1 hr 20 mins by car, dog friendly (on leash)
Located just off PCH in Malibu, Leo Carrillo State Park has more than 130 campsites with ridiculously easy access to the beach. You can walk right across the street to the ocean and explore a number of protected tidepools, caves and reefs. Go for a swim, hang out on the beach (FYI, the cell reception is better there than in the campsite) or go hiking on one of the back-country paths. The sites here can get crowded, so be strategic when selecting and reserving your lot to make sure you get as much or as little privacy as you want. There are amenities galore here; in case you forget something, there’s a store located in the campground, and if you’re staying for a few days, the site offers several token-operated showers.
2 hrs 20 min by car, dog friendly (on leash and must be kept in your tent at night; dogs are not allowed on the beach)
About 20 miles west (yes, technically it’s west—if that confuses you, think farther up the coast) of Santa Barbara is Refugio State Beach, a gorgeous stretch of sand for campers and visitors alike. The views of the Channel Islands—Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Anacapa and Santa Rosa—are a beautiful thing to wake up to. The beach draws swimmers, kayakers, surfers and sand castle builders. Kayak tours are led by the state beach lifeguards from Memorial Day to Labor Day, or you can launch your own. Whether you swim or just walk on the beach, here’s a pro tip: bring baby oil to rub the tar off your feet. The state beach campground has 66 campsites that can be reserved up to 7 months in advance, plus showers and bathrooms. There’s plenty to explore in the area, like nearby El Capitan State Beach (also a good place to camp) and a trail to a painted Chumash cave. It’s also a short drive into Goleta and Santa Barbara if you forget any camping essentials. The only drawbacks to camping here is that tent sites can be in high demand and the sites themselves are close to a railroad track, so you might hear trains overnight.
1 hr 15 mins by car from L.A., dog friendly (on leash, dogs are not allowed on the state beach)
If you’ve lived in Southern California for a while, you’ve probably heard about a surf spot called Trestles, or you’ve heard about the boob-shaped nuclear power plant just south of San Clemente near Camp Pendleton. That’s the site of San Onofre State Beach, one of the most popular beaches for surfers around. There are 380 tent and group campsites available year-round at San Mateo Campground, which is set back from the beach. A trail leads down to the surf from the campsites. If the surf is good, it will be difficult to score a tent site, but online reservations are available. It’s best to camp here if you’re a surfer or looking for a chill weekend at the beach with great people watching—otherwise there’s not much hiking to do since the beach is fairly close to the 5 Freeway and the base. As for noise, drills or activity on Camp Pendleton can drown out the sound of the crashing waves. It remains one of the prettiest beaches around and a fun place to camp.
2 hrs by car, dog friendly (on leash)
With its south entrance just an hour and a half from L.A., Los Padres National Forest is close enough for an overnight or weekend trip while still feeling like it’s thousands of miles from any city. Hike switchback trails weaving through hills and valleys, and stop for a swim at one of the Forest’s many swimming holes (the ones along the Sespe Creek are most easily accessible). If you’re up for a short backpacking trip, trek the 18 miles (round trip) to Willett Hot Springs for a relaxing soak. Reservations are first-come, first-served and you’ll need an Adventure Pass to enter Los Padres, so make sure to pick one up from a nearby gas station or sports shop. Before or after your trip, stop in the quaint town of Ojai just south of the Forest for wine tasting, citrus grove tours and boutique shopping.
2 hrs by car, dog friendly (on leash in most areas)
Eponymously idyllic, Idyllwild is nestled into the San Jacinto Mountains, flanked by Tahquitz Peak and Suicide Rock (famous for its rock climbing). The area offers glassy lakes, majestic ponderosa pine forests and pretty nooks and crannies perfect for pitching a tent in. From there, you can hike, rock climb, mountain bike, fish or explore the villages in Idyllwild, Pine Cove and Fern Valley. Most campsites in the area do take reservations, so always call to check availability. Fun fact: Dolly Parton once owned a home here (we can’t really imagine her camping, though).
1 hr 40 mins by car, dog friendly (on leash at Dogwood Campground)
It may be regarded as the smaller, lesser-known sibling of nearby Big Bear, but Lake Arrowhead has enough charm and beauty to hold its own as a prime camping spot. The crystal-clear lake serves as the town’s backdrop, rimmed by vacation homes, outlets, restaurants and the spa-centric Lake Arrowhead Resort. But you’re looking to camp, so bypass the resort for one of Arrowhead’s developed campgrounds, Dogwood or Northshore, best visited from May to October. Each boasts dozens of campsites suitable for tents, while some have enough room for trailers and motor homes (a fee of $5 per day applies to both, and be sure to reserve a campsite online as early as possible). At Dogwood, expect to be surrounded by a thick forest of its namesake dogwood trees; at Northshore, hike the North Shore Recreation Trail to the nearby Deep Creek Hot Springs. Then, everybody into the water!
