Dispersed Camping in California

From Mendocino to Yosemite Valley, there are many great places for dispersed camping in California. The unmatched diversity of BLM dispersed camping areas and National Forests translates to endless options for tent camping and RV campers. 

Whether you’d like to spend a couple of nights under the stars in northern or southern California, you will almost certainly be able to do so at various places and find free camping spots. 

To assist you in finding an ideal camping spot, I’ve created this detailed and informative guide that answers various essential questions related to free and dispersed camping in the Golden State. 

Here I am also going to cover how to find the best places, and the rules you need to stick to.

Map of Dispersed Camping Areas in California

You can easily find the locations of the best dispersed campgrounds in the state using this map.

Where in California is Dispersed Camping Allowed? 

Dispersed campsite in California

You can disperse camp on the lands managed by the USFS (United States Forest Service) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). 

There are some nuances to this. But unless it’s explicitly forbidden, campers can freely camp in most of the state’s BLM-managed lands and National Forests. 

Here’s everything you need to know about camping on BLM and USFS-managed lands in the state of California: 

BLM Camping in California 

Redding, California

The BLM, or the Bureau for Land Management, is one of the two federal agencies that permit dispersed camping on their land in California. 

Those planning to spend a few nights under California’s starry sky should keep these areas on their list – many of them are in this state. 

Some of the best BLM-managed dispersed camping areas are in the state’s southeastern part, near Joshua Tree, and in several of California’s northern regions. 

Determining whether dispersed camping is or isn’t allowed on BLM-managed land isn’t always easy. For that matter, I highly advise calling the district office responsible for the area you’d like to pitch your tent in. These are as follows: 

If you’re planning to camp in some of California’s BLM-managed areas, check out this overview of dispersed camping rules outlined by the same agency. 

USFS Camping in California 

Sierra National Forest, California

The United States Forest Service, or USFS for short, manages vast swathes of land in California. These include two forests spanning the state’s border with Oregon and 18 forests located entirely within California’s borders. 

California has more National Forests than any other state. This turns it into a perfect destination for all those looking to pitch their tents in gorgeous woodlands. 

Located just outside Los Angeles, Angeles National Forest deserves a special mention. Camping in this forest is not allowed, even though it’s so close to LA.

That’s not a reason to worry, though – all other National Forests in California allow dispersed camping in one form or another.

Although they both have small sections in the Golden State, Rogue River and Siskiyou National Forests are primarily located in California’s northern neighbor, Oregon.  For more great camping spots in the country, check out our post on dispersed camping in Moab and our guide to dispersed camping in Nevada.

How Do I Find Dispersed Camping Areas in California? 

With abundant public land in California, finding dispersed camping areas within this state is usually hassle-free. 

If you have some experience camping in remote locations and know how to read USFS maps and navigate USFS roads, you should have no trouble finding an ideal camping spot that caters to your specific needs. 

Whenever searching for an excellent place to pitch my tent, I combine publicly available BLM or USFS maps with several useful websites and apps. 

These are my favorite resources and dispersed camping apps for finding dispersed camping areas: 

  • Campendium – A website (an app also available) with tens of thousands of user reviews for developed and dispersed campsites in the US. 
  • The Dyrt – This is an app whose filtering function makes finding that perfect camping spot as easy as it can be. 
  • Freecampsites.net – My favorite and go-to resource for discovering unique dispersed camping areas. 

If you have little to no experience with dispersed camping, these websites and apps are an excellent starting place. 

But even if you’re just a beginner, I would still recommend you to cross-reference the info provided by these websites and applications with maps and resources provided by the public agencies. 

The best resource, however, will always be contacting the BLM or USFS office responsible for the region you’re planning to camp in. 

You will also want to use the MVUMs – Motor Vehicle Use Maps. These can be of massive help when finding great spots for dispersed camping inside and outside California. 

Published by the United States Forest Service, these maps show all the roads this agency manages in a given region. And the best thing about them is that they also show where you can and where you can’t pitch your tent (this is often specified with special dot marks). 

Here’s a real treat for all those planning to camp in the Golden State – an interactive MVUM finder. It covers the entirety of the state (designated as “Region 5” in the finder) and allows users to choose the specific Motor Vehicle Use Map they need for a given region.

The best way to search for accessible dispersed camping areas is by having Google Maps opened in one tab and one of these handy USFS maps in another. Simply cross-reference the two resources, and you’ll find your ideal campsite in no time. 

Regulations & Rules Concerning California Dispersed Camping 

The greatest thing about dispersed camping is that there’s no need for requirements such as permits and reservations.

