We’ve spent the past month exploring more of California, venturing north from Yosemite into Stanislaus National Forest, then east across the Sierra Nevada. The scenery has been breathtaking. The weather has been nearly perfect.
When we headed to Yosemite National Park a few weeks ago, we were a bit nervous about the dwindling availability of campsites in the park. One week before our visit, there were only two spaces remaining on the Recreation.gov booking system – and at the relatively steep price of $26 per night. While that may not sound like much for an average weekend getaway, it’s a meaningful portion of our daily full-time travel budget. Besides, we’d rather save that money for concert tickets and brewery visits. We opted to venture into the park without a reservation, hoping we could find an alternative.
Our gamble paid off. With just a little extra effort, we found dozens of unoccupied campsites just a few minutes outside the park entrance.
The joy of dispersed camping
When I’ve told some friends and family that we’ve been dispersed camping around California, the first image that has come to mind has often been of “stealth” camping, the black-out-all-the-windows, hope-we-don’t-get-caught-by-the-cops style of urban van-dwelling.
On the contrary, dispersed camping is completely legal – and far more enjoyable. Unless otherwise posted, all National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land is open for free camping, and many of the desirable locations have already been staked out with two-wheel-drive accessible driveways and stone fire pits. When we find a spot, we break out the chairs, table, and camp stove. If a ranger happens to drive by, we exchange a wave.
On top of the attractive price point, dispersed camping also makes for a spectacular camping experience. No crowds. No bright headlights passing through at all hours. No RVs running generators in the middle of the night. Just us and nature.
FreeCampsites.net has been hugely helpful for finding locations. It’s now been over a month since we paid to camp.
From Yosemite and Stanislaus National Forest, we headed east across the Sierra Nevada toward the Nevada border, then south along U.S. 395 back toward the Mojave Desert.
Cruising down the highway one sunny afternoon, we drove by a large building with a tall watchtower. “That’s weird,” I told Daniel, “It almost looks like a prison.”
One Google search and one unexpected U-turn later, we were engrossed in the fascinating and shameful history of Manzanar, the first of ten concentration camps in which over 110,000 Japanese Americans were interned during World War II. I vividly remember the first time I learned about Japanese internment in third or fourth grade, looking at news clippings of people from my home town being stripped of their possessions and bussed away. “How could that happen here?”
The camp, which is now operated by the National Park Service, includes several of the original buildings and an impressive visitor center with a number of moving displays about the lives of those imprisoned there. The parallels to modern discussions of walls and databases were striking.
Just a few miles south of Manzanar, we stopped in the town of Lone Pine, CA. About three hours north of Hollywood, Lone Pine served as a major filming location for hundreds of western films in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. We paid $5 each to check out the Lone Pine Film History Museum, where we saw posters and memorabilia for everything from silent films to Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger. More recently, the area’s Alabama Hills have been featured in Iron Man, Man of Steel, and Django Unchained.
After our visit to the museum, we were amazed to find free BLM camping right in the heart of the Alabama Hills, which made for perhaps the most scenic campsite we’ve ever enjoyed.
Finally, we visited California’s Red Rock Canyon State Park at the southernmost tip of the Sierra Nevada range. After a day of exploring the dramatic cliffs and rock formations, we found free BLM camping just a few minutes south of the park.
We wrapped up our time here visiting friends and family in Los Angeles, Fresno, and San Francisco.
California, it’s been great. Next up, Utah!
Prefer money talk to travel photos? Kara at From Frugal to Free was kind enough to invite me to write a guest post in her FIRE Advice for Noobs series last week. Check it out!