Here are some ideas for when you're looking to get out of town. Like, really out of town.
Also known as boondocking, dispersed camping or simply getting out into the wild (and no, we're not talking about Walmart parking lots, wild though they may be), free camping outside of designated campgrounds can be hard to find but well worth the search.
Most of the best free (and legally-accessible) campsites are found on Forest Service land and Bureau of Land Management areas, at least in California, so let's look at a few little-known free sites for your next getaway, from north to south.
The largest lake in Stanislaus National Forest is this one, which is three-plus hours east of San Francisco in the Sierra Nevadas. Dispersed camping is allowed 100 feet above the high-water line and there are zero services - nada - so it's perfect for those wanting to really get off the grid. There's a boat ramp for anglers to fish for rainbow, German brown, and eastern brook trout.
At the lake's Pit River arm, you'll find Mariners Point Shoreline, one of the few no-fee campgrounds here that is accessible by car (the others are boat-in only sites). Lake Shasta is actually an enormous reservoir that offers fishing and boating, or hike and explore the nearby Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
The state's second-longest and second-largest river offers outstanding fishing for chinook, coho, steelhead and rainbow trout. The site called Skeahan Bar River Access is probably the most developed, with fire rings and picnic tables, but others in the area are more remote. The river has rapids, waterfalls, rafting and swimming areas and as it was named for 1800s miners, you might even find a nugget of gold!
For showstopping views of the wild California coast, look no further than Willow Creek Road, a boondocking spot with towering sandstone monuments like San Martin Rock and the sounds of the waves crashing in the distance. Find a big tree to pitch a tent under and prepare to relax. Branching off highway 1, the road in is full of hairpin turns, so be mindful of that.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Anza-Borrego is the largest park in the Lower 48, yet only an hour and a half away from San Diego, close enough to civilization but big enough you can still feel like you're in isolation. Spring is wildflower season (which attracts every amateur Instagrammer in the region, so beware), and there are 110 miles of trails to explore. During the day you're likely to see bighorn sheep, mule deer, and golden eagles while at night stargazing here is phenomenal.
Hanning Flats Dispersed Area is a lovely stop if you're traveling to explore Death Valley or Sequoia National Park and has plenty of room to spread out. Unlike many spots in Southern(ish) California, there's plenty of grass and trees near the lake. Silver City Ghost Town is nearby and the lake offers all kinds of activities, from paddleboats to fishing to grabbing a beer at the Kern River Brewery.
A favorite spot for Los Angeles campers who want to get away from the big city, this national park run by the BLM offers boondocking near its north and south entrances. There is no trash collection, no water, no toilets and no fires (except by permit) - but in exchange you get the most amazing stargazing and sunset silhouettes of Joshua trees, which are found nowhere else in the world but the southwest.
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NEXT: THE BEST PLACES TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS