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Leave civilization behind for a weekend and head to one (or all) of California’s best state parks for camping, exploration, and adventure.
10 min read
August 12, 2020
The state of being wild and free only exists when you untie the ropes binding you to society. So, leave civilization behind for a weekend and head to one (or all) of California’s best state parks for camping and exploration. Turn off your phone, pack your bags, and go off the grid while on your next adventure. From the Colorado Desert and the Santa Cruz Mountains to Laguna Beach and Big Sur, California offers numerous unique campsites, and you can rest assured that our guide to the best parks for camping is pure gold(en state).
Learn more about our selection criteria and vetting process.
Location: 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs
Amenities: Amphitheater, BBQ grills, campfire center, campsite tables, drinking water, dump station, electrical hookup, firepits, fire rings, gift shop, grills, group camping, nature center, picnic tables, ranger station, restrooms, RV hookups, showers, and visitor center
Activities: Archeological sites, biking, bird watching, hiking, historic sites, horseback riding, mountain biking, museum, nature trails, OHVing, OTV trails/riding, picnicking, stargazing, wilderness area, and wildlife viewing
Fees: Primitive campgrounds are free, sites at developed campgrounds range from $15–$35 per night, and a group site at Borrego Palm Canyon Campground costs $80 per night.
Number of sites: 175 total camping sites and 8 primitive camping sites
Dogs allowed: Yes, but they must be on-leash.
One of the best California state parks for camping and one of the most underrated parks worth visiting, the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is California’s largest state park. Situated in Southern California’s Colorado Desert, this expanse offers 12 wilderness areas to discover. We recommend admiring the wildflowers (spring is the best time to view them) and trekking through badlands, twisting canyons, and cactus-studded slopes.
Spend your evenings sprawled out under the stunning, star-studded night sky—Anza-Borrego is recognized as an International Dark Sky Community—and admire the innumerable stars of the Milky Way. On your way out of the park, stop to view the 130-plus enormous, mythical-creature sculptures created by artist Ricardo Breceda. Depicting the prehistoric animals local to the area, this interesting California desert attraction will have you feeling as though you’ve stepped back in time.
For the best camping in Anza-Borrego, head to the Palm Canyon Campground, which is open year-round. Advance reservations are accepted from October 1 to April 30 and are site-specific—it’s highly recommended you reserve your spot. Home to 122 sites and 51 RV campsites with electric hookups, this campground has it all and is situated a few miles from the town of Borrego Springs. You can easily access the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail, Panoramic Overlook Trail, and Visitor Center.
Originally a San Diego County prison camp, Tamarisk Grove Campground is now a convenient base camp for hikers and one of the best camping destinations in California, complete with 27 sites welcoming trailers up to 21 feet in length. The campsite costs $25 per night, and reservations are accepted. There’s non-potable water, coin-operated showers, picnic tables, flush toilets, a staffed visitor information area, and a small store where water is available for purchase. The tall tamarisk trees, imported from the Middle East, also provide plenty of shade. When you’re ready to go on an adventure, follow the Yaqui Well Trail, Bill Kenyon Overlook Trail, and Cactus Loop Trail. There’s also a Kumeyaay Indian Village Site located a few miles from the campground.
If the Tamarisk Campground is full or overcrowded, head to the nearby Yaqui Well Primitive Campground (note that it has only vault toilets). You can also try the Yaqui Pass Campground, which is essentially a large dirt area (no bathrooms), so it is most suitable for RV campers.
Location: 52801 California State Route 1, Big Sur
Amenities: Fire rings, picnic tables, and restrooms; there is no potable water or firewood.
Activities: Hiking and wildlife watching
Fees: $30 per night
Number of sites: The 2 campsites here are extremely popular year-round and usually fill up six months in advance. Reservations are required and are available online at Reserve California. You may also call 1-800-444-7275 to reserve your spot.
Dogs allowed: No, they aren’t allowed beyond the day-use parking lot.
