Complimentary Camping: California's Free Campgrounds to Visit Right Now

Complimentary Camping: California's Free Campgrounds to Visit Right Now

By Ani Karibian July 17, 2020

As California mitigates health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, some travel restrictions may remain in certain communities. Call the local and regional tourism offices to learn more about the restrictions in your intended destination. Thank you for reading, and stay safe.

Feeling stressed and in need of a getaway? Leave your worries behind as you unwind in California’s secluded, serene camping spots. For a transcendental experience, it’s best to stay for more than one night and make the most of your camping adventure, but sometimes, the camping fees can deter you from extending your trip. Luckily, the Golden State is home to several free campgrounds where you can pitch your tent (or park your RV) at no charge. 

The Best Free Campgrounds in California

Before heading out for a glorious rendezvous in nature, make sure the essentials are packed and your California-made outdoor gear is in the car.  Whether you’re going to camp near the beach or in the mountains, these campsites will leave you in awe of the state’s beauty. Here’s where to enjoy free camping in California. 

Escape to Tahoe National Forest for a memorable camping experience amid majestic scenery.

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Baltimore Lake Dispersed Camping Site

Location: Tahoe National Forest

Amenities: Restrooms may be locked and trash services are limited, so be sure to clean up after yourself. Campfire permits are also required.

Activities: Fishing, hiking, boating, and wildlife watching (plus skiing during the winter) 

Dogs allowed: Yes, but they must be on-leash.

Known for its rugged terrain, majestic mountains, and recreational activities, the Tahoe National Forest is one of the top places to visit when in NorCal. Whether you spend a day or two (or forever), you won’t tire of Tahoe’s spectacular, natural beauty. Set aside time for fishing, boating, and exploring the trails before returning to your dispersed campsite. After a long day of exhilarating adventures, you’ll be ready to sit back, relax, and admire your surroundings.

Sawtooth Canyon Campground

Location: Lucerne Valley

Amenities: RV camping, vault toilet, ramadas, firepits, grills, and picnic tables. (Campfire permits are required.)

Activities: Hiking, hunting, rock climbing, and wildlife watching. 

Located near Barstow, this free campground’s nickname, “New Jack City,” originates from the rock climbing community—Sawtooth Canyon is a rock climber’s heaven. (But the historic name of the canyon is “Traer Aqua,” meaning “bring water”.) Adventurous hikers also enjoy this area, so go on an adventure and see where it takes you. From the campground, you’ll have breathtaking views; we promise they won’t disappoint. Just note that in order to preserve the canyon’s natural beauty, this first-come, first-served campground is limited in terms of vehicle use, so make sure to nab your spot early.  

Pitch a tent at the Blair Valley Campground to admire the beauty of Anza-Borrego State Park.

Blair Valley Campground

Location: Anza-Borrego State Park 

Amenities: RV camping, two-wheel-drive accessibility, vault toilet, and firepits

Activities: Hiking, ATV riding, bird and wildlife watching, cultural and natural history resources 

Dogs allowed: Yes

Situated in Anza-Borrego State Park, one of the most underrated California state parks, Blair Valley is a great area for primitive camping. While no water is available at the Blair Valley Campground, the stunning scenery and opportunities for outdoor recreation make it a popular spot. Located between Granite Mountain and Whale Peak, it’s home to four established hiking trails that offer scenic views of the park. No matter which route you take, you’ll discover the regional plants and wildflowers—which include Mojave yucca, creosote bushes, thistle sage, and windflowers—along your journey. Be sure to look out for red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, and prairie falcons, too. (If it’s your lucky day, you might even see coyotes, mountain lions, or bobcats). After a long expedition, crash at your campsite. 

Big Sage Campground

Location: Modoc National Forest

Amenities: Vault toilet. Bring your own water, trash bags, and toilet paper. 

Activities: Hiking, boating, bird and wildlife watching

Dogs allowed: Yes, but only on-leash.

The Big Sage Campground is nestled along on the shore of Big Sage Reservoir, which spans several thousand acres. Surrounded by sagebrush and juniper woodland, this free campground is home to an endless National Geographic bird show. Be on the lookout for bald eagles, pelicans, grebes, gulls, herons, and hawks. The numerous songbirds will definitely fill the silence, too, so you can chill out and enjoy some music in the background. While hiking around the reservoir, you may spot mustangs, deer, and elk, so remember to bring your camera. You won’t want to miss out on snapping shots of this gorgeous landscape. 

Take in the gorgeous, star-studded night sky while camping in the vast Klamath National Forest.

Orr Lake Campground 

Location: Klamath National Forest

Amenities: Boat ramp, picnic tables, firepits, and wheelchair-accessible grounds. (Note: Potable drinking water isn’t available, so you’ll need to bring enough water for drinking, cooking, and washing.)

