Free Camping in Yosemite and the Eastern Sierra

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.

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Pinecrest Lake in Stanislaus National Forest, California

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.

Free camping on Forest Road 1S02, just west of Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy entrance. A herd of seven deer passed right through our campsite the next morning.

Free camping on Forest Road 1S02, just west of Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy entrance. A herd of seven deer passed right through our campsite the next morning.

 

Free camping off Hardin Flat Road, one mile outside Yosemite's Big Oak Flat entrance

Free camping off Hardin Flat Road, one mile outside Yosemite’s Big Oak Flat entrance

Free camping on Forest Rte 3N07 in Stanislaus National Forest

Dispersed campsite on Forest Rte 3N07 in Stanislaus National Forest

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.

Mono Lake, California

Mono Lake, California

Dispersed camping on Picnic Grounds Road south of Mono Lake

Dispersed camping on Picnic Grounds Road south of Mono Lake

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.

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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.

I wish I could still join the Hopalong Cassidy Savings Club, whose members vow "to always be thrifty," "to earn the money I save," and "to be kind to birds and animals"

Sadly, applications are closed for the Hopalong Cassidy Savings Club, whose members vow “to always be thrifty,” “to earn the money I save,” and “to be kind to birds and animals”

Iron Man - Photo courtesy of Lone Pine Film History Museum

Iron Man‘s Lone Pine scene – Photo courtesy of Lone Pine Film History Museum

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.

Dispersed camping outside Lone Pine, in the Man of Steel filming location

Dispersed campsite outside Lone Pine, in the Man of Steel filming location

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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.

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Chuckwalla lizard hiding in the rocks

Chuckwalla lizard hiding in the rocks

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Dispersed camping off Jawbone Canyon Road near Red Rock Canyon

Dispersed camping off Jawbone Canyon Road near Red Rock Canyon

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!

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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!

25 Comments

  1. Great post! I agree that dispersed camping is a real gem, especially when you don’t need to be on the grid. You’ll find a lot of BLM camping in Utah. We’re in Cedar City, Utah the rest of this week doing a house-sitting gig before we get back in the van — when are you guys getting here?

    • Awesome! We’re headed to the Bryce/Zion area tomorrow. We would love to meet up if you’re around!

      • Are you guys looking for hiking buddies? Or would you want to try to grab a drink? We meet other full-time travelers so rarely so we’re down for whatever! Finding drinks here isn’t always easy, but I’m sure we could make it work.

  2. I just got back from Big Bend State Ranch park! Entry fee $3 and camping $8 a night, but my boyfriend and I had the place to ourselves. I’ll be doing a trip through California, Oregon and Washington this fall, and your post is so helpful. Not to mention beautiful!

    • So cool — I’ve been wanting to get down to that area for years. We’re going to try to make it there this November or December. Happy to advise on Oregon and Washington travels, if helpful!

  3. Wow that’s awesome how frugal you’re able to keep it with dispersed camping! Do people do that with trailers/RVs as well? You seem pretty isolated in the pics, was wondering if others are doing it as well.

    • Yep, we’re pretty stoked about it! We see plenty of other people doing dispersed camping in all sorts of vehicles, including big RVs and trailers. We just camped outside Arches National Park last night, and there were at least 50 other people on the BLM land — but much more spread out than at a typical designated campsite. I’m starting to understand the appeal of the Airstream life; you could easily park your trailer for a week or more and then venture out in the car during the day.

  4. Gorgeous photos! It’s such an eye-opener to know that you got such uncrowded camping so close to big landmarks and national parks! I think we’ve often fallen into the trap of assuming that we HAD to stay in a crowded campground, or fully in the backcountry, away from roads. This is definitely getting my wheels turning for future extended camping…

    How do you guys know when you’re on forest service or BLM land? Do you go by signage? Maps? I’m sure this is a dumb question, but I feel like that stuff isn’t always especially well marked. 🙂

    • You’re right; it’s usually not well marked! We’ve found a lot of the destinations on FreeCampsites.net and various online forums, so we haven’t had to do too much guessing. NFS land is reasonably well marked on Google Maps and with signage, but BLM boundaries are a bit harder to discern. If the boundaries are unclear (we came across one area where the border between BLM and county land was unmarked, and some campers had reported waking up to a visit and ticket from the sheriff), we’ve moved on until we felt like we were in an acceptable spot. In general, though, it’s been much easier than expected!

  5. Totally awesome, dispersed camping is a great idea. That’s something I used to do a lot when I was a climbing dirtbag. Just pull up the car at a remote area and set up the tent. 😀

  6. Absolute stunning pictures and travel stories that you publish. Keep them coming.

    This dispersed camping looks to be a great option if you want to travel frugal and avoid crowd or long drives. As a family, we urgently need to practice our camping skills and go and enjoy the out door life.

    • Thanks, Amber. It’s definitely an awesome frugal choice; you could live in beautiful places and hike and explore daily for next to nothing!

  7. what a great moments you’ve got.
    hope you enjoyed them.

  8. Love it! Thanks for the tip about Free Campsites—I’ll be using that a lot in the future. You’re in my favorite part of the country, visiting some of my favorite places. Thanks for sharing these beautiful pictures. Make sure to see the Redwoods while you’re in the area!

    • Yes, that website has been hugely valuable. I think I’m done paying for campsites, at least when we’re in the western states with their plentiful public land. I’ve been lucky enough to see Redwoods before, but I hope we’ll make it back sooner than later!

  9. I would totally join the Hopalong Cassidy Savings Club!

  10. Addendum: The folks at Serac Hammocks have put together a nice list of more free campsites near Yosemite at http://www.exploreserac.com/10-little-known-free-campsites-near-yosemite-national-park/

  11. Great post… this is all in my back yard… Most weekends of the year this is where I find myself… Cheers !!

  12. Can you comment on how you were able to store food safely? Did you have a large bear canister?

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