Ready to see the Golden State in all its glory? Pack your tent and head to one of our favourite camping spots
There is so much to discover in California. Barely believable national parks. Unreal sunny weather (most of the time). Glistening vineyards and endless, sandy deserts. But if you really want to experience the magic of California, there is only one way to do it – and that’s camping. (Oh, and the ultimate California road trip is pretty cool too).
When you camp in California, you can completely immerse yourself in its national parks, hidden islands and wide open beaches. You can wake up to volcanoes, cliffs and lakes, and sleep under the stars. This is a side of California you’ll only see once you pack up a tent and start on that hike. And we’ll let you in on a little secret – it’s the best bit. From scenic redwoods to mountains and waterfalls, here are the best camping spots in California.
California’s best camping
1. Yosemite National Park
Scoring a Yosemite campsite is akin to winning the state lottery, both in odds and payoff. But plan ahead and you’ll be rewarded with the best camping 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.
At the southern end of the park, Wawona features roomy sites spread along the Merced River with easy access to the giant sequoias of Mariposa Grove. For the backpack-curious, book any of the five High Sierra Camps, which are strewn roughly 5-10 miles apart and provide hikers with tent cabins and family-style meals. East of the national park, at Inyo National Forest, Saddlebag Lake campground has the highest drive-to campground in California at 10,000ft.
Photograph: Courtesy Ventana Big Sur
2. Ventana Campground
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 heavily trafficked Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, you’ll discover the lesser-known and tent-only Ventana Campground tucked in a quiet 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. Big tip: splurge for the luxurious glamping tents and you’ll get access to the spa and pool facilities at Ventana Big Sur, the posh resort next door.
3. Channel Islands National Park
Reached via a 1.5-hour ferry ride, the five islands encompassing this offshore national park offer a glimpse of what the California coast looked like hundreds of years ago. Each isle features a small campground, with Santa Cruz’s Scorpion Canyon campground being the easiest to reach. You’ll need to lug your gear a half-mile from the dock, but your reward is a serenity and night sky rarely found 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
While you won’t find many coastal redwoods at Elk Prairie Campground proper, the camp’s creekside sites offer quick access to California’s most striking redwood trails. From the park’s visitor center – a short stroll from the campground – follow the Prairie Creek Trail to the Cathedral Tree Trail, which loops through a primeval forest of the park’s most scenic redwood stands. Or, hop on the James Irvine trail that leads 4.5 miles to Fern Canyon, a dazzling, overgrown streambed bounded by towering walls of lush ferns and dripping moss.
5. Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park’s 800,000-acres include a surprising diversity of landscapes and campgrounds. 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). Situated at the park’s northern end, the 15-site White Tank is the park’s smallest campground, yet offers the greatest solitude and darkest skies.
6. Los Padres National Forest
For those who didn’t make it into Ventana, Kirk Creek Campground is set along a bluff overlooking the Pacific. 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 indulgent? Pack a cute outfit and shell out the money you saved on lodging to enjoy a prix fixe dinner at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar restaurant. Then saunter back to your tent for a traditional s’mores nightcap.
7. El Capitan State Beach
Among a string of campgrounds along the Santa Barbara coast, El Capitan offers spacious campsites set on a coastal bluff. During the day, explore the driftwood-strewn beach with exceptional tidepools found toward the northern end. 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 store with beach essentials and hot showers to clean up before a BBQ dinner around the fire pit. Visit soon as the site will be closed for roughly nine months beginning Aug 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 spots that can accommodate large groups of 40 to 50 (check out Sequoia and Sky Meadow) as well as tent cabins and a horse camp to bunk with your horses (no dogs though, sadly). If you’re looking for creature comforts, Little Basin also has a kitchen, pavilion and recreation hall that are all available to rent.
Photograph: Michael Juliano
9. Sequoia National Park
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. Just three miles away, the seasonal riverfront Lodgepole Campground is close to the visitor center with free shuttles and offers easy access to park attractions like the Giant Forest and the Wuksachi Lodge and restaurant.
10. Van Damme State Park
Set along the fern-blanketed banks of the Little River, Van Damme State Park’s year-round campground immerses visitors in the lush environs of the wild 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 way, you’ll spot a handful of environmental camps tucked into a redwood grove offering even more serenity. Across Highway 1, the park extends to a lovely, pebble-lined beach cove at the mouth of the Little River. During the summer, hook up with Kayak Mendocino that sets up on the shore and offers 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’ve opted to bring kayaks or surfboards, you’ll find plenty of opportunity to ride the waves at the park’s golden sand beach. Laguna’s famously clear waters also provide a refreshing cooldown after hiking the inland trails into Moro Canyon’s undisturbed woodlands.
12. Russian Gulch State Park
Take in some of northern California’s most captivating, rugged coastlines just north of Mendocino at Russian Gulch. 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. Campers can take their pick of 26 standard sites, one group site, and four equestrian sites (replete with corrals, staging areas and water troughs) on the northeast edge of the park. Take note: camping is available only in the summer.
13. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Beyond its volcanic terrain, Lassen’s impressive 160,452 acres feature stunning alpine lakes and meadows dotted with gushing waterfalls. 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 sits in the middle of the park, at the southern edge of Summit Lake, with picturesque views and access to the water. Don’t miss the 2.3-mile roundtrip trek to Kings Creek Falls – it traverses a lush meadow and leads to dramatic, 30ft cascades. Sadly though, the park is currently closed due to the Dixie Fire.
14. Inntown Campground
In addition to traditional tent and RV spots, this is a thoughtfully modern campground in California’s atmospheric Gold Country. The snazzy campground features 18 canvas glamping tents outfitted with real beds, electricity and hardwood floors. 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. Better yet, you’re within 15 minutes to the crystal clear swimming holes of the majestic South Yuba River.
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 vendor offers kayaks to paddle out to Fannette Island, the only island in Lake Tahoe. 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. Do note though that kayak rental services are temporarily closed due to ongoing wildfires.
16. Bothe-Napa Valley State Park
Situated between St. Helena and Calistoga, in a stunning redwood and tanoak forest with rippling creek, this Napa Valley campground allows you to alternate 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). Don’t feel like pitching a tent in your Wine Country-chic ensemble? Snag one of the yurt tents or newly renovated, historic cabins.
17. Minaret Falls Campground
The Mammoth Lakes region is a very popular ski destination that’s arguably more stunning 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. The grounds however, are temporarily closed due to wildfires.