California can be an expensive place to vacation, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to save money. You can have a cheap summer vacation in California by renting an RV and staying in free campsites. RV park rates can vary depending on location and amenities, so if you’re willing to forgo amenities like sewer, water, and electric hookups, you can easily vacation while staying on a budget.
How to find free camping in California
Free camping, also known as boondocking, can be found on public lands as long as it doesn’t conflict with other authorized uses or isn’t explicitly closed to camping. The campsites are located along most secondary roads on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands and aren’t always marked. Staying on public land is also usually limited to 14 days. There are also many businesses that allow overnight parking.
15 free campsites in California
You can find free camping all over California’s vast landscapes. You can stay near pretty state parks, mountains, deserts, or the ocean. Since there are so many to choose from, we’ve narrowed down some of our favorites to make it easier for you to choose. Enjoy!
At the base of the jagged peaks of the Sierra Nevada, you’ll find the Alabama Hills. The landscape is quite extraordinary with natural arches and round red rocks. When you arrive, the scenery might actually look familiar; over 400 movies have been filmed here! You can explore film locations, but you can also hike, fish, rock climb, explore natural arches, mountain bike, ride horses, and look for wildflowers.
With so much going for it, it’s no wonder visiting the Alabama Hills is one of the most popular RV trips in California. The Alabama Hills also have some of the best dispersed camping in southern California. Free sites are identified with a campsite marker, and there are six porta potties available.
Inyo National Forest is one of the best US national forests. With 1 million acres of wilderness, there’s something for everyone. Fishing, mountain biking, hiking, and horseback riding are the most popular activities in the area. Inyo National Forest is also home to Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in California and the contiguous United States.
Free camping can be found here as well. Campers should look for an area at the end of a spur road or a pullout that is clear of vegetation and has a hard, compacted surface. These sites might have an already established fire ring. Campers should also stay on established roadways and not go off-road.
Right along the Nevada border, you’ll find Death Valley National Park. With three-million acres, this is the largest national park in the lower 48 states. Although it is hot and dry, you can still find plenty to do. You can hike, visit hot springs, explore sand dunes, or learn about the indigenous and mining history of the area.
Death Valley National Park is the only national park in California that allows dispersed camping. There are four free campsites within the park, but you can also camp along dirt roads at least one mile away from any paved road or “day use only” dirt road.
If you’re looking for free camping in Northern California, Rocky Point East Campground is one popular option. It is located on the north shore of Eagle Lake outside of Susanville. Although use of the site is free, a donation is requested to assist with the routine maintenance costs.
The surface in the campground is packed with earth, gravel, or sand, and there is a vault toilet. There is no potable water or trash removal available. Being on the lake, you can launch small boats along the shoreline. Lassen Volcanic National Park, known for having the largest plug dome volcano in the world, is also within a two-hour drive.
Another great option for dispersed camping in southern California is inside Mojave National Preserve. Camping is allowed in previously used or disturbed sites outside of the “day-use-only” areas. In most cases, these sites include a rock or metal fire ring. New fire rings cannot be constructed.
The preserve has 1.6 million acres, so there is plenty of room to get out and explore. You can go four-wheeling, biking, hiking, and horseback riding. Other popular attractions within the preserve include the Kelso Dunes, a lava tube, and the Rings Loop Trail, which has ancient petroglyphs and beautiful views.
Modoc National Forest is a true hidden gem and not nearly as crowded as some of the other parks and forests in the area. Because of this, it offers some of the most tranquil free camping in Northern California. There are four dispersed camping areas in the forest: Big Valley, Devil’s Garden, Doublehead, and Warner Mountain.
The landscape within Modoc is varied, from heavily forested areas to high plateaus and lava flows to the largest shield volcano in North America. Visitors can go hiking, fishing, snowmobiling, and horseback riding. Wildlife viewing is also popular. The forest is also close to the Oregon border, so you can also do some free camping in Oregon if you’d like.
This is California’s largest state park, located about 80 miles northeast of San Diego. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park offers free camping pretty much all over its 600,000 acres. Just keep in mind that vehicles must be parked no more than one vehicle length off the road. You should also camp at least 100 feet away from all water sources and make sure not to trample any vegetation or drive over geological features.
The park is probably best known for its wildflowers, which can generally be seen in March and April. However, the park also has over 100 miles of trails, several slot canyons, wind caves, and waterfalls. Make sure to also look for the Galleta Meadow Statues; there are 30 scattered throughout the park.
Another great option for free camping in Northern California is Mendocino National Forest. Mendocino has three dispersed camping areas: Grizzly Flat, Lakeview, and Lower Nye. However, most of the forest is open for dispersed camping. You should look for an area where you are not likely to damage any forest resources.
Mendocino has nearly one million acres. There are densely forested woodlands, open meadows, and sparkling lakes. You can go hiking, boating, fishing, or swimming. Plus, it’s only two hours away from the coast.