But still, all those planning to go free camping in California must adhere to several regulations and rules specific to this state. Here are some of the essential ones: 

  • Angeles National Forest – As mentioned above, dispersed camping in this National Forest is not permitted. 
  • San Bernardino National Forest – Campers cannot make fires outside established campsites. 
  • Cleveland National Forest – Like in the case of San Bernardino National Forest, creating campfires outside of established campsites is forbidden. Moreover, you’ll need to obtain a special permit for some – but not all – areas of this forest. 
  • Alabama Hills – You can still camp here for free, but all outdoor enthusiasts will soon need a permit. 

When in doubt, give a call to the relevant BLM or USFS office and let the people working there inform you about the current rules. Also, make sure always to follow the responsible recreation guidelines outlined by the United States Forest Service: 

  • Be considerate of other campers. Avoid making noise – let nature’s sounds prevail. Also, try to pitch your tent as far away from other visitors as possible. 
  • Don’t disturb the traces of the country’s past. Always report illegal activity! Remember that disturbing sacred, historical, and archaeological sites can result in fines. 
  • Give your best effort not to spread invasive weeds. Don’t drive or camp in weed-infested areas; always wash your vehicle, especially the undercarriage. 
  • Always observe the area’s wildlife from a distance. Avoid following, approaching, or feeding animals. Store your trash and rations securely, safely, and out of reach of the animals. 
  • Firewood from a different region will almost certainly introduce invasive pests, so make sure to use only locally-purchased firewood. Keep your fire small and use an existing fire ring if there is one. Never leave your fires unattended! 
  • When answering nature’s call, find a spot far away from water sources. Dig a hole and then bury the waste. Another option is to bring a portable, leak-proof toilet. 
  • When making a campsite, choose a vegetation-free spot. Keep the camp small, and always use plain water or biodegradable soap when washing something. 

Campfire Permits in California 

Campfire in California

California has been through numerous devastating wildfires. You’ll want to consider fire restrictions before camping in one of this state’s dispersed camping areas. 

California has a campfire permit system for all privately-owned properties and federal lands. It applies to all dispersed camping areas in the state – you’ll need to obtain one if you’re planning to build a fire at your camping spot. 

The easiest way to obtain the permit is by completing this form. But even after doing that, you will still have to check the current fire restrictions and bans to be sure. 

I cannot stress enough how critical it is to be as careful as possible when building a campfire in one of California’s many dispersed camping areas. As I mentioned above, this state has seen many catastrophic wildfires over the past several decades, so do your best to preserve its incredible forests by staying responsible. 

The “Leave No Trace” Principles 

Camping sign in California

The “Leave No Trace” principles, defined by the organization of the same name, have become somewhat of a bible for responsible camping. 

Following these principles while spending time in the Great Outdoors minimizes one’s impact on the environment and allows future campers to enjoy forests, rivers, lakes, and natural wonders in their pure, original state.  

The 7 “Leave No Trace” principles are as follows: 

  • Principle #1 – Camp on durable surfaces rather than on fragile ones. If there’s an existing camping spot, use it instead of creating a new one. 
  • Principle #2 – Do not build a campfire if doing so is not allowed in the region you’re camping in. If it is permitted, give your best to minimize the impacts of your campfire. 
  • Principle #3 – Treat wild animals with respect. Be fully aware of the region’s wildlife, and don’t allow it to come into contact with your food or trash. 
  • Principle #4 – Properly dispose of your waste. If you can, bring a portable toilet. If you cannot do so, bury human waste as far away from water sources as possible. 
  • Principle #5 – Be kind to other campers. Leave the camping spot in the best possible condition, do not be loud while camping, and always pack your trash. 
  • Principle #6 – Leave whatever you find. The only thing you should bring home from the camping spot is your trash. 
  • Principle #7 – Always plan ahead and prepare accordingly. Have a general idea of when and where you’d like to camp and do so only in those areas where such activity is permitted. 

The Best Free & Dispersed Camping Areas in California

I’ve compiled a list of the nine best dispersed camping areas in the Golden State. Here’s everything you need to know about these places – their locations, surroundings, and amenities. 

Dispersed Camping in Northern California

Rocky Point East Campground (Eagle Lake)  

Eagle Lake, California
  • Map 
  • Crowds: Moderate 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: Vault toilet 

This primitive dispersed camping area is on the northern shore of Eagle Lake in Buck Bay. Getting here is relatively easy – you’ll have to get off State Route 139 at Eagle Lake Resort and then just follow Eagle Lake Road to the south. 

The Rocky Point East Campground belongs to the Bureau of Land Management and is located on the edge of the National Lassen Forest. While there’s not much shade here (or privacy, for that matter), the views are pretty good, and campers can explore the National Forest and enjoy recreating on the lake. 

