11 Best Places for Free Dispersed Camping in California

Today, I’m going to share just under a dozen of my favorite places for free dispersed camping in California with you.

Although I’m keeping my absolute favorites secret for now (and I encourage you to do the same with yours), these 11 dispersed campsites are still truly some of the best the state has to offer.

Let’s dive right in to where to go dispersed camping in California on your next trip.

See Also: The Best Free Campsites in Big Sur


Best Dispersed Campsites in California

Jump down to learn more about the free campsite that interests you:

Or, use my California dispersed camping map to find a conveniently-located dispersed campsite for your trip.


My Favorite Dispersed Campsites in California

Here are 11 of my very favorite places for dispersed camping in California (that I’ve personally visited myself).

Alabama Hills

Location: Near Lone Pine 

* Learn more about the new Alabama Hills Management Plan for overnight use.

Alabama Hills National Scenic Area is still one of the absolute best places for free camping in California.

Although recent rule changes restrict dispersed camping to designated areas only, (“No Camping” signs are now abundant in many areas where dispersed camping was once allowed, including to the west of Movie Road on Movie Flat), it’s still possible to camp here for free.

Most important to know is that a free dispersed camping permit is now required. This is not a reservation-style permit. Instead, it’s an “informational permit” similar to the campfire permits required in California. The goal of these measures is to help minimize human impact in the area.

But the new hassle is well worth it. Dispersed camping among the large jumbled rocks in this beautiful desert landscape provides insanely gorgeous views of the nearby Sierra Nevada, including Mount Whitney (the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States).

What I Like:

Beautiful views abound here, especially at sunrise and sunset. The very dark night skies are great for stargazing. There’s plenty of room to spread out, although dispersed camping is now limited to certain areas. Campsites are suitable for tents, vans, and passenger vehicles as well as RVs and trailers.

What I Don’t Like:

It gets very hot in summer (visit in spring or fall for the best weather). Alabama Hills is now extremely popular and the best spots fill up quickly. There’s a huge problem with left behind trash, including human waste – both of which have led to the above-mentioned stricter dispersed camping regulations.

Please avoid off-limits areas, pack out all of your trash, and properly dispose of human waste (either use one of the porta-potties or pack out your solid human waste in a WAG bag or portable camping toilet).

Other Free Campsites Nearby:

Strongly consider camping in one of the developed primitive campgrounds in the area, such as Tuttle Creek Campground ($8 per night) which is also managed by the BLM.

For More Info:

Alabama Hills National Scenic Area is part of the Bureau of Land Management.

Call the Bishop Field Office for more information: (760) 872-5000

Get Directions to Alabama Hills

Painted Canyon

Location: Near Joshua Tree National Park

Painted Canyon is my go-to for free camping near Joshua Tree National Park.

Located about an hour from Palm Springs, it takes just thirty minutes to reach Joshua Tree’s south entrance from here. The Salton Sea is also nearby.

Painted Canyon is notable for its towering canyon walls. These are particularly beautiful at sunrise and sunset. There’s plenty of room to spread out here, especially if you’re willing to brave deep sand.

Most campers seem to set up camp near Painted Canyon Trailhead. However, there are countless dispersed campsites along Painted Canyon Road and its side roads well before you reach the trailhead – just make sure you’re off of the Torres-Martinez Indian Reservation first (it ends about 2.5 miles down Painted Canyon Road just after the first big turn to the north).

Painted Canyon is a decent spot for boondocking. Just make sure not to go to deep into the canyon in a big rig. I recommend selecting a campsite before entering the canyon for all but the smallest RVs and trailers.

* Avoid this area if rain is in the forecast. Not only is the dirt road all but impassible (even with 4WD), but this is a flash flood zone.

What I Like:

Painted Canyon and the surrounding Mecca Hills Wilderness are incredibly beautiful. Hiking opportunities are numerous (such as the popular Ladder Canyon and Painted Canyon Trail) and you can camp right near the trailhead itself.

What I Don’t Like:

Watch out for deep sand. Although moderate washboarding is usually as bad as the main road gets (except after rain), many of the campsites are sand pits. Scout ahead before pulling into a campsite, unless you’re in a 4×4. Set up camp before the canyon itself if you’re in an RV or trailer to avoid the worst of the sand.

