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This is somewhat related to this previous question, however we are specifically looking for an area that allows gathered-wood fires.

Yosemite is a first choice, but other than there, where within a 5 hour drive of downtown San Francisco allows:

  1. Dispersed tent camping, aka hike in and pitch a tent off a trail. No amenities necessary.
  2. Gathered-wood fires, aka collecting fallen wood to burn.
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    Yosemite National Park has restrictions on where you can have fires. You can't have them above a certain elevation, and you can't have them in specific areas, which IIRC includes Little Yosemite. As a general comment, building fires (even if it's from already-fallen wood) has a significant impact on the environment and is not consistent with the principle of leave no trace (LNT). It's totally unnecessary, and IMO people should just refrain from doing it in heavily traveled areas such as YNP. – Ben Crowell May 15 '16 at 19:54
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    This will be heavily dependent on the time of year: if it's dry or fire season, fires won't be allowed outside of established campgrounds, and sometimes not even there. You'll need to call the land manager of any area you want to camp to find out the current fire restrictions. – Karen May 16 '16 at 0:49
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    Try contacting a Stanislaus National Forest ranger station, this is close to Yosemtie. For example: Mi-Wok District 24695 Highway 108 Mi-Wuk Village, CA 95346 (209) 586-3234 – renesis May 17 '16 at 15:09
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    @renesis Looks like Hull Creek might be a good bet, according to a ranger. They're having phone troubles at the station today so I haven't been able to get more information, but the website indicates there may be off-road vehicle trails where dispersed camping is allowed, other than the established campground. Thanks for the tip, I'll keep researching. – Caleb Jay May 19 '16 at 21:01
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    Here's a bit more detail on dispersed camping near Hull creek. The ranger mentioned needing a fire permit for dispersed camping, I will update the question as I find more concrete information. – Caleb Jay May 19 '16 at 21:02
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Five hours from San Francisco is enough to reach a good chunk of the Sierras and even further north in the area of Lassen and Shasta.

There are large areas of national forest within this range. Generally the national forests will have less restrictions than national parks, particularly popular ones like Yosemite. Each national forest will have its own rules. Most will allow gathering small amounts of dead and down wood for a fire, but fires will be restricted by location, time of year, and may require a permit. Forest fires are a serious issue in this area.

Check whether Yosemite allows dispersed camping. Probably not, but maybe in some of the more remote areas. Even if they do, whether you're allowed to have a open fire is a completely separate issue. Yosemite used to allow gathering dead and down wood within some distance of certain roads for use in fires in designated camping spots. That was a long time ago, so the policy may well have changed.

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    It took some digging around on the website, but Yosemite allows dispersed camping (with a permit), and fires using dead and down wood. The catch is that fires are only permitted in established fire rings, and there are very few of those in the dispersed-camping areas. – Mark Jun 24 '16 at 1:11
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Turns out options are limited to mostly Big Sur. Luckily, there are a tremendous amount of trails and campgrounds in the area.

A good place to start looking for camping in the Big Sur is their hiking page. This lists their backcountry trails, some of which allow dispersed camping. Big Sur wilderness falls into two categories: Los Padres National Forest, and Ventana / Silverpeak Wilderness. The best information regarding camping sites, trail maps, and etc were on a privately run site tracking trail conditions for Ventana / Silverpeak Wilderness.

For an approachable, oft-traveled, and well-documented route, your best bet is the Sykes Hot Spring route on Pine Ridge Trail. This is not true dispersed camping, but there are several large campgrounds on the way up that allow wood-gathered fires, and when we were there we were able to get far away from everyone else.

Other than Pine Ridge Trail, there are many other trails and campgrounds dispersed throughout Big Sur, this map allows route planning in more detail.

For our trip, the Big Sur fulfilled best my objectives for our vacation. While it wasn't truly dispersed camping, it was very close to the idea in that there were few people out there (and this on Memorial Weekend), we were able to hike for many miles into a beautiful wilderness, we were able to cook on a gathered-wood fire, and there was regular access to relatively clean water from the river cutting through the trails.

EDIT: (March 2017) Most of the Big Sur is closed due to wildfire. This information is out of date until those areas open. I am unaware of any places within the area now that fulfills the above objectives.

EDIT: (Jun 2018) Some of Big Sur is opening again! Do plenty of research beforehand to double check: http://www.ventanawild.org/trails/ventana-wilderness-trails/pine-ridge-trail Lots of fire restrictions as well.

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    Thanks for the edit. It was nice of you to inform people so they won't go places where they're not allowed. I'm glad you had a good trip! – Sue Saddest Farewell TGO GL Apr 6 '17 at 21:15

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