California has some of the most spectacular and breathtaking scenery in the nation, from the mountains to the desert to the sea. It’s a gold mine of 110 state parks and glittering beaches where you can spend the night in the ancient redwood forest, alongside crashing waves, next to panoramic vistas and massive boulders. There are 19 national forests that run the length of California, each with its unique set of natural beauties and climates—lush woods, sparkling desertscapes, and everything in between.
These are the greatest locations to camp in California, whether it’s a typical tent and s’mores experience or glamping with the option of good cuisine.
Best camping in California
1. Yosemite National Park
In terms of chances and reward, securing a Yosemite campsite is similar to winning the state lottery. But if you plan ahead, you’ll be rewarded with some of the nicest campsites in the state. First timers will appreciate the year-round Upper Pines campground that eschews solitude for an enviable locale on the valley floor, within walking or shuttle distance to big ticket attractions. Outside of the valley, the 304-site Tuolumne Meadows campground sits at 8,619ft elevation with The Sound of Music scenery and trails to Elizabeth Lake and the Cathedral Lakes. Wawona, located near the park’s southern edge, offers spacious campsites along the Merced River with convenient access to the enormous sequoias of Mariposa Grove. Book any of the five High Sierra Camps, which are spaced around 5-10 miles apart and provide hikers tent cabins and family-style meals. Saddlebag Lake campsite in the Inyo National Forest, east of the national park, is the highest drive-to campground in California at 10,000 feet.
Photograph: Courtesy Ventana Big Sur
While Big Sur’s redwoods-meet-the-sea landscape is legendary, nabbing a site at one of the area’s few campgrounds is absurdly difficult. Just down the road from the popular Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park lies the lesser-known and tent-only Ventana Campsite, nestled in a secluded redwood canyon. In addition to luxe amenities (like a hotel-worthy restroom and shower stations) there’s a sleek Airstream bar serving cocktails and snacks in a makeshift outdoor lounge beneath the redwoods. The deluxe glamping tents come with access to the spa and pool amenities at Ventana Big Sur, the fancy resort next door.
3. Channel Islands National Park
The five islands that comprise this offshore national park, which can be reached by a 1.5-hour boat voyage, provide a glimpse of what the California coast looked like hundreds of years ago. Each island has a tiny campsite, with Santa Cruz’s Scorpion Canyon campground being the most accessible. You’ll have to carry your stuff a half-mile from the pier, but the payoff is peace and a night sky seldom seen on the mainland. From Scorpion Canyon’s sites, you can kayak or snorkel the turquoise waters of the protected marine area – book in advance via an onsite rental shop – and trek to the island’s peak, which offers sweeping views of the Pacific.
4. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Although there aren’t many coastal redwoods at Elk Prairie Campground, the creekside sites provide easy access to some of California’s most beautiful redwood paths. Follow the Prairie Creek Trail from the park’s visitor center to the Cathedral Tree Trail, which winds through a primeval forest of the park’s most magnificent redwood stands. Instead, take the James Irvine path for 4.5 miles to Fern Canyon, a stunning, overgrown streambed surrounded by towering walls of luxuriant ferns and dripping moss.
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Nate Kadlac
5. Joshua Tree National Park
The 800,000-acre Joshua Tree National Park has a startling variety of scenery and campsites. Jumbo Rocks is the park’s largest campground with sites dotted with massive boulders – a rock climber’s paradise – and an ideal locale for exploring the park’s otherworldly desert landscape of staggering rock formations (like the nearby Skull Rock). The 15-site White Tank campsite, located near the park’s northern edge, is the park’s smallest campground, yet it provides the most privacy and the darkest sky.
6. Los Padres National Forest
Kirk Creek Campsite is located on a cliff overlooking the Ocean for those who did not make it to Ventana. Open to the sea and stars, the space offers the type of outdoorsy beauty only Big Sur can offer; pitch a tent on a grassy lawn directly across the ocean and fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves. Feeling frivolous? Bring a smart outfit and use your accommodation savings to enjoy a prix fixe meal at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar restaurant. Return to your tent for a classic s’mores nightcap.
7. El Capitan State Beach
El Capitan Campground, located on a coastal cliff overlooking the Santa Barbara coast, provides ample campsites. Explore the driftwood-strewn beach with excellent tidepools towards the northern end throughout the day. Pack a swimsuit and surfboard; the rolling tide provides the perfect setting to catch a few waves or just frolic in the surf. There’s also a camp shop with beach supplies and hot showers to freshen up before a fire pit BBQ meal. Visit soon since the site will be closed for about nine months starting August 1, 2022.
8. Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Traverse spiraling trails under ancient, old-growth redwoods and take your pick of four waterfalls when staying in the Santa Cruz mountains at Big Basin Redwoods. Out of 142 unique campsites, some are open year-round (like Huckleberry Campground) while others (like Sempervirens Campground and Wastahi Campground) are seasonal. There are also places that can accommodate big groups of 40 to 50 people (such as Sequoia and Sky Meadow), as well as tent cabins and a horse camp where you can sleep with your horses (no dogs though, sadly). If you’re seeking for creature comforts, Little Basin also includes a kitchen, pavilion, and activity hall for rent.
Photograph: Michael Juliano
Sequoia National Park encompasses at least 40 distinct groves of redwoods with the most popular being the Giant Forest, home to the world’s largest tree: a 275ft-high, 36ft-wide, giant sequoia tree known as General Sherman. The seasonal riverside Lodgepole Campsite is just three miles away, adjacent to the visitor center with free shuttles, and provides convenient access to park attractions such as the Giant Forest and the Wuksachi Lodge and restaurant.
