I have never got a permit for camping in the national park and I have never camped in one of the designated park camping sites, which are scorched-earth and military looking. I and my natural-world-loving friends camp in places that are not visible to hikers or rangers, and we are immaculate about camp sites, leaving everything as originally found.
A couple of years ago, scoping out the territory for this hike, I was talking to a ranger in the North Beach parking lot; he was in his SUV, I was in my Tacoma, and we were parked driver side-to-driver side, windows rolled down. He was the best type ranger—one who has the job because of a love of plants and animals and seashore and mountains. We were on the same page, so I told him about my forthcoming trip circumambulating the park, and then I said, “And I'm not getting any stinking permits.” He looked at me for a minute, then put his hand over the park service badge on his sleeve, and said, “You didn't hear this from me, but you'll be fine as long as you stay far from where a ranger can drive a vehicle."
I feel like I can camp wherever I want to in my own turf, so long as I respect the land, other hikers, and the animals. And if I get there on foot from my home.
There are rangers and there are rangers. I met three on this trip, all women. Two were great; the third (younger) stopped me when I was walking on the highway. “You can't camp in the park, blah blah…" “I'm not camping, I'm just walking down the road…" She asked for my ID, I gave her my driver's license, and she ran it through her computer. Kinda shitty thing to do, but she wasn't aggressive.
The park does a lot of great things, like the displays at the lighthouse and knowledgeable rangers, and the ones that love the land, but they're wrong-headed at times, as in their persecution of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, a wonderful win-win local fresh-food producing operation. Click here for my post from last December on this subject. Scroll down to "Local Oyster Farm Controversy."