Camping may mean spending your time in developed campgrounds in national parks with their beautiful iconic scenery, and there is no denying that spending a night in these locations can provide a great experience. This is one of the reasons why camping has increased in popularity over the last ten years.
Camping is rising in popularity due to a lot of factors, like social media and a growing population focusing on outdoor education and accessibility. Because of this, getting a campsite in some of the most popular national parks can feel like a race. You have to book your trip as soon as their reservation systems open up for that particular season, and if you don’t do it fast enough, everything can get fully booked in a matter of minutes.
Booking a reservation may be frustrating, especially during the camping season, where it gets harder to book your favorite campsite on a particular day because everybody else also wants enjoy the good weather and go camping. That is why many campers are becoming big fans of first-come-first served campgrounds and dispersed camping.
If you are planning a last-minute camping trip but do not have time to book a reservation, then a no-reservation campsite is the best option for you as it does not require any planning, unlike other camping trips.
There are many ways to camp without a reservation. We are going to outline how to do this below and we also listed a few locations where you can camp without booking in advance.
Your tent is not the only necessary equipment that you need to bring when you’re going camping. There are a lot of important things that you need to pack and it can get a bit overwhelming. We listed all the camping items you’ll need for the great outdoors to help you make sure that you have everything that you need for your camping trip.
Do you need a reservation to camp in California?
If you want to stay in developed campgrounds in popular parks, you have to book a reservation in advance. However, there are many campsites in California where a reservation is not needed. Whether you only have planned a short weekend or full week for camping, reservation-free campgrounds are for you.
Reservation-free campgrounds in California:
- Sunset Canyon in Kings Canyon National Park
- Andrew Molera State Park in Big Sur
- Chula Vista in Santa Barbara
- Topanga State Park
Camping Without Reservations
First come first served
Some state and national parks have campgrounds that work on a first-come-first served basis, which means that these sites cannot be reserved in advance, and to be able to get that spot, you have to be physically there to claim it. These campgrounds range from undeveloped sites without amenities to developed sites similar to reservation campgrounds that feature fire pits and bathrooms.
The fees for these types of campgrounds are between $10 and $20 per night, excluding the entrance fee.
If you have a flexible schedule and are willing to put in time, then these first-come-first-served campgrounds are for you. Although, it can be tough to get a spot in the most popular parks during peak season.
Tips for getting a first-come-first-served campsite:
- Research to determine which campground you want to stay at.
- Make sure you get there early in the morning.
- Sundays and weekdays are the best days to get a camp site.
- Check the sites and tags to see when people are leaving, but be respectful and polite if they are still there.
- You should be able to get a tag from the front of the campground.
- Claim your spot, fill out the tag, and then pay at the box.
First-come-first-served campgrounds in California:
- Azalea in Sequoia Kings Canyon
- Hidden Valley in Joshua Tree
- White Wolf in Yosemite
Dispersed Camping (BLM & National Forest Land)
There are 154 national forests managed by the Forest Service across 43 states, and the BLM or Bureau of Land Management is currently managing 32 million acres of land, which means there is a lot of space to camp at.
Dispersed camping means you can camp on public land that is located away from any recreational facilities. These campgrounds are undeveloped, which means they have no bathrooms, picnic tables, fire rings, or any other services. Plus, they are off-road or dirt service roads and are located far away from maintained trailheads, campgrounds, and picnic areas. However, some of the best things about dispersed camping are that it’s free and requires no reservations and no fees. You just have to find a good area and camp.
To find the best area for dispersed camping, you can use the Forest Service or the BLM websites. Both have functions that enable you to search by state, area, and activity, so you can find the best-suited public land space for your trip.
The easiest way to tell if a spot is a campsite is if the land is relatively flat and the bushes are cleared. Some may even have rock fire pits or rings. They are also along dirt roads and don’t have any signage, and that’s usually about it. So, make sure you bring your own supplies, like trash bags, water, and light.
