Dispersed camping near Lake Tahoe is totally possible if you know where to look.
Although it’s outlawed throughout the Lake Tahoe Basin (including the area immediately surrounding the lake), you’ll find an abundance of free campsites just a short drive away.
Here’s exactly where to find the best free dispersed campsites near Lake Tahoe on your next trip.
Related Post: Where to Go Dispersed Camping in California
Please always follow the 7 Leave No Trace principles when dispersed camping, especially packing out all of your trash, including human waste.
Best Free Campsites Near Lake Tahoe
Jump to the free campsite you want to learn more about:
Or, use our Lake Tahoe dispersed camping map to browse the area’s best free campsites.
Lake Tahoe is bear country, so please always store your food correctly and practice proper bear safety. A free campfire permit is required to have a campfire (although campfires are banned for much of the year, especially at dispersed campsites).
My Favorite Dispersed Camping Near Lake Tahoe
Remember, dispersed camping isn’t allowed anywhere in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
This includes the entirety of the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit which includes the lake itself as well as the immediately surrounding forests.
Luckily, dispersed camping is allowed throughout much of nearby Eldorado, Humboldt-Toiyabe, and Tahoe national forests as well as on BLM land nearby in Nevada.
Here are my three favorite free dispersed campsites near Lake Tahoe to help start your search.
Hope Valley (Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest)
Hope Valley is my personal favorite place for dispersed camping near Lake Tahoe.
It’s not exactly private since most of the campsites are located just off Highway 88 (Carson Pass Highway), but what it lacks in privacy it more than makes up for with convenience. It’s just a 30 minute drive to South Lake Tahoe.
There’s enough room here for even the biggest RVs and trailers, although big rigs should stick to the large campsites closest to the highway. Passenger vehicles, especially those with high-clearance, can venture in further to find a little more privacy.
Find Hope Valley by keeping your eyes open for an unmarked turnoff about 1.5 miles south of Picketts Junction, where Highway 88 intersects Highway 89 (Luther Pass Road). The turnoff is an unmarked paved road that crosses a cattle guard before it becomes unpaved. You’ll see dispersed campsites almost immediately.
Scotts Lake (Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest)
Scotts Lake is located just past Hope Valley using the same turnoff from Highway 88.
It’s part of the same winding network of unpaved roads. But, getting down to the lake is quite a bit more difficult thanks to the roughness of the lake’s access roads.
Although the roads closest to the highway are relatively smooth, the roads that take you down to Scotts Lake are rough, steep, and narrow. Don’t attempt the drive in an RV or trailer. In my opinion, high-clearance and 4WD are necessary.
Navigating the rough roads is well worth it if you have a properly-equipped vehicle. Several campsites sit right on the lake itself with easy access for fishing and swimming, not to mention incredible views.
Although it’s a common practice, please don’t drive your vehicle onto the beach itself. Set up camp in the forest surrounding the lake and walk down to the beach, please.
Some people consider Hope Valley and Scotts Lake one and the same, but I see them as two distinct dispersed camping areas because of the major difference in road quality, despite their proximity.
Like Hope Valley, Scotts Lake is a quick drive to South Lake Tahoe (30 to 45 minutes) and a slightly longer drive to Carson City.
Luther Pass (Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit)
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a free campsite closer to South Lake Tahoe than Luther Pass.
Although true dispersed camping was once allowed here, you’re now required to stay in one of 11 marked designated dispersed campsites since it’s now part of the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
Luther Pass is free and each campsite is decently private, but there are also basic amenities, like picnic tables and fire rings as well as vault toilets and bear boxes. Many of the sites require a short walk (50 feet or so) to reach.
You’ll find these campsites off a short section of South Upper Truckee Road that winds between a bend in Highway 89 (Luther Pass Road) near Big Meadow Trailhead.
Luther Pass isn’t a good boondocking destination, but almost any passenger vehicle can make the trek in. Don’t try to take an RV or trailer here.
Other Free Dispersed Campsites Near Lake Tahoe
The three campsites above are my absolute favorite places for free camping near Lake Tahoe, but there are a ton of other free campsites nearby. Here are three additional options to choose from.
Dog Valley Road (Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest)
Dog Valley Road is an excellent spot for dispersed camping north of Lake Tahoe.
The campsites here are roughly 45 minutes to Truckee, a little over an hour to both Tahoe City and Incline Village, and just 30 minutes to Reno.
The main draw here is solitude. These dispersed campsites are remote and secluded. Most have ample privacy with a heck of a lot of natural beauty in every direction.
