If there is anything better than primitive camping in the gorgeous wilderness of California, it’s free camping in the Golden State - though they can be the same.
And yes, you can indeed pitch a tent in some of the most beautiful areas of California for free, thanks to the Bureau of Land Management, National Forests, and a variety of other federally-owned dispersed camping sites. Read on to find out more.
What to Expect From Dispersed Camping Sites (Free Camping Sites) in California
In essence, “dispersed camping” is camping outside of designated campgrounds. Dispersed camping sites are free camping spots that usually lack facilities and amenities such as restrooms, fire pits, trash cans, or picnic tables.
While there are often exceptions to this, you should always bring everything you may need:
- Power or at least an LED light for night
- Waste management: Bear-proofing your trash is a must.
- Printed maps: You’ll need good maps if there’s no service in the area.
- Water: A gallon per camper per day should do it. Make sure to bring a water filtration system for backup.
- Food: If you are in bear country, with no access to bear lockers, bring bear-proof canisters for proper food storage, (checkout the gear hammock).
- Self-protection: tire repair kit, first aid kit, knife, flashlight, compass, whistle, etc.
- An inflatable tent or a portable camping hammock for ease of use, and a 3 season sleeping bag: To make sure you will stay warm, bring a quality inflatable sleeping pad as well.
Sometimes, there are only a couple of spots to actually camp on, so you should get there early. It’s best to go camping with a 4-wheel drive and/or a high clearance vehicle since dispersed camping sites in California are often located off dirt roads.
Even though dispersed camping allows for more freedom, it’s always a good idea to ask a local ranger about any special regulations for the land.
For instance, some areas might have open fire restrictions. Due to awful wildlife seasons, many counties and cities in California only let you have fires during certain times.
To avoid eroding the land at the shore, make sure to camp at least 200 ft away from water.
The Perks of Dispersed Camping in California
Is Boondocking (RV Camping Without Hookups) Legal in California?
Boondocking is legal in the Golden State; it just depends where. RV camping without hookups is available on lands and parks managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Forest Service, and the BLM.
It is even legal in some state parks. For instance, Anza Borrego Desert State Park has an open policy of permitting RV camping in most areas.
However, most city parks and county parks in California don’t allow RV camping for free. With the exception of designated campgrounds and RV camping parks, boondocking within cities is generally prohibited.
However, if you are looking for a spot to park your RV overnight for free, good’ ol Walmart parking lots won’t let you down. Some rest stops will also allow you to stay overnight for free. These are usually not the most scenic locations, but they can save you a lot of money.
How do you Recognize Free Campgrounds in California?
If you roll up to a great-looking campsite in California, with no one else in sight, and wonder, “Is this really a legit campground? Or am I trespassing on private land?” here are a few telltale signs that you have nothing to worry about:
Bureau of Land Management Public Land
You can camp on many dispersed camping sites located on public land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for up to 14 days. All hail dispersed camping on BLM public lands!
However, you will find some BLM-managed public lands that have “no camping” signs so keep an eye on those as well.
The Bureau of Land Management also manages developed campgrounds that offer facilities such as tent pads, picnic areas, garbage cans, electrical hookups, and restrooms. Most of these require you to pay a fee.
Dispersed campsites on public lands operated by the Bureau of Land Management are located on most secondary roads.
If you camp on a free dispersed campsite in California, you mustn’t dispose of sewage, hazardous materials or pollute the surrounding area in any manner. As long as you stick to the “Leave No Trace” principle, you’ll be fine.
National Forest Areas
You can camp in most national forests in California for free unless otherwise stated. Similar to the land owned by the Bureau of Land Management, national forests are public land owned by a federal organization, such as the Forest Service.
Usually, camping spots in a national forest are located just off of a service road. Be on the lookout for telltale signs listed above as well as dirt spots and pullouts.
You can camp for free for up to 14 days in a national forest, similar to BLM land. However, you may find a “no camping” area in a national forest as well.
National and State Parks
Most campgrounds within state and national parks are paid. However, there are a few exceptions. There are several campsites in Death Valley National Park where you can camp for free.
Another great option is to camp just outside Joshua Tree National Park. Generally, you can find an abundance of BLM land or free camping options right outside national parks. You can simply Google “free camping near (whatever state or national park in California you want to visit).”
