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It’s hard to think of a better way to experience nature in Northern California than by camping. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, many of California’s campgrounds are designated free, and some even “dispersed”; meaning that you can camp anywhere on these parcels of land without a permit.
We recently took a road trip from San Francisco to Yosemite and up through the northern coast of California in a campervan. Since we already had our tent on wheels, we researched the best places we could legally stay for free and here’s what we found!
10 Best Free Campgrounds in Northern California
Camino Cove Campground – Eldorado National Forest
Nestled on the Northwest shore of the Union Valley Reservoir, the Camino Cove Campground has been deemed one of the prettiest campgrounds in the Eldorado National Forest. Open late May through October, stay at the campground while exploring all the area has to offer; including fishing, boating, and hiking the Bassi Falls Hiking Trail!
Nearest Town: Pollock Pines, El Dorado County
Amenities: Fire ring and vault toilets. No potable water, no showers.
Mud Lake Trailhead Campground – Lassen National Forest
Situated alongside the famous Pacific Crest Trail, the Mud Lake Trailhead is the perfect campground for through and day hikers alike. Located just 3.5 miles from the town of Old Station, staying at Mud Lake Trailhead will allow you to enjoy sites such as the Subway Cave Lava Tubes and Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Nearest Town: Old Station, Shasta County
Amenities: Vault toilets, hitching rails, tables, and fire rings. No potable water.
Pinnacle Rock – Mendocino National Forest
Be prepared to go totally off the grid while taking in Pinnacle Rock’s breathtaking scenery! While technically most of Mendocino National Forest offers free, dispersed camping, the views offered at Pinnacle Rock just can’t be beat as it is one of the highest points in the forest. Be prepared to bring absolutely everything you need at this location though, because with no amenities available, you’ll be roughing it!
Nearest Town: Lucerne, Lake County
Amenities: No toilets, fire rings, potable water, or dumpsters.
Snag Lake Campground – Tahoe National Forest
Camp among clear mountain lakes, granite ridges, and pristine forest as you hike, fish, or swim to your heart’s content! Located just five miles north of Bassets on the Gold Lake Road, the Snag Lake Campground is home to 12 undesignated campsites for tents or small trailers.
Nearest Town: Bassets, Sierra County
Amenities: Vault toilets. No potable water or dumpsters.
Orr Lake Campground – Klamath National Forest
For all you fishing fanatics out there, Orr Lake is one of the most popular freshwater spots in Klamath National Forest; home to bass, trout, and catfish. Plus, it’s just a short hike from Orr Mountain, and has an awesome view of Mt Shasta!
Nearest Town: Bray, Siskiyou County
Amenities: Boat ramp, tables, and vault toilets. No potable water.
Castle Lake Campground – Mount Shasta
Ten miles Southwest of the town of Mount Shasta lays the pristine, ever popular, Castle Lake. Here, you can enjoy swimming, fishing, kayaking, and, if you’re lucky, a coveted spot at the Castle Lake Campground; open May through October. The campground is a mere 1/3-mile from the lake, and though it hosts only 6 campsites, you’ll find more sites for dispersed camping father along the road.
Nearest Town: Mount Shasta, Siskiyou County
Amenities: Picnic table, fire ring with grill, and vault toilets. No potable water.
Steiner Flat Campground – Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Situated along the shores of the Trinity River, the Steiner Flat Primitive Campground boasts 6-15 campsites that can be used for tents or small trailers. While staying at the site, plan on partaking in some swimming, fishing, hiking, or, if you’re seeking more of an adrenaline rush, white water rafting!
Nearest Town: Douglas City, Trinity County
Amenities: Vault toilets, fire ring, and picnic tables. No potable water.
Lacks Creek – Redwood Valley
A mere 15 miles from the Pacific Ocean, Lacks Creek is a recreational gem that is great for hiking and mountain biking enthusiasts; it contains a network of 15-20 miles of single-track and old logging roads! While lacking most camping comforts, such as toilets or fire rings, the area does allow for free, dispersed camping.
Nearest Town: Eureka, Humboldt County
Amenities: No toilets, fire rings, or potable water.
Glass Creek Campground – Inyo National Forest
While a little more south than the other options, Glass Creek Campground is located in a beautiful pine forest near the Mammoth Lakes, and the nearby sites make it too good to leave off the list! While a primitive campground, it is situated near the surreal, must-see site of Obsidian Dome; a 300-foot high lava dome that is part of the Mono-Inyo Craters Volcanic Chain!
Nearest Town: June Lake, Mono County
Amenities: Vault and pit toilets, fire rings, and tables. No potable water or hookups.
Plum Valley Campground – Modoc National Forest
Located in Modoc Forest’s Warner Mountain Ranger District, this scenic little dispersed campground is perfect for both hiking enthusiasts and obsidian rock collectors alike. Being close to the Sugar Hill Look-Out and a crystal-clear creek, get up close and personal with nature under the shady pines!
Nearest Town: Davis Creek, Modoc County
Amenities: Fire rings, picnic tables, and vault toilets. No potable water.
Things To Keep In Mind While Camping in California
While these campgrounds may be free, if you want to have a fire or use a burner, you’ll likely need a permit.
Be sure to research ahead of time if your campground allows campfires, and if so, if it requires a permit (you’ll likely be able to purchase or obtain one for free from park rangers on site). Remember to always use a burner on even ground and to never leave a fire unattended!
Dispersed camping requires that a “Leave No Trace” policy be followed.
Some principles of the LNT ethos are: travel and camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife, and be considerate of other visitors!
Many of these campgrounds are only open seasonally. Remember to research in advance what months your preferred campsite is open for use!
Northern California is bear country! Always make sure you research the presence of bears in your area, and travel equipped with a bear box!
Camping Essentials for California
Investing in quality camping gear is important as you don’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere and realize you don’t have sufficient equipment. We use this this durable tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad on all of our California camping trips.
Camping just isn’t as much fun if you only plan to eat granola bars. We recommend bringing along a camping stove, some pots and pans, some camping dishes, unscented soap, and a folding wash basin.
Wearing layers is always a good idea when camping; especially when in a climate such as Northern California’s! We recommend a moisture-wicking base layer, this packable jacket, and a beanie to keep your head and ears warm.
If you plan on a more active camping adventure, you’re also going to want to bring a good pair of hiking shoes.
Just because you’re out in nature doesn’t mean you have to totally brave the elements! We carry around sunscreen on every trip we take, and we recommend this bug spray to ward off mosquitos.
Additionally, it’s super important to be kind to the environment when camping, and that also goes for the daily toiletry products you use. We love Dr. Bronner’s All Natural Liquid Soap as it can be used as a shampoo, mouthwash, toothpaste, laundry detergent, and shaving cream. Plus, it’s free of harmful chemicals!
First Aid Kit
Accidents happen, and you’re going to want at least a basic first aid kit. Also, in order to keep your health in tip top shape, we recommend taking a portable water filtration system with you. We recommend this one that kills 99% of bacteria.