It should come as no surprise that camping in California is some of the best in the country. The landscape and weather makes it easy—with perennially warm beaches and marshy preserves, bucolic farmland and striking cliffs, there’s almost too much beauty to choose from.
Knowing where to find the very best camping in California can be a skill, though. What distinguishes the dime-a-dozen campgrounds from the truly great ones can take years of first-hand experience. So, in addition to pooling our own research, we tapped adventurous folks from throughout the state—many of whom have made the outdoors more accessible than ever, from Oakland local Rue Mapp of Outdoor Afro to Kristen Hernandez of L.A.-based Trail Mothers—for their picks, too. Here are eight of the best spots for camping in California.
Gold Bluffs Beach Campground, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
A sanctuary for some old-growth coast redwoods that's abundant in its wildlife, Prairie Creek is both a World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve. Gold Bluffs Beach is an easily accessible drive-up site sandwiched between the thick redwood forest and the Pacific Ocean, particularly famous for its proximity to Fern Canyon, a 1.1-mile narrow crevasse engulfed in lush ferns (you might recognize it from Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World). Each of the 24 campsites here has a table, fire ring, and grill. Just don’t be surprised if you spot elk passing through.
Lower Pines Campground, Yosemite National Park
Nestled in Yosemite Valley, Lower Pines is one of only three reservation-required campgrounds in the park and, due to its popularity, the camp sites book up fast—but the unbeatable view of Half Dome right when you wake up makes it worth the planning. The campground has 60 campsites and, although there are no showers on the premises, campers can shower and pick up amenities within walking distance in Half Dome Village. The campground runs along Merced River, so taking a day off from hiking and spending it unwinding on the banks of the water isn't unheard of.
Tomales Bay Campground, Point Reyes National Seashore
An oasis only a short drive away from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco, Point Reyes is the West Coast’s only national seashore. A product of tectonic forces shifting rocks along the peninsula millions of years ago, Point Reyes boasts some of the most stunning beaches and cliffs in the state. Despite its obvious aesthetic merits, it's home to over 1,500 species of plants and animals, with over half of the park designated to wilderness–a federal protection with the highest level of conservation–making Point Reyes one of the most publicly accessible wilderness areas in the country.
Tomales Bay allows campers to experience the true beauty of Point Reyes’ unique scenery with exclusively boat-in campsites. Campers can rent out kayaks close to the campgrounds, pick up raw oysters in neighboring shellfish farms, and catch the sunset in an inlet all to themselves. Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro, says, “I love Tomales Bay for kayaking, its misty air of romance, and delicious, locally sourced oysters; for Bay Area residents, you can be transported to the calm of beautiful nature, including some stunning wildlife, within a mere 90-minute drive.” During moonless nights, bright blue bioluminescence in the bay rivals the stars above.
Oak Point Campground, Fremont Peak State Park
For a state that advertises its natural beauty as extensively as California does, it’s a surprise that many residents don’t know about Fremont Peak State Park. Just outside of San Juan Bautista, Fremont Peak stands at almost 3,200 feet, giving campers the impression that they’re floating above Monterey Bay. Oak Point Campground, one of three campgrounds in the park with 12 primitive campsites (meaning there are zero amenities; not even bathrooms) tucked into the oaks, promises sleeping quite literally above the clouds, and morning hikes through whipped cream-like fog. The park also houses a 30-inch Challenger telescope, one of the largest available for public use, in its Observatory—making Fremont Peak State Park the perfect place to watch a meteor shower.
Hidden Valley Campground, Joshua Tree National Park
Despite being in one of the most heavily trafficked parks in the state, Hidden Valley Campground feels like a tucked-away gem. Its rock overhangs provide some shade and a bit of a relief during Joshua Tree’s particularly hot days, and the surrounding, massive boulders promise climbing even the most entry-level enthusiasts can enjoy. Ambika Rajyagor, founder of Disabled and Outdoors, particularly loves Hidden Valley’s campsites for family trips, and says the semi-paved dirt roads and fewer inclines mean her sister’s wheelchair can go right up to the rocks; plus, there's plenty of room to spread out. “It’s super spacious and no matter what campsite we’re at, we always have some of the best sunset views," says Rajyagor. "There’s enough space away from other campsites so that we feel like we’re on our very own trip.” Hidden Valley’s 44 campsites all include a picnic table, fire ring, and grill, but as with any Joshua Tree campground, there is no running water, so campers should bring their own.
If Hidden Valley is booked up: Kristen Hernandez, founder of Trail Mothers, suggests Joshua Lake RV and Campground as an alternative. It's right on the edge of the Mojave Desert, outside the park—meaning there's great stargazing and more availability.
Upper Sage Flat Campground, Inyo National Forest
East of Yosemite, Inyo National Forest stretches its more than two million acres to the southern edge of Sequoia National Park. It’s hard to choose where in Inyo to explore—the hot springs in Mammoth Lakes are the most compelling in the winter, while many train to summit Mount Whitney in the summer—but Upper Sage Flat Campground provides a down-to-earth camping experience on the banks of Big Pine Creek from spring through fall. Avid Eastern Sierra camper Cori Coccia, co-executive director of GirlVentures, particularly loves the campgrounds’ location: "Sage Flat is sweet because it has a huge river flowing through, coming from the Palisades [mountains] which are visible just up the canyon.” The campsites are both kid- and dog-friendly, so campers can swim and fish in the creek with their whole family.
San Clemente State Beach Campgrounds, San Clemente
San Clemente State Beach is a novice camper’s Southern California paradise, with surfers dotting the cresting waves of the beach and ocean spray misting sunbathers. Its distinguishing feature are desert-like sandstone bluffs (they’ve even been used to film Westerns), and a range of campsites: from RV sites with hookups, to family and group sites. Kaylie Erickson, who does events and marketing for Outdoor Outreach, recommends the campground as a basecamp for overnight surfing adventures—it’s the perfect place for groups of young ones to experience camping for the first time, Erickson says, but there's plenty for campers of all ages, too. “My favorite feature of this campground is the trail system that leads down to the beach, which is popular for body surfing, swimming, and skin diving.”
Woodside Campground, Salt Point State Park
A headland hanging above the Sonoma Coast, Salt Point State Park boasts sandstone cliff formations and the mixed-evergreen pygmy forest, and is only 95 miles north of San Francisco. The park has two campgrounds, Gerstle Cove and Woodside, which give campers the opportunity to have ocean views from their tents, or opt for being tucked away in the thick of a pine forest. GirlVentures’s Coccia prefers Woodside for its quiet: “It’s easy to feel the peace of the forest and the expanse of the sea in the same place here.” All campgrounds come with a fire ring and access to bathrooms (but no showers), and are dog-friendly. Coccia suggests taking one of the several trails that begin in the campground and winding through the coastal forest into meadows and rocky bluffs for scenic exploration. For those looking for adventure, horseback riding and scuba diving in Salt Point are welcome additions to the agenda.