California Dispersed Camping: The Complete Guide

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Ah, California. A state with incredible, diverse landscapes, ecosystems, and nearly endless public lands. From Joshua Tree, to Lake Tahoe, to Mendocino, California has tons of opportunities for dispersed camping. The wide variety of national forests and BLM land here means that the options for camping are nearly endless.

Regardless of where you’re looking to pitch your tent, there are bound to be options to plan a free, dispersed camping trip.

We’ve created this guide to help you find the perfect campsite and in the sections below you’ll find out where to camp, what to expect, how to navigate the various rules, and much more so you can plan your perfect California dispersed camping trip.

Let’s get started.

California Dispersed Camping Guide

The Basics

The following sections have all the critical info you need to understand the rules and regulations around dispersed camping in California. This includes where you can legally camp, what the various rules are, and what to bring. This is the essential information before you head out!

Where is dispersed camping allowed in California?

Broadly speaking, dispersed camping is permitted on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and United States Forest Service (USFS) in California. There are of course nuances to this, but you can expect that dispersed camping is allowed on BLM land or in one of the state’s national forests unless it is explicitly prohibited.

More detail on dispersed camping in National Forest and on BLM land in California are provided below:

US Forest Service Dispersed Camping in California (USFS)

The US Forest Services manages a staggering 18 National Forests within California as well as two additional that span the California-Oregon border. This is the most national forests of any state, and a great opportunity for those looking to find dispersed campsites.

One notable National Forest to mention here is Angeles National Forest, located just outside of Los Angeles. Given the close proximity to an urban area and the number of visitors, dispersed camping is not allowed in Angeles National Forest. Don’t fret though, the remaining 17 National Forests all permit it in some capacity!

For more information on the specific rules surrounding dispersed camping in each of California’s National Forests, we’ve provide the list below with links to the relevant rules and regulations:

In addition, Siskiyou and Rogue River National Forests both have small sections within California, although the majority of those forests are in Oregon. Check out the USFS map below to get a sense of where each of these forests are located in the state:

Map of National Forests in California
Map of National Forests in California. Map credit USFS.

Bureau of Land Management Dispersed Camping in California (BLM)

In addition to the USFS, the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM for short, is the other large public land owner in California that allows dispersed camping. BLM land offers tons of dispersed camping areas in California, so should always be on your list when you’re looking for a campsite. There are lots of good BLM camping areas in the southern part of the state near Joshua Tree and Death Valley in addition to a few in the northern part of the state as well.

BLM land can be a bit harder to determine whether or not dispersed camping is permitted, so we recommend reaching out to the relevant district office listed below:

In addition, you can find a good overview of BLM dispersed camping rules here. The map below gives you a sense of where BLM managed land is located in California:

Map of BLM land in California
Map of BLM land in California. Map credit BLM.

How to find dispersed camping in California

Given the propensity of public land, finding a dispersed camping in California can be a relatively straightforward affair. With a little knowledge of where to look, experience navigating forest service roads, reading USFS maps, and camping in remote locations, it should be relatively straightforward to find dispersed camping in California.

When searching for a good campsite ourselves, we prefer to use a combination of several online apps/websites along with publically available USFS/BLM maps.

Our favorite resources are below:

  • Freecampsites.net – Our go to resource for finding free camping in the US. Simply enter your desired location and filter through the results.
  • The Dyrt – An app that let’s you filter for free and dispersed campsites.
  • Campendium – A website and app that allows you to see user reviews for campsites and campgrounds across the country.

Check out our Dispersed Camping App guide here.

Looking to find more dispersed campsites? Check out The Dyrt PRO to get campsite reviews, offline maps, and the best map layers for finding public dispersed camping!

Our Top Camping App – The Dyrt PRO

The Dyrt PRO

Looking to find more free, dispersed camping?

The Dyrt PRO is our favorite resource for planning your trip. Use the custom map layers to find public land, download offline maps, and navigate to your perfect dispersed campsite. Highly recommended!