2 hrs by car, dog friendly (on leash; not permitted on swimming beaches)
A bit deeper into the San Bernadino National Forest than Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear Lake is dotted with campgrounds directly on the water as well as closer to town and deeper into the woods. The most popular camping spot (and also the largest) in the area is Serrano Campground, located just steps from the lake and right next to the Alpine Pedal path for strolls and bike rides. From here it’s easy to rent a kayak or paddleboard to explore the lake—keep an eye out for the white-domed solar observatory perched at the water’s edge on the north shore. Pineknot Campground is more popular for avid hikers and mountain bikers (there’s a lot of single track, technical trail here), and Holcomb Valley is best for folks who don’t mind a more rustic stay. If you stop in town, check out the Bowling Barn and the Alpine Slide, both of which are a blast with or without kids in tow.
45 mins by car, dog friendly (on leash)
As L.A.’s literal backyard, the Angeles National Forest is a popular spot for hikers, picnickers and joyriders, and you’ll find more than 40 campgrounds spread across more than 1,000 square miles of mountainous, evergreen terrain. Though the slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains sit merely a few miles from Pasadena, the weather can be drastically different once you’re 11,000 feet up. Winter brings snow-capped mountains but potentially snowed-in campsites at higher elevations, while summer and fall are comfortably warm, though water is scarce and wildfires are a real threat. All campsites are first-come, first-served. It’s free to enter the forest, but you’ll need an Adventure Pass to park anywhere. If entering from the west, take a detour up Mount Wilson Red Box Road for dramatic views, windy roads and a visit to the Mount Wilson Observatory. Back on the 2, you can grab a bite to eat at the mountaintop Newcomb’s Ranch, only about 45 minutes from the park’s entrance. If you’re sticking to lower elevations, consider a trip to Adams’ Pack Station, a charming outpost that’s serviced the Chantry Flat area since 1936.
1 hr by car, dog friendly (on leash in campgrounds, not allowed on trails)
This nearby park stretches across 8,000 acres and boasts 15 miles of trails along streams, through oak and sycamore groves and over chapparal-covered slopes. Hike up the hillside for stunning canyon vistas or take a dip in the large volcanic swimming hole. After a good rain, the park’s namesake, Malibu Creek, comes alive—jump in to cool off or pitch your tent nearby. The park does take reservations, so call in advance to check availability. Also check out its Summer Campfire series, where you can roast marshmallows and hear talks on native animals, the night sky or the history of the area. A great family-friendly camping option!
2 hrs 20 mins by car, dog friendy (on leash)
Joshua Tree is one of the most magical places in California (and the country, we think). The park’s varied and alien landscapes—due mostly to gnarled, ancient Joshua Trees and giant boulders strewn willy nilly—make for impressive scenery during hikes, bike tours or leisurely drives. Watch rock climbers scale mini-mountains at Hidden Valley campground or try some scrambling yourself at Jumbo Rocks. If you visit in spring, head south to Pinto Basin to see colorful wildflowers in bloom. The stargazing is choice here, and wild coyotes may howl you to sleep. Most sites are first-come, first-served, so plan on arriving early or reserving a group site at Black Rock or Indian Cove. Notable stops along the way to the park include Pappy & Harriet’s for lunch, live music and a ghost-town stroll; the Integratron for a new-age sound bath and the town of Joshua Tree itself, which offers some funky hotel options, a few tasty restaurants, some good thrifting and the kind of quirky public art that only exists in tiny desert communities.
3 hrs by car from L.A., dog friendly (on leash in the campgrounds, but they are not allowed on trails or in other wilderness areas)
Anza-Borrego Desert is east of the northern part of San Diego County. Known for wildflowers and birding, it also has plenty of options for tent camping. There are developed campgrounds: Borrego Palm Campground, Tamarisk Grove Campground and Bow Willow Campground, which can all be reserved in advance for a fee. There are also primitive campgrounds that are first-come, first-serve and are free. Hiking in the area is wonderful—from 1-mile nature trails to all-day hikefests, there’s something for every adventure level nearby. One thing to check before you go is water availability—both showers and drinking water. It may be best to bring your own.
