Southern California’s main attraction is undoubtedly the city of Los Angeles, a buzzing metropolis, second only to New York as the most populous city in the United States. But Los Angeles is just one city in a region comprising of 10 counties; Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Ventura, and Kern. A vacation in Southern California doesn’t need to be a city break, this state is also full of outdoor holiday opportunities. Diverse desert landscapes, glacial lakes and mountains, and miles of beachy coastline provide endless opportunities for a sunny SoCal camping trip.
Experience the life-changing health benefits of camping in the southern golden state, where there are four fantastic national parks, and a huge selection of state parks. From the extreme desert in Death Valley to the ecologically rich Channel Islands, we’ve gathered the top locations from all around for the very best camping in Southern California.
In the San Bernadino National Forest, Big Bear Lake is a popular vacation spot for those living in LA, and it’s not hard to see why. This scenic mountainous area is like a breath of fresh air, offering beautiful surroundings on top of fun outdoor activities. Campgrounds are dotted around the shores of the lake itself, as well as deeper into the forest. You can also choose to visit a developed campground with formal campsites and amenities, otherwise head out into undeveloped wilderness areas where camping is allowed along back roads or trails.
To fill your time at Big Bear, you could climb the Castle Rock Trail, a moderate 2.6-mile round-trip. This hike takes you through the forest up to a viewpoint for the sparkling lake. The Big Bear Discovery Center can provide you with all the information you need about hiking, mountain biking, and camping in the area, and of course, kayaking and other watersports are available on the lake itself.
The Serrano Campground is the most popular in Big Bear, where you can choose from more than a hundred campsites for tents and RVs. A limited number of RV sites with full hookups are available, and each site is equipped with picnic tables and fire rings. Flush toilets, showers, and drinking water are all available on site.
Only one hour drive from the city of Los Angeles, Malibu Creek State Park offers 8000 acres of oak and sycamore groves, rolling tallgrass plains and fantastic views. Hike up any hill to enjoy stunning canyon vistas, or swim in the large volcanic pool. Located in the Santa Monica Mountains, the dramatic terrains in the park have been featured all over the world in movies and television shows.
Malibu Creek itself is 14 miles long and ends at Malibu Lagoon. There are 15 miles of streamside trail, along which you’ll be treated to phenomenal views of volcanic rock gorges, scenic pools, and spectacular vistas of the Las Virgenes Valley and Malibu Canyon. Also in Malibu Creek State Park, campers can enjoy fishing, bird watching, mountain biking, rock climbing, and horseback riding.
The year-round campground in this state park boasts 63 campsites, equipped with picnic tables, fire rings, flush toilets, coin showers, and a dump station. There are no hookups for RV’s, but dry camping is still an option. The campground offers lush green surroundings while you spend the night, and there’s a chance to spot some of the local wildlife, such as deer, right from your campsite.
This park’s unique and peculiar landscapes make it one of the most interesting places to visit in California. The ancient and knarled Joshua Trees are spread throughout randomly strewn giant boulders creates some very impressive scenery. The variety to be seen in Joshua Tree is partly because it is located where two distinct desert ecosystems meet; the Mojave and Colorado deserts.
A visit to Joshua Tree National Park can never be uninteresting, there are so many activities on offer. It’s a great destination for any rock climbing enthusiasts, you could do some scrambling at Jumbo Rocks or watch others scale the mini-mountains at Hidden Valley campground. Hikes and bike tours are popular as there’s so much unique scenery to take in, and in the springtime, a gorgeous bloom of wildflowers can be seen to the south in the Pinto Basin.
Our favorite campground in Joshua Tree National Park is Black Rock Campground, where you can enjoy watching the sunset over the desert from your campsite. There are one hundred sites for tents and RVs, each with a picnic table and fire ring, and restrooms and water nearby. For equestrian campers, a separate camping area is available with provision for horses.
The Mojave Desert spans parts of California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, with the National Preserve Portion in California offering unique camping opportunities. The Kelso Dunes in this area are nearly 700 feet high and span 45 square miles, and they’re famous for the “singing” sound they make when sand slides down. You could also check out the lava cones, and volcanic cinder which dates back millions of years. The park spans a huge 1.6 million acres, offering varied landscapes of canyons, mountains, and carpets of spring wildflowers.