While these apps and websites are a good starting place for finding dispersed campsites in California, we always cross reference the information with public agencies maps and resources. The best resource for this is often reaching out directly to the relevant USFS Ranger District or BLM Office in the area you’d like to camp.

In addition, one of the best maps for finding free, dispersed camping is what’s known as a Motor Vehicle Use Map or MVUM for short. These maps are published by the Forest Service and display the entire network of forest service roads in a given area. Many also display where dispersed camping is permitted, typically indicated by two dots on either side of a given road.

The National Forests in California have an excellent interactive MVUM finder published by the USFS for Region 5 (which happens to be the entirety of California) which allows you to select the exact MVUM you need for a given area. Check it out below to get a sense of the various maps available:

USFS Region 5 (California) MVUM Finder

We often have a motor vehicle use map open in one tab and Google Maps satellite view in the other to help find dispersed campsites. You can cross reference the two and often see areas that have established campsites in Google Maps.

Dispersed Camping Rules & Regulations

One of our favorite things about dispersed camping is the lack of permits, reservations, and other requirements you’ll often find at developed campgrounds. However, there are a few California specific rules and regulations that you’ll need to know when planning you trip:

  • Cleveland National Forest: Campfires are prohibited outside of developed campgrounds and permits are required for specific areas if dispersed camping.
  • San Bernardino National Forest: Campfires are prohibited outside of developed campgrounds
  • Angeles National Forest: Dispersed camping is prohibited
  • Alabama Hills: Although not yet implemented, there is a high likelihood that a permit system will be put in place.

It is best to check current regulations with the relevant USFS or BLM office, but you should plan on adhering to the following as outlined by the USFS:

  • Do not camp in areas near trailheads, picnic areas, or developed campgrounds.
  • Keep your campsite small.
  • Use existing sites and fire rings when available.
  • Pick a site where vegetation is absent.
  • Do not camp within 200 feet of a water source.
  • Dispersed camping is generally limited to 14 days within any continuous 30 day period.
  • Only have a campfire if it is permitted, and always be sure it is completely extinguished.
  • Practice Leave No Trace principles – more on that below!

California Campfire Permits

California has a permit system for any campfires on federal lands and private property owned by another person. The state has seen nearly endless devastating wildfires over the past several years, so fire restrictions should be top of mind before you consider having a campfire.

This permit program applies to all dispersed camping in California, so please ensure you have a campfire permit by completing the form below:

You can request a campfire permit for your trip here.

Even with the campfire permit system, it is critical to check current fire bans and conditions before having a fire.

We can’t stress this enough as being a responsible forest user is essential to preventing wildfires and preserving our incredible forests!

Leave No Trace Principles & Dispersed Camping

One of the most important considerations when dispersed camping is to follow Leave No Trace principles. This will minimize your impact and ensure your campsite can be enjoyed by future visitors. Here are the seven principles of Leave No Trace camping:

  • Plan Ahead & Prepare: Have an idea of where you’d like to camp and always be sure you are camping in an area that permits dispersed camping.
  • Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces: Never camp on fragile ground or create a new campsite.
  • Dispose of waste properly: Pack out all of your trash and bury human waste away from water sources. Ideally, carry out human waste or use a portable toilet.
  • Leave what you find: Never take anything from your campsite. Other than trash of course!
  • Minimize campfire impacts: Never create new fire rings and only have fires if permitted.
  • Respect Wildlife: Properly store food at all times and be aware of the area’s wildlife.
  • Be considerate of Other Visitors: Pack out your trash, don’t be loud, and leave your campsite in better condition than you found it.

You can read more about the seven principles of Leave No Trace camping here.

Mendocino National Forest dispersed camping
Dispersed Camping Checklist

Our dispersed camping checklist has everything you need.

Want to know the essentials for your next camping trip?

Our dispersed camping checklist has all the camping essentials plus specific items for dispersed camping.

The Best Dispersed Camping in California

If you’ve read the sections above you should have a good overview of the rules and regulations surrounding dispersed camping in California and you’re probably ready to start planning your next trip. To help give you some inspiration, we’ve included our Top 9 dispersed camping areas in California below.