3 hrs 30 mins by car, dog friendly (on leash)
The Mojave Desert is a high, dry expanse spanning parts of California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. The National Preserve portion, in California, is a unique landscape offering site and roadside camping as well as pack sites for travelers on horseback. The Preserve is most famous for its Kelso Dunes, nearly 700 feet high across 45 square miles. When sand slides down the slopes, it produces a booming or "singing" sound that you can try to coax out with a sprint down a pile. Other points of interest are the lava cones and volcanic cinder flows dating back millions of years. Temperatures change quickly here and flash floods are common, so only camp in designated sites and bring lots of layers.
4 hrs 50 mins by car, dog friendly (on leash)
Mammoth is a snow bunny’s paradise, but it also makes for an incredible camping destination in the warmer months. Visitors can escape the heat by trekking to high elevations, where pine forests loom and distant mountain peaks are still capped with snow. There are hidden hot springs to be found here as well as hundreds of glacial lakes kept cool (okay, freezing) all summer from snowmelt. Duck Pass is a particularly popular hike, and a great way to get a daylong taste of what the area has to offer. Be sure to book sites in advance as reservations fill up super fast in spring and summer. And don’t forget a wilderness pass, required for all overnight stays. We suggest driving the 395 there and back, which will take you through little mountain towns like Lone Pine (at the base of Mt. Whitney) and Bishop (home to famous bouldering areas, a crop of hot springs and the delectable Erick Schat’s Bakkery).
3 hrs 45 mins by car from L.A., dog friendly (on leash only, and in developed areas like campgrounds only)
If you’re a tree lover, you have to go see the giant redwoods of Sequoia National Park. There’s plenty of hiking in both national parks—from short, well-marked patchs to day hikes to multi-day backpacking trails. Sequoia is slightly more drive-and-look friendly with cool attractions like the General Sherman Tree, the tallest in the world; Tunnel Log, a fallen, hollowed out Sequoia that you can drive your car through; and Tharp’s log, a home built in a fallen tree. Meanwhile, the backcountry hiking in Kings Canyon is on every hiker’s bucket list. There are several campgrounds in both parks at different elevations and they are well maintained by the National Park Service. Just make sure to check conditions before you go: most close after the summer season, water may be turned off, and some may be closed due to wildfires in the area.
6 hrs by car from L.A. (dog rules vary by campground)
Arguably one of the most iconic stretches of coastline in the world, the Big Sur area is a car camper’s paradise. There’s a mix of state park campgrounds and private campgrounds in the area for tent camping, plus posh resorts that are woodsy enough to qualify as "glamping." Big Sur is where redwood-covered mountainsides plunge into the surging ocean. One of the best ways to see it is simply by driving along Highway 1, parking your car wherever it looks cool (read: basically everywhere), and following a probably unmarked trail—though be careful of poison oak—down in the direction of the ocean. For more mappable destinations, check out Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Beach for some incredible sunsets and tidepooling, and Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, just south of Carmel, is a great place to see just how wild the ocean can be. Whale watching is top-knotch here, and you can even spot otters floating in the kelp beds.
4 hrs 20 mins by car from L.A.
Instead of driving north or east for outdoor adventures, there’s a really big reason you should drive south for a fun camping weekend: Ensenada. Not far across the border in Mexico is a beach camper’s paradise. Drive south through Rosarito along the highway and you’ll pass several beaches with tent campsites. Most of the sites are about $15/night, and though there are firepits for hanging and cooking, you’re never too far away from a cheap and delicious tacos and mariscos stand. Many of the beaches rent surfboards and jet skis, so there’s plenty to do and it’s much less strict (and crowded) than camping at California state beaches. One more thing: it’s hard to predict how long it will take to cross the border, so allow plenty of time to get there and back.
5 hrs by car, dog friendly (on leash and in developed areas like campgrounds only)
A visit to Yosemite National Park can be a transformative experience, and it’s one of the best places to camp in the state. Spending time beneath the massive rock walls and trees of Yosemite Valley is one of the coolest things you can do in California. There are plenty of campgrounds in the park. It is possible to come by open campsites, but it’s best to reserve in advance for a guaranteed good time. You can do pretty much any outdoor activity in Yosemite: walking, day hiking, short hikes, backpacking trips, swimming, rock climbing, skiing, cross country skiing and even more extreme outdoor sports. Many of the valley’s best views can be accessed by a car or a short, easy hike. Make sure to do your research before you go: some areas of the park aren’t open year-round, and some hikes and activities will require permits.
Only have a day to get away?
Luckily L.A. happens to be surrounded by spectacular landscapes, beautiful beaches and small towns perfect for day trips. From wine tasting in Santa Barbara to vintage hunting in the desert or feeling the sand between your toes down south, you’re sure to find a short trip worth taking.