Where to backpack in California without a permit

Overlooking a lake at the foot of a rocky peak with more peaks visible in the back. Few pine trees dot the landscape.
Trinity Alps Wilderness. Photo by Jordan Vincent

California features some of the best backpacking trips in the US. Yet, it’s a victim of its success. To limit frequentation, most backpacking areas now require a permit. While permitted trips attract all the attention, there are still many areas that have more flexible regulations.

Here are seven stunning places that don’t require permits — or require permits but don’t enforce quotas.


Trinity Alps Wilderness

Looking down at a lake surounded by a steep ridge. Sunrise light.
Deer Lake. Photo by Jordan Vincent

It’s all in the name, Trinity Alps Wilderness will remind you of its European counterpart, with jagged peaks, pristine lakes, and lush meadows. Unlike the Alps, it’s lower in elevation but is usually snowy early in the season.

Permits. Issued in person. No quotas.

Recommended trip. Four-Lakes Loop (18mi). A popular but stunning loop around Siligo Peak.


Lassen Volcanic National Park

A sandy volcano crater with small trees growing on its sides.
Inside Cinder Cone’s crater. Photo by Jordan Vincent

Lassen Volcanic National Park is California’s mini Yellowstone, featuring geothermal features, volcanic peaks, and lava flows. Unfortunately, the 2021 Dixie Fire burnt a large portion of the park, adding to its desolate character.

Permits. Required. No quotas.

Recommended trip. Cinder Cone via Summit Lake (17mi). As close as it gets to backpacking on the moon.


Tahoe National Forest

A drone shot of a rocky peak.
Castle Peak. Photo by Nathan Barteau

While the popular Emigrant Wilderness requires permits, Tahoe National Forest doesn’t have such limitations. Right off I-80, you can access great backpacking destinations like Grouse Ridge, Castle Peak, or Granite Chief Wilderness.

Permits. Not required.

Recommended trip. White Rock Lake (19mi). Follow the Pacific Trail Crest to a beautiful lake.


Emigrant Wilderness

An alpine lake at sunrise. The lake is surounded by granite slabs covered in snow.
Between Lunch Meadow and Emigrant Lake.. Photo by Jeff Pang

A great place for a first backpacking trip, Emigrant Wilderness has limited elevation gain. Ancient glaciers have scraped the landscape, leaving in their wake granite slabs dotted with lakes.

Permits. Issued in person. No quotas.

Recommended trip. Buck Lakes from Crabtree Trailhead (26mi). Turn around at Piute Meadow, Gem Lake, or Deer Lake for a shorter trip.


Hoover Wilderness

A trail leading to a lake in the background. The lake is surrounded by mountains.
Odell Lake. Photo by Daniel

The part of Hoover Wilderness sitting in Inyo National Forest doesn’t have any permit quotas. Right off Tioga Pass, you can access many lakes surrounded by 12,000 feet peaks.

Permits. Required. No quotas (when starting from Inyo National Forest).

Recommended trip. Steelhead Lake (8mi). A short hike to a beautiful lake.


Jennie Lakes Wilderness

At sunrise, glowing cliffs reflecting in a lake.
Jennie Lake. Photo by Tom Hilton

Right on the edge of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Jennie Lakes Wilderness is a small but popular area. Venturing outside the wilderness will require getting a permit.

Permits. Self-issued at trailhead.

Recommended trip. Jennie and Weaver Lakes Loop (18mi). A popular weekend backpacking spot with beautiful views.


Silver Peak Wilderness

Grassy hill overlooking the ocean.
Along Buckeye Trail. Photo by Jordan Vincent

Just south of Big Sur, Silver Peak Wilderness is just as beautiful as its northern neighbor. There are many trails to explore, but many of them are overgrown, so check the conditions before heading out.

Permits. No permit required.

Recommended trip. Buckeye, Cruikshank, Salmon Creek Trail Loop (15mi). A challenging but beautiful loop. Stop at Estrella Camp for a shorter trip.

And that’s a wrap! If you’re looking for more backpacking trips, check out my list of California’s best coastal backpacking trips.

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