15 Boondocking Locations and Free Campsites in California

It’s time for some off-the-grid fun! This guide to boondocking in California is full of locations that you can roll your RV into and have a grand time.
boondocking in california
Photo credit Instagram user @phooak_

California is one of America’s most diverse states, with sprawling forests up north and sunny scenery in the south. Fun fact—the Golden State contains the highest and lowest points in the Lower 48, just 85 miles apart. California is composed of beautiful landscapes tailor-made for off-the-grid fun between the cities and the sparsely populated eastern half of the state.

Take a look at our guide to boondocking in California to learn more about how you can start camping self-sufficiently in the Golden State.


Is Boondocking Legal in California?

The rules covering boondocking in California are a patchwork of federal, state, and local regulations. A good rule of thumb is that boondocking is legal on federal lands, at least those owned by the Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service.

Some of California’s state parks permit boondocking, while others do not. Anza Borrego State Park permits boondocking throughout the park, while state parks near Los Angeles and San Francisco aren’t as likely to allow it.

Most cities in California forbid boondocking, both on public and private land. You cannot sleep in your car in most cities, and quite a few of them prohibit businesses like Walmart or Camping World from letting customers stay the night. To sum it up, boondockers should avoid urban areas in the Golden State.


5 Tips for RV Boondocking in California

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Going self-sufficient in California isn’t all that difficult, but there are a few things specific to the Golden State that you’ll want to keep in mind.

Don’t Display Your Valuables. Most of California’s campsites are incredibly safe, but you never know who might be coming through. Keep your laptop and expensive camera inside your RV, so would-be thieves don’t get any ideas.

Ask Around Before Choosing a Campsite. You’ll have plenty of options for boondocking California, but locals know where to find the safest and cheapest campsites. While online resources are great, nothing beats firsthand knowledge. 

Be Very Careful with Your Campfires. California is prone to wildfires. Know the campfire regulations in your area; if they’re allowed, ensure your ashes are cool to the touch before going to bed.

Consider the Season. Many of the state and national parks fill up during the summer, so either make reservations far in advance or plan to visit less popular areas during peak season.

Be Wary of the Wildlife. If you’re camping in the Sierra, bear spray is a necessity. In the Mojave, watch your step for rattlesnakes. Be aware of dangerous wildlife near your campsite and keep your distance. 


Your Guide to the Best Boondocking in California

Whether it is your first time boondocking or another on a list of fun off-the-grid trips, knowing where to set up is essential. There are some prime opportunities for boondocking in California. Read on to learn about top spots! 


Boondocking Locations in Northern California

Cruise-America-Photo-Collage_a.jpgCherry Lake

One of the better options for boondocking the Bay Area, Cherry Lake is three and half hours east of San Francisco, high in the Sierra Nevada range. You can do dispersed camping above the lake’s high watermark, and vault toilets are available along with a boat ramp. 

What to Do: Water activities are in store at Cherry Lake. Most visitors come to swim and kayak in the lake or fish for trout (Rainbow, German Brown, and Eastern Brook). 


Indian Valley Reservoir

Another solid option for boondocking the Bay Area is this small BLM campground three hours north of San Francisco. Dispersed camping is free, but there’s also a nearby first come, first serve campground with a fee that offers showers and flush toilets. 

What to Do: Pack the bikes! This location features some singletrack outside the campground that is popular with mountain bikers (and hikers too).


Black Rock Campground

Just north of Sequoia National Park and two and half hours east of Fresno, Black Rock is perfect for boondockers wanting solitude. There are toilets, drinking water, fire rings, and picnic tables available, and there’s no fee to camp. 

What to Do: Plan a picnic, relax next to Black Water Reservoir, or hike up one of the steep, mountainous trails nearby. Note—a narrow approach road makes this unsuitable for longer RVs.


Hermit Valley Campground

South of Lake Tahoe and close to the Nevada border, this is a great campground for boondocking Northern California. There is a vault toilet and fire rings, but not much else. Sites are situated in a large open area near the Ebbetts Pass Scenic Byway and the Pacific Crest Trail.

What to Do:  Say hello to thru-hikers or do a short day hike to get a feel for the Pacific Crest Trail.


Doe Flat Trailhead

All the way up near the Oregon border, the Smith River National Recreation Area and Doe Flat are perfect for experiencing the wilderness of northern California. The roads to get in are rough, and a vault toilet is the only amenity, but the hiking is astounding. 

