Worldwide icon-chevron-right North America icon-chevron-right United States icon-chevron-right California icon-chevron-right The best camping in California from the Pacific Coast to the Sierra Nevadas

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A blue and red tent on the shore of a lake
Photograph: Flickr/Ariel Dovas/Creative Commons

The best camping in California from the Pacific Coast to the Sierra Nevadas

Roast marshmallows under the stars at these Golden State parks with the best camping in California.

By Garrick Ramirez

In California, it seems like every household has a tent stashed within easy reach of a Thule-topped Suburu Outback. Thanks to a mild climate and ridiculously diverse landscape of mountains, deserts, State Parks, and beaches, the Golden State teems with inspiring spots to roll out your sleeping bag. Here, you can pitch a tent in an ancient redwood forest, sip rosé around the campfire in Napa, and swap hiking shoes for flip flops at one of the state’s many beach campgrounds. Whether you’re looking to load up the car with a cooler full of burger fixings and brews, or strap on a backpack for an isolated trek into the wilderness, here’s where you’ll find the best camping in California. 

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Best camping in California

The famous firefall at Horsetail Falls in Yosemite National Park
Photograph: Flickr/Steve Corey

1. Yosemite National Park

What is it? If “Yosemite” is the Miwok word for “killer,” then this granddaddy of national parks has Yosemite camping.

Why go? 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 which eschews solitude for an enviable locale on the valley floor, within walking or shuttle distance to big ticket attractions including the trailhead for Vernal and Nevada Falls. Outside of the valley, the 304-site Tuolumne Meadows campground sits at 8,619 feet elevation with “The Sound of Music” scenery and trails to alpine lakes such as 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 and a trek to Chilnualna Falls. 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.

A yellow and grey tent among the redwoods
Photograph: Flickr/Basheer Tome/Creative Commons

2. Ventana Campground

What is it? A resort-worthy Big Sur campground with redwoods and upscale amenities.

Why go? While Big Sur’s redwoods-meet-the-sea landscape is legendary, nabbing a site at one of the area’s few campgrounds is legendarily difficult. Just down the road from the heavily trafficked Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, you’ll discover this lesser-known tent-only campground tucked in a quiet redwood canyon. In addition to luxe amenities such as hotel-worthy restroom & shower stations, there’s a sleek Airstream bar serving cocktails and snacks in a makeshift outdoor lounge amidst the redwoods. Splurge for the luxurious glamping tents, and you’ll get access to the spa and pool facilities at the posh Ventana resort next door.

A path through the redwoods
Photograph: Flickr/Brian Dailey/Creative Commons

3. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

What is it? Once-in-a-lifetime camping amidst the ancient, skyscraping trees of California’s redwood empire.

Why go? While you won’t find many coast redwoods at Elk Prairie Campground proper, the camp’s creekside sites offer quick access to the 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 which leads 4.5 miles to Fern Canyon, a dazzling, overgrown streambed bounded by towering walls of lush ferns and dripping moss.

An ocean bay surrounded by cliffs
Photograph: Flickr/daveynin/Creative Commons

4. Channel Islands National Park

What is it? Often referred to as the Galapagos of California, these undisturbed islands offer welcome isolation.

Why go? 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 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. Keep watch for the Island Fox, a once-threatened descendant of the mainland gray fox that’s native to the Channel Islands.

Emerald Bay Exploration
Photograph: Flickr/Alexander Komlik/Creative Commons

5. Emerald Bay State Park

What is it? The jewel of Lake Tahoe sparkles with spectacular scenery.

Why go? Strewn along a forested ridge overlooking the azure Emerald Bay, the seasonal Eagle Point Campground offers 100 sites with access to the beaches, trails such as the exceptionally scenic Rubicon Trail, and Vikingsholm, a 1929 Scandanavian-style, former summer home set in the forest and open for tours. 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 bay’s  northern banks.

A volcano behind a blue lake
Photograph: Flickr/Jasperdo/Creative Commons

6. Lassen Volcanic National Park

What is it? A less-frequented national park with Yosemite-scale grandeur and half the crowds.

Why go? The Northern California park takes its explosive moniker from a volcanic terrain of steaming vents and jagged peaks—its namesake peak is the largest plug dome volcano in the world. Beyond the intriguing geothermal activity found along the Bumpass Hell trail, the 160,000-acre park features stunning alpine lakes and meadows dotted with gushing waterfalls. Set up camp at one of seven seasonal campgrounds including popular Manzanita Lake which features tent sites and spiffy camping cabins, and Butte Lake which offers the most seclusion. Don’t miss the 2.3-mile, roundtrip trek to Kings Creek Falls which traverses a lush meadow to dramatic, 30-foot cascades.

