California is one of the best states for adventure because of the landscape, and people who love off-roading always question whether it’s illegal or not.

Off-roading is not illegal in California and it’s easy to get a vehicle registered and legal to use in the permitted off-road trails around the state. Vehicles must be registered as OHVs to become legal for off-roading activities. No statewide permit is required, but it depends on the region.

All information about off-roading activities is available on the California government website discussing the rules in parks and off-road trails. We also contacted the local government to get the most accurate information. Keep reading below to become an off-roading expert when discussing the policies and requirements in California.

Key Takeaways

  • Off-roading is not illegal in California but riding a vehicle off-highway requires the vehicle to be registered either as a street-licensed vehicle or an off-highway vehicle (OHV).
  • No permits are required for off-roading in most locations in California.
  • The primary types of OHVs that can off-road in California include ATVs, UTVs, dirt bikes, snowmobiles, and larger four-wheel drive trucks.

This article may contain affiliate links where we earn a commission from qualifying purchases.

Table of contents


Is Off-Roading Illegal In California?

Technically, no off-roading is not illegal in California. Unfortunately, in certain parts of California, there are rules against driving on certain types of terrain.

Everyone loves an opportunity to get out into nature and experience something a little more challenging than their daily routine. For some people that means hitting the local gym or yoga studio, while others prefer to spend their free time getting dirty and slippery.

Off-roading is one of those pursuits that can offer plenty of benefits and is quite exciting. However, those who live in California like most people may be wondering whether off-roading is legal in the state.

Off-roading is legal in California and it’s a popular activity because there is tons of open terrain in the state. But there are some rules and requirements that need to be followed to keep it legal and within the law.

Some places don’t allow off-roading for everybody like national parks. It’s important to understand what types of vehicles are permitted, where off-roading is permitted, and what rules must be followed.

Do You Need A Permit To Off-Road In California?

Off-roading with a vehicle means it must qualify as an off-highway vehicle (OHV). To drive off-road in national parks and other similar areas with OHVs, drivers need to apply for a permit first.

No specific riding permit is required unless a specific location is restricted. This is uncommon but there are some areas where riders can acquire a special riding permit to gain access to otherwise restricted areas.

However, the only requirement is getting a vehicle registered as a legal off-highway vehicle as either a California resident or visitor.

Depending on the region, passes are required to visit some off-roading trails. For example, southern California has an adventure pass that needs to be displayed in vehicles while riding.

What Are The Requirements For Off-Roading In California?

Off-roading in California is not a complicated process. Once the vehicle is ready to use, it can be taken to any permitted areas for riding across the state. However, getting stopped or pulled over without the proper requirements can result in some trouble.

Vehicles Must Be Registered

The vehicle must either be registered as a street-legal vehicle which is done for typical cars or trucks. If the vehicle does not meet these requirements, it can be registered as an off-highway vehicle (OHV) instead.

The OHV must have a spark arrester, brake lights, forward-facing white lights, and a rear-facing red light. Red and blue lights cannot be used because they look similar to emergency vehicles.

Street tires should be avoided too because they lack traction. Sand tires will work best when off-roading in most areas of California.

What Types Of Off-Roading Vehicles Are Legal In California?

In California, the type of OHV will depend on the driver and the desired off-road driving location. The four primary types of off-roading vehicles that can be registered as OHVs include ATVs, UTVs, dirt bikes, snowmobiles, and larger four-wheel drive trucks.


All-terrain vehicles (ATVs) have four wheels and they are the most compact and versatile four-wheel machines for off-roading. These vehicles cannot go on roads and often only fit one rider.

They can be registered properly as an OHV so it’s perfectly legal to take them to any permitted areas for off-road adventures in the state of California.


Utility terrain vehicles (UTVs) are similar to ATVs, but they have a much larger construction and are commonly used for work activities but they can be off-road vehicles too. They have an interior cabin with two or four seats too.

This is considered a safer off-road vehicle because they are built more like a traditional vehicle with seat belts, bars, and comfortable seating.

Dirt Bikes

Dirt bikes are two-wheel machines and they can be registered as legal OHVs to ride around on off-road trails. There are also off-highway motorcycles that qualify under this category too.


Snowmobiles can be registered as OHVs and they are tons of fun to use off-roading during colder months with snow on the ground. However, they are not as commonly used in most parts of California because of the warm weather.

Four-Wheel Drive Trucks

Lastly, bigger trucks can qualify as OHVs like Jeeps. This is possible but less common because many of the trails are simply not big enough for vehicles this size.

Where Can You Go Off-Roading In California?

There are hundreds of different off-roading trails in California. All of them are completely legal to drive on so deciding where to go can be a difficult decision to make.

We love some of the following locations the most for off-roading in California.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is one of the few national park areas where off-roading is allowed. This is a desert area with lots of legal trails and some of the most amazing sights to see in the entire state.

We love visiting Ryan Mountain when at Joshua Tree. It’s a smaller off-roading area but there are impressive rock formations and panoramic views of the Joshua Tree National Park landscape that can’t be seen from anywhere else.

San Bernardino National Forest

The San Bernardino National Forest is a hundred-year-old forest range with tons of trails open to the public for off-roading. This is the perfect recreation destination for southern California visitors.

We prefer to visit Heart Rock Trail anytime we visit this forest because it’s a small but adventurous trail ride. It’s only about 1.3 miles and takes 40 minutes to complete and all riders should get an adventure pass when visiting this forest.

Sierra National Forest

The Sierra National Forest is a popular off-roading destination because of its proximity to famous national parks like Yosemite. It connects the southern and western edges of the park for some excellent riding and amazing sights.

Steer clear of Yosemite though because off-roading is permitted in this park. The same is true for other national parks in the state, but Sierra is a lot of fun because of trails like Dusy-Ershim OHV Trail.

They are challenging and rugged trails with lakes on the outskirts. Always remember to stay on the designated routes when riding through these trails too.