In addition, the California Dispersed camping map below shows all of the campsite locations, with detailed descriptions following.

Kern River Dispersed Camping

Restrooms: Vault toilets often available seasonally.
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Busy
Map

The Kern River cuts through California’s Sierra Nevada mountains and makes a wonderful dispersed camping destination. Located in Sequoia National Forest, the river has nine designated dispersed campsites that offer the opportunity to camp right on the river and enjoy some of the incredible recreation in the region.

Of these nine dispersed sites, our favorites include Brush Creek, Ant Canyon, and Chico Flat. However, you really can’t go wrong with any of the dispersed sites available, and we recommend reading our complete guide to dispersed camping on the Kern River here to pick the site that works best for you.

These sites represent some of California’s best dispersed camping as they are easily accessed, provide some basic facilities (vault toilets), and let you enjoy a wild and scenic river for free. Given this, it is important to do your part when camping here and always leave your campsite in better condition than when you found it.

Kern River
The Kern River makes a great spot for dispersed camping.

Joshua Tree Dispersed Camping

Restrooms: No
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Busy
Map

Joshua Tree is an incredibly popular destination for dispersed camping in California. The dry, desert climate makes this an ideal winter getaway to check out the National Park and enjoy all of the surrounding wilderness. There is great dispersed camping just outside of Joshua Tree National Park.

The best dispersed campsites are located south of the parks, just off of Cottonwood Springs Road. This location couldn’t be better if you’re looking to explore the southern section of the park, as you’re mere minutes from the Cottonwood entrance station. The campsites are located just north of I-10, giving you easy access to Indio for supplies.

To get here, take I-10 to Cottonwood Springs Road and head north towards Joshua Tree National Park. After approximately 1 mile of driving along Cottonwood Springs Road you’ll begin to see campsites located to the west. If you’re looking for more Joshua Tree camping, check out our complete guide.

Alabama Hills Dispersed Camping

Restrooms: No
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Busy
Map

The Alabama Hills are famous for their iconic views of the Sierra, excellent climbing, as well as some of California’s best dispersed camping. Located on BLM land, dispersed camping here is very popular. Given that, it is incredibly important to practice Leave No Trace principles and always leave your campsite in better shape than you found it.

The BLM has recently updated the rules for dispersed camping at the Alabama Hills to minimize impacts and keep the area open. Moving forward, the BLM will establish several designated dispersed camping areas. This includes restricting the west side of Movie Road to day-use only and the implementation of a free permit system for camping. Please do not set-up outside of these as you’ll risk a fine and potentially damage this sensitive ecosystem.

Get the most up to date information on camping in the Alabama Hills here.

There are no services for campers dispersed camping at the Alabama Hills, so you’ll want to make sure you’ve brought enough water and are prepared to be self-sufficient!

Alabama Hills in California

Yosemite Area Dispersed Camping

Restrooms: No
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Busy
Map

Yosemite National Park is one of California’s most iconic destinations. From Half Dome to El Cap, this area is home to some incredible sights. Luckily for the dispersed campers out there, several great campsites are located just outside the park’s boundaries.

Our favorite of these is Hardin Flat Road, located just a short drive from the Big Oak Entrance Station on the west side of the park. This is a great place to camp as there are many sites the further back on Hardin Road you head. 

There are no services here and there is not a water source either. However, you’re relatively close to civilization and there are a few RV and developed campgrounds nearby. This is an excellent area to camp if you plan to visit the Yosemite Valley and take in the wonderful Half-Dome views.

If you’re looking for more great dispersed camping near Yosemite, check out our complete guide!

Yosemite valley

South Lake Tahoe/Scotts Lake Dispersed Camping

Restrooms: No
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Busy
Map

Heading north from Yosemite you’ll start to reach the Lake Tahoe area, which is also home to some excellent dispersed camping areas. One of the best is the road leading to Scotts Lake in the South Lake Tahoe region of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. This dispersed camping area is easily accessed right off Highway 88/Carson Pass Highway and can accommodate most camping set-ups, from tents to RVs.

