Camping in National Forests in CA: A Hidden Gem!

If you’re an avid outdoors lover, you may have camped or at least considered camping in one of the nation’s national parks. But have you considered camping in one of the National Forests in CA? These forests are often overlooked when it comes to camping, but doing so is just as thrilling and beautiful as camping in a national park. 

In this article, you’ll discover the lesser-known but incredibly rewarding experience of camping in California’s national forests. While many opt for crowded campgrounds, few realize the untouched natural beauty that awaits them in the national forests of America. 

California’s national forests are renowned for their breathtaking landscapes, ranging from towering redwood forests to rugged mountain ranges, pristine lakes, and meandering rivers. Their diversity of ecosystems and habitats makes them ideal for spending time in nature.

This article aims to shed light on the undiscovered charm of camping in California’s national forests. We’ll guide you through the serene wilderness, offering insights into secluded campsites, outdoor activities, and responsible camping practices. 

The Appeal of Camping in National Forests

beautiful summer afternoon at Big Bear Lake inside the San Bernardino National Forest
A beautiful summer afternoon at Big Bear Lake inside the San Bernardino National Forest.

First off, you’ll be pleased to know that solitude and tranquility await you in California’s national forests. Unlike crowded campgrounds, where the noise and activity can be overwhelming, camping in these forests presents a genuine escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. You’ll have the opportunity to listen to the wind rustling through the trees, the chirping of birds, and the gentle flow of nearby streams, creating an atmosphere of total seclusion.

Camping in national forests also fosters a deep connection with nature and its inhabitants. You’ll wake up to the melodies of songbirds and perhaps even spot deer or other wildlife just outside your tent. The forests provide an authentic and unfiltered encounter with the natural world, allowing you to observe the delicate balance of ecosystems and appreciate the beauty of the plants and animals that call these forests home. 

Furthermore, camping in California’s national forests is not only a laid-back escape but also a budget-friendly alternative to crowded campgrounds. You can enjoy the same stunning landscapes and outdoor activities without the high costs associated with popular camping destinations. National forest campsites often come at a fraction of the price, allowing you to extend your stay and explore more hidden treasures within these vast wilderness areas. It’s a cost-effective way to enjoy nature without breaking the bank.

Choosing the Right National Forest

A winding road twists through the mountains inside the Los Padres National Forest
A winding road twists through the mountains inside the Los Padres National Forest.

Be aware that California boasts an impressive array of national forests, each with its own unique character and natural wonders. From the towering trees of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest to the jagged terrain of the Los Padres National Forest, you have a wealth of options to explore. These forests collectively cover millions of acres, providing an extensive selection for your camping adventure. Understanding their diversity and what each has to offer is a great first step in selecting the forest that best suits your camping goals.

While many campers flock to the well-known national parks, California’s national forests often remain secret gems waiting to be discovered. Consider exploring forests like the Mendocino National Forest or the Stanislaus National Forest, where you can find hidden pockets of beauty tucked away from the crowds. 

When selecting the ideal national forest, several factors come into play. Start by defining your camping goals—are you seeking solitude, adventure, or specific activities like hiking or fishing? Consider the season and weather conditions, as some forests are better suited for certain times of the year. Accessibility and amenities also matter. Some forests have developed campgrounds with facilities, while others are more primitive. Finally, be sure to check any regulations or permits required for camping there.

Camping Essentials

The sun begins to set over a remote campsite in the Sierra National Forest
The sun begins to set over a remote campsite in the Sierra National Forest.

It’s important to remember that preparation is the cornerstone of a successful national forest camping trip. Start by researching the specific forest you’ll be visiting to understand its climate, terrain, and potential hazards. Check for any fire bans or wildlife precautions in effect. Plan your route and have a backup plan in case of unexpected changes. Inform someone about your itinerary, including expected return dates, for safety.

Also, be mindful that essential gear and equipment are your lifelines in the wilderness. Ensure you have a sturdy tent that can withstand the elements, a warm sleeping bag suitable for the season, and a comfortable sleeping pad for insulation. Clothing layers are crucial to adapt to changing weather, so pack accordingly. Don’t forget your cooking equipment, such as a portable stove, cookware, and utensils. Navigation tools like maps and a compass are essential for staying on track.

Leave No Trace principles are fundamental to responsible camping in national forests. These principles emphasize minimizing your impact on the environment. Practice proper waste disposal by carrying out all trash and packing out used toilet paper. Use established campsites to avoid trampling on delicate vegetation, and respect wildlife by observing from a distance and not feeding them. Minimize campfire impact by using established fire rings or opting for a camp stove, and always follow fire regulations in place. By adhering to Leave No Trace, you help preserve the immaculate beauty of California’s national forests for future generations to enjoy.