A river rushing over rocks through a forest
Photograph: Flickr/Alisha Vargas/Creative Commons

7. Inntown Campground

What is it? A thoughtfully modern campground in California’s atmospheric Gold Country.

Why go? In addition to traditional tent and RV spots, this 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.

A green tent among trees
Photograph: Flickr/JK B/Creative Commons

8. Bothe-Napa Valley State Park

What is it? A scenic campground plunked in the middle of the Napa Valley.

Why go? Situated  between St. Helena and Calistoga, in a pleasant 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 which climbs to a 1,170-foot 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.

The coast lined with grassy dunes
Photograph: Flickr/Ron Gilbert/Creative Commons

9. El Capitan State Beach

What is it? A sunny, beachfront campground that offers a taste of Santa Barbara’s palm tree-lined shores.

Why go? One of 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 the swimsuit and surfboard; the rolling surf provides the perfect setting to frolic or catch a few waves. There’s also a camp store with beach essentials, and hot showers to clean up before a BBQ dinner around the fire pit. At night, drift off to the lull of crashing waves and the distant yelps of sea lions.

A view of the Pacific Coast
Photograph: Flickr/Jimmy Coupe/Creative Commons

10. Van Damme State Park

What is it? Drive-in and backpack sites along an overgrown river on the rugged Mendocino coast.

Why go? Set along the fern-blanketed banks of the Little River, this 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 which 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 which sets up on the shore, and offers guided tours of the many offshore kelp forests and sea caves.

High Sierras
Photograph: Flickr/David Denicolò

11. Sequoia National Park

What is it? Pitch your pop-up amidst the world’s biggest trees in the southern Sierra Nevada.

Why go? While coast redwoods are the world’s tallest trees, their inland cousins—Sequoiadendron giganteum, or giant sequoias—are the biggest per volume. The park encompasses at least 40 distinct groves with the most popular being the Giant Forest, home to the world’s largest tree, the 275-foot high, 36-foot wide General Sherman. Two miles away, make your basecamp at the riverfront Lodgepole Campground whose close proximity to the visitor center and its seasonal, free shuttles offers easy access to the park’s destinations including the Giant Forest and the Wuksachi Lodge and Restaurant.

The ocean shore with plant covered dunes
Photograph: Flickr/Judy Gallagher/Creative Commons

12. Crystal Cove State Park

What is it? Laguna Beach campground offers endless water recreation under the Southern California sun.

Why go? Set on a coastal terrace overlooking the Pacific, Moro Campground’s 57 tent and RV-friendly sites aren’t as fetching as the view, but they offer immediate access to a world of water recreation. Whether your vehicle is topped with kayaks or surfboards, you’ll find plenty of opportunity for both at the park’s golden sand beach. Laguna’s famously clear waters also provide a refreshing cool down after hiking the inland trails into Moro Canyon’s undisturbed woodlands.

Joshua trees under a starry night sky
Photograph: Flickr/Henrique Vicente de Oliveira/Creative Commons

13. Joshua Tree National Park

What is it? Sleep under a dazzling, star-strewn sky in this wondrous preserve in the Mojave Desert.

Why go? Named for the park’s ubiquitous spiky yucca trees found here, this nearly 800,000-acre national park encompases a surprising diversity of landscapes and campgrounds. Jumbo Rocks is the park’s largest campground with sites dotted with massive boulders—a rock climbers’ paradise—and an ideal locale for exploring the park’s otherworldly desert landscape of staggering rock formations such as 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.

Alpine lakes surrounded by trees
Photograph: Flickr/Mrs Airwolfhound/Creative Commons

14. Minaret Falls Campground

What is it? Explore the lakes, streams, and geological wonders of Eastern Sierra at this riverfront campground.

Why go? Like Tahoe, the Mammoth Lakes region is a popular ski destination that’s arguably more stunning in the summer. Situated in the Red’s Meadow Valley on the eastern side of the Sierra Mountains, this scenic 27-site campground is set along the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, and named for the nearby cascade of Minaret Creek tumbling into the river. You can hike to an even more impressive display at Rainbow Falls, as well the mesmerizing Devil’s Postpile, a rare geological formation that looks like a series of crumbling columns built into a cliffside. Anglers take note: you’ll find exceptional trout fishing along the campground’s river and nearby Starkweather Lake.

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Big Sur, California
Photograph: Flickr/Rob DeGraff

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