Did you know that camping in California can be done on a budget, or even free?
Little known to many, there are actually a lot of dispersed camping locations in the Golden State. Dispersed camping is where you do not need to pay a fee to use the campsite or campground.
On this page, we will cover the areas you can camp in and share some of the popular campsites among campers that you can consider in your next Californian camping trip.
Read More : Guide to Dispersed Camping
Where can you camp for free in California?
Although California is by the coast, the majority of the popular dispersed campsites are actually inland. Some of the popular dispersed camping hotspots are :
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands are scattered across the Golden State with many of them being primitive. There are some sites with amenities such as vaulted toilets, tables, and fire rings.
- Klamath, Lassen, Mendocino, and Modoc National Forest are the popular hotspots in Northern California. There are pine-filled forests and clear lakes with boat ramps for boating, canoeing, and kayaking.
- Alabama Hills, Anza Borrego State Park, and Inyo National Forest are campers’ favorite places in the south, not too far away from Los Angeles and San Diego.
- US 395 between Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. There are plenty of dispersed camping opportunities along this way. Just take a slight detour from the road and chances are you will most likely find an ideal spot.
Best Free Camping in NorCal
Butte Creek, Lassen National Forest
The Butte Creek campsite is located near Eagle Lake, the second-largest natural lake in the Golden State. It is situated in the northeast corner of California at an elevation of 5,100 feet and has several campgrounds on both its east and west sides.
This is a fantastic location for wildlife enthusiasts as Eagle Lake is home to one of the last nesting ospreys in the western United States.
- Closest town : Old Station, CA
- Map coordinates : JP83+82 Old Station, California, United States
No Mans Trailhead, Lassen National Forest
The No Mans Trailhead is the starting point for the Clear Creek National Recreation Trail, which takes you 22 miles down to Young’s Valley. The trail provides magnificent views of the picturesque Siskiyou Wilderness to campers.
It was built back in 1928 and served as a fire access road for many years. If you are hiking, there are several creek crossings, some of which might be hazardous during flooding.
Be aware that rattlesnakes are common between No Man’s Trailhead and Trout Camp. Remember to pack all your gear for primitive camping as there are no amenities and cell service in the area. You will need to bring your own drinking water and carry out your waste.
- Closest town : Happy Camp, CA
- Map coordinates : PFH8+P4 Happy Camp, California, United States
Mud Lake Trailhead Campground, Lassen National Forest
The Mud Lake Trailhead is located near the renowned Pacific Crest Trail, making it ideal for both overnight and day hikes. Staying at the Mud Lake Trailhead allows you to gain access to sites such as the Lassen Volcanic National Park and Subway Cave Lava Tubes, which are located only 3.5 miles from Old Station. You can be sure that you won’t run out of activities throughout your stay here.
There are vault toilets, tables, and fire rings available here. However, there is no potable water.
- Nearest town : Old Station, CA
- Map coordinates : Mud Lake Trail Head
Orr Lake Campground, Klamath National Forest
Orr Lake is a favorite fishing spot in Klamath National Forest for many campers. You can easily find bass, trout, and catfish around Orr Lake. It is also only a short walk from Orr Mountain which offers a spectacular view of Mount Shasta.
If you are feeling adventurous, there is a scenic hiking trail along the east side of the lake that leads to several boat ramps and additional campsites.
There is no potable water available, but vault toilets and tables are available.
- Nearest town : Bray and Macdoel, CA
- Map coordinates : M285+W9 Macdoel, California, United States
Pinnacle Rock, Mendocino National Forest
The 4,618-foot high Pinnacle Rock is located in the Mendocino National Forest. Bartlett Springs Road, which is about 0.5 miles away from the Pinnacle Rock summit provides easy access to the mountain’s spectacular vistas.
There are campsites along this road leading up to the Pinnacle Rock summit. It is recommended to pick a spot that has been camped before to minimize your environmental impact. This area can get busy during the summer as it is based on first come, first serve.
So plan ahead and be early!
- Nearest town : Lucerne, CA
Map coordinates : 46XP+34 Lucerne, California, United States
Castle Lake Campground, Mount Shasta
The lovely Castle Lake is located about ten miles southwest of Mount Shasta. Swimming, fishing, and kayaking are popular activities here among campers.
It is usually open around mid to end of May, depending on when the snow melts and stays open until around early November. The Castle Lake Campground can get very busy during the mid-summer.
There are only six designated camping spots here, so it is not uncommon for many campers to miss out. However, if you move further down the road, there are plenty of dispersed campsites available.
Unlike many other free campsites, there is a 3 nights stay limit here.
- Nearest town : Mount Shasta, CA
Map coordinates : 6JP9+2F Dunsmuir, California, United States
Big Sage Campground, Modoc National Forest
This campground is situated in the Big Sage Reservoir area, which spans thousands of acres. The area is surrounded by juniper woodland and sagebrush, and home to birds such as bald eagles, grebes, gulls, hawks, and herons. Many National Geographic bird shows have been filmed here in the past.
You can also hike around the reservoir and if you’re lucky, you can spot deers, elks, and mustangs. So remember to bring your camera with a telephoto lens.
