Lake Tahoe’s iconic mix of mountains and water draws visitors and outdoor recreation enthusiasts from far and wide. The stunning views, incredible trails, and unique mountain towns make this one California’s premier destinations. For those who prefer to sleep out under the stars the Lake Tahoe region is also home to some great dispersed camping opportunities.
Although not permitted in the Lake Tahoe Basin, dispersed camping is allowed in much of the surrounding National Forests. We wrote this guide to help you find the best dispersed campsite near Lake Tahoe for your next trip.
Keep reading to understand the rules, regulations, and how to prepare for a successful Lake Tahoe dispersed camping trip.
Lake Tahoe Dispersed Camping Guide
- The Basics
- Dispersed Camping near Lake Tahoe
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The following sections contain all the must know information you need to plan a successful dispersed camping trip in the Lake Tahoe region. This includes everything from when to camp, what to bring, campfire regulations, and more.
For starters, it is important to understand some basics around dispersed camping in the area. The first, and most important, is to note that dispersed camping is not permitted in the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit which contains the entirety of the lake and immediately surrounding forest. Don’t fret though, there are tons of good dispersed campsites just outside of this area that still provide great access to the lake.
When to Dispersed Camp at Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is definitely a summer camping destination. Winters here bring cold and snow, and while it might be possible to camp at a few destinations during the winter months we typically don’t recommend it.
That means that, generally speaking, you should plan your trip for May – September to get the best weather. It is often possible to camp in the shoulder season outside of this window, especially into October during many years, but that is highly depending on the weather and previous season’s snowfall.
You can expect crowds to be heaviest during July and August, which leads us to say that September is the overall best month for a Lake Tahoe dispersed camping trip. During the peak summer months you’ll have the best luck if you camp on a weekday or plan on arriving as early as you can for weekend trips.
What to Bring
Dispersed camping doesn’t benefit from the same level of service you can expect when staying in a developed campground. You often won’t have access to bathrooms, a reliable water source, and certainly no trash pickup. That means that you’ll need to come prepared to be self-sufficient when dispersed camping near Lake Tahoe.
- 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. If you prefer paper maps, this package from National Geographic has everything you’ll need to explore the area.
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.
Permits, Fees, and Campfires
Lake Tahoe is surrounded by three National Forests and the lake itself is located in what is known as the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Area. Dispersed camping is not permitted within the boundaries of Lake Tahoe Basin, but it is permitted in the three National Forests that surround it. You can find additional details on dispersed camping in each of those National Forests below:
- Tahoe National Forest Dispersed Camping
- Eldorado National Forest Dispersed Camping
- Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest Dispersed Camping
In general, there aren’t any permits or fees to be paid when dispersed camping near Lake Tahoe, but there are a few key rules and regulations to keep in mind:
- 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!
Given the horrible fire seasons California has been experiencing the past few years we highly discourage you from having a campfire while dispersed camping near Lake Tahoe.
However, if you do choose to do so when it is allowed, you’ll need to ensure you have the proper campfire permit described below.
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 is doubly true for the Lake Tahoe Region where 2021 saw the Caldor Fire threaten South Lake Tahoe and burn thousands of acres of national forest surrounding the lake.
Given this and prior to having a campfire please check current restrictions and secure the necessary California Campfire Permit.
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 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.
Dispersed Camping near Lake Tahoe
The following section includes an overview of our six favorite free or dispersed camping areas near Lake Tahoe. These sites vary in location, access, and nearby recreation opportunities, so our hope is that these descriptions help you choose one that works well for you.
In addition, our Lake Tahoe dispersed camping map below gives an overview of each site’s location with a full description included in the following section. Enjoy!
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:
- Sequoia National Forest Dispersed Camping
- Kern River Dispersed Camping
- Death Valley National Park Camping
- Joshua Tree National Park Camping
- Inyo National Forest Dispersed Camping
Scotts Lake Dispersed Camping
Starting near the South Lake Tahoe area, you’ll find Scotts Lake dispersed camping. Located in 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.
Luther Pass Dispersed Camping Area
Restrooms: Vault toilet
The Luther Pass Campground is not a typical dispersed camping area, but rather a sanctioned, yet primitive, campground. However, the sites are all free and you definitely get a dispersed camping feeling here as the campsites are well spread out and have only basic amenities. This is also one of the best free options located within the Lake Tahoe Basin.
The campsites here do have bear boxes and a pit toilet is also available. The majority of the sites are walk-in, but they aren’t far from the parking area and this adds to the dispersed feel of the area.
There is a 7-day out of every 14-days camping limit at Luther Pass, so be sure to not overstay your welcome. This is a popular area, so you’ll need to arrive early during summer weekends to secure a spot. If full, keep driving south and check out Scotts Lake described above.
Loon Lake Dispersed Camping
Loon Lake is located east of Lake Tahoe and offers a good place for dispersed camping in addition to a few developed campgrounds. Your best bet for finding dispersed sites is to head to the west side of the lake, past the Northshore Campground on Ice House Rd. There, you’ll find a few sites tucked into the trees.
Loon Lake is very popular in the summer and there have been several closures in recent years so you’ll definitely want to check with Eldorado National Forest to ensure the area is open for dispersed camping before setting out.
A unique, and also free, camping option at Loon Lake is the Pleasant Campground which can only be accessed by boat or by hiking in. Although not technically a dispersed campsite, it certainly feels like one given the seclusion and lack of vehicles there.
Although not a dispersed campsite, the Airport Flat Campground offers a great free camping option near Lake Tahoe. Situated east of both Lake Tahoe and Loon Lake, this basic Forest Service campground has 16 campsites that can accommodate tents, RV, and trailers. Gerle Creek runs adjacent to the campsites which can provide a water source if you have a filter or boil it.
Many of the forest service roads that lead to Airport Flat are also good candidates for dispersed camping should you prefer that to staying at this free campsite. Keep an eye out Wentworth Springs Road as you drive in as there are many pull outs that make decent campsites.
Airport Flat Campground has a basic vault toilet, picnic tables, fire rings, as well as bear-proof food storage containers.
Gray Rock Camping Area
Another good free camping option near Lake Tahoe is the Gray Rock Camping Area in Eldorado National Forest. You’ll want to give the Ranger District a call to confirm the area is open since it was heavily impacted by the Caldor Fire, but if it is you can enjoy a great free campground. The campsites here are well spread out which gives it a “dispersed” feel while still being at a developed campground.
Gray Rock is about an hours drive from Lake Tahoe, but there is tons to do in the surrounding National Forest as well. The campground has basic restroom facilities, but no dedicated water source so you’ll want to bring all that you’ll need for your trip.
Just as with the Airport Flat Campground, there are tons of dispersed camping opportunities on the Forest Service Roads that lead to Gray Rock, so keep an eye out for smaller sites that we didn’t want to include in this guide.
Restrooms: Vault toilets available at campground
North of Lake Tahoe you’ll find the Sagehen Creek area which features a free USFS campground as well as tons of dispersed camping opportunities. Located in Tahoe National Forest, the free campground has 10 campsites that are dispersed throughout the forest. There are basic vault toilets here, but no water or trash service. Please be sure to pack out all of your waste!
In addition to the campground, the forest service roads in the area also have several good dispersed campsites to check out. They are generally small pull outs from the main roads, but they tend to offer seclusion and privacy.
Regardless of where you choose to camp in this area, please be a good steward of the National Forest. Practice Leave No Trace camping and always leave your campsite in better shape than you found it!
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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 near Lake Tahoe.
Be sure to let us know in the comments below if you have any questions and be sure to tell us about your trip!