Resources for Finding Free Camping in California
- To find free camping in California, or anywhere else in the U.S., check out the Free Campsites website. The Free Campsites website may look a bit outdated, but the interactive map on the site is very easy to use.
- Campendium is also a great website for finding free camping sites in California. On top of helping you find free camping locations, the premium version of the app displays cell coverage maps and trail maps.
- The non-profit iOverlander app is very useful for finding free tent camping and RV camping without access to the sewer, electricity, or water (boondocking).
- Visit the map of California on the U.S. Forest Service website. By clicking on the links or the map, you can check out individual federally protected areas in California such as national forests.
- Go to the ‘visit’ page on the BLM website. To find free camping in the Golden State, sort by activity (camping) and location (California).
- It’s a good idea to print out a map and stop by the ranger station or the visitor center if you already know your destination. Local rangers are the best source of information on free camping in any area.
Best Free Camping in California
Orr Lake Campground, Klamath National Forest
This beautiful lakeside campground is located along the shore of Orr Lake, within the preserved wilderness of the Klamath National Forest. It offers four free group campsites on the end of the lake as well as six free lakefront campsites.
The secluded lakeside sites are great for RV camping, even though there are no hookups. To reduce the amount of gray water you produce while you are boondocking, vault toilets are available.
When it comes to other amenities and facilities, there are fire rings, picnic tables, and a boat ramp. The grounds are also wheelchair-accessible.
From wildlife watching and whitewater rafting, over climbing and horseback riding, to boating and fishing, the Orr Lake Campground in Northern California is perfect for those who are seeking rejuvenation through recreation.
Los Padres National Forest
Being the second largest national forest in California, The Los Padres National Forest encompasses an astonishing range of scenery. It is undoubtedly one of the reasons California is considered to be one of the best places in the world to go camping.
Campers can climb to the summit of Mt. Pino one day, fish along a creek the next, and cap off their camping trip with a day on the beach.
There are over sixty campgrounds in the area and dozens of lookout spots. The Los Padres National Forest is one of the best places in California to spot condors, and the Willow Creek Road may be the best free campground in this national forest.
Located in the Famous Big Sur area of California, the Willow Creek Road offers gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean and San Martin Rock. Camping is available year-round, but it’s best to plan your adventure for spring, when the area is dotted with lovely wildflowers.
Each of the five campsites can fit a recreational vehicle up to 30′. The campsites are spread out, so you can enjoy some privacy. They are first come first serve.
There is little cell service in the area, and no amenities at all. The dirt road that leads to the site is short, but a bit steep. It’s important to note that not all of the RV campgrounds in this national forest are so easy to access.
Alabama Hills National Recreation Area
Seeing hundreds, if not thousands of campers each year, the Alabama Hills Recreation Area, run by the BLM, is one of the most popular spots for free RV camping as well as free tent camping in California.
From smaller campervans to large RVs and fifth wheels, the campsites in the area can fit a variety of rigs. It’s one of the best campgrounds to try California boondocking for the first time, thanks to its obvious campsites and easy-to-navigate dirt roads.
On top of that, the campground is extraordinarily beautiful. It comes as no surprise that the Alabama Hills are one of Hollywood’s favorite filming spots. You might have a flicker of recognition as you approach the rounded, red rocks.
There are a few fire rings at the campground. But if you want to light an open flame on this slice of public land, you need to get a fire permit. If you need to stock up on amenities, Lone Pine is the nearest town.
Death Valley National Park
The only national park in California that allows dispersed camping is the legendary Death Valley. Spanning over 3 million acres, it is the largest national park in the contiguous U.S. It is also the lowest, driest, and hottest national park.
But, between steady droughts, the wildflowers are known to successfully summon rainstorms. Then, you can watch the relieved fish as they take refuge in crystal pools.
It’s also one of the few places where you can experience record heat and gaze at snow-dusted peaks at the same time. Oh, and you may also see boiling water flow out of the otherwise dry ground.
These desert regions of harsh extremes require a durable all-weather camping tent such as the Crua Tri 3 person tent, so make sure you are well-equipped. You can fill up water at the visitor center in Furnace Creek.
The park is famous for recreation, so you won’t be limited just to hiking and camping. The Death Valley National Park is also great for snowshoeing, golfing, rock climbing, horseback riding, and off-highway vehicle adventure. The hike to the famous polygon salt formations alone is worth the trip.