Dog Valley Road and its spur roads are quite rough, however. This isn’t the spot to camp in an RV or trailer. Most passenger vehicles should be fine, although high-clearance is helpful and 4WD is a must in wet conditions.
Some of my favorite campsites here are located near Summit One. These boast arguably the best views although scenic vistas aren’t in short supply anywhere around here. Long Valley Road and Sunrise Creek Road both have numerous dispersed campsites as well.
Unfortunately, Dog Valley and Summit One are popular with the ORV crowd. So, expect some dirtbike and ATV noise as well as a little dust. Summer weekends and holidays are a bit rowdy with partiers, but weekdays are quite calm.
Horseshoe Bend (Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest)
Just south of Gardnerville (itself just south of Carson City) are an abundance of dispersed campsites along Horseshoe Bend Road near the East Fork Carson River.
Although these free campsites are in Nevada, they’re just over the border with California and are only a little over an hour away from South Lake Tahoe and everything Lake Tahoe has to offer.
High-clearance and 4WD are all but necessary to reach the most desirable campsites near the river. The unpaved road becomes very rough, rocky, and unlevel as it nears the river.
However, there are several campsites before the road gets rough, just after the turnoff for Horseshoe Bend Road off of China Springs Road (which itself turns south off Highway 395).
Dispersed camping is available throughout much of the nearby area, including large, level campsites nearer the highway that are perfect for boondocking in RVs and trailers.
There’s a natural hot springs nearby, dubbed East Fork Carson River Hot Springs, although it’s quite the trek to reach. Not only does it require high-clearance and 4WD, but you also need 4×4 driving experience. Most people should just hike in rather than attempt the drive.
Canyon Creek Campground (Tahoe National Forest)
Just to be clear – Canyon Creek Campground is somewhat “close” to Lake Tahoe as the crow flies, but it takes well over two hours to reach the north end of the lake.
Although that’s too far to enjoy day trips to the lake, this is one of my favorites places for free camping in the Donner Pass area, so I wanted to include it on this list as an overnight option to use when traveling to and from the lake.
The best part of Canyon Creek Campground is its remoteness. It’s about two hours to Nevada City, two hours from Truckee, and nearly an hour and a half from where you turn off Highway 20 onto the access roads.
And, that remoteness and distance from the area’s top attractions means that usage is relatively light and you can expect some privacy, even in the middle of summer, despite its proximity to Faucherie Reservoir and countless other lakes.
Canyon Creek Campground has 20 campsites, many alongside Canyon Creek itself. All are free of charge. Each has basic amenities like picnic tables and fire rings plus the campground has shared bear boxes and vault toilets.
The access road isn’t terribly rough, but high-clearance is required. 4WD is unnecessary, but do not attempt to bring trailers or RVs here. Because of the high elevation (over 6,500 feet above sea level), the campground usually isn’t accessible until late June or early July.
Dispersed Camping Near Lake Tahoe is Changing
Lake Tahoe is one of the most popular dispersed camping destinations in California.
Other high-use areas where dispersed camping was once allowed, especially those closest to the lake, now restrict dispersed camping to designated dispersed campsites – or ban it altogether.
This is why we encourage you to always call the nearest ranger station before your trip for the latest information on dispersed camping closures and restrictions.
We update all of our dispersed camping guides at least twice throughout the year (usually in April and October), but please let us know if you notice that any of our information is outdated!
Lake Tahoe Dispersed Camping Rules and Regulations
As always, please follow the 7 Leave No Trace principles when dispersed camping near Lake Tahoe.
Pack out absolutely all of your trash, including human waste. Some areas still allow you to bury human waste, but I encourage you to pack it out in a WAG bag or a portable toilet.
Campfires are banned for the majority of the peak season (early summer through late fall) – with even stricter restrictions at dispersed campsites than at developed campgrounds.
You must have a California campfire permit whenever campfires are allowed. This free permit is also required to use a camp stove when dispersed camping.
And, remember, just because your dispersed campsite has a rock fire pit, it doesn’t mean that campfires are actually allowed.
As the popularity of dispersed camping continues to rise, near Lake Tahoe and throughout California, it’s up to all of us to respect and protect our public lands.
Related Post: Where to Go Dispersed Camping Near Yosemite
Have Fun Dispersed Camping Near Lake Tahoe!
The national forests surrounding Lake Tahoe are home to some of the best dispersed campsites in California.
Although we’re sure you’ll love all of the suggestions on our list, remember that our favorite free campsites are just the tip of the iceberg of what’s available.
For a truly special dispersed camping trip, give yourself a little extra time to explore on your own off the beaten path to find a free campsite near Lake Tahoe that’s truly next level.
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