Other Free Campsites Nearby:

Continue down Box Canyon Road past the turnoff for Painted Canyon Road. Keep an eye out for turnoffs to the south. Continue down one of these turnoffs for about 100 yards you’ll find previously-used sites. Be aware that this area is also extremely sandy, so look before you leap.

* Box Canyon, like Painted Canyon, is in a flash flood zone, so avoid the area if there’s any chance of rain in the forecast.

For More Info:

Painted Canyon is part of the Mecca Hills Wilderness (managed by the Bureau of Land Management).

Call the Palm Springs South Coast Field Office for more information: (760) 833-7100

Get Directions to Painted Canyon

Usal Beach

Location: Southern Lost Coast

Free camping on the Lost Coast just doesn’t get much better than Usal Beach.

These beautiful beachside dispersed campsites are located in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park at the very southern tip of the Lost Coast.

The long, rough drive into Usal Beach starts by turning off of Highway 1 about 15 miles south of Leggett onto Usal Road. Expect 6 miles of rutted, single-lane dirt road with several steep sections, many very tight corners, and a handful of harrowing drop offs. I recommend high-clearance at a minimum, but 4WD is a huge help.  

Once you’re at the beach, there’s plenty of room to spread out. You’ll find scattered picnic tables and fire rings, although you can set up camp just about anywhere. My favorite spots are tucked away in the trees near the Usal River.

Although you’ll almost certainly see countless vehicles camped right on the beach (and tickets are rarely handed out), driving and camping on the beach are both actually illegal.

* Dispersed camping at Usal Beach is currently “free,” but plans are in place to potentially reinstate fees and enforce designated campsites.

What I Like:

Free beach camping in California? Enough said. In addition to the absolutely beautiful location and quick beach access, there’s a river to swim in, lots of shade trees, and a good amount of room to spread out. You might even see elk wandering across the sandy beach if you’re lucky.

What I Don’t Like:

The drive in is very rough, not to mention harrowing. Don’t take RVs or trailers here. Because it’s one of the only places for free camping on the beach in California, Usal Beach gets extremely busy, especially on summer weekends and holidays with a rowdy, party-like atmosphere.

Other Free Campsites Nearby:

Dispersed camping is limited on this particular stretch of the California coastline. Aside from Usal Beach, the only nearby dispersed campsites I know about are located further down Usal Road past the beach, although the road here is limited to serious 4WD off-road rigs only.

For More Info:

Usal Beach is part of Sinkyone Wilderness State Park.

Call Sinkyone Wilderness State Park for more information: (707) 247-3318

Get Directions to Usal Beach

Prewitt Ridge

Location: Big Sur

* Closures along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road are common (due to overuse, winter storms, and forest fires), so call Los Padres National Forest for info on current shutdowns before heading out.

Prewitt Ridge is home to some of the most scenic free camping in California, bar none.

Nestled high in the coastal hills above Big Sur, this dispersed camping area boasts indescribable views of the California coastline and Pacific Ocean beyond.

But to reach these scenic campsites you must first drive Nacimiento-Fergusson Road and then brave Coast Ridge Trail – a very rough, steep unpaved road with lots of tight turns and large stretches of loose dirt. Give yourself plenty of time to make the trek – and don’t even attempt it if the road is at all wet or muddy.

High-clearance is a must and 4×4 is extremely helpful. I have seen all types of passenger vehicles here, including sedans, but I strongly encourage only those in properly equipped vehicles to attempt the drive. Definitely avoid coming here in even the smallest RVs and trailers.

Seriously though, don’t be that person – if you get stuck, you’ll block not only other campers, but locals who live along the road as well. And, that’s not to mention the damage caused by unequipped vehicles. Even those with high-clearance, 4WD, and appropriate tires need to drive slowly and carefully to minimize damage to the road.

Prewitt Ridge, like all Big Sur dispersed campsites, is extremely popular now. Expect crowds, especially on weekends, even in the winter. Campfires are not allowed here.

