12 of the Best Camping Sites in California
While you might be tempted to pitch a tent just about anywhere after 2020, you might not know that all of the nine majestic national parks in the Golden State also have camping facilities. And, since California is blessed with pretty good year-round weather, and the state is reopening on June 15, it’s a good time to hit the road, sleep under the stars and polish up your s’mores skills. But which campsite to hit first? We broke it down for you here, with our pick of the best camping in California from rustic to romantic. And, please plan ahead. Many of the parks and campsites reach peak capacity in the summer months. You’ve been warned.
1. Best for Hiking Amid Desert Flora: Joshua Tree National Park
About 140 miles East of Los Angeles and neighbor to Palm Springs, Joshua Tree has an out-of-this-world (as in you could have just landed on Mars) charm and wild desert flora landscape. The Joshua Tree National Park is home to one of the most popular hiking trails, 49 Palms Canyon Trail, which is considered moderate and diverse with rock formations for climbing and cactus gardens for gazing. There are plenty of campgrounds to choose from including Indian Cove near 29 Palms where you can nestle up to a bolder for a night of stargazing.
2. Best for Romance: Point Reyes National Seashore
Located in ritzy Marin County (not far from Napa wineries), Point Reyes National Seashore is where you will spot elephant seals rolling on the beach. Something about the salty air, crashing breaking waves and shoreline pastel sunsets also makes this a perfect romantic park to visit with someone special. If you decide to make a night of it, cozy Coast Campground is a perfect place to pitch a tent nestled in a grassy hillside.
3. Best for Bird Watching: Pinnacles National Park
Be sure to pack your high-speed binoculars! Pinnacles National Park is an ideal spot to see endangered California condors along with Yellow-billed Magpie, Greater Roadrunner, Canyon Wren, California Thrasher, Prairie Falcon and more from the mountain vistas of this eco-system friendly park. The campground offers pet-friendly tent and group camping, along with RV sites with picnic tables and fire rings.
4. Best for Island Escaping: Channel Islands National Park
Located near the Ventura Harbor Village, the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center is where you can book a boat out the five islands of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara and San Miguel, just 14 miles off-shore. Known as “The American Galapagos,” there is also a viewing tower where you can spot 445 species of birds or delve deeper into world-class diving, snorkeling, hiking, kayaking and sea cave exploration around the isles. Camping is also available in this preservation haven on all the islands but you must book your boat transportation for an overnight visit first.
5. Best for Family Adventure: King’s Canyon & Sequoia National Park
For larger-than-life trees, (they don’t call this ‘the land of the giants’ for nothing) and a rugged adventure near the soaring redwoods of the Sierra Nevada foothills, Kings Canyon & Sequoia National Park, is a great spot for whitewater rafting, cave exploration, and waterfall hikes. You can also go rock climbing, horseback ride and cross-country ski in the winter. Campsites are available but when you’ve had enough ‘roughing it’ be sure to stop by the little town of Three Rivers for artisanal shops, cafes and craft brew.
6. Best for Tree Huggers: Redwood National and State Parks
If you didn’t catch enough of those tall timbers in Sequoia, Redwood National Park is home to the tallest trees on earth. You can bring your pets and make it a family affair with backcountry glamping, you just might need to apply for a few permits before you venture out. And, before you visit check for air-quality conditions as this can be affected by seasonal fall fires in the region.
7. Best for Glamping and Stargazing: Lassen Volcanic National Park
While there might be four types of volcanos at this site near the Shasta Cascade region, Lassen Volcanic National Park also holds pristine lakes, biking trails, beautiful wildflowers and crystal-clear stargazing. Manzanita Lake offers a large campground, plus cabins for glamping and a museum. Plus, you can hike around the lake on an easy one-and-a-half-mile loop where you will have a perfect view of Lassen Peak. You can also rent stand-up paddleboard or kayak equipment for from the Manzanita Lake Camper Store.
8. Best for a Desert Oasis: Furnace Tree Campground
Don’t let the name fool you. Death Valley might not sound too appealing, but there is an otherworldly charm amid the hottest and one of the largest parks. One of the places to find a mirage is at The Oasis at Death Valley—a miraculous desert contrast with date palm trees, gardens, pools and golfing where legends such as Clark Gable, Ronald Regan and George Lucas have stayed and played. When you’re ready to turn-in, head to the nearby Furnace Tree Campground with plenty of shady spots, or if you’re feeling lucky it’s only a two-hour drive to Las Vegas.
9. Best for Dramatic Scenery: Yosemite National Park
If you’re an Ansel Adams photography fan, then seeing Yosemite National Park in person should be number one on your park bucket list, plus there are so many unforgettable vistas. Yes, it’s a World Heritage site with dramatic waterfalls, river-rafting past El Capitan granite monoliths for rock-climbers and world-class hiking at Summit, but don’t get too comfortable—there is a 14-day limit on camping in the area but there is also public transit that lest you roam car-free.
10. Best for Coastal Caves: Leo Carrillo State Beach
For 1.5 miles of beach for roaming coastal caves, tidepool and reef exploring, not to mention surf fishing and windsurfing, head to Leo Carrillo State Beach in Malibu with back-country hiking and sycamore-shaded campgrounds. The popular park is close to the L.A. and Ventura county-line, plus the famous seafood eatery Neptune’s Net where they filmed scenes from the film Point Break with Keanu Reeves. When you tire of the beach views (never!), the upscale shops and restaurants of Malibu are just down the coast.
11. Best for Beach Views: Crystal Cove
Dotted with cozy coves off of Pacific Coast Highway in Orange County, Crystal Cove is a state beach park that lies between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach. As one of the best open spaces on the seashore, this is the spot for beachcombing, scuba and skin diving, along with swimming and surfing. Go inland if you want to try the mountain bike trails with the same stunning ocean views. Camping options are primitive along the hillside canyon but you will also be close the historic Crystal Cove district with cute white cottages and some rentals available.
12. Best for Surfing: San Elijo State Beach
We are in California after all, so grab your long-board and head south to San Elijo State Beach close to the San Diego seaside towns of Encinitas, Solana Beach and Cardiff by the Sea. This is one of the most popular surf spots in the Golden State and the campground allows for easy access during dawn patrol. There are also volleyball courts, picnic facilities, showers and a nearby camp store where you can buy firewood, boogie boards and other necessities. You may never return to civilization again.