Staff Writer Rachael Medina
Rachael Medina is the senior content writer and operations manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests o…See full bio
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The Golden State is home to a wide variety of landscapes—encapsulating everything from rugged coastal bluffs, to old-growth redwood forests, to arid desert plains—making California’s campgrounds diverse and unique. Whether you’re looking for a remote hot spring escape, an upscale retreat in the woods, or a getaway overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the state is filled with camping experiences you can’t get anywhere else.
So make some reservations, invite your friends and family, and prepare to spend the summer (and beyond) camping in California’s wilderness.
Ease your way into camping season with a weekend away in Mendocino Grove. This high-end glamping site provides all of the amenities of California’s most luxurious hotels and competing glampsites—without the sky-high prices. Elegant safari tents reside atop wooden platforms, comfortable beds are adorned with cotton sheets and cozy down comforters, lanterns light up the abode and set the tone, and sling-back deck chairs create an idyllic environment for stargazing as the fire gets started.
Roughly a three-hour’s drive north from the bustling city of San Francisco, Mendocino serves as the perfect respite from daily life. With access to hot showers and organic bath products, you’ll be far from roughing it, but the intimate setting and canopy of trees encourage relaxation in a way that only nature can provide.
Location: Yosemite National Park
Stay the weekend at White Wolf Campground to fully enjoy the towering trees, granite monoliths, babbling rivers, and stunning waterfalls that make Yosemite National Park an iconic California destination. Tucked away at the northern end of the park, about 8,000 feet above sea level, White Wolf provides a more traditional approach to camping (though there are bathrooms with flushing toilets and clean drinking water). The campground is also bordered by seasonal creeks and offers trail access to both Harden and Lukens Lakes.
The 74 campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so ensure you plan accordingly and arrive early to stake out the largest and most private locations, including sites 22, 23, and 28. When you get there, you should visit the front desk to make dinner reservations at White Wolf Lodge—or book a night’s stay in the quaint cabins to appreciate more modern comforts. It’s best to come between July and September, when the weather is temperate and road closures are less likely.
Location: Half Moon Bay
Nestled along the exquisite coastline of Half Moon Bay State Beach, Francis Beach Campground is home to 52 campsites, a multitude of trailheads, and plenty of activities to keep you busy. Whether you’re in the mood for a scenic picnic, a day out on the water, a relaxing hike, or horseback riding, you’ll find endless possibilities in Half Moon Bay.
Francis Beach provides all of the basic camping necessities, with the additional benefits of hot showers and incredible ocean views. Since this destination is highly coveted, make sure to reserve a campsite well in advance—up to six months ahead of time—especially if you’re planning a weekend getaway.
Location: Mammoth Lakes
Wide-open spaces, star-filled skies, looming mountains, and sparkling lakes greet visitors at Crowley Lake Campground. While the isolated locale is magnificent in its own right, the nearby Wild Willy’s Hot Springs adds an extra special touch to a Mammoth Lakes weekend away. Surrounded by the Sierra Nevada and patches of sagebrush, the two geothermal hot springs will wash away your troubles and transport you to a distant place—all without leaving the state.
Situated near the California-Nevada border, just north of Death Valley National Park, Bishop is home to Brown’s Town Campground, which feels more like a resort than a rural destination. With 150 grassy campsites available, Brown’s Town is the ideal place to camp with the whole family; the hot showers, horseshoe pits, access to electricity, coin-operated laundry, and TV room help ensure the entire group remains satisfied.
Location: Big Sur
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park holds the largest public campground in the area, with 189 campsites bordering the Big Sur River. Tucked away from the beach, this Big Sur campground offers the shelter of the forested valley floor as well as easy access to various hiking trails and swimming spots. Due to its ideal location right off Highway 1, Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground is an extremely popular camping spot, so if you plan to camp here, you ought to reserve your campsite six months in advance.
Location: Big Sur
Perched 100 feet above the Pacific, Kirk Creek Campground was made for rejuvenation. To understand why camping in Big Sur is so popular, head down to the rocky beach to experience the local surf culture, hike into Los Padres National Forest to connect with the region’s history, and stop to admire the vibrant sunsets.