The best thing about this particular dispersed camping area is that it’s in the less frequented part of the state. This makes it an ideal choice for folks who want to escape the crowds in California’s most famous dispersed camping regions. 

There is no trash removal or drinking water here. The only amenity is a single vault toilet. At least you won’t have to use a shovel to answer the call of nature! 

Grizzly Flat

Mendocino National Forest
  • Map 
  • Crowds: Light 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: Vault toilet 

The next dispersed camping area is in the only Californian National Forest without a major paved road entering it – Mendocino National Forest. 

Once home to a fire station, the Grizzly Flat Dispersed Campground now consists of three camping areas and just one amenity, a basic vault toilet. Coming here with a large trailer or RV is not recommended – the area is best suited for tent campers.

This is because of the small size of the campsites and the fact that there are no turnarounds here. Another vital thing to keep in mind is that the Grizzly Flat Dispersed Campground has no drinking water or trash removal services, so make sure to come here fully prepared and don’t forget to pack out all of your garbage. 

As for the overall atmosphere, the Grizzly Flat Dispersed Campground is a very peaceful place. It is tucked away in the forest, so it doesn’t only provide solitude but also protection from the scorching Californian sun. 

Cowboy Camp (Cache Creek Wilderness) 

Cache Creek California
Photo by U.S. Department of the Interior via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
  • Map
  • Crowds: Moderate 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: Vault toilet 

This Californian dispersed camping area is situated in the Cache Creek Wilderness, which the Bureau of Land Management oversees. It’s just off Highway 16, next to Bear Creek. Its local name is the “Cowboy Camp”. 

A few trails lead from this primitive dispersed campsite, allowing visitors to explore the surrounding area. The creek lets campers cool down, which is essential as the place doesn’t offer a ton of shade. 

Cowboy Camp is particularly popular with horse campers. This means that you’ll probably have to share the site with camping enthusiasts who come there with horses. Fortunately, this place easily accommodates a variety of camping set-ups – there’s plenty of space, and the ground is reasonably level. 

Cowboy Camp is undoubtedly a great choice if you’re searching for a peaceful dispersed campsite, as it rarely fills up. The only amenity you can expect to find here is a vault toilet. For everything else, you’ll be left to your own devices. 

Scotts Lake Area 

Scotts Lake, California
  • Map 
  • Crowds: Busy 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: No 

The next dispersed camping area is located some 12 miles south of Lake Tahoe, close to the titular Scotts Lake. Accessing it is as easy as it gets – you just have to get off Highway 88 about a mile and a half south of Picketts Junction. 

While it’s true that there are no amenities, this is an excellent dispersed camping area in every sense of the word. It is incredibly popular and quite bustling on the weekends. You’ll have to arrive early to get a good spot. 

The area accommodates most camping set-ups, from recreational vehicles to tents. Some of the spots here are well-shaded, but you probably won’t be able to stay at any of them if you arrive too late in the day. Also, make sure to bring plenty of clean water. 

While there, make sure to hike up to Scotts Lake itself. Its secluded nature allows for true relaxation in the wilderness, with beautiful views of the surrounding forests and mountains. One fascinating thing is the high number of tree stumps dotting the shoreline and emerging from beneath the lake water. 

Hardin Flat Road (Yosemite) 

Yosemite Valley California
  • Map 
  • Crowds: Busy 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: No 

The question of which one of California’s wilderness areas is the most iconic has an easy answer – the Yosemite National Park. This breathtaking region is home to some of the state’s most unforgettable sights, from El Capitan to Half Dome. 

Luckily for those interested in dispersed camping, there are a few excellent dispersed campsites situated just outside of the national park’s borders. The best of these is Hardin Flat Road, which can be found just a few miles away from the park’s western entrance (Big Oak Entrance Station). 

Unfortunately, there’s no water source at this campsite or amenities of any type. On the other hand, you’ll be relatively close to civilization, several developed campgrounds, and, most importantly, Yosemite National Park. 

This is one of the best places for dispersed campers planning to check out the most beautiful of all nine National Parks in California. In this vast valley, you’ll find ancient giant sequoias, grand meadows, famous natural sights such as Half Dome or El Capitan – which I’ve mentioned above – and many other beautiful things. For more campsites in the area, check out our guide to dispersed camping near Yosemite National Park and our Big Sur dispersed camping guide.

Dispersed Camping in Southern California 

Williams Hill Recreation Area 

Tents in California
  • Map 
  • Crowds: Moderate 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: No 

The first on my list of the best dispersed campsites in Southern California is Williams Hill, a small piece of wilderness overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. It is situated in Monterey County, between Santa Maria and Salinas, some 20 miles away from the ocean. 

