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How to score a free, last-minute campsite—even in Yosemite

Yosemite Falls, which is fed almost completely by snowmelt, is reflected in a partially flooded meadow on April 29, 2023, as warm temperatures have increased snowpack runoff in Yosemite National Park. | Mario Tama/Getty Images

After California’s record rainy season, the state is awash in impossibly green hills and mesmerizing wildflower superblooms that give us yet another reason to appreciate life in the Golden State. And with Memorial Day right around the corner, many locals are undoubtedly gearing up for the first camping trip of the season. 

From the Sierras to the sea, California offers an embarrassment of camping riches. But by the same token, reserving a proper campsite can feel like a bloodsport. Given that resorts in Big Sur and plots in Yosemite Valley can sell out within moments of opening up, some have even taken to using bots to nab a reservation

Booking websites like Hipcamp and Outdoorsy allow boondockers to claim last-minute spots. Alyssa Ravasio, who grew up in Marin County, founded Hipcamp after growing increasingly frustrated with the park service’s online booking process, which she said can be confusing and misleading.

“Camping was a huge part of growing up for me,” she said. “I loved it so much that when we would come home, I would insist on continuing to sleep in my sleeping bag with the windows open.”

Ravasio’s team has built out Hipcamp with a search engine that includes filters for price, swimming and pet-friendly campgrounds. There’s also a cell service filter for both campers who wish to stay connected and those hoping to drop off the grid entirely.  

Hipcamp has also developed a dark skies map for campers who hope to stargaze free from the burden of light pollution. Similarly, there’s a map filter for public land that’s available for dispersed camping, which Ravasio said she recommends for campers with the right gear and the ambition to reach the deepest depths of the wilderness.  

What Is Dispersed Camping, Exactly? 

Though the current price of gas could make any trek into the wilderness costly, free campsites abound across California. The Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service oversee large swaths of public land that are isolated from developed recreation areas and designated for dispersed camping.

In general, dispersed camping is free and does not require a reservation. Similar to rugged or primitive camping, it’s not for anyone—the phrase “roughing it” pretty much sums things up. Though dispersed camping areas may have fire pits, shelters and outhouses, many are fairly bare-bones and do not even have these basic amenities. 

Unless an area is marked “closed to camping,” all Bureau of Land Management sites are fair game for up to 14 days each month. Just be sure not to leave your stuff alone for more than 10 days if you decide to make any long expeditions away from your campsite.

A snowcapped Kearsarge Peak is viewed from the road to Onion Valley on Nov. 14, 2022, near Independence, California. | George Rose/Getty Images

The Finest Free Campsites in California 

One piece of conventional wisdom for finding that idyllic free campsite? Stay away from the coast. While you can find no-cost camping in places like Humboldt County’s Lost Coast, most free campsites are located closer to the mountains and in the desert—Sequoia National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave Desert, the Anza-Borrego Desert, the Alabama Hills and Kings Canyon are all excellent options. 

Although Yosemite National Park has become a highly coveted outdoor destination, the window for booking a reservation at one of its 13 campgrounds has grown extremely competitive. The park releases a limited number of reservations by lottery while others become available each day at 7 a.m., selling out within minutes. A smaller batch of reservations are available on a first-come, first-served basis. 

Tuolumne Meadows Campground was once the prime option for visiting Yosemite, but the area is closed until 2024 or 2025 as the park rehabilitates its subalpine fields.

A Few Well-Kept Secrets 

There are several other free campsites throughout the state that tend to fly under the radar. Owens Gorge Road Dispersed Camping and Sagehen Meadows Campground are tucked away in the Inyo National Forest near Mammoth Lakes. The campsites, serene and well-spaced, provide fire pits and sweeping views of the Sierras. 

For those looking for a wide expanse of desert to call home for a couple of weeks, American Girl Mine Dispersed Camping offers ample room to stretch out and stargaze. Situated on the border of California, Arizona and Mexico, it’s a short drive from Los Algodones—the northernmost village in Baja, Mexico. This site epitomizes “dry camping”—expect no amenities besides a fire ring.

Joshua trees grow near the western edge of the proposed monument near Castle Mountains National Monument in Juan, Nevada, on Nov. 18, 2020. | Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Delightful Day Trips 

If your budget and timing are more flexible, Hearst San Simeon State Park and Hendy Woods State Park are both a stone’s throw from other popular roadside attractions. 

Perched along the coastal bluffs of San Luis Obispo, Hearst San Simeon State Park is a solid jumping-off point for viewing elephant seals sunning on the beaches and making a visit to Hearst Castle. 

Hendy Woods State Park is nestled in a majestic redwood forest along Highway 128 in Mendocino County, which is dotted with diminutive wineries and a quaint farmstand. 

Gotta Get the Gear

Don’t think you have what you need to succeed on your next outdoor adventure—or need to beef up your cache of gear? You can rent equipment at REI and Sports Basement, including full camping and backpacking kits containing everything from the tent down to the headlamp, for up to a month at a time. If you prefer to shop local and independent, Young’s Backpacking has been holding it down on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley for over 30 years.