Named after the well-respected female pioneer from the Big Sur region, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is one of the best California parks for camping. Stretching from the spectacular Big Sur coastline into nearby 3,000-foot ridges, the park features redwood, tanoak, and madrone trees—plus a stunning, 80-foot waterfall that plunges into the ocean from granite cliffs. Take the McWay Falls Overlook Trail to experience the majesty of the falls.
In addition to the Overlook Trail, Big Sur boasts some of the best coastal hiking trails in California, including the Ewoldsen Trail. Trek through redwood groves, and enjoy panoramic views of the ocean and miles of rugged coastline from higher elevations. If you arrive during December and January, it’s an excellent time to whale watch (especially while hiking the Overlook Trail), because many of the gray whales pass close by the shore. In March and April, you’ll see the whales returning to their feeding grounds in the North Pacific.
The stunning scenery and refreshing dips in the ocean make Julia Pfieffer Burns Campground a coveted beach camping destination. With just two sites and up to eight guests per site, this Julia Pfeiffer camping spot fills up quickly, so make a reservation well in advance. Both campsites are walk-in, so make sure you come prepared with your top-notch California outdoor gear.
Location: 8471 North Coast Highway, Laguna Beach
Amenities: Picnic tables, bathrooms, token-operated showers, limited cellular service, potable water (at Moro Campground), and pit toilets (at the primitive sites)
Activities: Hiking, biking, mountain biking, swimming, surfing, scuba and skin diving, horseback riding, fishing, boating, paddling, geology talks, and wildlife watching
Fees: $75 per night
Number of sites: Moro Campground has 58 campsites—28 are for RVs and trailers, while 30 are designated “low impact” for soft-side trailers, van conversions, and tents. Moro Canyon has 21 backcountry sites that must be reached on foot. Reservations are required for both Moro Canyon and Moro Campground and are available online at Reserve California.
Dogs allowed: Yes, but they must be kept on-leash while in the park, campground, or other paved areas.
Located off of the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), this Orange County gem is one of the best state parks for camping. Crystal Cove State Park’s sandy beaches, tide pools, sloping hills, and deeply wooded canyons provide endless opportunities for a joyous weekend getaway along the PCH. Home to 3.2 miles of beach; 2,400 acres of backcountry wilderness; and an offshore underwater park, this paradise awaits you. Between the watersports, guided hikes, tidepool walks, and geology talks, you’re bound to find an activity for you.
To immerse yourself in the wilderness, head to the primitive campsites in Moro Canyon. Hike a strenuous three or four miles from the Moro Campground parking area to one of the 21 backcountry sites of Crystal Cove State Park. You’ll need to obtain a permit at the ranger kiosk first before starting your journey. You’ll feel refreshed and revitalized after spending time amongst the trees at one of the best parks for camping.
Situated along the coastal bluffs of Crystal Cove State Park, close to Moro Canyon and Moro Creek, the massive Moro Campground is a great gateway to outdoor recreation. With plenty of parking, this campground is convenient for a fun family getaway. The campground is split into three areas—Coyote Run, Sage Loop, and Dolphin Circle—each of which provides approximately 20 sites. Boasting ocean views and beach access, Moro Campground is recognized as one of the best state park campgrounds.
Location: 35000 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu
Amenities: Flush toilets, outside showers, a camp store, drinking water, day-use parking, tables, firepits, and grates
Activities: Biking, bird watching, boating (non-motorized), fishing, kayaking, hiking, picnicking, skin diving, snorkeling, stargazing, surfing, swimming, wildlife viewing, and windsurfing
Fees: Canyon Campground costs $45 per night. Hike- and bike-in camping is also available for $10 per night on a first-come, first-served basis.
Number of sites: Canyon Campground has 135 campsites for tents, trailers, and RVs (up to 31 feet in length); 46 of these sites have electrical hookups, and the group campsite can hold up to 50 people. Reservations are recommended because the campgrounds here fill up quickly.
Dogs allowed: Dogs are allowed in day-use areas, campgrounds, and North Beach.
