An Expert Guide to Camping in California

Published on 12/10/2020 · 10 min readRoad trip anyone? Camping trip anyone?
Hannah K, Camping Expert
By Camping Expert Hannah K

California is a beautiful state with a wide variety of terrain and scenery. From Southern California’s beaches and desert to Northern California’s forests and mountains, you get just about everything here. Head out to some of these state and national parks for epic adventure and beautiful views. Here are my top 16 favorite camp spots throughout California.

White Tank Campground, Joshua Tree National Park

Photo by Megan Leong

Joshua Tree is a popular place for climbers in Los Angeles. It’s just a short drive away, making this park very accessible for a weekend getaway. And the campgrounds fill up fast as people often make reservations months in advance.

White Tank Campground is my favorite in Joshua Tree. It only has 15 available spots, making this one of the quietest spots to camp. Unfortunately, this is a first come, first serve campground, so get there early if you’re planning on staying the night here. Nearby are great climbing areas as well as natural wildlife and the Arch Rock Nature Trail. This campground is $15 a night with pit toilets and no water access, so bring your own supply. Joshua Tree National Park rules that dogs are allowed only where cars are and must be kept on leash—so keep that in mind if you want to bring a furry friend.

Thorndike Campground, Death Valley National Park

Photo by Yuval Levy

Camp here from March through November and have the option of biking, hiking, horseback riding, climbing, off-roading, swimming, and even snow sports. At 7,400ft of elevation and only six spots available, this primitive and forested campsite is a hidden gem in Death Valley. This is the best campsite, but is on a first come, first serve basis and only accessible to high clearance vehicles—in peak winter times four-wheel drive may be necessary. If you manage to get a spot, don’t fret about a campsite fee—this campground is free! Free camping!

Pets are allowed wherever a car is, so keep that in mind if you plan on bringing your doggo. I camped here for one night and there was a full moon. In the middle of the night a coyote started howling to the moon and it was very idyllic. Also, make sure to play in the sand dunes while you’re there.

Camp4, Yosemite National Park

Photo by Matt Antonioli

Camp4 is a historical landmark for climbers. Famous climbers such as Warren Harding and Royal Robbins camped here in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, the history is so important that this campsite is actually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Located in the heart of Yosemite, near Yosemite Falls, this campground is nestled within huge pine trees and beautiful wildlife. This campsite definitely has a vibe that isn’t for everyone- it is known to be a bit louder, wilder, and even referred to as a party zone. It is pretty difficult to secure a campsite here, so be prepared for lottery systems, lines, and in-person registrations. Unfortunately your doggo friend is not allowed here. Registration fee is $10.

Prairie Creek Campground, Redwoods State Forest

Photo by Sarah Brown

If you never have endeavored to see the redwoods, definitely add it to your list. If you’re thinking that it's just a tree, you are wrong my friend. These trees have so much history and will surprise you with how grand they really are. Set in the heart of the park and an hour from the coast, Prairie Creek is family friendly and has limited parking but large bathroom facilities with showers and flush toilets. There is plenty of potable water and this campsite is wheelchair accessible. Popular activities include biking, hiking, fishing, geocaching, and windsurfing. Camping is $35, but the tall pines and fir trees shining under the stars are one hundred percent worth it.

Cold Springs Campground, Sequoia National Forest

Photo by Theresa Soares

Open to tent camping in summer and placed next to the Kaweah River, you will wake up to lush evergreens and beautiful trails. This campground is located about two hours past the entrance to the park so it is often quieter. The road to get there is windy enough that RV’s and trailers are not permitted to drive on it. There are pit toilets and seasonal potable water, and for just $12 dollars a night, you will have access to this tent-only campsite. There are 40 spots available, nine of which are walk-in only. This is a first come, first serve campsite, so if you are interested get there early.

Ventana Campground, Big Sur

Photo by Ganapathy Kumar

Head on over to the scenic Pacific Coast Highway and bring your hammock—you will want to stop along the way! For those looking for more of a glamping experience, head on down to Ventana Campground. This tent-only campsite has two modern bathrooms, water faucets near every campground, and fire rings as well as picnic tables all over the place. This is right on the edge of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and a short drive from Carmel Valley. The Ohlone, Esselend, and Salinan tribes were the first Native American people to inhabit this area, but now the area is known for the beatnick and hippie movement. Be sure to look out for the California Condors and hike down to the coast or up into the mountains in this one-of-a-kind California State Park. There is a resort not too far away if you would rather have access to a large pool, a gym, and glamping tents.

Butte Lake Campground, Lassen Volcanic National Park

Photo by Quentin Burgess

This is a lesser-known national park in California, but with the same shock appeal as Yosemite and half the crowds! The park features alpine lakes, geothermal activity, meadows, and waterfalls. Be sure to hike Kings Creek Falls, which is a 2.3-mile round trip hike with 30-foot cascades and lush meadows. Set up camp at Butte Lake Campground, where you can go for a swim or paddle, and hike up Cinder Cone. This campground is one of the more remote sites in the park and is accessed via a six-mile-long road. You can make reservations or simply show up and hope that some are available. There are pit toilets, food lockers, and seasonal staff on site. This campground is open June through October and costs $22 dollars a night.

