The majority of camping sites with the Sierra Nevada exist within the National Forests, which is the largest landholder of the region at 10,904,041 acres. National Forests also give you the most freedom to choose where and how you wish to camp. Within the National Forest, you can drive anywhere on a road, pull to the side, and camp. Each National Forest provides campgrounds, usually with a fee. These are often developed with water, pit toilets, table, and fire rings. Wilderness areas within the National Forest require a Wilderness Permit but you still have a lot of freedom on where you set up camp. The next largest number of campsites exist within the National Parks. This is the second largest landholder within the Sierra at 1,731,818 acres. National Parks are much more restrictive in that you can only camp within designated areas. Some of these are by reservations, others can be first-come, first-serve. Note that there are a lot more regulations upon camping within a National Park. Wilderness Permits are required to camp within the backcountry locations of the park with certain restrictions.
Other camping opportunities within the Sierra Nevada can be found on both Private and Public landholders. BLM has a significant number of camp sites available, most on a first-come, first-serve basis. Bureau of Reclamation has a number of campsites within the Western Sierra foothills and the State of California Parks and Recreation has a number of sites. In the Private Sector, PG&E has developed a large number of sites as well, usually adjacent reservoirs and streams under it's control.
Plumas National Forest: 28 campgrounds, open when accessible, Additional information at: Plumas NF Campgrounds
- 14 day maximum stay. Most first-come/first serve.
- Fees for some campgrounds, many with no fees.
Tahoe National Forest: 41 campgrounds, Additional information at: Tahoe NF Campgrounds
- 14 day maximum stay. Open seasonally, May 15th to Oct 1st..
- Most campgrounds have fees from $17 to $21 per night
El Dorado National Forest: 32 campgrounds, Additional information at: El Dorado NF Campgrounds
- 14 day maximum stay, Open Seasonally, generally June 15th to Oct 15th., Most campgrounds by reservations.
- Fees at many campgrounds $7 to $21
Stanislaus National Forest: 31 campgrounds, Additional information at: Stanislaus NF Campgrounds
- 14 day maximum stay, Open Seasonally, generally April 30th to Sept 30th, Most campgrounds first-come/first serve.
- Fees at all campgrounds, $7 to $22
Toiyabe National Forest: 15 campgrounds, Additional information at: Toiyabe NF Campgrounds
- 14 day Maximum, Open Seasonally, usually April 23rd to Sept 7th, Some campgrounds by reservations.
- Fees at all campgrounds, $17 to $20
Inyo National Forest: 59 campgrounds, Additional information at: Inyo NF Campgrounds
- 1 to 14 day Maximum, Most Open Seasonally, April15th to Oct 31st, Most first-come/first-serve
- Fees at most campgrounds, $6 to $21
- Fines up to $150 for not using Bear Proof Storage
Sierra National Forest: 37 campgrounds, Additional information at: Sierra NF Campgrounds
- 14 day Maximum, Open Seasonally, usually Mid-May to Oct 1st, many campgrounds by reservations
- Fees at many campgrounds, $17 to $22
Sequoia National Forest: 35 campgrounds, Additional information at: Sequoia NF Campgrounds
- 14 day Maximum, Open seasonally, often May15th to Nov 15th, some campgrounds by reservations
- Fees at all campgrounds, $10 to $20
Yosemite: 13 campgrounds, some open year-round. Additional information at: Yosemite Campgrounds
- Bears are a big problem, food must be properly stored. Food Lockers must be used after dark. Do not store food in your car or your tent! Bear Cannisters are required while backpacking in Wilderness areas.
- Campfires are permitted only between 5:00 pm and 10:00 pm May through September within the Valley. Elsewhere, fires are permitted at any time. Firewood collection is also not permitted within the Valley and local purchase is encouraged to prevent forest insect spread.
- Camping or sleeping in vehicles is permitted only in designated campsites. Sleeping in vehicles is not permitted anywhere else in Yosemite. A maximum of 6 people is allowed per campsite. A maximum of two vehicles are allowed per campsite and parked only on parking pad provided.
- 30 day camping limit within the park in a calendar year. A 14 day limit between May 1st. and Sept 15th., only 7 days can be within the Valley or Wawona.
- Pets are permitted in all campgrounds except Camp 4, Tamarack Flat, Porcupine Flat, and all group campsites. Pets must be on a leash and should not be left unattended.
- Quiet hours are from 10 pm to 6 am; generators may be used sparingly during daylight hours.
- Camp wastewater must be disposed of in designated utility drains. Sewage must be disposed of at designated dump stations (Yosemite Valley, Wawona, and Tuolumne Meadows).
- Checkin and checkout time is noon. If you have a reservation, you can arrive any time after noon, but must check in prior to 10 am the morning after the first night of your reservation or your reservation will be cancelled.
