The BEST Inyo National Forest Free Dispersed Camping

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Inyo National Forest occupies a special place along the California-Nevada border. Set against a dramatic backdrop of the Eastern Sierra and containing a stunning diversity of landscapes, this is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places to camp in the region.

A mix of high-alpine terrain, adjacent desert landscapes, and semi-arid conditions provide for ample opportunities for dispersed camping in Inyo National Forest.

We’ve broken down everything you need to know to dispersed camp on the Inyo, including the rules & regulations to be aware of, fire restrictions, and of course some of the top locations to pitch your tent or park your rig.

Inyo National Forest Dispersed Camping Guide

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Dispersed Camping in Inyo National Forest

The following section includes an overview of the top dispersed campsites in Inyo National Forest.

We’ve also created the map below to give you a sense of each campsites’ location.

The single best resource for finding areas where dispersed camping is permitted within Inyo National Forest is the map created and maintained by the Eastern Sierra Sustainable Recreation Partnership.

This map shows areas where camping is prohibited, shaded red, to make it easy to know where you can camp. We recommend consulting it for any dispersed camping trip in Inyo.

If you’re looking for other dispersed camping in the region, we recommend starting with our California Dispersed Camping guide. Then, check out some of our other camping guides in area:

Finally, if you’re interested in finding more dispersed campsites in the area, check out our guide to the best dispersed camping apps to help you find your next campsite.


Mammoth Scenic Loop

Restrooms: No

One of the more popular dispersed camping areas in Inyo National Forest is along the Mammoth Scenic Loop Road, which connects the town of Mammoth Lakes (and associated ski area) to Highway 395. The road itself is paved, and there are tons of Forest Service roads on either side as you make the ~9.5 mile trip between Highway 395 & Mammoth Lakes.

Many of the sites can accommodate larger vehicles and trailers, and these tend to be closer to the main road. The further back you get the rougher the roads tent to get, and the more privacy you can expect.

This is a great option if you want to be close to a town, as you’re a short drive into Mammoth Lakes. Do keep in mind that this is a very popular dispersed camping area, so leaving your site better than your found it is essential. Although campfires may be allowed seasonally, we don’t recommend having one here. It just isn’t worth the risk.

For more camping in the area, check out our guide to the best dispersed campsites near Mammoth Lakes.

Owens River Road

Restrooms: No
Water: No

Owens River Road is located in Inyo National Forest, just off of Highway 375. Dispersed camping is permitted almost immediately off the highway, with numerous sites available on both sides of the road.

There are dozens of small pullouts off the main road that lead to small and secluded campsites. Most of these can be easily accessed by a variety of vehicles, including some sites for larger rigs.

The main road leads back to the developed Big Springs Campground, but you won’t want to head that far back. Inyo National Forest has defined area within its boundaries that specifically prohibit dispersed camping, and once you have reached the Big Springs Campground, dispersed camping is no longer permitted.

You can see the areas where dispersed camping is prohibited in red below, with Owens River Road highlighted yellow:

Map of dispersed camping along Owens River Road
Map of dispersed camping along Owens River Road. Map credit Eastern Sierra Sustainable Recreation Partnership.

As you can see on the map above, there are tons of small offshoots from Owens River Road. This is where the best campsites can be found.

Many sites are tucked back deep in the trees, giving a bit of privacy in an area that is very popular with dispersed campers. To get a sense of what camping here is like, check out the video below:

Laurel Springs

Restrooms: No
Water: No

A good option for tent campers looking for dispersed camping are the handful of sites at Laurel Springs. There are 6 – 8 sites here that offer a bit of privacy and are only a handful of miles from Mammoth Lakes. Access is also relatively straightforward from Highway 395.

There is some confusion around whether or not camping is permitted here, as you’ll see several signs posted on the way in prohibiting it. However, these signs are all posted on LA Dept of Water & Power property, and not in the actual National Forest. If you consult the Eastern Sierra Camping Map you’ll find that there is a sliver of property within Inyo where dispersed camping is allowed, see below.

Your best bet is to compare your GPS coordinates with that map, or use something like the Public Lands layer on Gaia GPS to confirm you are in the National Forest. Please do not camp on the LA Water property as you will be ticketed or asked to leave.

Laurel Springs is best for smaller set-ups and tents, as many of the sites are too small for larger rigs.

Map of Laurel Road dispersed camping in Inyo National Forest.
As you can see, the Laurel Springs dispersed camping area (highlighted yellow) is just outside of an area where camping is prohibited. Be sure to check that you are setting up within this area. Map Credit Eastern Sierra Sustainable Recreation Partnership.

Mono Mills

Restrooms: No

The area surrounding the Mono Mills Historic Site offers a plethora of dispersed camping within Inyo National Forest. Sites are located both north and south of Highway 120, and many have excellent views of the Sierra as well as Mono Lake.

