Camping in California: The 7 Best Campgrounds

Pelican Flyer  |  June 16, 2020

California truly has it all: breathtaking coastal vistas, centuries-old redwoods, pristine white-sand beaches. The natural splendor is especially bountiful for the dedicated outdoor explorer. Camping is our favorite way to see all the amazing landscapes this state has to offer, so why not hop down the coast to explore all the gorgeous campgrounds? Here are our top 7 recommendations, from north to south.

1. Crescent City: Jedediah Smith Campground

If old-growth redwoods are your thing, start at the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in Crescent City, about 15 miles south of the Oregon border. This gorgeous campground puts campers amidst the stunning trees next to the Smith River, one of California’s last major free-flowing rivers. It also offers 20 miles of nature trails to explore.

2. Marin County: Coast Campground at Point Reyes National Seashore

A few hours down the coast, just north of San Francisco, you’ll discover the breathtaking Point Reyes National Seashore. The Coast Campground within the seashore lets campers get up-close and personal with the unparalleled California coast. This is a hike-in camp (it’s about a 1.8-mile hike to the furthest campsite) but the view is worth it. When you see the impressive cliffs on the Santa Maria Beach, you’ll be happy you made the trek. You’re going to want to bring the rolling cooler for this one!

3. Lake Tahoe: Emerald Bay State Park

Let’s take it inland a bit! With its second-to-none views and nature access like no other, this stunning Lake Tahoe campground is well worth the drive across the state. Nestled within the gorgeous Emerald Bay of Lake Tahoe, this campground provides serenity and some of the best views of the lake’s deep, blue waters. On trails surrounding the campground, explorers can capture breathtaking views of Fanette Island, Tahoe’s only island. Hikers can also make their way to Vikingsolm, the “hidden castle of Tahoe.”

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4. Inyo National Forest: Convict Lake

The Convict Lake campground is beloved for its locale next to the picturesque Convict Lake. Known for its crystal-clear waters and backdrop showcasing the best of the Sierra Nevada mountains, this destination campground provides something for everyone. Come here to fish, hike or simply relax in the serenity of the Inyo National Forest.

5. Big Sur: Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground

Next stop: Big Sur. This beloved coastal campground sits on one of the state’s most mind-blowing stretches of coast, where massive cliffs meet pristine ocean waters and old redwoods. As part of the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, this campground provides campers with access to a slew of top-notch hiking trails. Don’t miss the Pfeiffer Falls Trail that meanders to the majestic Pfeiffer Falls. Note that the trail to the falls has been closed due to wildfire damage, so make sure the trail has opened before heading out.

6. Channel Islands: Santa Rosa Island

Santa Rosa Island is the second-largest island of the Channel Islands National Park, offering plenty of opportunity for backcountry beach camping. The undeveloped 55-mile coastline of Santa Rosa Island gives tent campers a lot to explore, from pristine waters to rare wildlife sightings. But, getting there isn’t easy. It’s a 3-hour journey by boat each way from Ventura, but there are a few 25-minute flights available as well. You can pitch a tent at the Catalina Island Boat-In Campground for another amazing Channel Islands camping experience.

7. Dana Point: Doheny State Beach

Get the most from the Southern California coastline at this heavenly beach campground in Dana Point, just south of Los Angeles. The major draw of this campground is that some of its sites are within a few steps of the beach, perfect for the coastal camper! Of course, this means reservations are cutthroat. Be sure to pack your hard coolers to keep the sand out and enjoy falling asleep to the sound of the crashing waves.

Note: There are so many amazing places to camp in the Golden State, and this list not all-inclusive. We recommend picking up a copy of Moon California Camping by Tom Stienstra for many more great suggestions on where to camp in California. This list was compiled with the help of that book.

With such a broad spectrum of landscapes and so many exquisite natural features to explore, California offers some of the very best camping for outdoor explorers. From the cobalt waters of Lake Tahoe to the rugged beauty of the Channel Islands, California makes lots of happy campers.

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