Williams Hill is a fantastic option if you seek a less-visited dispersed campsite. It’s an excellent destination and a great choice for folks looking to escape the crowds. However, it is worth pointing out that this campsite does get moderately crowded during the summer weekends. 

Here, you will have two options – dispersed camping everywhere around Williams Hills and somewhat “standard” camping at the Williams Hill Campground. If you choose the former option, you’ll have to stay at least 200 feet away from wildlife’s watering system and at least 15 feet away from the roadway. 

The Williams Hill Campground is a pretty primitive campsite without amenities of any type. It does, however, offer level ground for safe and comfortable camping. Whether you opt for dispersed or regular camping, you’ll have to pack out your garbage and bring plenty of clean water. If you are interested in more extreme camping locations, check out our guide to camping in Death Valley National Park.

Alabama Hills

Alabama Hills, California
  • Map 
  • Crowds: Busy 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: No 

Iconic for its excellent climbing opportunities and breathtaking views of the Sierra, Alabama Hills is undoubtedly one of the best dispersed camping options in Southern California. 

This Bureau of Land Management-run piece of wilderness is incredibly popular with campers of all types, so getting there early is paramount if you want to secure a genuinely good spot. Due to the area’s popularity, you’ll have to follow the Leave No Trace principles and leave your camping spot in the best possible state. 

One crucial thing to mention here is that the Bureau of Land Management has recently updated the regulations concerning camping in this picturesque area. The agency has implemented a free permit system and restricted Movie Road’s western side to day use only. Not respecting these new rules means risking a considerable fine. 

Unfortunately, Alabama Hills has no drinking water sources or vault toilets. Here, you’ll need to be a self-sufficient camper, so make sure to bring plenty of food, water, and, if possible, a portable toilet. 

Kern River

Kern River, California
  • Map 
  • Crowds: Busy 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: Seasonally-available vault toilets 

Cutting through the state’s Sierra Nevada mountains, Kern River is one of California’s most beautiful wild rivers and a phenomenal destination for dispersed camping. 

It is situated in the famous Sequoia National Forest, where you’ll find nine dispersed camping areas that follow the river’s course and allow outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy incredible recreation in the Californian wilderness. Out of these, the best campsites are Chico Flat, Ant Canyon, and Brush Creek. 

However, one can’t make a mistake by choosing any of the nine available campsites. Accessing them is effortless, and most provide campers with basic amenities, such as seasonally-available vault toilets. Most importantly, these places will allow you to enjoy everything this scenic river offers for free. 

That said, I should point out that Kern River is a bustling dispersed camping area. All those who come here have to do their part in responsible recreation – be considerate of other campers, pick up your trash, and leave the camping spot in the same condition you found it. 

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree, California
  • Map
  • Crowds: Busy 
  • Water: No 
  • Restrooms: No 

Joshua Tree National Park is another top-rated Californian free camping destination. There are many astonishing wild camping spots just outside the park, and the desert climate turns the area into ideal winter getaway for all who love the Great Outdoors. 

Some of the best sites in Joshua Tree National Park can be found close to Cottonwood Springs Road, a southern entrance to the park. If you decide to pitch your tent here, you’ll be only a few minutes away from the Cottonwood Entrance Station. In other words, it’s a fantastic option for folks planning to explore the park’s southern section.

To get to these campsites, you’ll have to drive down Interstate 10, turn north to get on Cottonwood Springs Road, and the camps should be on the west side of the road after about 1 mile of driving. You’ll be just 20 miles away from the city of Indio, where you’ll be able to get the necessary supplies.  There are some great dispersed camping sites near Joshua Tree as well.

As for the Joshua Tree National Park, expect iconic flora, photogenic geological phenomena, stunning vistas, unique wildlife, and rewarding hikes. The park is also an excellent destination for outdoor enthusiasts interested in stargazing (ideal seeing conditions at night-time) and birdwatching (the park is home to more than 250 bird species). 

If you are interested in camping in California’s northern neighbor, check out our guide to free camping in Oregon as well.

The Takeaway 

As you can see, both the northern and southern halves of the Golden State have a lot to offer to all those interested in primitive camping. From ancient forests to breathtaking deserts to magnificent alpine lakes, California has it all – you just have to pick what type of ecosystem interests you the most.

Hopefully, this guide has helped you choose a Californian dispersed camping area that caters to your personal needs and interests and informed you about the state’s various regulations and rules concerning dispersed camping. Good luck and have an unforgettable trip!