Depending on your vehicle’s capabilities you’ll either have the ability to explore a bit further back on some of the Forest Service Roads or you’ll want to camp closer to the highway. Either way, the sites are relatively secluded and offer a decent amount of tree cover.

This is a great location for exploring the eastern Sierra, or venturing into Yosemite National Park via the east entrance.

There is no water or restrooms in this area, so you’ll want to come prepared to be self-sufficient.

Mono Lake.
Mono Lake

Owens Gorge Road

Restrooms: No

Owens Gorge Road is located east of Crowley Lake and provides a good secluded area for dispersed camping. The views here back towards the Sierra are nothing short of stunning. Most of the campsites are located south of Benton Crossing Road, where a convoluted network of Forest Service Roads exist.

Take your time and explore a bit before settling on a campsite, as there are some true gems to be found. Road conditions vary quite a bit once you are off the paved road, so take your time and don’t take any unnecessary changes if your vehicle isn’t up to it.

There are also some excellent campsites on the eastern side of Crowley Lake that are on BLM land rather than within Inyo National Forest.

View of the Eastern Sierras from Crowley Lake.

Buttermilk Road

Restrooms: No

The Buttermilk Road dispersed camping area is located west of the town of Bishop, and nestled right at the base of the Sierra mountains. There is a patchwork of land ownership here, so it is essential that you consult a map to be sure you are on Inyo NF land. Don’t be dissuaded by the no camping signs on the road in, as these only apply to the land managed by the LA Department of Water and Power.

This is a popular camping area for climbers, as there is some excellent bouldering in the area. Most of the campsites are clustered around the main climbing/parking area, although if you drive further back there are additional spots. The road isn’t great, so this isn’t recommended for those with a trailer or large rig.

Map of Buttermilk Road dispersed camping
Buttermilk Road is a patchwork of land ownership, so take care when setting up camp to be sure you are on public land. The area highlighted yellow is the main dispersed camping area.

The Basics

Now that we’ve covered some of our favorite spots for dispersed camping in Inyo National Forest, let’s dive into some of the information you’ll need to find your own campsite. As with most National Forests, dispersed camping is permitted throughout Inyo National Forest unless expressly forbidden and as long as you are following the general guidelines put in place by the Forest Service.

Permits, Rules, and Campfires

To start off, you won’t need a permit to dispersed camp anywhere in Inyo National Forest. However, that doesn’t mean you can simply show up, pitch your tent anywhere you like and call it a day. There are many areas within the Inyo that prohibit dispersed camping, and knowing whether your campsite is in one of those areas is essential.

Luckily, through an amazing organization called the Eastern Sierra Sustainable Recreation Partnership, it is incredibly easy to determine where camping is allowed. the ESSRP has created an interactive map, accessed below, which shows the areas of the forest that permit camping, and those that do not.

Eastern Sierra Sustainable Recreation Partnership Camping Map

Be sure to check it out before you are out looking for a site. They even have an app that can be used offline so you can check a specific site in the forest to be sure camping is permitted.

Additionally, there is a patchwork of land ownership around the Inyo, with large swaths owned and managed by the Los Angeles Power & Water Department, which prohibits camping on their property. Get a good GPS app, such as Gaia GPS, which has an excellent public lands map layer to determine what type of land you are currently on.

Finally, it is important to check the Forest Service Alerts & Notices page for the most up to date on any current closures or other happenings that may impact your ability to camp.

Other helpful dispersed camping rules that broadly apply to Inyo National Forest include:

  • Keep your campsite small.
  • Use existing sites when available.
  • Pick a site where vegetation is absent.
  • Do not camp within 200 feet of a water source.
  • Store food in a bear-proof container
  • 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, which of course applies to Inyo National Forest.

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!

What to Bring

You shouldn’t expect any amenities when dispersed camping in Inyo National Forest so you’ll need to come prepared to be self-sufficient.

While we’re sure you’ll already have the essentials like a great tentsleeping bags, and camp chairs,  below are some of our essential items:

  • Coleman Camping Stove – This classic piece of gear is perfect for cooking up deluxe campsite dinners.
  • Portable water container – Most of the camping areas included in this guide do not have a potable water source. As such, a portable water container is essential.
  • Cooler – Keeping food and drinks cool is critical when camping. We can’t recommend Yeti enough!
  • Map – We prefer downloadable GPS maps via the Gaia GPS app. You can get 20% off your annual membership here.
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.

Leave No Trace Dispersed Camping

One of the most important considerations when dispersed camping in Inyo National Forest is to follow Leave No Trace principles. The wilderness here is fragile and it is our responsibility to minimize our impact and keep these areas open to future campers.

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.

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 Inyo National Forest.

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

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