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There may be no better way to experience California’s natural wonders than setting up camp, building a campfire, and allowing all your senses to be awash in this state’s beauty. From the Sierras to the rugged Redwood Coast, Trekaroo knows the best campgrounds in Northern California. From the desert to the sandy bluffs, we also know the best campgrounds in Southern California. What does one do with all that great info? Compile it all into a best campgrounds in California guide, of course!
Best Campgrounds in California
Best Campgrounds in Northern California – Redwoods
Delightful big trees and mossy ferns hug the Oregon border and the Pacific coast. Campgrounds here leave visitors in awe of the fresh air and light that filters through the redwood forest canopy. I highly recommend heading to the middle of a Redwood Cathedral Circle (a group of trees that spring up around an old stump) to simply just look up.
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park distinguishes itself from the other campgrounds in the area with the availability of fishing and boating. A campground right on the banks of the Smith River is a popular spot for families. Book a campsite or reserve a cabin and enjoy campfire programs, clean restrooms with showers, and a small wildlife center.
Read our full guide to Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park.
Just a 20 mile jaunt southwest in Del Norte Redwoods State Park is seasonal Mill Creek Campground touted for its protection from the wind, beautiful scenery, and tide pools.
Prairie Creek State Park is a find with its access to rugged coastline. The park is also known for Fern Canyon, a lush canyon used in the filming of Jurassic Park, and its native herd of elk that often hang out on the beach. Gold Bluffs Beach Campground is our favorite in the park, and many of the campsite have ocean views.
For some amazing hikes, tide pools, and even a reconstructed Yurok Indian Village, head to Patrick’s Point State Park. There are three campsites here- Abalone, Penn Creek, and Agate Beach- which are 1/4 mile from the beach. Only the Agate Campground features sites with views of the ocean.
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Best Campgrounds in Northern California Along the Coast
The windswept coastline and forests continue as we move further south. Sandstone formations, caves, prairies, and pygmy forests abound in Salt Point State Park. Be treated to an unobstructed view of the star-filled sky. Choose Woodside Campground for wind protection or Gerstle Cove Campground to be up close and personal with the elements.
An hour north of San Francisco is Point Reyes National Seashore, which offers hike-in, bike-in, or boat-in campsites for the adventurous. For an experience you will never forget, kayak to your campsite at the Tomales Bay Campground. There are local outfitters that will rent you kayaks.
Enjoy a view of the bay from your campsite at Half Moon Bay State Beach. Francis Campground has 52 campsites, many with ocean views. There are sites for tents and RVs. This is a popular area for surfers but leave the water play to the professionals because currents can be strong.
Near San Jose is Portola Redwoods State Park. It is a great place to camp under the Redwoods without having to drive far from and urban area. Take the nature trail to Portola Creek to search for remnants of clams and other fossils.
Rounding out the Northern California coastal campgrounds is Big Basin Redwoods State Park which is nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Here families will love the redwoods, waterfalls, and Jr. Ranger program. While at Big Basin, brave visitors can kiss a banana slug and get slimed!
*Tip: Be prepared for changes in temperature from the canopy of the redwoods to the beaches’ open bluffs. Wind and fog are common throughout these campgrounds.
Best Campgrounds in the Western Sierras
The Western Sierras are teeming with beautiful mountain campgrounds. Enjoy the stunning waterfalls at McArthur Burney Falls Memorial State Park. The campground is forested and within a short walk to Lake Britton, which is fun to for boating and swimming. There is a cute store at the campground where you can purchase supplies and firewood.
Experience lakeside primitive camping at Castle Lake Campground near Mount Shasta. The sites are free and there are no reservations so be sure to arrive early during busy holiday weekends to secure your site. You will be rewarded with wonderful day hiking around crystal-clear Castle Lake and two other nearby lakes.