Kirk Creek Campground features 40 campsites that overlook the expansive Big Sur coastline and is open year-round. Don’t worry if you can’t secure a campsite in the summer, since winter is when the coast truly comes alive. Arriving later in the year will also award you the opportunity to watch migratory whales from just outside your tent or to drive five miles to Sand Dollar Beach (Big Sur’s largest sandy beach) and see the action up close.
Location: Pismo Beach
Oceano Campground offers 82 campsites in Pismo Beach. Providing plenty of opportunities for hiking, kite surfing, and horseback riding, this exciting destination is the perfect place to take the whole family and to rest your head after spending the day digging for Pismo clams.
Complete with beach access, restrooms, picnic tables, fire rings, and hot showers, Oceano Campground is highly sought-after. Plan ahead and reserve your spot up to six months in advance, or make it a more spontaneous trip—just make sure to reserve your campsite at least 48 hours before you’re set to arrive.
Location: Inyo National Forest
Kennedy Meadows Campground resides northeast of Bakersfield in the Inyo National Forest, near the southern fork of the Kern River. Given its central location along the Pacific Crest Trail, Kennedy Meadows is an ideal place to meet backpackers, learn more about the state, and get inspired to spend more time exploring the wilderness. The 37 campsites are open year-round, and some of them are shaded by juniper and pinion, making the area feel even more remote. Due to its distant location, there is no cell service or potable water on the premises. There is, however, a general store nearby where you can shower, do laundry, and buy basic items such as ice.
Location: Mojave National Preserve
Kelso Dunes Mine is home to the largest natural sand deposits in the entire Mojave National Preserve. These dunes draw visitors not only because they’re impressive to the eye, but also because they’re known to produce a “singing” sound. You can hear it by running—especially when the conditions are extremely dry—but take care to not disturb the indigenous brush.
When visiting these remarkable dunes, you’ll need more than a single day to explore the area. Organize a multi-day trip between October and May (when the climate is bearably warm), pack tons of water, and gas up the four-wheel-drive vehicle, because this camping trip is going to be unlike any other. To get there, drive four miles west from Kelbaker Road along the unpaved Kelso Dunes Road until you come across the marked trailhead. Continue driving for 0.25 miles, and you’ll see the Kelso Dunes campsite at the southern side of the road.
Once you’ve completed another successful camping trip, reward yourself with even more memories by taking a drive along the historic Route 66 before leaving the desert.
Location: Angeles National Forest
Settled deep inside the Angeles National Forest, Horse Flats is a remote campground perfect for escaping the congestion of Los Angeles. Complete with 26 campsites, four horse corrals, and hitching posts, this campground is an equestrian’s dream. However, Horse Flats doesn’t have any water facilities, so bring ample water with you for cooking, drinking, washing up, and putting out campfires. Also bear in mind that the high elevation, Jeffrey pine trees, and shady conditions make for cool nights, so it’s not a bad idea to bring an extra blanket or two, either.
Location: Joshua Tree National Park
Though desert camping isn’t typically what one imagines when they think of camping in California, there is something extremely powerful about staying in the stark desert landscape of Joshua Tree National Park. Between the sandy ground, dramatic trees, and massive rocks protruding from the earth with a commanding prowess, this destination is something special to behold.
Set up camp at Black Rock Campground to take in the beauty of the famed rocks shaped by the omnipresent desert winds, flash floods, and heavy rains. The impressive sunrises and sunsets are enough to draw photographers and travelers alike year-round, but multi-day trips to Joshua Tree should be planned either before June or after September due to the staggering heat. When you visit, make sure you keep an eye out for the elusive bobcats and mountain lions, along with the lizards, rattlesnakes, scorpions, and desert tarantulas that tend to make appearances when the weather cools.
With so many California campgrounds available throughout the year, there’s no shortage of possibilities. So pull out your calendar, pick up some maps, and pack your gear for the next adventure. Happy camping!
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