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How to Find Free Camping in California’s National Forests

It can be difficult to reserve a campsite at the last minute. In most cases, you’ll need to book months in advance, and last-minute planners might find themselves with limited options.

A solution for the adventurer in you: explore free, scattered camping opportunities in one of California’s National Forests.

Scattered camping means camping outside of a designated serviced campground, with few or no facilities or services available. You can also take advantage of campsites that are a little more developed and still free.

Luckily for us, California is home to 20 beautiful national forests, two of which are shared with other states. We have the most national forests of any state in the country, which expands our options for outdoor adventures. And let’s face it, with inflation being a major concern for many people right now, cutting travel costs might sound appealing.

Keep reading for our top recommendations on free camping opportunities in National Forests near you. Remember: things can change quickly with closures, especially during wildfire season, unfortunately. For the latest alerts and updates, be sure to visit the official US National Forest website.

You can also independently start your search for free campsites on this interactive United States Forest Service (USFS) map, and free apps like FreeCampsites, FreeRoam, and Google Maps are great places to start. And you can find scattered camping available on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land.

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Free Campsites in California’s National Forests

Free camping is a great way to enjoy the outdoors, but remember, more often than not there will be few or no amenities like drinking water and restrooms on the lot if a campsite is free. We have selected 14 free scattered campsites in eight different national forests that have some facilities (such as outhouses and campfire rings).

All of these spots are within a six-hour drive of San Francisco. (Remember to bring a map with you in case you find yourself without cell service.)

Stanislaus National Forest

Hermit Valley Campground in the Stanislaus National Forest is a free campground located near towns like Bear Valley, Lake Alpine, and Markleeville and only about four hours from San Francisco. There are a number of campfire rings at this site, but no drinking water. South Lake Tahoe is about 1.5 hours and Yosemite is about 2.5 hours.

The entrance to Stanislaus National Forest, which offers free scattered camping opportunities. (David Prasad via Flickr Creative Commons)

Cherry Lake is another recommended area for scattered camping in the Stanislaus National Forest. Scattered camping is available around the lake at least 100 feet from the high water mark. See the USFS website for more information.

Sierra National Forest

The Sierra National Forest offers a ton of scattered camping opportunities to explore. Kirch Flat Campground is one of many places recommended on camping websites like The Dyrt and Campendium.

Although it can be very hot in the summer months, this location would be a great free camping opportunity in the spring and fall. Many visit here to enjoy the beautiful canyon scenery of the Kings River. The campsite is equipped with picnic tables, fire pits and vaulted toilets.

Inyo National Forest

Glass Creek Campground near Mammoth Lakes in the Inyo National Forests is another great free campsite that can accommodate RVs up to 45 feet long. It’s a popular spot with campfire rings, picnic tables, and vaulted toilets.

Campers have mentioned that there are a fair amount of rainbow trout at Glass Creek, which runs through this campground, and is a great place to fish. The nearest town is June Lake, which is a great place for hiking, fishing, and camping. You can also find reservable campsites in June Lake.

Mendocino National Forest

Another option for scattered camping is the Grizzly Flat scatter campground in the Yuki Wilderness of the Mendocino National Forest. Due to its location in a coniferous pine and spruce forest, it is relatively cool.

There are a few campfire rings and vaulted toilets, but no picnic tables. This location is not recommended for RVs and large vehicles.

Lassen National Forest

Black Rock Campground at Ishi Wilderness in the Lassen National Forest is about a 4.5 hour drive from San Francisco. There are six sites available for primitive scattered camping with campfire rings.

There are no restrooms or drinking water here, so be sure to plan that trip if you go here. The closest towns to this campground are Chico, Chester and Red Bluff.

Klamath National Forest

Orr Lake Campground in the Klamath National Forest is a great spot for scattered camping, and Orr Lake is an ideal destination for those who enjoy fishing, nature viewing, water activities, and adventure. watching riparian wildlife along the lake. There are eight free campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis with vaulted toilets, campfire rings, barbecue grills and picnic tables. The nearest towns to this campsite are Bray and Macdoel.

Another recommended free campsite in Klamath National Forest? Beaver Creek Campground. Like many other campgrounds, its busiest season is summer. Here you’ll find outhouses and a total of eight campsites, on the banks of scenic Beaver Creek. The nearest towns are Klamath River and Yreka.

For both of these campsites, bring your own water for cooking, laundry and other uses as these sites do not have potable water.

A forest scene with slender trees reaching skyward, shot from inside a yellow-orange tent.
Scattered camping is a great way to stay in California’s National Forests, and it’s free. (Anastasiya Golovko via Pexels)

Modoc National Forest

In California’s northeast corner, the Modoc National Forest is home to more than 300 species of wildlife and is a great quiet getaway away from the crowded trails and campgrounds of the Sierra Nevada forests.

There are a number of scattered and bookable camping opportunities, but a great option would be to explore spots near Medicine Lake in the Doublehead Ranger District. Sites like Blanche Lake, Payne Springs, and Schonchin Springs Campgrounds are all open this season and offer free sites on a first-come, first-served basis.

The closest town to these three campsites is McCloud, about 45 miles away. Most of these sites have drinking water and pit toilets near their campsites.

If you’re ok with paid options (about $14 per night), Medicine Lake Campground is your best bet. There are a total of 75 campsites at Medicine Lake Campground and 15 of them can be reserved on Recreation.gov.

Redwood National Forest

If you’re looking to get to the Sequoia National Forest, there are plenty of camping options scattered throughout the three Rranger districts.

The Kern River Ranger District has nine scattered campsites to choose from. Chico Flat is a great place to camp if you want to be close to Lake Isabella. Corral Creek Scattered Campground is a less crowded option and is located on the North Fork of the Kern River.

Restrooms here may be open during the summer months. Springhill Dispersed Area is one of the largest dispersed campsites along the Kern River, but it can still be difficult to find a spot – so arriving early is advisable.