Hidden Gem Campsites

When seeking hidden gem campsites in California’s national forests, you’ll find a treasure trove of secluded and enchanting locations. One such gem is the isolated “Eagle’s Nest Campground” nestled in the Klamath National Forest. Perched on the edge of a crystal-clear mountain lake, this campsite has incredible panoramic views of the surrounding wilderness. 

Another concealed treasure is the “Tranquil Pines Campground” in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, where you’ll find serene groves of towering pine trees and access to gorgeous hiking trails. These campsites may lack some of the amenities of more popular spots, but the remoteness and natural beauty they provide are unmatched.

At Eagle’s Nest Campground, you can wake up to the soothing sounds of lapping lake waters and enjoy breakfast in the company of playful squirrels and colorful songbirds. The calm atmosphere at Tranquil Pines Campground makes it an ideal spot for stargazing. On clear nights, you can witness an awe-inspiring celestial display. Both sites offer a sense of serenity and seclusion that allows you to truly unwind and connect with the beauty of the natural world. 

Activities in National Forests

A family enjoys a lovely day kayaking and paddleboarding inside the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit
A family enjoys a lovely day kayaking and paddleboarding inside the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

Furthermore, California’s national forests contain an extensive network of hiking trails and backpacking opportunities that cater to all skill levels. Whether you’re a seasoned backpacker or a novice hiker, you’ll find trails that lead you through assorted landscapes, from lush forests to rugged mountain terrain. For a challenging adventure, consider hiking the Pacific Crest Trail segments that extends through several national forests in California, with astonishing vistas.

Watching the wildlife and birding are prime activities in California’s national forests due to their mixed ecosystems. In places like the Angeles National Forest, you can spot mule deer, black bears, and elusive mountain lions. Bird watchers will be thrilled by the opportunity to see a variety of species, from majestic raptors like eagles and hawks in the Sierra National Forest to colorful songbirds in the San Bernardino National Forest.

Anglers and boaters will find ample opportunities to enjoy their passions in California’s national forests. The Stanislaus National Forest, for example, showcases untouched lakes and rivers stocked with trout, making it a haven for anglers. Boating is a popular activity in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, where you can paddle on serene mountain lakes while surrounded by majestic scenery. Additionally, many forests permit opportunities for camping, picnicking, and swimming in designated areas.

Also, if you’re an avid photographer or simply love to explore nature’s wonders, California’s national forests won’t disappoint. From capturing the mesmerizing sunrise over Lake Tahoe in the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit to photographing the ancient giants of the Giant Sequoia National Monument, there are endless opportunities for photographing the beauty of these natural landscapes. Take leisurely walks along interpretive trails to discover the unique wildlife of each forest, or embark on a quest to photograph the vibrant fall foliage in the Inyo National Forest. Whatever your interest, you’ll find ample subjects for your camera lens in California’s national forests.

How many National Forests are there in California?

Interestingly, California is home to a total of 18 National Forests. These National Forests cover vast areas of the state, each offering its own natural beauty, outdoor activities, and ecosystems to explore. Some of the well-known National Forests in California include the Angeles National Forest, the Sierra National Forest, the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, and the Los Padres National Forest. Each of these forests has its own set of rules and regulations, so it’s essential to research and plan accordingly before setting off on your adventure. 

map of all California National Forests
For your convenience, here’s a map of all California National Forests. Photo by

Here is a complete list of all 18 National Forests in California:

  1. Angeles National Forest
  2. Cleveland National Forest
  3. Eldorado National Forest
  4. Inyo National Forest
  5. Klamath National Forest
  6. Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (part of the U.S. Forest Service)
  7. Lassen National Forest
  8. Los Padres National Forest
  9. Mendocino National Forest
  10. Modoc National Forest
  11. Plumas National Forest
  12. San Bernardino National Forest
  13. Sequoia National Forest
  14. Shasta-Trinity National Forest
  15. Sierra National Forest
  16. Six Rivers National Forest
  17. Stanislaus National Forest
  18. Tahoe National Forest
A hiking trail meanders down the mountainside inside the Sierra National Forest
A hiking trail meanders down the mountainside inside the Sierra National Forest. Photo by

The most famous California national forest is the Sierra National Forest. This forest is renowned for its stunning landscapes, including the iconic Sierra Nevada mountain range, pristine lakes, dense forests, and numerous outdoor activities. Within the Sierra National Forest, you’ll find world-famous attractions like Yosemite National Park, which draws millions of visitors annually due to its spectacular waterfalls, towering granite cliffs, and striking geological formations like Half Dome and El Capitan.

