If there’s one thing better than camping, it’s free camping, especially in a wooded or beachfront area. In California, a state known for its areas of natural beauty, there’s enough free camping to keep you bouncing around for months or even years.
While most national parks don’t offer free camping, look for Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or United States Forest Service (USFS) land on the outskirts, where the perfect free camping in California site awaits you.
How and Where to Find Free Camping in California
If you’ve never looked for free camping before, be patient and do your research ahead of time. The chances are high you’ll take a wrong turn or go a mile in the wrong direction—when that happens, take a deep breath and enjoy the drive. Free camping exists in wild and wonderful places (like Walmart parking lots, right?) and the better equipped you are to enjoy the journey the more you’ll enjoy the destination.
Free camping in California can generally be found on BLM and USFS property, and some of the best sites are found by taking a random turn down a dirt road with a cattle guard and driving until you find a pull-out.
Benchmark maps make some of the best recreation-based atlases for exploring your state and region, with shaded regions denoting private and public property. They also cordon off national parks from national forests and differentiate between 4WD and paved roads. By cross-referencing your Benchmark map with Google Maps it’s easier than ever to identify areas with a high likelihood of free camping.
Free Camping in Northern California
1. Orr Lake Campground—Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Nestled in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Orr Lake Campground offers six free lakefront campsites as well as four free group campsites on the opposite end of the lake. While no motorized boats are allowed on the lake, there’s plenty of space for swimming, kayaking, and angling among the lily pads.
Even though there are no hook-ups, RVs can boondock in the secluded lakeside spaces. From the lake, campers can catch epic views of Mt. Shasta in the distance while grilling fresh-caught trout for dinner. Vault toilets are available to reduce the amount of gray water you produce in your time off the grid.
2. Black Rock Campground—Lassen National Forest
There are plenty of primitive campsites in Lassen National Forest, but if you’re looking to camp with a few of your friends, Black Rock Campground offers six first come, first served campsites equipped with grills and tables. Anglers can fish in both Deer Creek and Mill Creek, and hikers will find plenty of trails for low- or high-mileage days.
Vault toilets are available at Black Rock, so your camping experience doesn’t have to be completely primitive. Within the national forest boundaries, there’s opportunity for mineral prospecting, horse riding, and water activities on Lake Almanor.
One of the greatest allures of the Mendocino National Forest is the fact that no major highways or paved roads cross through the forest. So if you’re looking for tranquility and seclusion, Mendocino is the place to go. Like other national forests, Mendocino offers dispersed primitive camping anywhere throughout the forest. There are also three dispersed campgrounds in Mendocino National Forest: Grizzly Flat, Lakeview, and Lower Nye.
Once you’ve established your free campsite, take your pick of activities, like horseback riding, swimming at Stonyford Recreation area (where there’s also a paid campground, Letts Lake Campground), and hiking in the Chico Seed Orchard and Red Bluff Recreation Area.
In the northeast corner of California, where Oregon, California, and Nevada meet, Modoc National Forest sits quietly, away from the hustle and bustle of California’s more popular parks and forests. Here you’ll find pull-offs and spurs for dispersed camping in all four ranger districts: Big Valley, Devil’s Garden, Doublehead, and Warner Mountain.
The landscape is diverse enough to keep you occupied for weeks. From high-alpine terrain in the Warner Mountain Range to the central lava flows, you won’t want for ecological diversity. If anything, it’ll make you wish you had more time to explore.
Free Camping in Central California
5. Glass Creek Campground—near Mammoth Lakes
When you’re looking for free California camping or boondocking, it doesn’t get much better than Glass Creek Campground, just outside of Mammoth Lakes. With 66 spacious campsites, you can easily pull through a 45’ motorhome or trailer for a three-week stay near Mammoth and the June Lakes District.
Once you arrive, self-register at the kiosk and then settle in! There’s wildlife in the area, so be bear aware of your food and other belongings. And with no water on site you’ll want to pack in enough to reduce your trips into town. Plenty of trails lead out from the campground for convenient day hikes.
According to the USFS, most of the land in Inyo County is publicly owned, so anywhere you can find to park and camp for the night is fair game. While the Forest Service recommends purchasing a map to distinguish public land from private, you can find somewhere to camp with enough space to hang up a hammock and enjoy the surrounding flora and fauna.