- Closest town : Alturas, CA
- Map coordinates : H9HC+W5 Alturas, California, United States
Camino Cove Campground, Eldorado National Forest
The Camino Cove Campground is located on the northwest side of Union Valley Reservoir. It’s widely recognized as one of the beautiful campsites in the Eldorado National Forest.
For outdoor enthusiasts, there are many activities to be done such as fishing, boating, and hiking Bassi Falls Hiking Trail if that’s your thing! There is no potable water nor showers here.
- Nearest town : Pollock Pines, CA
- Map coordinates : VHG9+PX Raffetto, California, United States
Best Free Camping in Central California
Hermit Valley Campground, Stanislaus National Forest
Deep within the Stanislaus National Forest is the Hermit Valley Campground where the area is covered by large sequoia trees with pine needle floors. It is usually quiet during the weekdays but can get very busy during the weekends, especially in the mid-summer because it is largely shaded.
There are plenty of outdoor activities available in the surrounding areas. You can bike, fish, or hike the many trails here. You can also hike to Yosemite National Park towards the south if you are feeling more adventurous.
- Nearest town : Markleeville, CA
- Map coordinates : G4Q2+CR Markleeville, California, United States
Glass Creek Campground, Inyo National Forest
The Glass Creek Campground is huge and ideal for both tent camping and boondocking. It can easily handle RV’s up to 45′ and has 66 designated campsites.
During the day, many campers like to hike to the nearby Obsidian Dome to the north for a day outing. There are 10 vaulted toilets and no potable water here.
- Nearest town : Mammoth Lakes, CA
Map coordinates : Q226+V3 Crestview, California, USA
Best Free Camping in SoCal
Alabama Hills Recreation Area
Alabama Hills is located in the middle of the desert and the mountains, providing some of California’s most stunning views. Thousands of people visit Alabama Hills Recreation Area each year and many of them have camped here to have more time to enjoy the surroundings.
Campers must be completely self-sufficient at Alabama Hills since there are no facilities. If you need to stock up on supplies, Lone Pine is the nearest town, but it’s not close enough to feel like you’re in touch with civilization. If you want to sit around an open fire, you will need to get a fire permit.
- Closest town : Lone Pine, CA
- Map coordinates : JV3M+2G Lone Pine, California, United States
Blair Valley Campground, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Blair Valley Campground is a secluded primitive camping spot with stunning views of the night skies. If you’re visiting Joshua Tree National Park, this is the ideal spot to camp for the night. Due to the large area, you don’t have to worry about camping near someone else.
The proximity of the sandstone cliffs provides many climbing opportunities. Otherwise, there are plenty of trails for hikers and mountain bikers nearby. There isn’t much shade, so bring a canopy or tarp for some cover. Don’t forget to also bring plenty of water with you especially during the summer months.
At the moment, there are some COVID-19 restrictions at this campground. Be sure to check the California Department of Parks and Recreation website before going.
- Closest town : Julian, CA
- Map coordinates : 2JM2+6F Julian, California, United States
Sawtooth Canyon Campground, Lucerne Valley
Located close to Barstow, this area is known as New Jack City because of the rock climbing community. Unknown to many, Sawtooth Canyon is a rock climbers’ paradise in Southern California.
For non-climbers, take a hike in the surrounding areas or simply relax and enjoy breathtaking vistas from the campground itself. The campsite is first-come, first-served basis, so avoid the beginner’s mistake and go early during the peak seasons.
- Closest town : Barstow, CA
- Map coordinates : M2C8+2F Lucerne Valley, California, United States
Los Padres National Forest
At 1.7 million acres, the Los Padres National Forest is the Golden State’s second-largest national forest, making it an ideal spot for an outdoor adventure during the weekend especially if you are in SoCal.
This wooded area is home to several primitive campsites and offers a variety of activities, including rock climbing, day hiking, and hunting. You can camp anywhere from sea level to almost 9,000 feet in elevation, from riverside to forested areas.
There are picnic tables and fire pits available, but no vault toilets.
Things to know about dispersed camping in California
- Campsite availability. Always check the United States Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) websites for the campsite availability. Some are closed during the winter months, or for other reasons such as repair, renovations, fire hazards, or during COVID-19.
- No fee. The majority of the United States Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are public lands and thus free to camp. Some would appreciate a small contribution to help them in maintaining the area.
- Stay duration. You can stay for a maximum of 14 days in a 30-day period unless mentioned otherwise.
- Amenities. Most dispersed campsites do not have any amenities. If you’re lucky, you can find vaulted toilets, fire rings, and picnic tables.
- Trash and waste. You’re expected to carry and take home your thrash if there is no dumpster available.
- Campsite selection. Choose existing or used campsites to minimize your environmental impact. You’re not allowed to camp within 1-mile of a developed campground, administrative site, or recreation area.
- Leave No Trace. Always abide by the 7 Leave No Trace principles.
- Campfire. Always check the USFS website to determine if you need a permit.
Amanda Williams is a writer, plant-nerd, and outdoor enthusiast. She has traveled extensively, around the U.S., throughout Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Everywhere she treks, she takes time to enjoy the outdoors. John Muir is her hero. She aspires to inspire people to live better as he did.