What I Like:

The incomparable views are well worth the difficult drive up. Make sure to give yourself enough time to arrive by sunset (both so you don’t need to navigate the road in the dark and so you can see the sun set over the Pacific).

What I Don’t Like:

Prewitt Ridge is very busy. It’s also a popular party spot, so it’s not very quiet. PLEASE PACK OUT ALL YOUR TRASH (including human waste) – or, better yet, leave the area even cleaner than when you arrived.

Take time navigating the road and don’t attempt it in an unequipped vehicle – locals live up here, so respect the fact that they use these roads to access their homes. If the road gets too rough for your vehicle, please stop and turn around rather than tearing it up even more for those who use it on a daily basis.

Other Free Campsites Nearby:

Dispersed camping is allowed in several other areas in Big Sur, such as Los Burros Road and Plaskett Ridge Road. But, do make sure to avoid camping on private property.

Call Los Padre National Forest’s Monterey Ranger Station before heading out for up-to-date information on road closures, current conditions, and legal dispersed campsites.

For More Info:

Prewitt Ridge is part of Los Padres National Forest.

Call the Monterey Ranger District for more information: (831) 242-0619

Get Directions to Prewitt Ridge

Owens River Road

Location: Near Mammoth Lakes

Owens River Road is a perfect home base for exploring the Eastern Sierra.

A huge network of dirt forest service roads branch off of Owens River Road just east of Highway 395, each with countless dispersed campsites.

Although there are a ton of campsites to choose from, boondockers should turn north on the side road about one mile from the turn off from Highway 395. These campsites are among the most flat and spacious. They’ll accommodate even the biggest RVs and trailers.

Vehicle and tent campers who prefer more privacy should wait to turn off until they pass Big Springs Campground a little bit further down Owens River Road. Like most popular dispersed camping areas, remember that the further you drive in down a forest service road, the more likely you are to find a secluded spot.

What I Like:

Although it does get busy here, there’s plenty of room to spread out. You’ll almost certainly find a private campsite if you’re not in a rush. Mammoth Lakes, June Lake, and Lee Vining are all just a short drive away. Plenty of shade and high elevation (8,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level) keeps things relatively cool, even in the middle of summer.

What I Don’t Like:

Unfortunately, you can’t camp along Owens River itself. Stay away from the river and you shouldn’t get in any trouble. Previously used campsites here are very noticeable, so stick to these when possible.

Other Free Campsites Nearby:

Inyo National Forest offers a ton of dispersed camping aside from Owens River Road. Mammoth Scenic Loop just to the south is another great place to explore. Another option is to stay at Big Springs Campground on Owens River Road. It’s a developed campground with 26 campsites – but it’s completely free!

For More Info:

Owens River Road is part of Inyo National Forest.

Call the Mono Lake Ranger District for more information: (760) 924-5500

Get Directions to Owens River Road

Hope Valley

Location: Near Lake Tahoe

Hope Valley is an excellent spot to start your search for boondocking and dispersed camping near Lake Tahoe.

Look for the unmarked turnoff about 1.5 miles south of Picketts Junction on Highway 88 (Carson Pass Highway). You’re looking for a paved road to the north of the highway that crosses a cattle guard and then turns into an unpaved road.

This unpaved road winds its way back through the trees with countless places to pull off and set up camp. Big rigs should stick close to the highway while other vehicles (including smaller RVs and trailers) can head in a bit further.

Hope Valley is entirely located within Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Don’t confuse this dispersed camping area with Hope Valley Campground ($22 per night), a popular developed campground about 2.5 miles to the south.

Best of all, you’re just 30 minutes from South Lake Tahoe as well as 45 minutes from Carson City in neighboring Nevada.

What I Like:

The quick drive to Lake Tahoe is this free campsite’s biggest draw. Even the biggest RVs and trailers can camp here (although you should stick as close to the highway as possible). The nearby meadow is beautiful and the river is just a short walk away. The fall colors here are stunning.

What I Don’t Like:

From my personal experience, this part of Hope Valley is open year-round for campers (although there’s a ton of snow late fall through early spring). However, others have told me that the gate over the cattle guard is closed during the off-season, so keep that in mind if you plan to visit at that time of year.

