The best places to go camping in California
I'm gearing up for my 39th birthday in a few weeks (GULP!), and there's nothing I like more than planning a camping trip for the festivities. People often ask me for recommendations of where to camp in California, so I've put together this trusty guide.
In the days before LG, we probably went camping at least once a month. It was part of my "staying sane in L.A." routine. I needed the escape/camping fix regularly while barely surviving the hustle and bustle of our concrete paradise. We'd pack up the car Fridays then ship out as soon as we were off work, or often first thing Saturday mornings. There were overnight trips, and long weekend trips. There were trips that were just a couple hours away, and trips as far north as Mammoth and Carmel. We are car/tent campers. I'm not hardcore enough to hike somewhere with gear on my back. I can barely survive with a car nearby (just ask MainMan about the time I tried sleeping in the car because mysterious noises outside our tent gave me the spooks).
I'm ashamed to admit, we have yet to take LG camping. We haven't quite nailed down logistics of sleeping in one tent with a toddler and a dog, but MainMan keeps saying we just have to break the ice to figure it out. He's probably right. I look forward to adding an appendix/sequel to this post when we do end up going: "Tips for camping with a toddler."
Until then, as a proud Californian, here is our list of the top spots to pitch a tent. Or an RV. Or whatever floats the rocks in your margarita.
Joshua Tree holds a special place in my heart. I can't say I loved it at first sight. I was used to camping near the ocean in Malibu until we ventured east one weekend to check out Joshua Tree National Park. At first it seems like a hunk of rocks, which in theory it kind of is, but there's something soothing and calming about the quiet, other-worldly vastness of the desert. You don't need to drive to Montana to get big sky. You can find it just a couple hours from L.A. in Joshua Tree. White Tank campground and Jumbo Rocks campground are our faves. There's loads of hiking and rock climbing all around you -- just make sure if you have a dog you check out what trails are dog-friendly. Camping rookie tip: While driving to the last spot in the campground where you're all by yourself seems like a good idea at the time, it could get a little spooky at night when it's just you and nobody else is around. We learned our lesson to camp near-ish to other folks for added comfort if anything weird happens.
My parents bought a home in Carmel almost 20 years ago and I am lucky to consider it my second home. Big Sur, just minutes south of Carmel, is one of my favorite places on the planet -- I ran the marathon there twice -- so naturally I am recommending it to anyone who is considering camping in California.
In Big Sur you won't necessarily be camping on the beach, but you can find campsites with some stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and some "beach access" trails.
Our favorites include: Kirk Creek Campground, Limekiln State Park and Ventana.
Sequoia National Park:
Sequoia National Park probably wins my favorite camping destination of ALL TIME award. We camped in Lodgepole at one of the sites overlooking a nearby stream and it was so idyllic and beautiful -- like everything you envision a campsite to be. Not to mention we spotted several bears on our trip, which really brought home the ol' "out in the wilderness" feel. This was our set-up back in 2011.
I can't find which campsite number this was, but if you're booking ahead, just pick one of the sites that backs up onto the river. There was a beautiful hike from Lodgepole to a waterfall, too. And take their recommendations to pack everything in the metal, locked containers they have by every campsite. Or you may get unwanted furry neighbors coming in for some nibbles.
When you think of Malibu, you probably don't think of camping. Am I right? Well, surprise! Malibu has some of the most beautiful (beach) camping in the U.S./world.
Our favorite places to camp in Malibu include: Leo Carillo and Sycamore Canyon (Leo Carillo being closest to L.A. on Rt. 1 and Sycamore being near Pt. Mugu). I'd mention Malibu Creek State Park, where we camped once with friends, but the fact there was a shooting there recently disqualifies it from our list. We won't be hurrying back...
This was me on my first camping trip ever in Sycamore Canyon. Almost nine years ago!!! I met MainMan back in 2009 and I'd never camped a day in my life until he took me. So thank you, MainMan, for introducing me to the wonders of camping. I don't feel like I wanted for much growing up, but I do give my parents grief from time to time for never bringing us camping.
As for what you get in Malibu ... there are some beachside RV sites, but since we only tent/car camp, we've only gone to the two spots I mentioned above. They all have a more woodsy-feel to them, but they are all just across the street from the ocean. What I love about these sites is that while you're close to the ocean, you also get the added privacy with the trees and bushes surrounding every campsite.