Van Damme State Park’s year-round campsite is set along the fern-clad banks of the Little River, immersing guests in the lush surroundings of the untamed Northern California coast. From the campsites, follow the aptly named Fern Canyon Trail that skirts the streaming river back into a jungle-like forest of sword ferns and Douglas fir pines, eventually reaching a bizarre pygmy forest of bonsai-like trees. Along the journey, you’ll come across a few eco campgrounds nestled in a redwood forest, providing even more peace and quiet. The park continues across Highway 1 to a magnificent pebble-lined beach cove at the entrance of the Little River. Throughout the summer, join Kayak Mendocino, which sets up on the beach and provides guided tours of the many offshore kelp forests and sea caves.
11. Crystal Cove State Park
Set on a coastal terrace overlooking the Pacific, Moro Campground’s 57 family tent and RV-friendly sites aren’t as fetching as the view, but they offer immediate access to a world of water recreation. Whether you bring kayaks or surfboards, there will be plenty of opportunities to ride the waves at the park’s golden sand beach. After climbing the interior paths into Moro Canyon’s untouched forests, cool off in Laguna’s wonderfully pure waters.
12. Russian Gulch State Park
Russian Gulch, just north of Mendocino, has some of northern California’s most beautiful, craggy beaches. The state park has stunning landscapes that include windswept headlands (watch as water surges through a collapsed sea cave at Devil’s Punch Bowl), a leafy canyon that spans three miles, a glittering beach and a 36ft waterfall that cascades into a bower of redwoods. On the park’s northeast side, campers may choose from 26 conventional sites, one group site, and four horse sites (complete with corrals, staging spaces, and water troughs). Please keep in mind that camping is only accessible during the summer.
13. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen’s spectacular 160,452 acres include gorgeous alpine lakes and meadows filled with rushing waterfalls in addition to its volcanic topography. Set up camp at one of seven seasonal campgrounds, like the popular Manzanita Lake, which includes tent sites and spiffy camping cabins, or Butte Lake, which offers the most seclusion. Summit Lake South Campground is located in the heart of the park, on the southern border of Summit Lake, and offers scenic views and water access. The 2.3-mile roundtrip hike to Kings Creek Falls through a verdant meadow and leads to stunning 30-foot falls. Unfortunately, owing to the Dixie Fire, the park is presently closed.
In addition to traditional tent and RV spots, this is a thoughtfully modern campground in California’s atmospheric Gold Country. The chic campsite has 18 canvas glamping tents with genuine mattresses, electricity, and hardwood flooring. A host of cushy amenities – community kitchen, outdoor movies, swimming pool, and a camp store stocked with s’mores and wine – takes the sting out of roughing it. Even better, the South Yuba River’s crystal blue swimming places are just 15 minutes away.
15. Emerald Bay State Park
Strewn along a forested ridge overlooking the azure Emerald Bay, the seasonal Eagle Point Campground offers 100 sites with access to beaches and trails like the scenic Rubicon Trail. During the summer, a rental provider provides kayaks for paddling out to Fannette Island, Lake Tahoe’s lone island. For more adventure and solitude, load up your kayak with camp gear and head for the intimate, lakefront boat camp set on the bay’s northern banks. Nevertheless, owing to the present wildfires, kayak rental services are temporarily closed.
16. Bothe-Napa Valley State Park
This Napa Valley campsite, located between St. Helena and Calistoga in a magnificent redwood and tanoak forest with a rippling brook, enables you to rotate between trails and tasting rooms. Get a workout on the 1.5-mile Coyote Peak Trail that climbs to a 1,170ft-high peak with sweeping vistas of the valley, or follow the 1.1-mile History Trail to a pioneer cemetery and working, historic grist mill (where you might be able to take home a sack of freshly ground flour). You don’t want to pitch a tent in your Wine Country-chic ensemble? Choose a yurt tent or one of the recently refurbished antique cottages.
17. Minaret Falls Campground
The Mammoth Lakes area is a famous ski resort that is even more beautiful in the summer. Situated in the Reds Meadow Valley on the eastern side of the Sierra Mountains, this scenic 27-site Minaret Falls campground is named after the nearby cascade of Minaret Creek that tumbles into the river. You can hike to an even more impressive display at Rainbow Falls, as well as the mesmerizing Devil’s Postpile, a rare geological formation that looks like a series of crumbling columns built into a cliffside. Nevertheless, the grounds are now closed due to wildfires.
What is the most popular campground in California?
These are our top recommendations for discovering the greatest camping in California.
- Tuolumne Meadows Campground. …
- White Tank Campground. …
- Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. …
- Sonoma Coast State Park. …
- Nevada Beach Campground. …
- Crystal Cove State Park. …
- Minaret Falls Campground. …
- Butte Lake Campground.
What is the best location for campsite?
On a map, look for places that are:
- Flat, where you have the highest chance of locating a level campground.
- Within convenient proximity of firewood and water.
- Off-trail to avoid interfering with another backpacker’s wilderness experience.
- Not at the bottom of a valley or canyon, where the air is the coldest and wettest.
Is California good for camping?
It should come as no surprise that California has some of the greatest camping in the nation. 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.
Where can you camp for free in California?
7 Spots to Try Free Camping in California
- The Alabama Hills. Location: (Google map) …
- National Park of Death Valley. Location: (Google map) …
- The Mojave National Preserve. (Google Maps) Place…
- Anza-Borrego State Park. (Google Maps) Place…
- Mono Lake Boondocking. …
- Lassen National Forest. …
- Mendocino National Forest Free Camping.