Other Free Campsites Nearby:

Another nearby free campsite I can personally vouch for is Scotts Lake. It’s actually accessed using the same turnoff you take to get to Hope Valley (or another turnoff about 2.5 miles to the south). Just know that the various roads that lead down to the lake itself are quite narrow, rough, and steep. High-clearance and 4WD are very helpful.

For More Info:

Hope Valley is part of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

Call the Carson Ranger District for more information: (775) 882-2766

Get Directions to Hope Valley

American Girl Mine

Location: Near Yuma

American Girl Mine is home to some of the best boondocking in California, especially for bigger RVs and trailers.

Located just 30 minutes from Yuma, this dispersed camping area is basically a sprawling desert environment with plenty of space to spread out. The majority of campsites are large, flat, and level.

American Girl Mine is easy to reach off of Ogilby Road which connects State Highway 78 to the north with Interstate 8 to the south. The easiest access is turning east onto American Girl Mine Road out of Ogilby. You’ll start seeing campsites in short order.

Although some of the side roads are quite rough (a handful do require high-clearance and 4WD), there are countless campsites just off the well-maintained gravel main road that are perfect for any vehicle, including the largest RVs and trailers.

In addition to the quiet camping, recreational opportunities are abundant. These include visiting ghost towns, exploring old mining ruins, rock hounding, and hiking.

What I Like:

The desert here is absolutely beautiful. Sunrise and sunset against the mountain backdrop is a special treat. I love that there’s so much room to spread out to find a private spot. American Girl Mine is perfect for RV boondocking in rigs of all sizes.

What I Don’t Like:

You’re very exposed to the elements here. There’s very little in the way of shade and it gets very hot in the summer (winter is much more bearable). Wind and dust can also be a problem.

Other Free Campsites Nearby:

A great free camping alternative is the nearby Pilot Knob Long-Term Visitor Area (LTVA), also managed by the Bureau of Land Management, on Sidewinder Road.

In addition to free camping from April 16th to September 14th (for up to two weeks at a time), a $180 LTVA permit lets you camp for up to seven months between September 15th and April 15th.

You can also use this permit at other Long Term Visitor Areas, like Imperial Dam LTVA in Winterhaven or La Posa LTVA in Quartzsite (one of my favorite places for free camping in Arizona).

For More Info:

American Girl Mine is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Call the El Centro Field Office for more information: (760) 337-4400

Get Directions to American Girl Mine

Furnace Creek Road

Location: Near Death Valley National Park

Furnace Creek Washington Road (often called Furnace Creek Wash Road or simply Furnace Creek Road) is home to some of the best free camping near Death Valley.

This well-maintained dirt road stretches for about 8.5 miles from Highway 178 (Jubilee Pass Road) to Highway 127. Although you’ll see previously-used campsites almost immediately after turning off onto this unpaved road, you’re supposed to camp at least one mile from paved roads.

Dispersed camping here is perfect for tent camping, vehicle camping, and boondocking. The road is fine for RVs and trailers of all sizes. You’ll find campsites of all sizes, including those that will accommodate larger RVs and trailers.

In addition to the proximity to Death Valley National Park (about 45 minutes to an hour away), Furnace Creek Road is just a 45 minute drive away from Pahrump, Nevada.

What I Like:

The stargazing here is fantastic. The sky is extremely dark and clear at night. Sunrise and sunset over the desert are just as beautiful. There’s a lot of room to spread out to find a private campsite. Flat, level spaces and a well-maintained dirt road make this a good option for RV boondocking near Death Valley.

What I Don’t Like:

It’s very open here with little, if any, natural shade. Like the rest of this region, summers are extremely hot and dry. Winters are much more bearable, although winter nights can get very cold. Dust and wind can also be a nuisance.

Other Free Campsites Nearby:

The Pads” is another awesome free campsite near Death Valley (even closer than Furnace Creek Road). It’s basically a series of about two dozen concrete slabs, likely the remnants of an old half-built RV park. This is a great place for RVs, trailers, and vans. There’s not much privacy and there is a little nighttime road noise from nearby Highway 190, but the proximity to the national park is impossible to beat.