Bothe-Napa, Napa Valley State Park

Photo by Lauren Baxter

Napa Valley, or wine country, is a romantic and beautiful weekend getaway. This campsite allows you to switch up your hiking days and wine tasting days. There are also yurts and glamorous glamping tents and cabins available if you are feeling a bit snazzier. Be sure to hike the Coyote Peak Trail, a 1.5-mile climb with 1,170ft of elevation and even views of the valley. Dogs are not allowed on trail, so keep that in mind if you want to bring your pet.

Trail Creek Campground, Klamath National Forest

Photo by Etienne Delorieux

This campground is near the creek, with great hiking and access to the Trinity Alps Wilderness, Russian Wilderness, and sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. Pets are allowed, potable water is available, and only 12 sites are open. This shaded and quiet campground is great for those wanting to avoid crowds. Popular activities are biking, hiking, padding, climbing, horseback riding, swimming, and boating. You will see caves, mountains, rivers, and streams galore. This campsite is just $10 dollars a night and will leave you speechless.

Laguna Campground, Cleveland National Forest

Photo by Mick Haupt

Located in San Diego County is Cleveland National Forest. For epic starry nights, photographers come on over. Near Laguna Little Lake, with flush toilets, potable water, and easy-to-grab camping spots, this campground is calling your name. Doggo friends are not only allowed but encouraged! People come here to hike, fish, bike, off-road, and of course take a dip into the lake. At 5,519ft of elevation and not too far from a store and restaurant and most importantly, this campground is known for having beautiful fall foliage in Southern California—a very rare thing!

Nira Campground, Los Padres National Forest

Photo by Will Langenberg

You will need an adventure pass to stay here, so head out to your local REI to snag one or purchase online. The Manzana River and tall oak trees are only a few of the perks of this campground. Pets, pit toilets, and campfires are all accessible here, but double check the fire ban status. In Los Padres National Forest you are never far from caves, rivers, beaches, lakes, and my personal favorite, hot springs! Hiking, biking, and swimming are popular activities at this campground.

Private Beach Farm, Los Padres National Forest

Photo by Laura Pluth

Now this site is truly luxurious. At $200 dollars a night, it is beyond glamping and more like staying on a private beach in an ocean with lots of at-home creature comforts. You will camp in a historical greenhouse with a cob pizza oven, running water, private beach access, near a barnyard—do I need to say more? This property is beautiful and will not disappoint. Head to the beach, hike through the forest, go for a swim, make a pizza, do whatever you want but make sure to look out the view from the shower—it is the best view from the campsite. Bring your tent, but not your dog.

Santa Cruz Scorpion Campground, Channel Islands National Park

Photo by Priya Karkare

Santa Cruz Island is in my opinion of the most beautiful parts of California. Here you will see lush meadows and cliffs overlooking the coast, as well as wild birds and animals from foxes to rabbits and more. And look to the Pacific Ocean for some whales and dolphins! This is just two hours away from Los Angeles, making it an easy weekend getaway and an escape from the city. Go boating, hiking, fishing, surfing, snorkeling, and paddling for some great fun nearby this campsite. The Santa Cruz Mountain Range is like no other. Make sure you secure transportation to the Island and then reserve your campsite! There are picnic tables and pit toilets available, and get ready for some beautiful wildflowers and some baby seals. Be sure to add this to your list if you haven’t already.

Splitrock Campground, Donner Memorial State Park

Photo by Christopher Jolly

Named for the Donner Party, those who got stuck in a mountain range and to survive ate those who had died, this California state park isn’t as popular as the Redwood Forests or Sequoia National Forest, but it’s just as beautiful. Learn about how people traveled to California and the Washoe Tribe, as well as the transcontinental railroad. Then go dip in the lake! Splitrock Campground has bathrooms, picnic tables, food lockers, and showers. It gets cold year-round, so don’t forget your puffy jacket and your warm sleeping bag. Enjoy hiking, boating, snow sports, fishing, swimming, and more all near this campsite.

Horr Pond Campground, Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park

Photo by Clay Banks

This state park is truly unique for California. It can only be accessed by boat, and once you get to land, you will see lava rocks, lush mountains, and beautiful wildflowers. Learn about the once active volcanos and walk on the black lava coals. Horr Pond Campground is the closest to the boat launch, making it easily accessible once you get to land. Bring your pets, your toilet paper, and lots of water to this three-site campground.

Joshua Group Camp, Saddleback Butte State Park

Photo by Mehz K

Settled in Antelope Valley in Southern California, this desert landscape is just an hour and a half drive from Los Angeles. It is on the edge of the Mojave Desert and close to Joshua Tree but with half the crowds. Make sure to hike the 3,651ft peak of Saddleback Butte while you are there. Joshua Group Campground can be reserved ahead of time and can hold up to thirty people. Enjoy the desert scenery and wildlife (i.e. coyotes), don’t touch the cactus (obviously), and put on that sunscreen. In the winter it can get to below freezing at night so don’t forget your jacket.

From deserts to the California coast to mountains and lush forests, the Golden State really has it all. Whether you are a beginner camper or more advanced, these campgrounds will appeal to the inner explorer within. Bring your family, bring your dog (if it is allowed), and pack up your car to head out to one of these beautiful locations. These are just a few of the beautiful campgrounds California has to offer, and I can’t wait to learn about more. Hit me up if you have been to any of these, or let me know if I missed your favorite California campground. Reach out through my profile and let's talk all things outdoors!

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