Chi and I spent the entire summer of 2022 road-tripping and camping all around California, and it was truly a dream come true. And in case you weren’t aware, I’m a bit of a free campsite connoisseur. I sleep outside more nights than I sleep inside each year and I’m willing to spend the time and gas money to drive around and find the absolute BEST campsites. Whether you’re looking for a place to park for weeks in the woods or just enjoy an evening under the stars, keep reading to learn about my 10 favorite free campsites in California! #6 is one of the best campsites I’ve ever stayed at.
GPS: 33.6747510, -115.7946381
Loved the campsites in Joshua Tree’s south BLM land. They’re located less than a mile outside the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park and there are hundreds of free sites to choose from. We were lucky to have a cold front for a couple of days, so Chi and I stayed for two nights over Memorial Day weekend. We had no issues finding a space to ourselves and I’ll be staying here every time I’m in Joshua Tree from now on!
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GPS: 34.2261501, -116.9386559
Big Bear Lake is my favorite place for digital nomads! There are tons of free camping, gorgeous hiking trails, a downtown area full of delicious restaurants, and plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors both on the lake and around it. Big Bear Lake has a system of Yellow Post sites scattered around the lake that you can camp at for free as long as you have secured a California campfire permit and Adventure Pass when required. Some campsites are walk-in only while some are drive-in. My favorite campsites to stay at were along Mill Creek Road due to their views and proximity to the Village. I highly recommend staying here if you’re looking for a remote place to camp near downtown!
I left my campsite on Mill Creek Road for two seconds and my spot was taken. So I ventured just a little further up the road, turned left at the fork, and found plenty more secluded spots up Osita Camp Road. And it’s still less than 15 minutes from town. I ended up staying at this site for over a week and I’d highly recommend it! There’s not as much shade where you can park, but there is plenty of shade behind the trees right next to you to cool off during the day. The trail is a dead end.
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If you dream of camping on the beach along the PCH and waking up to the sounds of the ocean for some sunrise surfing or yoga, you’ve gotta spend at least one night in Surf City, USA at Huntington Beach State Park! It’s not free but feels like a steal, so I included it on this list. During the off-season, you can camp for as little as $15 a night and have the beach all to yourself. Each site comes with a picnic table and fire ring, and there is a public restroom.
GPS: 34.10543, -118.72873
Malibu is a place I didn’t expect to love as much as I did. It’s so close to LA but so different. Malibu has clean beaches, stunning hiking trails, and great vibes. I didn’t camp in any specifically designated campsites, but I spent many nights parked along quiet roads within the Santa Monica mountains. It was the best free campsite in all of California. I had a beautiful view of both the sea and the stars where I never saw another soul. If you get the chance, I highly recommend sneaking up to the hills of Malibu for what feels like a private, luxurious getaway in your car in the mountains.
GPS: 34.5151551, -119.7970562
This is one of the best free campsites in California and one of my favorite dispersed campsites ever! I was struggling to find campsites in Santa Barbara. I called the ranger station who told me that there were many options along East Camino Cielo in the Padres National Forest. I drove the entire road so I could be sure to find the one that would check all of my boxes. This one blew all of my boxes out of the water. It had incredible views of both the mountains and the ocean, especially with the fog every morning. It was quiet during the week but got busier on the weekends. I stayed here for almost a week and didn’t want to leave! I highly recommend staying here during your time in Santa Barbara!
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GPS: 15550 El Camino Real, Goleta, CA 93117
This vista is a large rest area off the PCH, so you can use the restroom, watch the sunrise or sunset over the sea, and even spend the night. You’ll have other campers with you, and gorgeous views. I stayed here for one night in the summer and the dolphins sure put on a show. I highly recommend staying here for the evening during a road trip along the coast!
GPS: 36.62663, -121.91826
This is a beautiful spot along the ocean in Monterey Bay! It is 2-hour parking only from 9 am-6 pm but there are no restrictions other than that at night. I wouldn’t stay here for more than a couple of nights, but it’s a beautiful and free spot to listen to the waves as you go to sleep and explore Monterey Bay during the day.
GPS: 38.7708031, -119.9410868
When I stayed in Lake Tahoe I enjoyed staying closer to Hope Valley as it was both peaceful and beautiful. My favorite free campsites in California were the dispersed campsites near Scott’s Lake. They were located about 20 minutes from downtown South Lake Tahoe, so you’re close to town when you want the hustle and bustle but have a peaceful escape when you just want to be surrounded by nature. I stayed at this campsite for several weeks (including the 4th of July) and cried when I had to leave. I highly recommend staying here when visiting South Lake Tahoe!
GPS: 39.22443, -120.13724
When I had to move campsites in Lake Tahoe, I moved over to the dispersed camping area near Watson Lake. These campsites are similar to the sites at Scott’s Lake, but they’re located on the north side of the lake so it’s a great spot if you’re looking to explore Tahoe City and the surrounding mountains. There aren’t a ton of spots available but you do need 4WD and high clearance to reach it, so you shouldn’t run into too many neighbors if you do make the trek here.
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