For More Info:

Furnace Creek Washington Road is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Call the Ridgecrest Field Office for more information: (760) 384-5400

Get Directions to Furnace Creek Road

Carrizo Plain

Location: “Near” Bakersfield

Considered “one of the best kept secrets in California,” Carrizo Plain National Monument is one of my favorite places for dispersed camping in the state.

Although it’s well worth it to visit anytime of the year, the most popular time to visit is during wildflower season. The area is most notable for its colorful super bloom of coreopsis, daises, goldfields, phacelia, and more, which usually peaks in late March to early April.

Free camping opportunities are numerous. Dispersed camping is allowed throughout much of the national monument, although some areas are off-limits. Typically, you can set up camp in the foothills and mountainous areas, but not on the valley floors (check with a ranger for current restrictions).

In addition to dispersed camping, Carrizo Plain has two developed campgrounds: KCL Campground and Selby Campground. Both of these campgrounds are completely free and available on a first-come, first-served basis (no reservations available).

RVs and trailers must stick to the two developed campgrounds. Both can accommodate smaller rigs around 26 feet long (although I have seen rigs in the 32-foot range here). Dispersed camping is restricted to tents and passenger vehicles only.

What I Like:

Wildflower season is absolutely breathtaking. But, visit at any time of the year to see what much of California used to look like before agriculture replaced the sprawling grasslands. You can even see the famous San Andres Fault here.

What I Don’t Like:

It does get busy here – especially during the wildflower super blooms. The two free campgrounds are small, not private at all, and fill up quickly. Luckily, dispersed camping and backcountry camping are allowed on almost 100,000 acres – just make sure you don’t set up camp in a restricted area (i.e. the valley floors).

Other Free Campsites Nearby:

I’m not aware of any other free camping in the surrounding area. Luckily, with two free campgrounds and thousands of acres of dispersed camping, you’re sure to find the perfect free campsite at Carrizo Plain. 

For More Info:

Carrizo Plain National Monument is managed by the Bureau of Land Management

Call the Bakersfield Field Office for more information: (805) 475-2131

Get Directions to Carrizo Plain

Keysville SRMA

Location: Near Lake Isabella

Although dispersed camping isn’t hard to come by near Lake Isabella, the Keysville Special Recreation Management Area stands out above other nearby options.

You have a lot of different campsites to choose from here – from those right on the Kern River to more private campsites tucked away in the trees on the other side of Keysville Road.

Reach this dispersed camping area by turning west off of Wofford Heights Boulevard onto Keysville Road just west of Highway 178. You’ll notice dispersed campsites almost immediately, but I recommend driving in for at least a mile or two before setting up camp.

Several campsites will accommodate RVs and trailers, although these are limited. Keysville Road itself isn’t too rough, but many campsites have steep, rough, sandy access roads (especially those on the river).

What I Like:

These campsites are just minutes away from Lake Isabella. Many campsites are set right on the Kern River, but even those that aren’t are just a short walk away. There’s plenty of room to spread out here, especially if you’re willing to brave rough roads. Several hot springs, including Miracle Hot Springs and Remington Hot Springs (to name just two), are located nearby.

What I Don’t Like:

Keysville SRMA does get busy – especially on summer weekends and holidays. But, there’s usually plenty of room to spread out to find something more private. Like other popular free campsites, trash is a major problem – so make sure to follow the Leave No Trace principles and leave your campsite even cleaner than it was when you arrived.

Other Free Campsites Nearby:

The special recreation management area is expansive with a ton of camping options. Yet even more free camping is available on adjacent BLM land (not part of the SRMA) as well as in nearby Sequoia National Forest. Black Gulch South Dispersed Camping Area (situated along the Lower Kern River) is a good place to start your search in the national forest.

For More Info:

Keysville Special Recreation Management Area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Call the Bakersfield Field Office for more information: (805) 475-2131

Get Directions to Keysville SRMA

Lava Beds National Monument Road

Location: Near Lava Beds National Monument

Last but not least on our list of the best places for free camping in California is a stretch of campsites on the southern road that leads into Lava Beds National Monument.

To access these dispersed campsites, start at the small community of Tionesta and head north on Lava Beds National Monument Road.