Sequoia/ Kings Canyon: 14 campgrounds, most on a first-come/first-serve basis. Additional information at: SEKI Campgrounds
- Food must be stored in bear-resistant containers 24/7. Each campground has provided bear boxes for storage.
- Camp only is designated sites. No roadside camping.
- Firewood collection of dead and downed wood is allowed. Put all fires out completely when not attended.
- You may not hold a site for another party.
- Camping stays are no more than 14 days, June 14th to Sept 14th., 30 days total.
- A maximum of one vehicle and six people are allowed per campsite.
- Quiet Hours are 10pm to 6am. Generator use hours at Lodgepole and Dorst is 8 to 11am and 5 to 8pm. Generator use hours at all other campgrounds is 9am-9pm.
- Pets are permitted in all campgrounds. Pets must be on a leash less than 6 feet (1.8 m) long at all times.
Bishop Area: 5 campgrounds, first-come/first-serve. Additional information at: BLM Bishop Campgrounds
- 14 day Maximum, Longer term permits available
- Fees $5 per day
Southern Sierra: 3 campgrounds, first-come/first-serve. Additional information at: BLM Southern Sierra Campgrounds
Westside Sierra: 1 campground, first-come/first-serve. Additional information at: BLM Westside Sierra Campground
State of California Parks:
Private Sector (PG&E):
- 10 campgrounds, all first-come/first-serve. Additional information at: PG&E Campgrounds
- 14 day maximum, Fees required
- 16 campgrounds, all first-come/first-serve. Additional information at: PG&E Campgrounds
- 14 day maximum, Fees required
Upper Mokelumne River:
- 4 campgrounds, all first-come/first-serve. Additional information at: PG&E Campgrounds
- 14 day maximum, Fees required
Courtwright & Wishon Reservoirs:
- 5 campgrounds, all first-come/first-serve. Additional information at: PG&E Campgrounds
- 14 day maximum, Fees required
Wilderness Permits limit the number of people with access to a designated Wilderness region. Within the National Parks, the entire backcountry is designated Wilderness and the demand is quite high, permits can be difficult to obtain.
In Yosemite, 60 percent of the permits can be reserved for a $5.00 fee and 40 percent of the permits are on a first-come/first-serve basis. People will often camp out at the Ranger Station just to get one of these unreserved permits. Yosemite provides a Backpacker's campground nearby for spending one night prior to the permit issuance. You can make reservations up to 24 weeks in advance. The permit is for a group, so an additional $5.00 fee is charged per person. Backcountry campsites within Yosemite have to be a minimum of 4 miles from the trailhead. Campsites must be located no closer than 100 feet from any water source or trail. Wood fires can only be built within existing fire rings using dead and down material and cannot be made above 9,600 feet elevation. Bear canisters are required. All human waste must be buried 6 inches deep 100 feet from trails, campsites, and water sources. There are designated campsites at 5 High Sierra camps and Little Yosemite Valley.
Sequoia/Kings Canyon is a little easier to get permits. There is a quota period of late May to late Sept. Outside of this quota period, you can write your own permits at 5 permit stations within the parks. Within the quota period about 75% of the permits are by reservation and 25% on a first-come/first-serve basis. There is a $15.00 fee. Regulations vary between the National Parks. Within SEKI, you can camp any distance from the trailhead but it must be on rock or bare soil, 100 feet from water where terrain permits. Campfire restrictions vary within the region you are visiting in SEKI, so check during the permitting process. Fishing is also restricted below 9000 feet elevation to catch & release only using barbless hooks and artificial lures. Bears are a major problem within SEKI but the park has installed food storage lockers in over 50 locations of the park. Bear canisters are required on some of the trails.
Wilderness Permits are easier to obtain through trails coming out of the National Forests than the National Parks. Inyo NF has 7 wilderness areas within it's administrative control. All of these areas are without quotas with exceptions. Quotas are enforced between May 1st and Nov 1st on the Ansel Adams and John Muir Wilderness areas. Inyo NF reserves about 60% of the permits and 40% are on a first-come/first-serve basis. Mt. Whitney trailhead is an exception, a lottery is held in February for reservations only. Getting access to the National Parks backcountry can often be easier by getting a permit with access through the National Forest. The same is true with Mt. Whitney by accessing the area either from Onion Valley or Cottonwood Lakes.
El Dorado NF administers access to Desolation Wilderness. This area has 45 zones with quotas from 15 trailheads. 50% are by reservation and 50% are first-come/first-serve. The quota season is Memorial Day through Sept 30th. Reservations can be made 6 months in advance.
Sierra NF has access to John Muir, Ansel Adams, Kaiser, and Dinky Wilderness. 60% of the permits are by reservation, 40% first-come/first-serve. Reservations are accepted up to a year in advance with a $5.00 fee. Quotas are in place year-round. Permits must be picked up in-person at the permitting station by noon of the departure day or the permit will be reissued to someone else.