Here's MainMan and our girl Agnes at Leo Carillo. There's actually a tunnel under PCH connecting you to the ocean from the campsite. Folks bring their kayaks, surfboards and paddle boards and ride out here all the time. Dogs aren't technically allowed on the beach here, which is kind of a bummer, but later in the day it seems they're more lenient, and Agnes was always leashed up with us. The beach off Sycamore Canyon, which is technically in Ventura County, does happen to be dog-friendly.
We found this sleepy surf town by accident and went often when we lived in L.A. the previous time (2010-2015). They have a large camping area that's right on the water. They have a couple sections where you can tent camp, but since it's mainly geared towards RV and trailers, I'd probably skip Carp if you prefer tent-camping. The campsite is divided into four sections: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel (the Channel Islands). Anacapa and Santa Cruz are for tents, and if you want to be right on the beach, request Santa Cruz. Looks pretty cool, right? The campsite gets pretty mobbed around holiday weekends -- like July 4 -- so I'd suggest camping here during the "off-season."
I forget how we discovered camping along the Kern River. I think one of MainMan's old colleagues recommended it to us. We absolutely loved it and I think it'd be a toss up between here and Joshua Tree if we packed our bags tonight and took off for the weekend. It's a bit farther for us right now living on the Palos Verdes Peninsula (maps says it'd take us about 3.5 hours to get there), but it's still a great spot. It's northeast of Bakersfield and at the southern tip of the Sequoia National Forest (not to be confused with Sequoia National Park which is way north). Kernville is the cute town you can use as your "homebase." This is river camping at its best. There are loads of camping spots here, but we stayed at Sandy Flat campground. Keep in mind hookups are not available at Sandy Flat Campground so it's a perfect tent-topia. We actually brought our fly-fishing gear and went fly-fishing right off our camp spot! We saw loads of folks with small inner tubes who were floating along the river -- which looked like a blast --and we decided the next time we went we'd do this. Here I am looking very serious on the Kern trying to scout the trout.
Big Bear will always hold a special place in my heart. Why, you ask? Because that's where I got engaged back in 2012 (the story is <- on my old blog). We were camping on the lake and MainMan got down on one knee just before sunset. I had my eyes on a family of ducks swimming by and I totally didn't hear what he said. So embarrassing, and at the same time, classic me. We celebrated for like the next 9 months, in fact, we're still celebrating, but yeah, I love Big Bear -- camping or not. We've actually stayed in cabins there, too, and we love it both ways. We camped at the Serrano Campground which is part of the San Bernardino National Forest. This is right next to Big Bear Shores RV Resort. We walked through that area and had total RV envy. We love our tent, but the mansion-esque RVs there looked pretty awesome.
Here's the view from the lake's edge which is a brief walk from the Serrano campground. Big Bear camping is definitely seasonal. Check the calendar to make sure of closing dates in the fall/winter.
If you're looking for camping in Orange County look no further than Doheny State Beach in Dana Point. Again with a lot of the beach campgrounds, RVs kinda run the place, but you'll find tent spots here and there. And the best thing is you can pack your surfboards and paddleboards and hit the waves/ocean right off your tent. And if you have a car, the cute town of Dana Point isn't too far away.
Mammoth Lakes is probably one of our favorite destinations in California. Period. Such a special place. And we've stayed in hotels and trailers here. Our favorite area is Convict Lake. Because it's a 10 minute drive from town -- which means you can hop over and get something if you forgot it at home and it's kind of out of the riffraff. One of the campsites near town is New Shady Rest. Our favorites in the Lakes Basin are Lake George Campground and Lake Mary Campground.
Half Moon Bay State Beach
Francis Beach is the campground here. There's not a lot of privacy in these campsites -- there are little to no trees -- so this might not be the best spot for tent-camping, but the views of the beach are pretty rad. And Half Moon Bay is such a fun spot. Especially in the fall!
Places where we'd still love to camp in California: Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, Redwood National and State Parks, Crystal Cove State Park and campgrounds near the popular surf spot of San Onofre.
Happy trails, everyone! And make it a rad day!