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How to Find Free Camping in California's National Forests

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An orange tent sits in a wooded glade, surrounded by trees. On the left of the image the sun catches the lens and creates a flare effect.
What's better than camping? Camping for free. (Todd Trapani via Pexels)

It can be tough to reserve a camping site at the last minute. In most cases, you’ll need to reserve months in advance, and last-minute planners might be left with limited options.

One solution for the adventurer in you: Explore free dispersed camping opportunities in one of California's national forests.

Dispersed camping means camping outside a designated developed campground, with little or no facilities or services available. You can also take advantage of slightly more developed campgrounds that are still free.

Fortunately for us, California is home to 20 beautiful national forests — two of which are shared with other states. We have the most national forests in any state in the country, which widens our options for outdoor adventures. And let’s face it, with inflation being top of mind for many people right now, saving costs on travel might sound appealing.

Keep reading for our top recommendations for free camping opportunities at national forests close to home. Remember: Things can change fast with closures — especially during wildfire season, sadly. For latest alerts and updates, be sure to visit the official U.S. national forest website.

You could also independently begin your hunt for free camping spots on this interactive map from the United States Forest Service (USFS), and free apps like FreeCampsites, FreeRoam, and Google Maps are great places to start. And you can find dispersed camping available on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land.

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Free camping sites in California national forests

Free camping is a great way to enjoy the outdoors; but remember, more often than not, there will be no or limited amenities like potable water and toilets on the grounds if a camping spot is free. We've picked 14 free dispersed camping sites across eight different national forests that have some facilities (like vault toilets and campfire rings).

All these spots are under six hours' drive away from San Francisco. (Just remember to bring a map with you in case you find yourself with no cell service.)

Stanislaus National Forest

Hermit Valley Campground in the Stanislaus National Forest is a free campsite near towns like Bear Valley, Lake Alpine and Markleeville and is only about four hours away from San Francisco. There are a number of campfire rings on this site, but no potable water. South Lake Tahoe is about 1.5 hours away and Yosemite is about 2.5 hours away.

A large brown wooden sign that says STANISLAUS NATIONAL FOREST in yellow lettering, with a silver car visible behind it and a hill in the background
The entrance to Stanislaus National Forest, which offers free dispersed camping opportunities. (David Prasad via Flickr Creative Commons)

Cherry Lake is another recommended area for dispersed camping within Stanislaus National Forest. Dispersed camping is available around the lake at least 100 feet from the high-water mark. See USFS's website for more information.

Sierra National Forest

The Sierra National Forest boasts a ton of dispersed camping opportunities to explore. Kirch Flat Campground is one of the many recommended spots on camping websites like The Dyrt and Campendium.

Although it can get very hot in the summer months, this spot would be a great free camping opportunity in the spring and fall months. Many visit here to enjoy the beautiful canyon scenery of the Kings River. The campground is equipped with picnic tables, fire rings and vault toilets.

Inyo National Forest

Glass Creek Campground near Mammoth Lakes in the Inyo National Forests is another great free camping site that accommodates RVs up to 45 feet long. This is a popular spot with campfire rings, picnic tables and vault toilets.

Campers have mentioned that there's a good amount of rainbow trout at Glass Creek, which runs through this campground, and is a great spot for some fishing. The nearest town is June Lake, which is a great spot for hiking, fishing and camping. You can also find reservable campsites in June Lake.

Mendocino National Forest

Grizzly Flat Dispersed Campground in Mendocino National Forest's Yuki Wilderness is another option for dispersed camping. Due to its location in a coniferous pine and spruce forest, it’s relatively cool.

There are a few campfire rings and vault toilets, but no picnic tables. This spot is not recommended for RVs and large vehicles.

Lassen National Forest

Black Rock Campground in Ishi Wilderness in Lassen National Forest is about 4.5 hours away from San Francisco. There are six sites available for primitive dispersed camping with campfire rings.

There are no toilets or potable water, so be sure to plan for this trip if you’re heading out here. The closest towns to this campground are Chico, Chester and Red Bluff.