What to Do: Take a trip up to the Devil’s Punchbowl, a ten-mile hike through some of California’s most beautiful alpine landscapes.


Glass Creek Campground

To really get off the beaten path in California, you need to go east of the Sierra. Just south of the alien-looking Mono Lake is Glass Creek Campground, where you’ll find vault toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings, but not many people. 

What to Do: Go hiking in the Owens River Headwaters Wilderness, an oasis of verdant forests and meadows amongst the dry and craggy landscapes that form the majority of the eastern Sierra. 


Willow Lake

This campground sits just outside Lassen Volcanic National Park, one of America’s most underrated parks. The campsites have a vault toilet and fire rings. Plus, the lake has excellent fishing. 

What to Do: Head into the park to see the remains of violent volcanic eruptions now overgrown with trees and filled in with aquamarine lakes.


Boondocking Locations in Southern California

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Anza Borrego State Park

For boondocking San Diego, you can’t go wrong with Anza Borrego, the Lower 48’s largest state park. It’s only an hour and a half from the city and has dozens of trails through otherworldly badlands. 

What to Do: Explore the rugged peaks of the park on a series of trails. Come in late spring or early summer to see the colorful wildflowers blooming.


Laguna Mountain

The closest place to boondock San Diego is about an hour to the east. There are RV campsites available, but for the adventurous bunch who want to experience life off the grid, there’s plenty of opportunities—just veer far from any wildlife watering improvement. 

What to Do: Laguna Mountain is a hiking galore! Lace up your hiking boots and traverse the green mountainous terrain. Spot some wildlife in the park! Wander the desert landscapes of the Otay Mountain Wilderness, and you’ll almost certainly come upon some unique wildlife, like mountain lions, bighorn sheep, and horned lizards.


Spangler Hills OHV Area

Want to cruise some dunes while boondocking Los Angeles? Spangler Hills OHV area is about two hours north of LA and 57,000 acres of open terrain. Most of it is dunes or scrubland, so you’ll need to pack plenty of water for shadeless days. The area is also popular with motorcycle and ATV riders, so it can get a bit noisy.

What to Do: Conquer the dunes on your vehicle of choice! Thrill-seekers are sure to have a good time in this locale. 


Hanning Flat Dispersed Area

The campground sits on the eastern edge of Isabella Lake, about an hour northeast of Bakersfield. Unlike some of the other sites for boondocking in southern California, Hanning Flat has plenty of soft grass and even a few trees to lounge under. Toilets and fire rings are the only amenities here, so stock your RV with all the boondocking essentials

What to Do: The lake is quite popular for fishing, swimming, and paddling.


Carrizo Plain National Monument

Sitting at the southern end of the Central Valley, a few hours north of Los Angeles, this is one of the most underrated camping areas in the state. In the spring, colorful wildflowers blanket the valley floor. 

What to Do:  Hikers can enjoy trails around Soda Lake and up to the nearby ridges that are part of the San Andreas faultline. 


Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area

Coastal camping at its best, Oceano Dunes offers breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean overlooked by up to 500-foot-tall dunes. It’s also the only area in the state where you can drive a vehicle on the beach. Advanced reservations are necessary as this campground is quite popular, despite having very few services. 

What to Do: Rev your dune buggy up and soak in the magnificent views as you ride along the coast line. 


Death Valley National Park

Think you can’t boondock in a national park? Many of the campgrounds within Death Valley are free and first-come, first-serve. Most have drinking water, fire pits, picnic tables, and toilets. It’s the largest national park in the Lower 48 and has some great hiking along its outer edge. While the park is open year-round, it’s best to avoid the summer months when daytime temperatures are dangerously hot.

What to Do: Visit the breathtaking Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes or take a driving route through the park. Whatever activities you enjoy, be sure to stay hydrated! 


Joshua Tree National Park

This is one of the most popular spots for boondocking in Southern California, due in large part to its dark skies that are ideal for stargazing. The boondocking sites are outside the park boundary on BLM land and don’t have the amenities of the in-park campgrounds. 

What to Do: Spring and fall are the best times to visit this national park. For a list of tips and fun activities, read our Guide to RV Camping in Joshua Tree National Park.


Start your California Boondocking Journey Now!

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Few states inspire the imagination like California. The open road is full of possibilities, and its backcountry is brimming with free campsites. 

With a Cruise America RV rental, you can start exploring the Golden State and all it offers. Cruise America has a wide variety of RV rentals available at dozens of locations across the state. Make your booking today to see a whole new side of California! 
 

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