fbpx

Free Camping California: 7 Top Campsites to Try

*This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Please read our disclosure policy for more info.

California, with its beaches, deserts and mountains, is one of our favorite places to find free camping. We’ve camped in national preserves, a national park, on BLM land and in national forests.

Whatever scenery you desire, there’s a free campsite for that in California.

I’m going to tell you about some of the best dispersed camping sites in the Golden State, and how to find favorites of your own.

Before we get started – we highly recommend you sign up for The Dyrt Pro Membership on The Dyrt App. This gives you access to map layers, offline maps, and reviews for finding free campsites, even without cell phone service. Click here for a 90-Day Free Trial of The Dyrt Pro. (usually just 7 days!)

Where can you camp for free in California?

California has a variety of ways to find a dispersed campsite. Usually, you can camp for free legally on BLM land (Bureau of Land Management), and some National Forest Service land.

We usually use apps to find free campsites in California. A few good free camping apps are The Dyrt Pro Membership, iOverlander and Free Roam. You can use these apps to make sure you’re on BLM or National Forest Service land and read reviews of free California camping.

When you’re trying to find a free dispersed campsite, make sure you camp where someone else has camped before. You don’t want to trample undisturbed plants and stay out of meadows. Look for clear signs of tire tracks, flattened ground and a fire pit.

Make sure you research local fire restrictions before starting a campfire in a dispersed campsite; you may need a campfire permit in some areas.

Please, please, pack out your trash when boondocking in California, or anywhere else, for that matter.

7 Spots to Try Free Camping in California

1. The Alabama Hills

RVs parked at the Alabama Hills free camping in California
R
RVs parked at The Alabama Hills free campsite. The Sierra Nevada in the distance

The Alabama Hills National Recreation Area is a really popular spot for free camping in California, especially free RV camping. Campsites here can fit a variety of rigs. We’ve seen everything from larger RVs and fifth wheels, to smaller campervans.

With its easy-to-navigate dirt roads and obvious campsites, we think this is one of the best places to try California boondocking for the first time.

Plus, it’s extraordinarily beautiful.

The Alabama Hills is located just west of Lone Pine in Southern California, off highway 395. As you pull up to the rounded, red-rocks, you might have a flicker of recognition.

The Alabama Hills are one of Hollywood’s favorite shooting locations, and since I started camping there, I’ve seen this place in so many movies and shows it’s hard to count.

The Alabama Hills National Recreation area is run by The Bureau of Land Management, and it’s one of the best BLM camping in California.

2. Death Valley National Park

  • Location: (Google map)
  • Rigs: Campervans, Truck Campers, Smaller RVs, Tents
campervan boondocking in Death Valley National Park
This free campsite is one of many in Death Valley

Death Valley National Park is the only national park in California that allows dispersed camping. In other parks, you’ll need to find forest service land nearby, then drive into the park for sightseeing.

Death Valley is the largest national park in the continental United States, spanning over 3 million acres. To boot, there are 1,000 miles of paved and dirt roads leading to remote destinations, a haven for free camping in California.

The one rule you must follow is this: you can boondock in Death Valley National Park as long as you stay 1-mile off any paved or day-use dirt road.

Death Valley even provides you with a free downloadable map to make it easy to find free camping.

The map even tells you which types of vehicles are appropriate for which free campsite. This is a very boondocking-friendly place to camp in California.

Click here to read our in-depth guide about free camping in Death Valley.

3. The Mojave National Preserve

Campervan in free California campsite in Mojave Desert
Our campervan parked in a free campsite in the Mojave Desert

The Mojave Desert National Preserve is a beautiful spot for free camping in California. This park, run by the national park service, even offers information online about the best places for primitive camping.

In most cases, these boondocking campsites are located down semi-bumpy dirt roads that aren’t too hard to navigate. We’ve seen a 30-ish foot travel trailer go find a boondocking site in the Mojave Desert National Preserve.

Most dry camping you’ll find here includes a pre-constructed rock or metal fire pit. You are not allowed to create your own, new fire pit. We’ve found it easy and obvious to find a good campsite.

The Mojave Desert offers striking sand dunes, cinder cone volcanos, a Joshua Tree forest, canyons and mountains. It’s one of our favorite places to visit.

