It can be difficult to reserve a campsite at the last minute. In most cases, you’ll need to reserve months in advance, and last-minute planners may have limited options.
A solution for the adventurer in you: explore free camping in one of California’s national forests.
Scattered camping means camping outside of a designated campsite where few or no facilities or services are available. You can also use slightly better developed campsites that are still free.
Lucky 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, expanding our opportunities for outdoor adventures. And let’s face it, with inflation the number one priority for many people these days, it might sound tempting to save on travel expenses.
Read on for our top recommendations for free camping in the National Forests close to home. Remember: things can change quickly during closures – unfortunately, especially during wildfire season. Be sure to visit the official US National Forest website for the latest alerts and updates.
You can also start your own campground search on this interactive map from the United States Forest Service (USFS), and free apps like FreeCampsites, FreeRoam, and Google Maps are great places to start. Campgrounds are scattered throughout Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land.
Free campsites in the California National Forests
Free camping is a great way to enjoy the great outdoors, but remember that in most cases when a campground is free, there are no or limited amenities such as drinking water and on-site restrooms. We have selected 14 free, distributed campgrounds in eight different national forests that have this some Facilities (such as safe toilets and campfire rings).
All of these spots are less than a six-hour drive from San Francisco. (Just remember to bring a map in case you don’t have cellular service.)
Stanislaus National Forest
Hermit Valley Campground in Stanislaus National Forest is a free campsite near towns like Bear Valley, Lake Alpine and Markleeville and only about four hours from San Francisco. There are some campfire rings on this site, but no drinking water. South Lake Tahoe is about 1.5 hours away and Yosemite is about 2.5 hours away.
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. Visit the USFS website for more information.
Sierra National Forest
The Sierra National Forest offers a multitude of scattered camping opportunities to explore. Kirch Flat Campground is one of the many recommended locations on camping websites such as The Dyrt and Campendium.
Although it can get very hot in the summer months, this location would be a great free camping opportunity during the spring and fall months. Many come here to enjoy the beautiful gorge scenery of the Kings River. The campground is equipped with picnic tables, fire pits, and safe toilets.
Inyo National Forest
Glass Creek Campground near Mammoth Lakes in the Inyo National Forests is another great free campground that accommodates RVs up to 45 feet long. This is a popular spot with campfire rings, picnic tables, and safe toilets.
Campers have mentioned that Glass Creek, which runs through this campground, has lots of rainbow trout and is a great spot for fishing. The nearest town is June Lake, a great place for hiking, fishing, and camping. Reserveable campsites can also be found in June Lake.
Mendocino National Forest
Grizzly Flat Dispersed Campground in the Yuki Wilderness of the Mendocino National Forest is another distributed camping option. Due to the location in a pine and spruce forest, it is relatively cool.
There are a few campfire rings and vaulted toilets, but no picnic tables. This site is not recommended for RVs and large vehicles.
Lassen National Forest
Black Rock Campground at Ishi Wilderness in Lassen National Forest is about 4.5 hours from San Francisco. There are six spots for primitive scattered camping with campfire rings.
There are no toilets or drinking water here, so be sure to plan this trip if you’re going 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 a great destination for those who enjoy fishing, nature viewing, water activities, and spotting wildlife along the lake shore. There are eight free campsites, which are allocated on a first-come-first-served basis, with vaulted toilets, campfire sites, barbecue grills, and picnic tables. The closest towns to this campsite are Bray and Macdoel.
Another recommended free campground in the Klamath National Forest? Beaver Creek Campground. Like many other campsites, the busiest season is in the summer. Here you’ll find safe toilets and a total of eight campgrounds along the banks of scenic Beaver Creek. The nearest towns are Klamath River and Yreka.
For both campsites, bring your own water for cooking, washing and other uses as these sites do not have potable water.
Modoc National Forest
In the northeast corner of California, the Modoc National Forest is home to more than 300 species of wildlife and is a great, quiet retreat away from the crowded hiking trails and campgrounds of the Sierra Nevada forests.
There are a number of scattered and reservable camping options to choose from, but a great option would be to explore locations near Medicine Lake in the Doublehead Ranger District. Campgrounds like Blanche Lake, Payne Springs, and Schonchin Springs are all open this season and offer free first-come, first-served camping.
The closest town to these three campgrounds is McCloud which is approximately 45 miles away. Most of these sites have drinking water and safe toilets close to their campsites.
If you’re okay with paid options (around $14 per night), Medicine Lake Campground is your best option. There are a total of 75 campgrounds at Medicine Lake Campground, 15 of which are bookable on Recreation.gov.
Sequoia National Forest
If you’re looking to venture into the Sequoia National Forest, there are plenty of camping options spread across the three ranger districts.
The Kern River Ranger District has nine scattered campgrounds for you to choose from. Chico Flat is a great place to camp if you want to be close to Lake Isabella. A less crowded option, Corral Creek Dispersed Campground is located on the North Fork of the Kern River.
The toilets here might be open in the summer months. Springhill Dispersed Area is one of the largest scattered campgrounds along the Kern River, but it can still be difficult to secure a spot — so it’s advisable to arrive early.