In Lake Tahoe, head to Camp Richardson where you can tent camp under the trees and still take advantage of all the amenities of this full-service resort. It is the perfect spot for boating, swimming, and hiking on nearby trails. Don’t miss the Rum Runners or the calamari at The Beacon, the resort’s restaurant.
For a unique experience in the Sierra Nevada foothills, nab a boat-in site on the banks of Englebright Lake located outside of Yuba City. The marina rents boats for campers to use to cruise the lake and nab a spot on a private cove.
Families rave about the lake, general store, and access to family-friendly amenities like movie-nights and espresso bars at Pinecrest Campground in the mountains above Sonora. Expect to meet people here who return to this beautiful spots year after year with their children. If you’d like to stay closer to the central valley, head to Lake Don Pedro for lakeside camping, great boating, and incredible fishing.
Let’s be honest, the campgrounds in Yosemite are all awesome! Sometimes they can be difficult to reserve, so check out these first-come first-served options for a last minute trip. We recommend visiting during off peak times enjoy a less-crowded experience.
In Kings Canyon National Park, amazing campgrounds (including one in the giant Sequoia forest) are located around every turn. Here are our picks for camping in Kings Canyon.
The most famous campground in Sequoia National Park is the large Lodgepole Campground, where you can also catch a shuttle to take you to all of the park’s highlights. A great family hike to Tokopah Falls begins at this popular campground.
*Tip: This is bear country. Remember to store food and equipment properly to keep the bears and your belongings safe. Most campgrounds list their food restrictions online so families can plan ahead.
Best Campgrounds in the Eastern Sierras
Camping in California is incredibly diverse. The beauty of the Western Sierras makes them a very popular destination for nature seeking families. For a more secluded time in the mountains, head east. The mountain lakes, fishing, and high altitude canyons make for stunning trips.
For a unique experience, head to Devils Postpile National Monument Campground. Made up of only 21 first-come/first-served sites, this campground is as close as visitors can get to the infamous formations without needing a shuttle bus. Don’t miss the hike to Rainbow Falls nearby.
Just outside Devils Postpile is Minaret Falls Campground, where some sites have views of the waterfalls and sit on the San Joaquin River bank. Pristine lake-side camping can be found at Twin Lakes Campground in Mammoth Lakes. For those who prefer full-hookups, try Mammoth Mountain RV Resort.
While further south, the campgrounds that dot Bishop Creek Canyon delight fishermen, hikers, and nature lovers. This spot is particularly stunning in the autumn with the California fall colors are at their best.
*Tip: The majority of Eastern Sierra campgrounds are at high altitudes. It would be wise to take precautions by bringing extra water and lots of sunscreen. Check the weather before you go and take the time to acclimate to the environment.
Best Campgrounds on the Central Coast
California’s Central Coast is perfect for those who seek chiseled beauty, sand, and surf. The tiny town of Big Sur can be found on the winding Highway 1. The perseverance it takes to get there is rewarded with campsites surrounded by towering redwoods, meandering creeks, and incredible views.
Both Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (located within 10 miles of each other) are good options for families. Both are set with gorgeous backdrops and access to water holes. They also share one major con for families with young children: poison oak. So be sure to choose a campsite carefully, or make sure to teach the kids how to identify this plant.
Looking for a stellar Jr. Ranger program, large sites, beach access, and trails? Look no further than family-favorite San Simeon Creek Campground. This campground is close to the world-famous Hearst Castle and a raucous elephant seal colony that can’t be missed!
Quaint Morro Bay is home to Morro Bay State Park, a large campground set below a giant eucalyptus grove and the perfect place to camp and enjoy civilization. This campground is within walking distance of the Museum of Natural History, kayaking, golfing, and a short jaunt to the embarcadero. Check out our guide to Morro Bay with kids.
Pismo Beach offers three distinct camping options for families: Pismo Coast RV Resort for those who RV and enjoy a heated pool and other full amenities; North Beach Campground for a more rustic trip on the Pismo River; and Oceano Dunes, where adrenaline-junkies enjoy riding dune buggies on the sand. People drive quickly at Oceano Dunes, so this may be best for older kids.