Car camping is allowed as long as you stay one mile off any day-use dirt road or paved road. The National Park Service has uploaded an excellent map of the area on its official site. It even tells you which types of vehicles are okay for different areas of the park.
Blair Valley Campground, Anza-Borrego State Park
If you are looking for free camping near Joshua Tree National Park, the Blair Valley Campground may be the perfect place for you.
What makes it such a great area for camping is the fact that it is so expansive. You won’t have to worry about camping just inches away from someone else.
The stunning desert sunrises and numerous opportunities for outdoor recreation make the Anza-Borrego one of the most underrated state parks in California.
There are miles and miles of biking and hiking trails you can explore. Climbers will be delighted by the sandstone routes nearby.
While most primitive camping areas in California allow you to stay 14 days free of charge, you can camp on the Blair Valley Campground for 30 days.
You will find fire rings and vault toilets at the campgrounds. Blair Valley is also a great spot for free RV camping. Make sure to pack a tarp or a canopy because there’s very little shade in this state park.
Mendocino National Forest Dispersed Campgrounds, Northern California
The fact that no major paved roads or highways go through its woods is one of the greatest allures of the Mendocino National Forest. The campgrounds in this national forest are perfect for those who are looking for seclusion and tranquility.
Dispersed primitive camping is available anywhere throughout the woods, just like in other national forests in California. Three dispersed campgrounds that stand out the most include Lower Nye, Lakeview, and Grizzly Flat.
The sites within the Grizzly Flat dispersed campground offer rock fire pits and vault toilets. After you set up camp, you can explore the woods, rocky terrain, mountains, or the 17-mile canyon creek.
You can also go swimming at the Stonyford Recreation Area. When you are trekking through the forest, keep an eye out for bald eagles, wild pigs, black bears, and the Tule Elk.
Lassen National Forest, Northern California
There are plenty of free camping spots in the gorgeous Lassen National Forest. However, the Mud Lake Trailhead and the Black Rock Campground stand out the most.
A heavenly place to play and stay, the Mud Lake Trailhead campground offers picnic tables, hitching rails for horses, fire rings, and vault toilets. The whole site is wheelchair accessible.
With the ability to trek along numerous trails and take in scenic vistas, you won’t run out of things to do in the Lassen National Forest. It is also a great place to hang a hammock tent hybrid and stargaze at night. There’s a reason why this place is a top spot for those hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
The Black Rock Campground offers six campsites equipped with picnic tables and grills. There are great opportunities for horse riding and mineral prospecting near the camp.
You can also enjoy water activities on Lake Almanor. In the winter, you can go snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.
Modoc National Forest, Northern California
The Modoc National Forest sits quietly where Nevada, California, and Oregon meet, far away from the hustle and bustle of the most popular forests and parks of the Golden State.
From central lava flows to the high-alpine terrain, the landscape of Northern California is diverse enough to keep you occupied for weeks.
There are spurs and pull-offs for dispersed camping in all four ranger districts: Warner Mountain, Doublehead, Devil’s Garden, and Big Valley. One of the most beautiful campgrounds is Big Sage.
Surrounded by juniper woodland and sagebrush, this free camping spot is home to a spectacular National Geographic-esque bird show. Some of the species you’ll find in the area include hawks, herons, gulls, grebes, pelicans, and bald eagles.
You may also spot elk, deer, and mustangs while hiking around the Big Sage reservoir. It is one of the best campgrounds in California for bird and wildlife watching.
There is a vault toilet at the campground. However, you should bring your own toilet paper, trash bags, and water. Burning or burying trash in the forest is strictly prohibited.
Medicine Lake is perhaps the biggest and most delightful surprise in the area. Often called Lake Tahoe without the crowds, this gorgeous sapphire lake is open to boating and fishing.
Despite featuring some of the most beautiful scenery in California, the area often has vacant sites—even on the busiest holiday weekends.
Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Northern California
Lying on the edge of the Trinity River and the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the Steiner Flat Primitive Campground is a great location for those who like fly fishing and white water rafting.
This is a place where every camper can pitch a tent on the riverbanks free of charge. Along this stretch of the river, you can access the water from many locations.
You can savor amazing views of the madrones covering the canyon walls, oaks, Douglas-fir, and ponderosa pines as you paddle down the river.
You also have the option of taking a leisurely boat ride across the water or swimming by the shore if you are seeking a more relaxing activity. You can even pan for gold!
