Bring a tent, some amigos, some brews and let's roll.
There's a surprising quantity of free campsites available throughout California in literally every region. Obviously, you get what you pay for and some of the spots are dodgy as hell. One is nicknamed "the catbox" because of the copious piles of human feces peppering the site perimeter. Yeah, not awesome. Fear not, I won't be discussing those kinds of sites, I've vetted for shit pile camping.
Your best bet with any of these free sites in Southern California is to posses an Adventure Pass, a windshield hangtag you can buy anywhere in America, even online. I paid $30 for mine and it's a mere $5 for extra vehicles. I'll usually buy a few hang tags and hand them off to the amigos when we're plotting a wilderness escape. You'll need this pass for Big Sur's Willow Creek Road campsites for one. I've never been hassled by any rangers while camping, but it's too easy to play by these rules and there's no reason to be a bad apple potentially ruining the freeness for everyone else.
I've stayed at a few of these sites, others I've read about and heard good things. Let's dive in.
FREE CA CAMPING SITES
- Willow Creek Road (Big Sur): This is a forestry road that branches of Hwy 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway, PCH). It's a good half hour drive up a curvy mountain road, the first mile is paved, then you hit a dirt road. The sites are scattered without notice all along the side of the slope. I recommend heading up the road a good thirty minutes and finding a spot few people have claimed. Plus, you get a better view. For me, camping is best when I don't have to listen to my neighbors, who probably love hip hop so much they have to blast it throughout the campground for everyone else to enjoy. Pack your trash and you'll have to dig a scat hole, or hold it until you get to Gorda. Free camping typically means little to no amenities. This is what I seek when I want good, non-parking lot style camping, or glamping. Otherwise you're heading to Plasket, Lime Kiln Creek, etc., but those are packed and booked six months in advance.
- Another stellar set of free sites are further north from Willow Creek Rd. also off Hwy 1, about 30 minutes north of Gorda, up Nacimiento Road (take it 45 miles paved to the top, take the right dirt road branch and you're all set, camp wherever).
- Cole Creek Camping Area (Kirkwood): Shaded by oaks and adjacent to a meadow, this campsite has a little over 20 sites available. You get here from Hwy 88, south to Bear River Res. drive, drive over the dam and follow the Cole Creek Rd. Fortunately, the road is paved here too. Note, this site is only open from Summer to fall. Equipped with a bear box and parking stall.
Slab City (Niland): Remember above how I said I wouldn't promote shit-pile camping? This is the closest we'll get. Most civilized people would consider this place to be a nuclear testing ground, sketched from the ragged pages of Mad Max. You go there to escape your past, or find yourself in mushrooms. This place is near the Salton Sea, off Hwy 11. Doing some topical searches kicked back this wonderful review: "The most wonderful, weird and disturbing campsite in the country." The '94 Chicago Tribune kicked out a lovely piece titled, "Trouble in Paradise: It's Hot, Desolate and Ugly, But Now Slab City is Facing a Real Problem: Progress." Let's just say that progress never came, or if it had, it regressed into the nether regions of a lowly desert acid trip, hungry, dehydrated and looted for its valuables by ex-felons and desperate hippies. This might be one of those places you want to drive by because it's a California icon. And that's a hellofa compliment. I would post a photo, but it's easier to imagine when you last had food poisoning. Basically, a scorched, sandy superfund site inhabited by craggy, odd bohemians deeply acquainted with desert RV living, sitting on idle hands until the next Burning Man. Honestly, this place is easy to write about, which is why it's included. Don't camp here. It's a dangerous curiosity at best and property or life endangerment at its worst. One of these days, I'll give this place a proper write-up. Everyone I know who has seen this place says, "Bring a gun and you'll have an okay time."
Gould Mesa Trail Camp (Flintridge): Three sites available on first come, first served basis. You'll want to get the directions here. If you have a car, you'll have to park on Angeles Crest Highway and hoof it a mile. Not easy, but hey, free is free. Basically, the grounds are the typical north Los Angeles campsite, featuring fire pits, bathroom access and benches. There are sordid reviews regarding homeless people using the site and incidences with break ins. Welcome to LA. Just use common sense and you'll be fine. Park, hike in, scout it out for safety, then take off if it seems sketchy. Bring your Adventure Pass, this place requires one.
Bear Creek Campground (Mendocino / Upper Lake): You'll want to nab the coordinates here, but expect a dirt road and some river crossing requiring four-wheel drive and possibly a raised vehicle, depending on the time of year. There are about 16-19 sites available here.
Dog Valley (Verdi - West of Reno): Good news is you can access this place with your two-wheel drive vehicle. Expect seclusion and lacking amenities. From the 395, you'll be driving a rough graded gravel road for 5 miles. Bring toilet paper and be prepared to dig your own toilet with a shovel. No water access here, but there's extraordinary wilderness with terrific views and access to hiking trails. Go here for more specific details on how to get there.
Lumsden Bridge (Groveland): Remote 15 site campground surrounded by low elevation pines and oaks. Directions here. Beautiful fishing available at the river that parallels the grounds. Get there mid-week to snag one of the river-abutted sites.
Any national forest allows overnight camping, so long as you have your Adventure Pass. This is a hugely cool benefit, but remember, you'll likely be roughing it (in the camping world, we call this boondocking) so bring your water, food and be prepared to pack in/out your trash.
Here's a killer listing of all the California Hot Springs. Find a tub and soak up with fellow naked bohemians. Down the road, I'd like to do a feature on several of the Southern California Hot Springs.
That completes this round of finest free campsites California has to offer. I selected sites with generally positive and strong reviews and places I've personally camped. Aside from Slab City, those other places are worthy of a visit. And even the Slab is worth a visit if you don't plan on sticking around.
Here's a composite, mapped listing of all free California camp sites, but be warned, everything and the kitchen sink is listed. Lots of dodgy.