Activities offered: Biking, boating, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, paddling, climbing, whitewater rafting, and wildlife watching

Dogs allowed: Yes

Located within the preserved wilderness of the Klamath National Forest, this lakeside campground is situated along the banks of the gorgeous Orr Lake. If you’re seeking solitude and rejuvenation through recreation, then Klamath will help you attain nirvana—from white water rafting and climbing to hiking and boating, this California national forest has adventure written all over it. 

For a relaxing kickback, chill by the lake after a full day of exploration and climb into your hammock with a great summer read; at night, make some s’mores around the fire. You’ll be at an elevation of 4,653 feet, so you’ll not only be breathing in the crisp, alpine air, but also be closer to reaching for the stars.

Sweetwater Laguna Mountain Campground

Location: San Benito County

Amenities: Vault toilets, shade structures, picnic tables, firepits, and a kiosk (which provides an interpretive panel, a map, and information about the area). Electricity, trash collection, or running water are not available. 

Activities: Hiking, hunting, and wildlife watching 

Dogs allowed: Yes

This free campground is situated within the rugged, rolling hills and oak forests that make up the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area. The scenery is stunning, and as you traverse through the region, you’ll pass through forests, meadows, and a desert landscape with unique rock formations. With hiking and biking trails leading to Laguna Creek, to cliffs overlooking the expanse, and to a series of scenic waterfalls located in the gorge, which path will you take first? 

Spend a weekend hiking, biking, or rock climbing in California's second-largest national forest.

Los Padres National Forest Primitive Camping 

Location: Los Padres National Forest

Amenities: Picnic tables and firepits. (There are no toilets.)

Activities: Bird watching, hiking, and hunting

Dogs allowed: Yes, but only on-leash. 

Considered one of the best places to explore in California, Los Padres National Forest—the Golden State’s second-largest national forest—is the perfect place for a wild weekend getaway. Covering over 1.7 million acres, this forest is home to plenty of primitive campsites and offers numerous activities, including rock climbing, day hiking, and hunting. The basic yet beautiful camping grounds range from sea level to nearly 9,000 feet in elevation and from riverside to forested, so you’ll have your pick of where to camp in the wilderness (without the danger, thankfully). 

Mud Lake Trailhead

Location: Lassen National Forest

Amenities: Vault toilet, firepits, hitching rails for horses, picnic tables, and wheelchair accessibility. Running water is not available. 

Activities: Hiking, biking, horseback riding, boating, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling (in the winter), wildlife watching, fishing, and hunting

The Mud Lake Trailhead campground is a heavenly place to play and stay in the unforgettable Lassen National Forest. (There's a reason why it’s a top spot for those hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.) With the ability to explore dozens of lakes, take in scenic vistas, and trek along numerous trails, you won’t run out of things to do while escaping reality for a few days. After a day of hiking, biking, horseback riding, or just chillin’ by the lake and wildlife watchin’, make dinner and s’mores by the fire before sleeping under the stars. 

Cozy up in a hammock at Steiner Flat Primitive Campground, located beside the scenic Trinity River.

Steiner Flat Primitive Campground

Location: Douglas City

Amenities:  Toilets and running water are not available.

Activities: Fishing, boating, horseback riding, white water rafting, and swimming

Dogs allowed: Yes

The Steiner Flat Primitive Campground is secluded in nature and is located on the edge of the Trinity River. For an adrenaline rush, take the waters below Pigeon Point by storm and go white water rafting. As you paddle down the river, savor the valley’s views of ponderosa pines, Douglas-fir, oaks, and madrones covering the canyon walls. If you’re seeking a more relaxing activity, swim by the shore or take a leisurely boat ride across the water. The Trinity River is also world-renowned for its fly fishing, so grab the bait and your rods, ’cause it’s time to catch dinner.

Grizzly Flat Dispersed Campground

Location: Mendocino National Forest

Amenities: Vault toilet and rock firepits

Activities: Hiking, hunting, horseback riding, boating, all-terrain vehicle driving, and wildlife watching

Dogs allowed: Yes, but only on-leash. 

This campground is located within the tranquil and secluded Mendocino National Forest, which is considered one of the best camping destinations in California and is home to some of the Yuki Wilderness. Spanning 330,780 acres and rising from near sea level to above 7,000 feet in elevation, this national forest boasts dozens of diverse ecosystems. While you’re hiking through the beautiful scenery of Mendocino, keep an eye out for the Tule elk, black bears, wild pigs, and even bald eagles. Whether you want to explore mountains, rocky terrain, forests, or the 17-mile canyon creek, you’ll find a spot in this national forest well-suited for your mood. 

WRITTEN BY
Ani Karibian

WRITTEN BY Ani Karibian

Ani is the content manager for California.com. She savors her time discovering California's hidden gems and writing about the hottest spots in town. She's got an unquenchable thirst for adventur…

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