since every camper is different. The best way to figure out what you can expect from a specific campsite is to head to Campsite Photos.
This site has countless photos of various Californian campgrounds. It will quickly convince you that California is one of the best places in the world to go camping. A quick tip: check out the layout of the campsite map first.
Yellow-post Campsites in Southern California
While roaming around the wilderness of Southern California, you may see a yellow post here and there. A yellow post marks a fire-safe spot with a picnic table.
Some of them require a 4x4 to reach, while others are accessible by passenger cars. They are first come, first serve. During summer fire restrictions in Southern California, yellow post campsites are usually off-limits.
Some of the most beautiful yellow-post campsites are located within the San Bernardino National Forest area. It includes all the Big Bear Lake Mountains, Idyllwild, and Mount San Jacinto.
Trailheads and Dirt Roads
If you are at a trailhead in California, you will likely find a primitive campsite near the parking lot. You can often find primitive campsites along dirt roads that lead to trailheads as well. However, these can get crowded in the summer, especially if it’s the weekend.
Long, big creeks in the Californian woodlands are known to have awesome dispersed campsites. If you have more time on your hands to explore the area around a river, you will eventually stumble upon a big, free dispersed campsite.
Back Roads to Free Camping
The best out-of-the-way campsites in California are located along mountain back roads. The further you are willing to drive, the better dispersed campgrounds you will find.
Don’t rely on Google Maps when navigating smaller back roads in California. To find out the best-secluded camping spots in California, check out a topographic map of the region.
None of these camping sites have toilets but many of them have fire rings and picnic tables. Do know that many of these roads require a 4x4 or an SUV. Know your car limits.
When it comes to wilderness camping in the Golden State, you should always be prepared to hike out. On dirt back roads, landslides are common. No matter how robust your vehicle is, it could become disabled.
Boondocking (Free RV Camping With No Hookups)
As long as you can find a level spot off the main road, areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management and National Forests are generally open to RV campers. Free RV camping is also available in state parks and on territory administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
It is also available on some U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds. All of these campgrounds are primitive. To find RV camping sites in California, you can use the RV-Camping website.
Although it is not the most scenic adoption, many businesses allow boondocking in their parking lots, including Camping World, Cabela’s, Cracker Barrel, and Walmart. Car camping is now legal in Los Angeles County as well.
What to Know Before Going Camping in California
Even though you are allowed to set up camp in a free, secluded area, there are still some rules you need to follow.
To learn more about the permits you may need, roadway passes, accessibility, and rules in California’s national parks as well as state ones, check out the U.S. Forest Service website. You can also contact a local forest ranger directly to get information on regulations.
Primitive camping isn’t always as primitive as it sounds. You may need a permit if you want to disappear into the wilderness on your own.
It may sound like a pain in the neck, but wilderness permits help preserve the tranquility and the solitude of the backcountry.
A national park or state park issues wilderness permits to prevent overcrowding on wilderness campgrounds. When you sign a wilderness permit, you also agree to abide by the Leave No Trace principle.
If you set up camp outside a state park, you can hike and bike in the state park without a permit. The same goes for national parks.
You need a permit to start a campfire on most public lands, such as BLM or National Forest lands. You can get a campfire for free at any National Forest or BLM visitor enter.
Every region of Southern California is really strict on fire permits and fire safety, especially during summer. Make sure to find out whether you can start a fire in your campground at all, even with a permit.
And, even if you have done your research, it’s always a good idea to check with a local ranger before you start a fire.
Best Primitive Campgrounds in California
Steiner Flat Primitive Campground
You can literally set up camp on the banks of the Trinity River for no fee. Here, visitors can paddle, swim, or even pan for gold. The campground is very easy to access; it’s just a few hundred feet from a paved road.
You can also use the camp as your base if you want to explore the nearby Trinity Alps Wilderness area. There is a wide variety of trails in the region, ranging from 1.5-mile to 15-mile hikes.
Glass Creek Campground, Inyo National Forest
As far as free camping or boondocking go, it’s hard to beat the Glass Creek Campground. Here, you’ll find 66 spacious drive-in sites nestled between lovely pine trees.
It is a great place to explore the nearby Obsidian Dome area. The Mammoth Lakes are just a 12-mile hike from the Glass Creek Campground. Crowley Lake is also nearby.
Free camping is allowed pretty much anywhere near Pinnacle Rock, but there are no official sites in the area. It’s best to find an already established camp in order to minimize your footprint.
There are many established campsites scattered along the Bartlett Springs Road that leads to Pinnacle Rock. It gets within about half-mile of the summit. If you want some shade, you’ll easily find a nice camp beneath a tree.
Visitors that hike to the top will be rewarded with awesome views of the Mendocino National Forest.
If you are looking for a great hiking trail in the area, check out the 5-mile Bloody Rocks Trail. If you are up for a more challenging adventure, the Valley View Mountain trail is about 13 miles long.
Sonoma Coast State Beach
If you want to pitch a tent somewhere where you will have access to a beautiful beach as well as hiking trails, make a trip to the Sonoma Coast State Beach.
There’s plenty of fun to be had here—you can go fishing on your boat, have a picnic, or watch harbor seals. However, finding an available tree may be difficult, so make sure to bring a tarp for shade.
Rocky Point West, Eagle Lake
Eagle Lake is located about 30 miles north of Susanville, Lassen County. California’s Eagle Lake offers undeveloped, free camping sites on both its east and west shores.
Situated at an elevation of 5,100 feet, the Rocky Point West campground is a perfect site for wildlife watchers. Be sure to pack a pair of binoculars because the trees of Eagle Lake are home to one of the last nesting osprey in the country.
If you decide to set up camp here, do know that the local authorities advise against launching a boat from Rocky Point. Still, there are plenty of other water activities you can enjoy.
Black Rock Campground, Lassen National Forest
If you want to camp somewhere where it’s more developed than Rocky Point, but still primitive, this campground is just a short trip away. It offers six free camping sites equipped with tables and grills. You’ll even have access to vault toilets.
Whether you prefer a 1-mile hike or a 20-mile hike, there are many beautiful trails in the area. The area also offers many opportunities for water activities, horse riding, and mineral prospecting.
What to Bring When Going Camping in California
In remote areas of California, especially in desert regions, the weather can drastically fluctuate throughout the day.
To ensure you will be comfortable, it’s best to bring an insulated 3 person tent such as the Crua Tri. It is perfect for year-round use. If you need something bigger, check out some of the larger family tents we offer.
Because the Californian Sun can be so deceptive, it’s always a good idea to pack extra layers and bring an insulated sleeping pad for your sleeping bag.
Areas around San Francisco and Point Reyes Station can be very windy. If you want to pitch a tent somewhere here, make sure to bring heavy-duty storm stakes.
As you know, fire safety is a big concern in the Golden State. To minimize the risk of starting a wildfire, as well as make cooking much easier, consider getting the Crua Fire Pit.
In summer, bugs can be a bit of a nuisance. You may find mosquitoes even in some remote desert areas. To protect yourself, get a bug net and some insect repellent.
Topo maps and a GPS device are also a must if you are going camping in the Californian wilderness. And read this if you are up for primitive camping in Texas.
This is pretty much everything you need to know if you want to have a primitive adventure in the Golden State. But, if you want to be even better prepared for your canoeing trip, check our list of 50 genius camping hacks!
Some photos Wikipedia