Six Rivers National Forest has more than a million acres of land. It’s a popular area if you’re into water activities like fishing, kayaking, and white water rafting because it has 366 miles of rivers. Six Rivers also has 100 miles of trails, perfect for hiking and biking.
You will also find free camping within the forest, outside of developed sites. Remember to camp at least 200 feet from springs, water, meadows, trails, and at least 50 feet from roads. You should also camp at least a quarter-mile from designated campgrounds, picnic areas, trailheads, private property, and state highways.
Another option for dispersed camping in southern California is the Jacumba Mountains Wilderness, managed by the Bureau of Land Management. It is located just west of El Centro and has around 32,000 acres. There are no limits to the length or size of RVs and trailers due to how open this campground is.
At Jacumba Wilderness, you can go rock climbing, fishing, hiking, and hunting. Make sure to bring a pair of binoculars; wildlife viewing is also a very popular activity. You may see golden eagles, kangaroo rats, mule deer, elk, bears, and maybe even a peninsular bighorn sheep.
Cleveland National Forest has some of the best dispersed camping in southern California. All three ranger districts offer dispersed camping: Descanso, Palomar, and Trabuco. This 460,000-acre wilderness is made up of mostly chaparral shrublands and has a Mediterranean climate.
Stargazing and wildlife viewing are popular activities within the forest. There’s also a lot to do in the surrounding area. The city of Escondido is only an hour away, and it has one of the best California breweries. San Diego is about an hour and a half away and offers many attractions and restaurants.
In central California, you’ll find Keysville Special Recreation Management Area (SRMA). It is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Free camping is allowed as long as you park in the established areas.
Kern River passes through the area, and Lake Isabella is nearby, so you can go white-water rafting, fishing, and pan for gold. Swimming in the area, however, is highly discouraged. There are over seventy miles of trails for mountain biking, horseback riding, and motorized recreation use. If you need supplies, the city of Bakersfield is less than an hour away.
Some of the best BLM camping in California can be found at Sawtooth Canyon Campground. Also known by its nickname “New Jack City,” the campground is located approximately 20 miles south of the city of Barstow. Sawtooth has 13 campsites and one group campsite. There are shade Ramadas, 12 fire pits with grills, 12 barbeque grills, and 12 picnic tables. Campground amenities also include vault toilets.
Recreation activities include rock climbing, wildlife viewing, hunting, stargazing, and picnicking. Popular hiking trails include the Predator Wall Trail, Cliffs of Insanity Trail, and Twin Towers Trail.
Stretching along the Pacific Ocean in southern California is Los Padres National Forest. It has a range of different ecosystems, so you can spend time at the beach, climb a mountain, or fish along a river. There are also dozens of lookout spots that give you panoramic views of the forest.
There are four dispersed camping areas in the forest: Monterey, Mt. Pinos, Santa Barbara, and Santa Lucia. Dispersed camping is allowed in other areas, but acquiring a map is recommended since private land is scattered throughout.
15. Lucky 7 Casino
If you just need a place to stop for a night or two, Lucky 7 Casino offers free camping in Northern California, just a few minutes from the Oregon border. It’s also just a few minutes from the coast, and some campers have claimed to have been able to hear the ocean during their stay.
RV parking is behind the casino, paved, and level. The parking lot is also well-lit and has security that walks through the parking lot several times a night. There are trash cans on site. There is a three-day limit.
5-star California RV rentals
There are a lot of great California RV rental deals, which will help you stay on budget during your road trip. So whether you’re taking an RV trip on a $500 budget, $1000 budget, or a $2000 budget, there’s something for you. Below are a few of our favorites…
- 1979 Volkswagen Westfalia – One of the best Outdoorsy RV rentals across the US, this pop-top camper sleeps 4 adults and has an icebox, sink, potable water tank, propane camp stove, RV electrical/water hook-ups, and SmartPhone jack.
- 2020 Thor Motor Coach Freedom – Full kitchen, comfortably sleeps eight, outdoor T.V. with a soundbar and solar lights. Also stocked with outdoor chairs, rafts, fun activities such as badminton, picnic table ping-pong, frisbees, etc.
- 2016 Riverside Retro166 – Easy to tow travel trailer is ideal for a couple or a small family of three individuals. You can camp comfortably with cool A/C, comfy bed, kitchen utensils, towels, and linens.
Additional things to know about free camping in California
To protect these lands and ensure everyone can continue to enjoy them, keep these things in mind while free camping in California:
- Have everything on your camping checklist before heading out.
- Make sure you camp where someone else has camped before.
- Do not trample undisturbed plants.
- Stay out of meadows.
- Make sure you research local fire restrictions; most places in California require a campfire permit.
- Store food and trash in bear-proof food containers.
- If there are no toilets, bury human waste at least 6 inches below ground and at least 200 feet from water sources.
- Pack out all of your trash, including used toilet paper.
Ready to go free camping in California?
Now that you know where you can stay for free in California, all that’s left is to rent an RV and hit the road. Pack your hiking boots, fishing rod, bicycle, and kayak, because California has it all!