4. Anza-Borrego State Park

A white campervan in a free California campsite at Anza Borrego
Photo courtesy Instagram/VanOutLoud

Anza Borrego State Park is the largest state park in California and is a place where you can boondock anywhere. In fact, the entire backcountry of this park is designated as a “camping facility.” You’re allowed to camp for up to 30 days at the Anza Borrego California State Park.

Explore 500 miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas and an abundance of hiking trails here.

This park is about a two-hour drive from San Diego, Riverside, and Palm Springs.

You can use this map to find dirt roads and campsites in Anza Borrego.

While we haven’t personally been to this state park, I’ve heard a lot about it from fellow van lifers and RVers who love boondocking California. It’s definitely worth checking out!

5. Mono Lake Boondocking

Mono Lake is in the evening - a good place for free camping in California

Mono Lake is a popular dispersed camping area for campervans and RVs. This stunning lake with its unique rock formations is located just east of Yosemite National Park, making it a good jumping-off point for exploring the eastern Sierra Nevada.

This free camping site in California is run by the National Forest Service. According to this downloadable flier, the NFS says dispersed camping is allowed about the 1941 shoreline (where the brush vegetation begins).

If you have the eastern shore in your sights, you should have a 4-wheel drive vehicle and be prepared for a primitive and sandy road.

There is private property scattered around near the lake, where you’re not allowed to camp for free. If you’re confused about where to camp at Mono Lake, stop by the Mono Basin Visitor Center and staff will point you in the right direction.

6. Lassen National Forest

A lake in Lassen national park
Photo: NPS, Lassen National Park

If you want to explore beautiful Lassen National Park but don’t want to pay for a campsite every night, you can find free camping right outside the park. This is one of our favorites areas for free camping in Northern California.

You’ll find several dispersed campsites right off Highway 44, right before Lassen’s Manzanita Lake entrance.

There’s also free camping in the Hat Creek Ranger District, Almanor Ranger District and Eagle Lake Ranger District.

You can find all the information you need about dispersed camping in Lassen National Forest here.

7. Mendocino National Forest Free Camping

Mendocino national forest is a great place for free camping in northern california

You don’t have to stick to a developed campground if you want to head up to Mendocino National Forest. This is a great place for free camping in Northern California, close to the coast.

Mendocino National Forest’s website says most of the forest is open to people who prefer dispersed camping.

You’re allowed to camp for free in the same location for 14 days. Then, you can move locations and camp another 14 days within the same 30-day period. However, no more than 28 consecutive days are allowed per calendar year in the forest.

One great way to locate free camping is to download the Motor Vehicle Use Maps for the Mendocino National Forest. You’re bound to find many hidden dirt roads with no other campers in sight. Great for secluded Northern California boondocking!

Using apps to find free camping in California

While it’s a good idea to read lists like this to get an idea of where to find free camping in California, it’s also fun to forge your own way and search out your own sites.

That’s one of the joys of boondocking, right?

As an avid California boondocker, my favorite way to find free campsites is to rely on apps downloaded on my phone or iPad.

A couple of these apps can be used offline, which proves vital when I’m driving somewhere without phone signal and need to find a site for the night.

We often “wing it” when it comes to free camping in California, but we also know many people like to plan.

Here are some awesome apps to try when boondocking California.

The Dyrt app and The Dyrt Pro Membership

The Dyrt Pro app shows layers to help find free camping in California

Most free camping in California is on BLM and national forest service land. But how do you recognize or find that land?

Enter The Dyrt Pro Membership. This is a simple upgrade on The Dyrt Pro app that allows you to look at layers on a map. You can layer by both BLM and National Forest Service Land, making it way easier to see where you’re camping and which roads to drive down to find boondocking sites.

I also like to use filters, like “Dispersed”, and “Free. See screenshot below.

A screenshot of the Dyrt app Free filter

Another handy feature of The Dyrt Pro Membership is that you can download entire areas of offline maps to find campsites on the fly. If you need a break from boondocking, this app also gives you paid campsites, which you can filter by amenities like showers, water and price. All this is downloadable – even trip planning!

Click here to get a free 90-Day trial of The Dyrt Pro Membership. (It’s usually only a 7-day trial!)

iOverlander App

The iOverlander app displaying free campsites in California

Many boondockers use the iOverlander app when finding free camping in California. However, be aware that many of the free campsites marked on this app are not necessarily legal.

This is a crowdsourced app where people mark where they slept, a review, and a photo. Some of these sites are down dirt pull-offs off major highways, or in parking lots.

You’ll have to discern these campsites for yourself. One hint is to look for marked campsites that appear to be on BLM or National Forest Service land.

Campsites are marked by symbol using iOverlander. The symbols marked Established Campgrounds, Informal Campsites and Wild Camping.

Lots of people contribute and post pictures of free campsites in California, which makes this a fun way to scope out sites.

We also love that you can use this app offline.

Check out and download iOverlander here.

Free Roam App

The Free Roam app shows layers, plus free and paid camping in California

Free Roam is similar to The Dyrt Pro Membership in that it offers map layers, like BLM land, National Forest Service Land, etc. However, it offers many more filters like cell signal, weather, elevation, facilities, rig length, views, crowdedness, etc.

Like the other apps, users can post reviews and photos of various free campsites in California.

You can also use Free Roam to plan trips, read guides and get social with other campers.

A major downside with this app is that it’s not usable offline.

Check out the Free Roam camping app.

Allstays App

Allstays app with free camping in California

We also have the Allstays App on my iPad, which shows all types of campgrounds, RV Parks, KOA campgrounds and dispersed campsites in California using icons. Just zoom in on an area and click on the icons to read more about the campgrounds or read reviews.

Like other apps on this list, the AllStays app is also crowdsourced and people leave reviews and photos.

The Allstays app offers different filters than the other camping apps. For example, you can search for Walmarts, Elk Places, Moose Places and Military campgrounds.

Allstays works offline, which we appreciate.

Check out AllStays app.

Avenza Maps App

Avenza Map with list of downloaded maps

I use the Avenza Maps App as well to find free camping on BLM land and in National Forest land in in California. You can download a variety of maps on this platform, including Motor Vehicle Use Maps. These maps show an entire road system within a national forest, and little dots along the road indicate where dispersed camping is allowed.

I like using Motor Vehicle Use Maps to ensure my campsite is legal and I won’t get a friendly knock from a ranger. More on using these below.

I also use the Avenza Maps App to download recreation area maps, hiking maps, you name it. You can even pay to download major National Parks maps, but I usually just use whatever free maps I can find.

Using Motor Vehicle Use Maps to find Free Camping in California

Motor vehicle use maps showing free camping in California

Every national forest has a Motor Vehicle Use Map you can use to find free camping in California.

You can download these maps right from the Forest Service website, or use an app like Avenza. I personally like Avenza because it puts all the maps in one place on my iPad.

If you prefer a hard copy, you can stop in a ranger station and ask for a Motor Vehicle Use Map. Rangers are really friendly and can often direct you to good places to find dispersed camping.

Motor Vehicle Use Maps clearly mark where you’re allowed to camp for free. Refer to your map’s legend, but usually, you’ll see dots on one or both sides of a road. Those dots indicate California boondocking.

We use these maps in conjunction with apps to make sure we’re camping legally in California.

Other Places you can Camp for Free in California

Oftentimes, you’ll just be trying to get from Point A to Point B when roadtripping through California. So, you may not want to spend hours driving down dirt roads on federal lands.

Here are some other places you can find free overnight parking in California. If you’re camping on private property, it’s recommended you make a call first to be safe.

  • Rest Stops
  • Casinos
  • Walmart
  • Cracker Barrel
  • Cabellas
  • Camping World
  • Sam’s Club
  • Truck Stops
  • Vacant Parking Lots
  • Church Parking Lots

I do recommend you read reviews on any of the aforementioned camping apps or make phone calls before trying out some of these suggestions.

We have camped for free overnight in rest stops and at truck stops all over California with no problems at all.

Conclusion on California Free Camping

As you can see, there’s free camping to be discovered all over the Golden State. We’ve mostly camped for free in Southern California, as we just love desert views.

But you can also find dispersed camping in the Sierra Nevada near both Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. This is a great way to save on campground fees while being close to beautiful hiking trails.

We really prefer camping for free in California. It’s peaceful, quiet and offers true solitude.

After boondocking, you’ll find it difficult to go back to a campground with noisy generators and late-night parties.

Give it a try!

Other stories you should check out:

Leave a Comment