The BLM maintains vault toilets. However, there is no water at this primitive site. Aside from the Steiner Flat Primitive Campground, there are 7 other primitive sites in the area. Most of these free sites are suitable for tent camping or small trailers.
Located near Shasta Lake, the Mariners Point Shoreline Campsite is one of the free lakeside campgrounds in the area that are accessible by car. It is great for car camping as well as tent camping.
If you are not satisfied with any of the official or semi-official campsites, do know that Northern California is great for SUV exploration. You are sure to find a perfect site for you near one of the old logging roads in the area after just twenty minutes of driving.
Like anywhere else in Northern California, you will need to obtain a fire permit if you want to build a campfire in this national forest. You can get it for free at any BLM office or Forest Service office.
Lacks Creek Management Area
Situated just outside the quaint town of Arcata California, Lacks Creek is a perfect location for a quiet camping trip. From biking trails that meander through the diverse terrain to horseback riding by the water edge, the area offers some of the finest outdoor recreation in California.
It’s just 15 miles inland from the Pacific coastline. There are a total of five free sites in the area, and each one includes a picnic table and a fire ring.
Public Lands Near Mammoth Lakes
Mammoth Lakes is famous for world-class skiing, but there’s so much more you can do in this part of the Golden State. You will find incredible ghost towns, fishing spots, biking trails, as well as excellent campgrounds near the less-visited backside of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The entrance to Yosemite is just 30 miles outside of Mammoth Lakes. And, just 10 miles outside of town, you will find a lovely, free camping site called Owens River Road.
The campground offers many opportunities for shade, thanks to the many pine trees scattered throughout the area.
Even though the site is very popular among locals, there's room for everyone at the campground. The road out is well-groomed, so it is an excellent spot for car camping as well as tent camping.
However, the area is known for its mountain passes and switchbacks, so trip planning is important if you are traveling with an RV. The cell service in the area is surprisingly good.
Near Mono Lake, you’ll find the Sagehen Meadows Campground. Unlike the Owens River camping site, the Sagehen Meadows Campground offers very little tree coverage. This makes it a great camping site for stargazing at night.
Needless Point Dispersed Camping, Near Sequoia National Park
Just outside Sequoia National Park, you’ll find one of the most scenic camping locations in California. The Needless Point dispersed camping ground offers gorgeous vistas of the area, and it is just a quarter of a mile from the Needles Lookout Trail.
Keep in mind that this camping spot is located in bear country. Store food in bear-proof containers and secure trash so that bears cannot access it.
American Girl Mine, Winterhaven
Situated near the border of Arizona, Mexico, and California, the American Girl Mine is a super popular location for RV camping. The site provides a great environment to enjoy the night sky, play with your off-roading toys, and relax in the warm weather.
It’s a large enough area to spread out, but don’t be surprised if you have some neighbors. Still, there is lots of space for a rig of any size in this free camping area. Like most other BLM-operated lands and parks, the American Girl Mine campground has the same 14-day maximum length of stay.
As its name suggests, this BLM-managed land used to be a gold mine—one of the biggest in the region for that matter. It is crisscrossed by hidden mining pits, old mining roads, structures, chutes, and cast-away artifacts. Even today, many folks make the trip to this location in pursuit of gold.
If you are into winter camping, do know that the American Girl Mine is one of the best free RV camping locations due to its extreme southern location.
If you need to buy supplies for your camper, the town of Yuma is near the site. There’s also a historic ghost town just a few miles from the camp. The cell service in the area is more than great.
Laguna Mountain Recreation Area
If you are a camper looking for free camping near the Pinnacles National Park in California, you will be thrilled with the BLM-managed Laguna Mountain Area. The unique rock formations alone are worth the trip.
Featuring rolling hills covered in dense Bush, the Laguna Mountain area is home to two developed BLM campgrounds. The recreation opportunities, provided facilities, and the scenery these sites offer are quite impressive.
The Sweetwater camping ground features fire pits, picnic tables, shade structures, and vault toilets. There’s also a kiosk with a map and an interpretive panel. But, like most BLM camping locations, it lacks running water, trash collection, and electricity.
On your way to your campsite, you’ll pass through a mesmerizing desert landscape, meadows, and woods. There are also several trails that lead to a series of scenic waterfalls as well as the Laguna Creek.
Did we miss somewhere great, let us know in the comments below?