Remember the “Leave No Trace” principle and fire safety rules, and make sure to check the fire restrictions in the area to know if there is a fire ban. Additionally, if you are in California, you may need a fire permit to build a campfire.
Looking for a good campsite may sometimes take time, but that is part of the camping adventure.
Dispersed camping areas:
- Alabama Hills, near Lone Pine
- Sierra National Forest, between Kings Canyon and Yosemite
- Hope Valley, near Tahoe
Camping Spots Without Reservations in Northern California
Only about 200 of California’s 1,500 campgrounds are included in the reservation system. The other 800 are first-rate public campgrounds that are more developed, and the remaining 500 are privately owned.
We’ve listed a few good locations in Northern California where you can find a spot, even on a weekend. However, some of these are undeveloped campgrounds, so it is best to bring your own water or purifying systems, trash bags, and other necessities.
1. Near the South Fork of Smith River
This campground is located in the remote Northwest part of the state, amongst the tallest trees and one of the crown jewels of America’s streams, the Smith River. This area is beautiful, remote, and quiet. Plus, you will get a redwood-country vibe without getting locked out of the state park’s reservation system.
This relatively unpopular campground is located near the South Fork of Smith River. This pretty wooded spot is within walking distance of the stream. There are 28 sites in this area, no reservations needed, no drinking water, and you only have to pay $8 a night.
2. Lassen Area
If you have ever been to Lassen Volcanic National Park, you may have missed the Juniper Lake campground because the entrance to this place is nowhere near the park.
This campground is located at the national park’s remote southeast corner. Fortunately, it can be reached by car. Note that the drive down this area is rough, so it is best to take it slow (railers and RVs are not recommended). The water may also be too cold for some, and fishing is poor.
Juniper Lake is beautiful and offers short hikes to view the volcanic landscape. The location comprises 18 sites, requires no reservations, and provides no drinking water. The fee is $10 per night.
3. Shasta-Trinity National Forest
While drivers speed through the I-5 North of Redding every day, they may not have a clue about what beauty lies nearby. In the western part of a mountain range stretching from Mount Eddy, south to Shasta Lake near Weed, are dozens of hidden mountain lakes with campsites.
One good spot here is the Toad Lake walk-in campground, located close to a lake that is good for swimming and trout fishing. The drive going to the area may discourage you but from the end of the road, a 15-minute walk to the lake is easy and short enough for anyone to go back and forth to their parked car.
There are six walk-in sites in the area, no reservations needed, no drinking water, and the best part: no fees. Yes, the campsites are free!
4. Plumas National Forest
This part of the alpine lakes in the northern Sierra Nevada is unknown from many vacationers because there are no major roads that provide direct access to it. However, it is one of the best destinations for fishing, hiking, and fall hunting in the West.
Plumas-Eureka State Park is one of the few California state parks that cannot be locked up by reservations. Near the campsite are the beautiful 40-foot-high Jamison Falls and Eureka Lake. If you want to see the stunning view of the lake and mountain peaks up and down the Sierra crest, you have to hike a 1,100-foot ascent from Eureka Lake to the Eureka Peak.
The location holds 67 sites, requires no reservation, and has full facilities ready. You just have to pay $12 for a night.
5. Lake Tahoe Area
There are many campgrounds at Lake Tahoe that are fully booked for months. However, there is a landscape just over the ridge with the same qualities as Tahoe, and with dozens of smaller lakes, which means this area will provide an array of opportunities for activities. The Stanislaus National Forest, Bowman Lakes Recreation Area, and Crystal Basin all feature miles of terrain highlighting glacial-cut granite that is filled with azure alpine lakes.
The best area to camp at is the Canyon Creek Camp, located between Faucherie and Sawmill Lakes, along Canyon Creek, and is at an elevation of 6,000 feet. On calm mornings, fishing and canoeing are excellent activities to perform at Faucherie. Additionally, there is a great wilderness trailhead located at the north end of Sawmill Lake that leads to several pristine lakes into the alpine wilderness.
