Private Property, Trespassing, “Closed” Areas – an open discussion

During my various adventures out in the “wildlands” and suburbs of California it’s not uncommon to see barbed wire fences and various sorts of “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs. I’m sure most people that encounter these have some level of curiousity or disappointment. Would you, could you, or have you gone past those signs or fences anyway?

I’ll admit that I’ve been on the other side of these signs before, on occasion. A few times were by accident, and once or twice on purpose in a remote location…where the odds of seeing an irate landowner were quite low. These were minor incursions in order to make my hiking target much easier to access…was it legal? was it “right”?

I’ve been eyeing Mt Stakes recently, which is a California “County Highpoint”. I found that it’s been successfully summitted (and documented), though it’s on private land.

Another example would be Mt Bielawski (aka: Mt McPherson)

I’ve never intruded to the extent of some of these “County High Pointers” on private lands. The “nightmare scenario” would be that I’d see the “business end” of a rancher’s shotgun, but I think that’s more the stuff of folklore, third world countries, and (maybe, occasionally) claim jumpers in California’s Gold Country.

But…what is “legal”? Well, I did a bit of research and came to the conclusion that much rural land is not legally protected from hikers passing through, and being asked to leave is the “expected” outcome. It seems to me (I’m NOT a lawyer; NOT telling you this is acceptable; NOT going to bail you out if I’m wrong) that if it’s not agricultural or grazing land, and you’re only walking through (not staying and only leaving footprints), I believe only Sec 602(l)(1) applies:

California Penal Code section 602

“Entering any lands under cultivation or enclosed by fence, belonging to, or occupied by, another, or entering upon uncultivated or unenclosed lands where signs forbidding trespass are displayed at intervals not less than three to the mile along all exterior boundaries and at all roads and trails entering the lands without the written permission of the owner of the land, the owner’s agent, or of the person in lawful possession, and

Refusing or failing to leave the lands immediately upon being requested by the owner of the land, the owner’s agent or by the person in lawful possession to leave the lands, or…”

Summary: If you’re only leaving footprints, there must be a fence *or* signs every 1/3 mile *and* can then only be cited if you refuse to leave upon request of the landowner or their agent.

Do you agree or disagree with my findings? Is it legal? Is it “right” or “moral”?

This is California law, which in a quick look, is much more forgiving than other states. It is, however, not as explicitly “free to pass” as the laws in the U.K. for undeveloped, non-agricultural lands

Also note that “Public Lands” which are (sometimes oxymoronically) “closed to the public” for various reasons of safety, habitat protection, or cultural artifact protection, have different rules. I believe in most cases you can be cited for being on closed Public Lands, even without clear fences and signs. (So, therefore, it appears to be lower risk to venture onto private property…at least in California).

In conclusion, it appears to me that passing through unmarked, unfenced, non-agricultural “private property” is not a legal offense called “Trespassing”, in the State of California. Even if it is fenced and/or marked, the worst that can (legally) happen is you’ll be asked to leave…as long as you’re only leaving footprints.

What do you think? Am I correct? Is hopping a fence or walking past a sign not such a big deal in California, based on my legal reading and the reports on

Comments are encouraged. If you uncover information that contradicts, or reinforces, my understanding, I’d be happy to update the blog text and provide credit to you!

Remember: I am not a lawyer and this not legal advice…this is an open discussion of my understanding of the law in laymen’s terms.

About AlphaRoaming

Random outdoor roaming: hiking, cycling, camping, backpacking & plotting more of the above Grew up on the edges of the Adirondack mountains of New York, just a bit west of Vermont. Now living in Silicon Valley and venturing out when and where I can!
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2 Responses to Private Property, Trespassing, “Closed” Areas – an open discussion

  1. Gregc says:

    I’ve also done research into this to determine the legality of using unmarked areas of forest to camp in while bicycle touring. The statutes vary slightly state by state, but generally they follow what you outlined above. That if the land is completely undeveloped(no signs of an roads, fences, buildings, crops, etc,etc. No “improvements” of any kind) and there is no enclosing fence and no “No trespassing” signs, then the land is free to use for hiking/camping, so long as nothing is removed from the land(including “pretty rocks”), nothing is left on the land(including your excrement), and no damage is done to the land or anything on it(no cutting trees, breaking rocks, digging holes, etc). Some states even allow fishing on such land, and a few even allow hunting on this kind of land unless speciffically marked “No Hunting”, but they are in the tiny minority.
    However, if you jump a fence, or walk past a sign, then you *are* guilty of trespassing, even if you agree to leave, and if the owner wanted to push it, you could be arrested and fined.
    Also, keep in mind that not all police are versed in all laws and this is kind of an obscure one. *Even if you haven’t broken the law*, if the property owner gets in a snit, you could find yourself arrested and hauled off to the police station. At a hearing, it’s a near certainty that the judge would realize you hadn’t broken any law and release you, but you could still end up sitting in a cell for a day or 3. While I think that’s a *really* unlikely scenario, it’s not an impossible one, so my rule of thumb is just to always stay on your toes, and not draw attention to yourself.

    • AlphaRoaming says:

      Thanks Greg! Yes, it’s always better to avoid attention. Some of my more unusual excursions were done while it’s raining. Fewer chances of a random encounter with others.

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