With a 1.5-mile stretch of beautifully pristine beach along the Malibu coast, Leo Carrillo State Park is among the best state parks near Los Angeles and is the place for maritime activities. So, pack your bikini and sunscreen, ‘cause it’s time to hit the waves. Leo Carrillo is especially perfect for families; let your little explorers loose in the tide pools, reefs, and coastal caves. And when you want to escape the beach crowds, head to the backcountry to hike and take in the ocean vistas.
Located at the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains and within walking distance of the beach is Canyon Campground. Shaded by giant sycamores and surrounded by plenty of nearby hiking trails, this camping area will become your second home. Just note that since the campsites are situated near one another, it isn’t the place to go if you’re looking for a secluded escape from humanity.
Location: 21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek
Amenities: Picnic tables, toilets, potable water, showers, and firepits
Activities: Biking, hiking, wind sports, horseback riding, surfing, and wildlife watching
Fees: It costs $10 to enter the park and $35 to camp per night (plus an $8 reservation fee).
Number of sites: Blooms Creek Campground has 53 campsites, and Sempervirens Campground has 28 sites.
Dogs allowed: Yes, dogs are allowed on-leash in the campgrounds, in the picnic areas, and on paved roads.
Established in 1902, Big Basin Redwoods State Park is California’s oldest state park. As you wander through this expanse nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains, you’ll be able to see the largest continuous growth of ancient coast redwoods south of San Francisco. You’ll find giants more than 50 feet in diameter and as tall as the Statue of Liberty; some range from 1,000 to 1,800 years old, so leave your phone at the campground and prepare for a transcendental experience. Big Basin also boasts more than 80 miles of hiking trails, picturesque views of the ocean, several waterfalls, and a variety of ecosystems and wildlife, so don’t be surprised if you want to spend an eternity here.
If you’re looking for the best redwoods camping experience, then Blooms Creek Campground is the place for you. There are 53 campsites that welcome tents, trailers, RVs, vans, and truck campers. With nearby hiking trails, picnic tables, and firepits, this campground is the ultimate weekend escape. The campsites are on the larger side, too, so it’s a great place to bring the youngsters.
Dreaming of camping underneath towering redwoods? Sempervirens Campground is a divine spot to soak up the wisdom of these ancient trees. There are 28 sites for tents, trailers, RVs, vans, and truck campers. It also has picnic tables and fire rings—invite your friends for a long weekend in the forest. You can also park your car right by the site, so you won’t have to worry about hauling your favorite California products.
Location: Crescent City
Amenities: Restrooms with flush toilets, tap water, an amphitheater, visitor center, picnic tables, fire grills, and food storage lockers
Activities: Hiking, biking, mountain biking, boating (size restrictions), fishing, kayaking, snorkeling, paddleboarding, water rafting, and canoeing
Fees: It costs $35 per night, though there are hike- and bike-in sites available for $7 per night. The group campsite is $300 per night.
Number of sites: There are 86 sites—16 of which are only for tents and 50 of which are for RVs, trailers, or tents. There are also 5 hike- and bike-in sites along with a group site.
Dogs allowed: Dogs are only allowed on-leash at the beach and on roads.
The 10,000-acre Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park boasts a massive old-growth redwood forest, which is a part of the 62,098-hectare California Coast Ranges International Biosphere Reserve. Encompassing seven percent of the world’s old-growth redwoods, Jedediah is a must for nature lovers. The area originally served as the home of the Tolowa Native American tribe, so there are several exhibits showcasing the cultural history of the park at the visitor center. Pitch your tent in one of the best parks for camping before traipsing across 20 miles of hiking trails that wind through redwood trees. You can also try to catch your own dinner by fishing for steelhead after going for a rafting excursion down the Smith River.
Reservations for camping at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park can be made from May to September. During the remainder of the year, the campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis; reservations can be made two days to six months in advance of your arrival date. With spots in an old-growth redwood grove on the banks of the scenic Smith River, the Jedediah Smith Campground makes for some of the best camping in the redwoods.
If you’re in the mood to camp in one of California’s top national parks, check out the top five best national parks for camping in the Golden State.
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