You’ll notice dispersed campsites almost immediately – but I recommend driving in at least a mile or two for a more private, secluded spot. Spacious level spots are available for boondocking in RVs and trailers.

Just be aware that dispersed camping isn’t allowed within the national monument itself. So, make sure to set up camp before the entrance.

What I Like:

Camp here for the convenience to Lava Beds National Monument. There are dozens of previously-used campsites and it’s easy to find a private one. Many campsites are simply pull-offs right off the road, but there are a few dirt side roads that take you further back into the pine forest.

What I Don’t Like:

It gets quite windy here at times. Much of the area also burned in recent forest fires, so expect charred and burnt trees, depending on where you set up camp.

Other Free Campsites Nearby:

Camping along Lava Beds National Monument Road north of Tionesta is your best bet, but there are also some dispersed campsites just south of Tionesta along County Road 97A (just past the intersection with Road 44N18) as well.

For More Info:

Lava Beds National Monument Road is located in Modoc National Forest.

Call the Doublehead Ranger District for more information: (530) 667-2246

Get Directions to Lava Beds National Monument Road


Other California Free Camping Ideas

dispersed campsite in Alabama Hills in California

My favorite free campsites discussed above are just the tip of the iceberg for dispersed camping in California. Don’t limit yourself to them and expand your search with the following tips:

  • Consider Parking Lots – I’m a big fan of camping in store parking lots as a backup when I can’t find a good dispersed campsite for the night. Walmart and Cracker Barrel are two options (although not every location allows overnight parking).
  • Try Casino Camping – Even better than store parking lots is camping in a casino parking lot. Many casinos in California welcome boondockers, although you usually need a self-contained vehicle (on-board toilet). Casino camping is often free.
  • Online Maps Are Helpful – Find your own dispersed campsites with the help of Gaia GPS or just plain old satellite view in Google Maps. I like Gaia because it lets you turn on USFS and BLM overlays, so you know 100% your campsite is on public land.
  • Visit a Ranger Station – Always visit the nearest ranger station to the public land you plan to camp on. Not only will they provide information on current conditions, but most have paper motor vehicle use maps as well. Ranger will also provide recommendations on nearby dispersed campsites when asked.
  • Connect with Other Campers – Word of mouth is still one of the best ways to find amazing dispersed campsites. Some of my favorite top-secret California free campsites were found by simply talking to other campers.
  • Stealth Camp as a Backup – I’m not personally a very big fan of stealth camping, but learning the ins and outs is smart just in case you need to hunker down in a city on your trip.

One of the best things about dispersed camping is the almost endless number of campsites you can find. Although the “best” (read: most popular) sites might fill up, there’s little stopping you from finding the perfect, under-the-radar site of your very own.

Learn More: Find Dispersed Campsites (Almost) Anywhere in the US


Always Respect California’s Dispersed Camping Rules

shoreline of Lake Tahoe in California with snow-capped mountains in distance

Please don’t go dispersed camping unless you’re going to respect our public lands.

Most importantly, you absolutely must follow the 7 Leave No Trace principles to minimize your impact when enjoying the great outdoors

To quickly highlight a few key points, please pack out all of your trash (this includes food scraps), properly dispose of human waste (bury in a cat hole if allowed or pack out in WAG bags or a Luggable Loo), and always try your best to set up camp in previously disturbed campsites.

In addition, follow all campfire restrictions (wildfires are a very serious problem in California), stay out of any closed areas, respect local wildlife (practice proper bear country food storage), and respect all stay limits (usually around 14 days on USFS or BLM land).

Another point regarding campfires – know that a free campfire permit is required for all campfires (outside of designated campgrounds and picnic areas) in California. In fact, a permit is even required to use a camp stove while dispersed camping.

It’s vital we keep our public lands clean and minimize our human impact both for our own enjoyment and the enjoyment of the next visitors – not to mention for the health of the local wildlife and of the land itself.


Let Me Know If You Have Any Questions

Still have more questions about dispersed camping in California?

Don’t hesitate to reach out with any additional questions about finding the best dispersed campsites (or other free camping options) in the Golden State. I’m here to help!

Shoot me a line: jake@campnado.com

Related Post: My Favorite Lost Coast Campgrounds