A camping trip to the Mojave National Preserve offers so many sightseeing opportunities and activities. Long-abandoned mines, homesteads, and military outposts can all be explored in the area, an exciting way to get some history and combine it with an outdoor adventure. Visit the Cima Ghost Town, where you can still see the post office, general store, and cafe built over 100 years ago. Hikers can enjoy the Teutonia Peak Trail, which passes through dense Joshua Trees on the way to a rocky peak with expansive vistas of Cima Dome and beyond.
Hole-in-the-wall Campground in this National Preserve offers pit toilets, fire rings, and picnic tables to tent and RV campers, but note there are no utility hookups for RVers. Camp here surrounded by sculptured volcanic rock, with great access to hiking trails. There are 35 sites as 4400 feet in elevation, available on a first-come-first-served basis. Stay in this campground to watch the changing colors of the surrounding peaks, different with each rising and setting sun.
The morbidly-named Death Valley National Park actually holds a great diversity of life. In this land of extremes, winter snow tops the towering peaks, while a rare rainstorm might bring vast fields of wildflowers. With portions in California as well as Nevada, Death Valley is one of the most exciting contenders for the best camping in Southern Californa.
In summer, Death Valley is the hottest place on earth. Temperatures often exceed 120 degrees, but that doesn’t mean you should discount it as a camping destination. Wake up early and unzip your tent to the color-changing sunrise, painting the Panamint Range across the valley pink and purple. Hiking enthusiasts will love the 1.5-mile trail which goes around the rim of a volcano; the 600-foot-deep abyss of Ubehebe Crater.
Busy over the summer, Furnace Creek Campground is our recommendation. Reservations can be made from October to April, but in the peak season, it’s first come, first served. 136 sites, 18 of which are equipped with RV hookups, offer potable water, picnic tables, and fire pits. Flush toilets and a dump station are also close by, as well as a visitor center, bike path and plenty of hiking trails. Located on the bottom of the valley floor, at Furnace Creek you can enjoy a wide view of the mountains from east to west, which can be observed glowing with breathtaking colors during sunrise and sunset.
In the north of San Diego County lies the magnificent forest and charming mountain meadows of Palomar Mountain State Park. Located high on the west side of Palomar Mountain, large pine, fir, and cedar trees give this area a Sierra Nevada-like feel, it’s one of the few areas in Southern California with this relaxing atmosphere. Stunning vista points offer phenomenal panoramic views of the surroundings, both the desert and the ocean can be enjoyed from these vantage points.
Palomar Mountain State Park is an excellent destination choice for hikers, with trails such as the Boucher Trail and Palomar Mountain Loop nearby. This 8.7-mile loop takes you through a mix of terrains, including dense forests, canopy trees, grassy plateaus, and ponds and creeks. Climb the lookout tower for incredible views above the cloud cover, and enjoy some quiet solitude on this natural jaunt.
Doane Valley Campground will provide you with a place to pitch your tent in Palomar Mountain State Park. They offer 31 campsites with access to toilets, showers and potable water. There are also picnic tables and fire circles, but no hookups for RVs here. Plenty of hiking trails lead off from the area, such as the short-but-sweet Doane Valley Nature Trail.
Crystal Cove is one of the only remaining areas in Orange County with open space and natural seashore. With sandy beaches, tide pools, and deeply wooded canyons, it’s a beautifully relaxing camping destination. There are 3.2 miles of state beach as well as 2400 acres of backcountry wilderness, making Crystal Cove State Park the ideal location for outdoor enthusiasts. There’s even an offshore underwater area, popular with scuba divers, and the beach is great for swimming and surfing.
Primitive tent campsites can be found down the hillside and canyon trails, allowing a secluded and back-to-nature experience for visitors, even though it’s nearby to one of the most populated areas in the United States. Ocean views are integral to California camping, and Crystal Cove State Park holds one of the best beaches for camping oceanside in SoCal. Trails for hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians mean you’ll never run out of adventures during your camping getaway.