Klamath National Forest

Orr Lake Campground in the Klamath National Forest is a great spot for dispersed camping, and Orr Lake is a great destination for those who love fishing, nature viewing, water activities and riparian wildlife viewing along the lakeshore. There are eight free camping sites available on a first-come-first-serve basis with vault toilets, campfire rings, barbecue grills and picnic tables. The closest towns to this campground are Bray and Macdoel.

Another recommended free camping site in Klamath National Forest? Beaver Creek Campground. Like many other campgrounds, its busiest season is in the summer. Here you’ll find vault toilets and a total of eight campsites, on the banks of the scenic Beaver Creek. The closest towns are Klamath River and Yreka.

For both of these campsites, do bring your own water for cooking, washing and other uses as these locations do not have potable water.

A forest scene with thin trees reaching into the sky, photographed from inside a yellow-orange tent.
Dispersed camping is a great way to stay in California's national forests, and it's free. (Anastassiya Golovko via Pexels)

Modoc National Forest

In the northeast corner of California, Modoc National Forest is home to more than 300 species of wildlife and a great, quiet getaway from the crowded trails and campgrounds of the Sierra Nevada forests.

There are a number of dispersed and reservable camping opportunities to choose from, but a great option would be to explore spots near Medicine Lake within the Doublehead Ranger District. Spots like Blanche Lake, Payne Springs, and Schonchin Springs campgrounds are all open this season and offer free, first-come-first-serve spots.

The nearest town to these three campsites is McCloud, which is about 45 miles away. Most of these sites have potable water and vault toilets near their campgrounds.

If you’re OK with paid options (about $14 per night), the Medicine Lake Campground is your best bet. There are a total of 75 campsites at the Medicine Lake Campground and 15 of them are reservable on Recreation.gov.

Sequoia National Forest

If you’re looking to head out into Sequoia National Forest, there are many options for dispersed camping within the three Ranger districts.

The Kern River Ranger District has nine dispersed camping sites that you can choose from. Chico Flat is a great place to camp if you want to be in the vicinity of Lake Isabella. Corral Creek Dispersed Campground is a less crowded option and is located on the north fork of the Kern River.

Restrooms here might be open in the summer months. Springhill Dispersed Area is one of the largest dispersed camping sites along the Kern River, but it may still be challenging to secure a spot — so it’s advised to arrive early.

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What to know before embarking on a free dispersed camping trip

With free camping comes great responsibility.

Here are some general must-knows before embarking on your camping adventure:

  1. Have a backup plan in case you’re not able to find a suitable free camping spot for your needs (or if you’re just not feeling up for it). Find the nearest town and locate hotels or cabins in the area.
  2. When camping at a free dispersed campsite, be sure to find a spot that has been used for camping before by looking for clear signs of tire tracks, a fire pit and flattened ground.
  3. You’ll need to be self-contained and prepared for a life without basic amenities (like potable water).
  4. The maximum number of days to camp on dispersed camping locations is usually 14 days.
  5. Your campsite needs to be 100 feet away from any water source (like streams and lakes).
  6. Follow the Leave No Trace guidelines.
  7. Check weather forecasts.
  8. Know the fire restrictions at your campsite before starting a campfire. See if you’ll need a paid campfire permit. Get more tips on how to stay safe if you’re camping during fire season.
  9. You’ll need to be bear aware. Bring bear spray with you and know what to do if a bear approaches your campsite.
  10. When possible, camp on bare soil to avoid damaging plants and grass.

For more, check out this USFS guide to free dispersed camping.

Where to rent camping gear in the Bay Area

When shopping for camping gear, the list adds up — and things can get super expensive, super fast.

If purchasing camping gear is not the best investment for you, you can rent gear at places like REI, Sports Basement, Outdoors Geek, and Arrive Outdoors.

Be sure you’re equipped with proper shelter and bedding, cooking and cleaning supplies, medicine and first aid kits, personal hygiene products, and enough food and water. Here’s a helpful camping essentials checklist for what to bring, to start you off.

Looking for more developed camping sites? Here’s where you can search and book your next camping adventure.

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