In Northern Santa Barbara County don’t miss El Capitan State Beach, is a beach haven with amazing views of the Channel Islands.
See Trekaroo kid-friendly reviews of Central Coast campgrounds.
The Best Campgrounds in Southern California Near Beaches
You can’t come to the Golden State without spending time at the beach. Southern California beaches offer idyllic sights along the Pacific. Both Pt. Mugu’s Sycamore Campground and Leo Carillo State Park Campground in Malibu offer beach access and shade from giant oak trees. There are miles of hiking trails between the two and through the Santa Monica Mountains. Leo Carrillo’s beach is renowned for tide-pools, caves, and rocks, while Pt. Mugu has sandy beaches and dunes.
Heading to Southern Orange County? Moro Campground located in Crystal Cove State Park sits high on a bluff overlooking one of the most beautiful beaches in Southern California (and my personal favorite). There are tide pools on the beach to explore and killer milkshakes at the Shake Shack.
Hang out close to the sand at Dana Point’s Doheny State Beach Campground. This beach is wildly popular with newbie surfers who like the gentle waves consistent break. There is a seasonal snack bar, fire pits, and lots of volleyball courts to enjoy. San Clemente State Beach Campground offers incredible surfing and interpretative programs.
In San Diego County, there are four family-friendly campgrounds on the Pacific Ocean. At San Elijo State Beach Campground take to the beach for a surf session and then head to the local taco stand to refuel.
Enjoy the beach at South Carlsbad State Beach Campground without worries of forgetting something because a camp store is located on the property. Enjoy a natural beach setting, volleyball, and swimming at Silver Strand State Beach Campground on Coronado Island.
For an upscale camping experience, Campland by the Sea on Mission Bay offers resort-style camping sites and full family-friendly programming. This is an especially popular spot with RV campers who like to bring their water toys to enjoy on the bay. Bonus- SeaWorld is just down the street!
All of these Southern California beach campgrounds book quickly and take reservations months in advance. Here are some other options for Southern California campgrounds where reservations are not required.
Best Campgrounds in Southern California Mountains
With so much focus on Southern California beaches, the mountains that frame the area are sometimes overlooked. But the mountains of Southern California offer some incredible places for families to camp.
Big Bear Lake is home to Serrano Campground. Located on the banks of the lake, this campground sits along the Alpine Pedal Path which offers miles of hiking trails and the Big Bear Observatory.
A little closer to the valley floor (but still high in the mountains) is San Gorgonio Campground. It isn’t close to any towns, which makes it less crowded and more private.
Over in the San Jacinto Mountains are the quirky towns of Idyllwild and Mountain Center. Here you’ll find several campgrounds such as Hurkey Creek Campground, known for its 10-mile mountain bike course, Idyllwild County Park, featuring its own nature center, and Thousand Trails Idyllwild, offering amenities such as a pool, playground, and horseback riding.
Best Campgrounds in Southern California Deserts
While the California deserts aren’t usually what comes to mind when people think of camping, they offer excellent options for stargazing, hiking, and exploring. California’s desert campgrounds are best experienced in non-summer months as temperatures easily rise above 100 degrees.
Joshua Tree National Park has several incredible campgrounds perfect for families who want to experience a desert trip, enjoy bouldering, and hike some kid-friendly trails. Hidden Valley, Jumbo Rocks, and Indian Cove campgrounds are all excellent options.
Meanwhile, in Death Valley National Park, families will appreciate the centrally located Furnace Creek campground. The campground isn’t the most scenic, but it is very central to all the action. Bonus- you can access the pool at Furnace Creek Ranch if things get to hot.
Check out more kid-friendly activities that shouldn’t be missed while camping in Death Valley National Park.
Special thanks to Sharlene Earnshaw, LiLing Pang, Michelle McCoy, and Heather Reed for their contributions to this article.
Featured photo by: Shutterstock