If you don’t want to primitive camp, Moro Campground offers 57 formal campsites, some with water and electricity hookups. The family-friendly campground offers stunning sunset views, with close proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Campfires are allowed, so you can enjoy a beach camping BBQ, with showers and toilets available nearby.
Another excellent beach campground, El Capitan State Beach offers rocky tidepools with strands of sycamore and oaks along El Capitan Creek. The sandy beach is perfect for swimming in the Pacific, as well as surfing and fishing. Gorgeous ocean views and almost-always-sunny weather make this state beach the ideal destination for a beach camping experience.
There are a few short hikes in the area, offering a scenic way to see the area and check out some tide pools, but our recommendation is to visit this beach and just chill out. Listen to the crashing waves, enjoy the sun and sand, and go for a few dips in the Pacific.
El Capitan is full of great camping spots, the sites are well spaced among the trees which overlook the beach, so you can unzip your tent to ocean views. These sites truly offer some of the best camping in Southern California, their placement along the coast is unparalleled. There are 119 sites, with accommodate tent camping as well as RVs and trailers. Each campsite has a picnic table and fire ring, but there are no hookups.
The San Elijo State Beach is one of the southernmost in California, and therefore the United States. The excellent bluff-top location of the campground offers ocean views directly from your campsite and easy access to the beach just down the staircases. Take some surfing lessons, soak in dramatic sunset views, and fall asleep to the sound of the waves.
If you decide on a camping trip to San Elijo, try snorkeling or diving on the nearby reef. The campground is equipped with a camp store, snack bar, and fast food restaurant, so you can relax on the beach and enjoy a better-than-usual camping meal. There are 156 campsites available for tents, RVs, and trailers, with restrooms and showers dotted throughout the campground. Campfire circles are available for use, and oceanside camping spots are available if you can snag one.
Five remarkable islands and their ocean environment are preserved within the Channel Islands National Park. Thousands of years of isolation makes this a special place in Southern California, where you can see the development of unique plants and animals like it is nowhere else on Earth. Ideal for quiet family bonding time, there are endless activities to keep everyone busy in this beautiful area of the Pacific Ocean.
You could kayak around the ocean, offering a gorgeous and unique perspective of the mountainous islands. Alternatively, dive beneath and discover underwater kelp forests and sea caves, right from within the park. For those who prefer land to sea, many trails and roads traverse the islands. They’re mostly flat and well maintained and offer an excellent exploration route to see the varied ecosystems of the Channel Islands National Park.
All five islands have one established campground on each, and there’s limited backcountry camping on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa. Scorpion Canyon on Santa Cruz is our favorite, where phenomenal ocean views and relaxing on the beach is all you need. This campground on the largest of California’s Channel Islands offers 25 individual sites for tents (you won’t get your RV on the boat to the island, unfortunately). Picnic tables, pit toilets, and potable water are available within the campground, which is just a mile walk from the pier.
Southern California has so many choices when it comes to camping destinations. From forested mountains to idyllic sandy beaches, you can’t be disappointed with a camping trip to SoCal. Whether your a hiker, a diver, or just an outdoors explorer, one location on this list holds the perfect camping spot for you.
All of the national parks, state parks, and state beaches mentioned offer beautiful natural surroundings, but they vary in type. For those looking for a family-oriented trip with plenty of activities, we recommend paying Big Bear Lake a visit. Here, a huge range of hikes take you around this area of the San Bernadino National Forest, and you can stay at a campground, or adventure off to find your own primitive campsite.
Joshua Tree National Park provides some peculiar and fascinating landscapes, so if you’re looking for a change of scenery it’s the ideal choice. Also a prime location for rock climbing, this national park offers something for everyone. Palomar Mountain State Park is our favorite for hiking, with a single 8-mile trail to take you through several different ecosystems and finishing with a spectacular view of the park.
Beach camping in SoCal cannot be overlooked, and our recommendation has to be San Elijo State Beach. Here you can dive and snorkel, surf and chill out, in true California style. The campsites have direct views of the Pacific, and the beach is accessible in minutes.
For the best camping in Southern California, visit one of the locations we’ve listed. The Golden State has so much natural beauty to offer, so make the most of it on your next camping trip.
Bonus tip: Watch this video for a fascinating insight into Death Valley National Park!