At Inyo, campers can remain for 28 days per every six months in each of the four ranger districts and campsites can be found along the road in compacted pull-outs, many of which have established primitive fire rings. If you do decide to have a fire, always check with the ranger station to understand the fire danger levels.
Plumas National Forest is loaded with dispersed campsites for the frugal-minded. In each of the four ranger districts, campers can find hordes of California free camping in areas like Feather Falls, Little North Fork, Bucks Lake Recreation Area, and Red Bridge.
In terms of recreation, there’s an activity for almost everyone at Plumas. From rock climbing in the Mt. Hough Ranger district (where you’ll find a paid campground at Queen Lily) to wildlife viewing of rare species like the Pitcher Plant in Butterfly Valley, you can practice your preferred outdoor hobby or even take up a new one.
8. Hermit Valley Campground—Stanislaus National Forest
Located in the Stanislaus National Forest, Hermit Valley Campground offers shaded sites beneath old-growth sequoia trees with pine needle floors. Far fewer people make it out to these parts of the national forest, but on summer weekends try and get there before the crowds descend.
In the surrounding area you’ll find plenty of opportunities to mountain bike, hike, fish, and, if you’re willing to venture a little farther south, explore the expanse of Yosemite National Park. Be prepared for zero amenities during your stay, but the trade-off is seclusion and serenity, which is almost always worth it.
Free Camping in Southern California
9. Alabama Hills Recreation Area—at the Base of the Eastern Sierras
As one of the highest rated free camping in California sites on this list, Alabama Hills Recreation Area welcomes hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors each year. Alabama Hills sits between the desert and the mountains, for some of the most epic views in Southern California. Each site is easy to find, with most boasting an established fire pit.
At Alabama Hills, campers must be 100% self-contained because there are no amenities. Lone Pine is the nearest town if you need to stock up on necessities, but it’s not close enough to feel the proximity of civilization. Get a fire permit if you plan to sit beneath the stars around an open flame. Otherwise, enjoy this slice of public land.
10. Abbott Creek Camping Area—Sequoia National Forest
Abbott Creek Camping Area draws OHV users to rev their engines and explore the nearby area with gas-powered fun. Each of the campsites is within a convenient three-mile drive to the OHV staging area.
While usage is light at this campground, it’s primarily for OHV users, so if you’re more interested in an idyllic getaway there are better areas near Sequoia National Forest to camp.
11. Alder Creek Dispersed Camping—Sequoia National Forest
If you want to stay in Sequoia National Forest and aren’t interested in the OHV area, check out Alder Creek Dispersed Camping, a heavily-wooded campground with vault toilets and a creek nearby.
Campground usage is also light and operates on a first come, first served basis but beware—during summer days when the heat rises, the area becomes dry and heavy fire restrictions are enforced. Check the USFS website before you go to assess your likelihood of marshmallow roasting.
12. Blair Valley Campground—near Joshua Tree National Park
Both primitive and tucked away, with incredible views of the night sky, Blair Valley Campground acts as an ideal stopping point when visiting Joshua Tree National Park. The area is expansive so you don’t have to worry about camping feet away from someone else, but don’t venture too far in if you have a heavy rig or low clearance, as the roads can become sandy to the point of impassable.
Climbers can find sandstone routes nearby, while hikers and mountain bikers will be delighted by the number of trails. There’s very little shade, so pack a canopy or tarp to create some for yourself. Bring enough water to sustain your visit and pack out anything you packed in.
Resources for Finding the Perfect Free California Camping Spot
- The Dyrt makes it easy to find free camping in California (or anywhere else). Here’s how: Enter the state, then click enter. Click ‘type’ under the search bar, then click ‘dispersed.’ Each listing includes a rating, reviews, detailed description, list of features, images, weather report, and geographical data.
- Visit the U.S. Forest Service map of California. Check out individual national forests and other federally-protected areas in California by clicking on the map or on the links below.
- Go to the Bureau of Land Management website’s ‘visit’ page and sort by location (California) and activity (camping). Browse through the results to find your perfect free camping in California.
- If you already know your destination, it’s a good idea to stop by the visitor center or ranger station and talk to a ranger. They’re the best source of information about free, dispersed camping in the area.
- Service roads are usually lined with free campsites. On maps, U.S. Forest Service roads are indicated as NF-##, while roads running through BLM lands also tend to have free camping options alongside them.