Free camping around San Luis Obispo


Sunset on Plaskett Ridge. Photo by Dustin Gil

There are campsites free of charge in and around San Luis Obispo County that provide a camping experience equal or greater to what premiere campgrounds, booked out months in advance that cost top dollar, could begin to offer.

San Luis Obispo, and the greater Central Coast, contains no shortage of natural beauty. From Big Sur to Montaña de Oro, and Los Padres National Forest, one could spend years exploring every inch of what Central California has to offer. 

One of the most immersive means to spend quality time in the natural environment is to participate in dispersed camping. This form of camping usually takes place on Bureau of Land Management operated lands and up Forest Service roads.

With dispersed camping, there are no bathrooms, no plug-ins and no reservations. The trade-off for convenience is an experience in nature less refined, managed, and defined by man. 

Man watches the sun set on TV Tower Road. Photo by Dustin Gil

One of the more known, and closest dispersed camping spots in the vicinity of downtown San Luis Obispo, is TV Tower Road. Also known as Cuesta Ridge, TV Tower Road is a three mile long unpaved stretch of road that runs from Highway 101 up to the mountains overlooking Morro Bay.

Open pull-offs are scattered along the road, providing completely free camping sites available on a first come first serve basis, with views of San Luis Obispo all the way out to Morro Bay. There are no fires permitted on this road, despite signs in virtually every pull-off and clearing indicating the presence of recent bonfires. There is a surplus of spots to choose from; however, the more desirable sites with more seclusion and better views do dwindle on busier weekends and holidays.

Fog settles on San Carpoforo Creek Beach. Photo by Dustin Gil

Then there is San Carpoforo Creek Beach, located at the foothills of Big Sur just south of Ragged Point in San Simeon, Calif. Camping is permitted anywhere on the beach, making the struggle for spot availability almost nonexistent.

It is commonplace to see at least one or two tents set up on the beach at any given time. Space is plentiful, and personal privacy tends to be in excess most days on this beach.

Solo tent on San Carpoforo Creek Beach. Photo by Dustin Gil

Lastly is Plaskett Ridge Road. The beginning on the road takes the form of a quick pull-off of Highway 1 northbound, right before the Plaskett Creek Campground. Due to past rains, the dirt road is riddled with potholes and signs of heavy erosion, so a vehicle with off-roading capabilities is possibly required to make it to the top of the mountain.

Big Sur coastline. Photo by Dustin Gil

Once the top of the ridge is reached, visitors are welcomed with a panoramic view that runs up and down the Big Sur coastline overlooking Highway 1. If weather permits, at such high elevation the Pacific Ocean is replaced with a sea of clouds outstretched in every direction.

Spots to setup camp are everywhere, but it is a rare occurrence to find solitude on the ridge. Even on a weekday morning, one is bound to have a neighbor or two sharing in the views.

Car sits amongst the clouds on Plaskett Ridge. Photo by Dustin Gil

San Luis Obispo and the greater Central Coast is a haven for natural beauty and untouched landscapes. Before heading out for adventure, take note of the personal impact on the natural world. One must carry respect and appreciation with them when visiting, if they even remotely care about the longevity of these locations.

If it were common practice for the majority, this list of accessible lands would be infinitely longer but the truth of the matter is that this list is anything but dwindling. Unlimited access to such beauty is a luxury.

The only price that comes with this luxury is to be a good guest in these spaces. Alway remember to pick up trash, stay on trail, don’t have a bonfire if not permitted, and listen to the common yet wise words of, “Leave no trace.”


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