Yosemite’s popularity contributes significantly to the fame of the Sierra National Forest. However, the forest itself has a wide range of outdoor activities, including hiking, camping, fishing, and watching wildlife. It’s also home to some of the tallest trees on Earth, such as the giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove.

The Sierra National Forest’s combination of natural beauty, iconic landmarks, and outdoor adventures has made it the most famous national forest in California and a cherished destination for people worldwide.

What national forest is in northern California?

Mount Shasta looms proudly in the background inside the Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Mount Shasta looms proudly in the background inside the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

In Northern California, you will find several national forests, all with distinct natural beauty and outdoor opportunities. One of the prominent national forests in this region is the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. This expansive forest covers over 2.2 million acres and is characterized by craggy mountain terrain, crystal-clear lakes, and diverse ecosystems.

The Shasta-Trinity National Forest is renowned for its stunning features, including the majestic Mount Shasta, one of the highest peaks in the Cascade Range. The forest also encompasses the Trinity Alps, an area known for its rugged wilderness and extensive hiking trails. With numerous campgrounds, hiking opportunities, and water-based activities, the Shasta-Trinity National Forest is a popular destination for those looking to explore the natural wonders of Northern California.

Additionally, you can explore other national forests in the region, such as the Klamath National Forest and the Six Rivers National Forest, each offering its unique charm and outdoor experiences amidst the beauty of the northern part of the state.

Final Thoughts

To recap, camping in California’s national forests truly is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. These pristine and less-visited wilderness areas grant an escape from the hecticness of daily life, allowing you to connect with nature in its purest form. From secluded campsites with sensational views to the diverse array of outdoor activities, the national forests of California have something for every nature lover and adventurer.

As you’ve learned throughout this article, California’s national forests are packed with opportunities for exploration, solitude, and adventure. I encourage you to take the plunge and embark on your own camping journey in these natural treasures. Whether you’re seeking quiet moments by a mountain stream, thrilling hikes through dense forests, or the chance to spot wildlife in its habitat, California’s national forests have it all.

While you set out to explore the national forests of the U.S., remember the importance of responsible and sustainable camping practices. Leave No Trace principles should guide your every step, ensuring that these environments remain unspoiled for future generations. Respect the land, wildlife, and fellow campers, and leave behind only footprints. By doing so, you contribute to the preservation of these hidden gems, allowing others to enjoy the same incredible experiences in California’s national forests that you have.

National Parks List, Map, and Complete Guide (All 63 Parks + Downloadable List & Map)

Want a FREE complete list and recap of all our US National Parks as well as downloadable maps and other great resources? Check out our US National Parks List and Map guide!

national parks map and list printable checklist
Visit our complete National Parks Guide for FREE Downloadable National Parks List & Map (multiple versions)


Can you just camp in the forest?

Yes, you can camp in the forest, but it’s important to do so responsibly and within established camping areas or designated backcountry zones. Most national forests in California provide campgrounds with selected sites and facilities for campers. Additionally, some forests allow dispersed camping in specific areas. Still, you must follow regulations and Leave No Trace principles to minimize your impact on the environment. Always check the specific rules and guidelines for the national forest you plan to visit to ensure a safe and responsible camping experience.

What is prohibited in national forests?

In national forests, there are various activities and behaviors that are typically prohibited to protect the environment and ensure the safety of visitors. These include:

  • Littering or leaving trash behind.
  • Damaging or removing natural features.
  • Starting unpermitted fires.
  • Hunting or fishing without proper licenses.
  • Disturbing wildlife.

Likewise, many national forests have specific rules regarding off-road vehicle use, camping, and alcohol consumption. Therefore, it’s crucial to familiarize yourself with the particular regulations of the forest you plan to visit to ensure a responsible and enjoyable experience.

Is camping in the Forest safe?

Camping in a forest can be safe if you take the necessary precautions and follow established safety guidelines. This includes being prepared with proper gear, knowing the area, and having a plan for emergencies. It’s essential to stay aware of your surroundings, follow camping rules, and take measures to protect against wildlife encounters and potential hazards like forest fires. 

What to avoid when camping in the woods?

When camping in the woods, it’s crucial to avoid behaviors that could harm the environment or jeopardize your safety. Avoid leaving trash or litter behind, as well as damaging or removing natural features. Additionally, avoid unpermitted fires, disturbing wildlife, and camping in undesignated areas. 

About Me

My husband and I have three precious daughters and live in the Kansas City, KS area. One of our favorite things to do is travel across the country visiting our extraordinary US National Parks!

Let us know what you think about our content and if you have any questions, suggestions, or have any favorite memories or tips you would like to share. We would love to hear from you!

Happy Travels! Sandy

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