Author: Katie Wellman
If you love everything outdoors and are looking for an epic California road trip, the adventure packed Highway 395 is hard to beat! As you travel up the valley between the Sierra Nevada and the White Mountain ranges you’ll find yourself in the midst of incredible nature and endless recreation opportunities. Incredible hiking, mountaineering, biking, fishing, off-roading, camping, hot springs and many fascinating natural features are found throughout this entire area.
To help you make the most of your time in the area, here are six free camp spots along Highway 395. Several of these areas mentioned are worth a stop even if you’re not camping! And all of them have a number of things nearby that showcase the beauty of the area – that’s just how it is in the eastern Sierra!
Dispersed Camping at Fossil Falls
Located about halfway between Lone Pine and Bishop Fossil Falls is not only a super unique road trip stop but also a great free camp spot just off Highway 395. About 12 miles north of Pearsonville on Highway 395 there will be a sign for Fossil Falls where you will turn right onto Cinder Road. Continue on Cinder Road and you will notice some cozy camp spots tucked up next to the rock formations. These are good for tent camping or small rigs. But continue further and you will reach the dry lake bed where there are numerous spots to choose from for rigs of all sizes. But don’t worry, this is a dry lake bed with a view! You’ll find that this is a really beautiful and peaceful place to camp and explore.
While camping at Fossil Falls, be sure to explore the incredible geologic feature that makes this a road trip worthy stop. Over thousands of years, erosion from Owens River carved out this unique slick volcanic rock labyrinth. It’s amazing to imagine this feature with water running through it. But since there’s no water it makes for a really fun maze-like adventure!
Good to know: There are vault toilets at the Fossil Falls Trailhead and a hand pumped well at the end of the paid Fossil Falls Campground.
Free Camping Lone Pine Dry Lakebed
For a vast, convenient camp spot off Highway 395, head out to the Lone Pine Dry Lakebed. Depending on the season, this could be a good option for some warmer temps at the lower elevation. As with any dry lakebed, there are plenty of spots to choose from and any size rig can easily be accommodated. The road conditions are nice and easy as well. This is a good choice if you value ease of access, cell service, no crowds and good solar.
From Lone Pine, heading north on US-395 turn right onto Lone Pine Narrow Gauge Road. Continue for 3.3 miles and turn right. You can find dispersed camp spots along this road or go another 2.3 miles to reach the dry lake bed that’s on the left just south of Haystack Mountain. Explore the geology of the area at Haystack Mountain or check out nearby Alabama Hills. And don’t forget to take a moment to appreciate the presence of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous US.
Buttermilks Dispersed Camping
If you enjoy rock climbing, bouldering or our favorite, rock scrambling then you will definitely want to do some dispersed camping at the Buttermilks! Located mid-elevation between the Owens Valley and the towering Sierra Nevada you’ll find these beautiful, steep boulder strewn foothills. There are a lot of outdoor recreation opportunities here and in the surrounding area.
As you follow Highway 395 through Bishop, turn west onto CA-168/Line Street. After 7 miles, turn right onto Buttermilk Road. Keep your eyes out for dispersed camp spots all along this dirt road. This area is well known and a highly trafficked rock climbing destination so the closer you are to the rocks, the less privacy you will likely have. There are a lot of tent/car camping sites and fewer sites for large rigs. And since this is a popular area it may fill up on weekends so if you have a rig, it is suggested to scout ahead.
Free Camping at Volcanic Tablelands
Camping at Volcanic Tablelands is perfect for those that enjoy peace and privacy with their rock climbing as well as beautiful scenery and a short commute to town. This BLM area has a mix of dispersed camp spots as well as some designated camp spots though there are no facilities anywhere here. Some of the camp spots are backed up against the rocks, some face the Sierra Nevada and others face the White Mountains in the distance. We really appreciated how clean and quiet this area was. We also loved the big, roomy spots and nearby wall of bouldering rocks to play on whenever we wanted. Go explore a bit and you’ll find some really cool rock features that you don’t have to be a climber to enjoy.
To get here, as Highway 395 goes near the Bishop Fairgrounds, take the turn onto US-6 E. After 1.4 miles turn left on Five Bridges Road and when the paved road turns to a dirt road you’ve arrived. There are numerous dispersed campsites here. Or continue about 1.4 miles before turning left onto another dirt road for several (free) designated sites.
Owens River Road Dispersed Camping
Owens River Road is a really convenient option for free camping on Highway 395. There are numerous dirt roads leading off of the main, paved road with camp spots of all sizes. These sites can accommodate any size rig and some even make good group sites. This is a pretty well known dispersed camping area but there are enough spots that you are still able to find privacy and solitude. These sites are very peaceful, set among the pine forest with really nice surrounding scenery.
From US-395 north of Mammoth Lakes, turn east onto Owens River Road. You’ll immediately notice that there are dispersed camp spots situated all throughout the forest. Find your favorite spot and voila, you’re home! And if you enjoy free campgrounds, follow Owens River Road until you reach Big Springs Campground. There are 26 sites with bear boxes, a camp host and a couple of vault toilets.
Hartley Springs Free Campground
After all of these boondocking spots on Highway 395, why not try a free campground? Hartley Springs Campground is a free forest service campground that offers spacious designated spots among the tall pines. Each site has a picnic table, fire ring and a bear box. And there are two restroom buildings each with two vault toilets. This campground is closed in the winter and because it is located at about 8,400 feet elevation, it may not open until mid-May depending on conditions. To get there from US-395, turn west onto Obsidian Dome Road/Hartley Springs Road. After 1 mile, slight right onto Hartley Springs Road and after another 0.8 mile the entrance is on the right.
We were surprised by the size of the spots and we thought they were pretty well spaced out. The amount of traffic during the week was minimal, but the weekends got a bit busy. Two things worth mentioning are the soft, fine dirt in the area and the popularity of this location with off road vehicles. The combination of the two can make for some dusty conditions! While you’re here, go check out Obsidian Dome – it’s a unique feature with a great view! And June Lake is only 6.5 miles away.
Thanks for Reading!
These camp spots are just a glimpse into the many options for free camping along California Highway 395. But hopefully having a few spots to count on will make planning your road trip in the eastern Sierra easier. Enjoy responsibly and prepare to be amazed by this remarkable area!
Written By Katie Wellman
Katie and her husband Shane have been living on the road full time since 2017 discovering and sharing awesome free camp spots and hikes around the US. While living on the road, they create hand painted longboards so you can also find information about skateparks and great places to longboard. You can read about their adventures on their blog The Lost Longboarder.