There is no water source or other facilities at Scotts Lake so do come prepared with a water container, and also be prepared to pack out all of your trash and dispose of human waste.

Several of the campsites have good shade, but those tend to fill up first on busy weekends. You’ll want to plan to arrive early to get the best sites, but there is almost always room for campers here.

Williams Hill Recreation Area

Restrooms: No
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Moderate
Map

The Williams Hills Recreation Area is a small section of BLM land in southern Monterey County between Salinas and Santa Maria. This is a great, off the beaten path destination for dispersed camping in California and you’ll get to enjoy a less visiting part of the state when camping here.

There is both a primitive campground (the Williams Hill Campground) as well as dispersed camping at Williams Hill so you should have no problem finding a site that suits your needs. For the dispersed sites you must park within 15′ of the roadway and not within 200′ of a wildlife watering system.

The Williams Hill Campground is a very basic site that has no amenities, but does offer level campsites. Regardless of where you camp here you’ll need to come prepared with all of your own water and also be sure to pack out all trash and waste.

Eagle Lake – Rocky Point East Dispersed Camping

Restrooms: Vault toilet
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Moderate
Map

Rocky Point East is a primitive dispersed camping area located on Eagle Lake in northeastern California. Situated on the edge of Lassen National Forest, this camping area is actually located on BLM land. There is a vault toilet available here, although no drinking water or trash removal.

You won’t find any shade at Rocky Point East and the camping area doesn’t provide much privacy, but you can enjoy recreating on Eagle Lake or explore the adjacent national forest. This is a less frequented part of California so is also a great place to go to escape some of the crowds that are common at other dispersed camping areas.

Cowboy Camp – BLM Cache Creek Wilderness

Restrooms: Vault toilet
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Moderate
Map

Known locally as the ‘Cowboy Camp’, this dispersed camping area is located in the BLM managed Cache Creek Wilderness just east of Clear Lake. There are several trails leading from this basic camping area, which is situated just off Highway 16 next to Bear Creek. You won’t find a ton of shade here, but there is plenty of room for a variety of camping set-ups, the ground is fairly level, and the adjacent creek offers a nice way to cool down.

Cowboy Camp is popular with horse campers, so you’ll want to be prepared to share the camping area with a few larger trailers and equestrian friends.

There is a vault toilet here, but no water source so you’ll want to come prepared with a good water storage container. This area rarely fills up so is a good option if you can’t find any other dispersed campsites in the area.

Grizzly Flat Dispersed Campground

Restrooms: Vault toilet
Water: 
No
Crowds:
 Light
Map

A remote dispersed campground located in Mendocino National Forest is the Grizzly Flat Dispersed Campground. The former home of an old fire station, the site now hosts three dispersed campsites with a basic vault toilet. Tucked off the road in a stand of trees, Grizzly Flat offers solitude and an escape from the summer heat in this part of the state.

The site is best suited for tent campers and it is not recommended to bring your RV or large trailer here given the size of the campsites and the lack of a turnaround.

Remember that although this area is maintained by Mendocino National Forest, there is no trash removal so you are responsible for packing out all of your waste. There is also no water at the site, so please plan to bring all that you’ll need for your trip here.

Looking to find more dispersed campsites? Check out The Dyrt PRO to get campsite reviews, offline maps, and the best map layers for finding public dispersed camping!

Our Top Camping App – The Dyrt PRO

The Dyrt PRO

Looking to find more free, dispersed camping?

The Dyrt PRO is our favorite resource for planning your trip. Use the custom map layers to find public land, download offline maps, and navigate to your perfect dispersed campsite. Highly recommended!

Have a great trip!

That’s it! We hope we’ve provided all of the information you need to plan a great dispersed camping trip in California.

Be sure to let us know in the comments below if you have any questions and be sure to tell us about your trip!

Looking for more dispersed camping content? Don’t forget to check out our other state specific dispersed camping guides:

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