This area holds 20 sites, requires no reservations , provides no drinking water, and is free of charge.
6. Yosemite Area
There are many campgrounds in Yosemite Valley, and 15 of them are within a 15-mile radius north of Yosemite. One of the best one there is the Clark Fork Camp, located along the Stanislaus River, which is a wooded stream that is occasionally stocked with trout. There is also a great driving tour near Highway 108 toward Donnells Overlook with a view of Dardanelles and an easy access to the main stem of Stanislaus.
For hikers, there is also a nearby trailhead that starts with an 8-mile trip into the Pacific Crest Trail near Wolf Creek Pass. You have to hike up a canyon alongside Arnot Creek, which is a trout stream featuring lush gardens of wildflowers and vegetation.
The area comprises 88 campsites, requires no reservation , offers full facilities, and costs $10 to $12 per night.
Tips for Camping Without Reservations
Many campgrounds require no reservations. However, it is always best to do your own research to see what locations suit you and to determine what essentials you need to bring to have a wonderful experience. You also have to check for fire bans and other restrictions in that area so you’ll know what to expect and have everything ready.
To help you have a safe and comfortable camping experience, we’ve compiled a few tips for you to enjoy the great outdoors.
1. Make a Gear Checklist
You have to determine what to bring based on the amount of time you’ll be gone, the location, mode of transport, and how much room you have. If you are planning on hiking to the campsite, you should pack light. You should also only bring what you need and leave the extra fancy gears that are not appropriate for the trip.
2. Pick the Right Backpack
You should have the right backpack based on the length of your spine and trek. If you are driving for a day hike from a base camp, then a small backpack will do as it will be enough to pack supplies and provisions to tide you over.
3. Pack Sleeping Gear
Your tent, sleeping bag, pad, and pillow will help you sleep well. Choose lightweight and quality-made sleeping gear that can withstand the elements.
4. Pack Cooking Gear
First, you have to know if there are any restrictions or fire bans on the location you want to camp at to determine what cooking gear to bring and to know fire safety rules.
5. Pack Food
It is always best to bring food packs that are perfect for packing light, do not require any cooking, and won’t spoil quickly. Research water purification systems or pumps as well as the recommended daily water intake.
6. Pack Clothes
Check the weather forecast and make sure to bring the right clothes, regardless of whether or not they’re fashionable. This will also help avoid overpacking.
7. Pack Camping Gadgets
Bring essential tools or gadgets that will help you camp more safely and easily, such as a flashlight, headlamp, or lantern, extra batteries, multi-tool, and power bank to charge your phone in case of an emergency.
8. Pack a Hygiene Kit
Bring along soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet paper, and some other essentials you need to bring for personal hygiene.
9. Safety First!
Do not forget to bring your first-aid kit, creams for wounds or blisters, sunscreen, repellers, and other physical aid and personal medication.
10. Plan Extras
Campers are still allowed to have fun while staying safe and keeping the environment clean and unharmed. So, don’t hesitate to bring your binoculars, camera, maps, books, chair, and cooler for beers. Just remember to keep the area clean and leave no trace.
With an increasing number of people enjoying the nature through camping, securing a reservation at the perfect camping spot is getting harder and harder. If you want to go on a spontaneous camping trip, campsites without reservations are the perfect place for you.
When you’re out camping, always remember to proceed with caution, especially when staying in primitive or undeveloped campgrounds and when you are camping alone. You are sharing the space with many other living creatures, and it is best to leave the campsite as you found it or as neat as possible.
Remember the Leave No Trace principles and pack your trash and take it home or throw it in an on-site trash can. Enjoy your camping trip while protecting the environment, so that you and the future generations will have a place they can visit to relax, unwind, and enjoy the great outdoors.