Best Places to Camp in California

California, the Golden State, is the third-largest in the United States in terms of land area and home to 110 state parks and nine different national parks – more national parks than any other state in the country. With that much space, it isn’t hard to find campsites all over California. The beauty of the backcountry in California is unmatched in the world, containing special plants and animals that are unique to California and cannot be found anywhere else. Hiking trails course through national forests that are home to giant sequoias and giant rock formations rise up out of the landscape in Big Sur and Yosemite valley. Camping trips in California can take campers across almost every kind of genome there is in the natural world. 

The best camping in California will blend the various natural features on offer in the Golden State. Wildflowers and massive trees mix with sheer rock faces and snowy peaks in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Yosemite National Park. You may be able to find tidepools and ocean views in Big Sur while cacti and colorful rocks will greet you in Death Valley National Park, but sand and amazing stargazing can be found in both parks. There’s good reason Yosemite often tops the list of best hiking vacations and the Pacific Crest Trail is frequently named one of the best hiking trips in the world. For campers who want to maximize the diversity of outdoor activities available and enjoy some of the most beautiful landscapes in the United States, California is the ideal one-stop-shop for just about any camping trip you can imagine. 

 

The coast in Big Sur, California.

Big Sur is some of the best Pacific Ocean camping in the entire world.

 

1. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

This state park is the ideal beach campground for campers who want a Big Sur beach camping experience combined with a backcountry camping trip into one of California’s famous redwood forests. Just a little over an hour’s drive south of Monterey and 37 minutes’ drive from Carmel along Highway 1, this state park extends from the redwood forest of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park right up to ridges overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Campers interested in finding the best ocean views can follow the Overlook Trail to see the 80-foot waterfall that drops into the Pacific Ocean. The Overlook Trail is unfortunately mostly closed due to erosion of the trail, but the Overlook itself is still reachable. 

There are plenty of other hiking trails in this state park. The campsites themselves are only accessible by hiking, so don’t plan to have your car right beside the camping spot. A reservation is required before you go, which you can make online but which may be difficult to come by without proper planning as this famous campsite tends to fill up as much as 6 months in advance. Picnic tables and a fire ring are available, but primitive camping aside from the designated camping area is forbidden. Pit toilets are available at the campsite itself and restrooms can be found across Highway 1. This is a truly rewarding Golden State camping experience for campers who can leave their dogs and bicycles behind for a camping trip.

 

Pros:

  • Hiking trails
  • Redwood forest and ocean views
  • Picnic table and fire ring
  • Restroom available

 

Cons:

  • Campsite not accessible by car
  • Reservation required, maybe months in advance
  • No primitive camping away from the campsite
  • No dogs or bicycles

 

2. Sequoia National Forest

Campers interested in both tent sites and a possible glamping experience will enjoy camping spots in the Sequoia National Forest. Cabins are available for rent for those interested in a less rugged camping experience. For everyone else, there are tons of traditional campsites nestled in among hiking trails and of course sequoia trees. All the sites include picnic tables, bear-resistant food lockers, and a fire ring for building campfires in safety. Reservations are required and there is a small fee to get your camping spot. Fishing is a possibility in some of the campsites within the Sequoia National Forest. 

Glamping yurts are available for rent at the Redwood Meadow Campground and the trailhead for the Trail of 100 Giants is nearby as well. The general hunting and fishing season for using this campsite is most likely from May to October, so don’t bring your rifle or fishing pole in other times of the year. Pets are allowed but must be leashed at all times. Campers should make sure to bring their own firewood ahead of time or buy it from the park. It’s forbidden to gather firewood within the park because gathering firewood can spread invasive species. 

 

Pros:

  • Glamping yurts for rent
  • Picnic tables and fire rings available
  • Pets allowed
  • Fishing and hunting allowed in-season
  • Hiking trails

 

Cons:

  • Reservation required
  • No firewood gathering permitted

 

3. Yosemite National Park

3 hours inland from San Francisco, Yosemite National Park is one of the most famous national parks in the country and supports some of the best camping in California. The natural landmarks in Yosemite are well-known around the world, such as El Capitan, an iconic granite wall that reaches a height 2.5 times that of the Empire State Building. For longer-term campers, make sure to pick a campsite with hot showers available. Curry Village and Housekeeping camp are the only two to provide hot showers in Yosemite Valley. 

Campers heading for Yosemite should be prepared for more primitive camping than luxurious glamping. There are dump stations available for RV sites but none of the campsites within Yosemite have any hookups of any kind. Reservations are strongly encouraged since so many campers flock to have their Golden State camping experience in Yosemite every year. There are some first-come, first-serve camping spots available but they do fill up quickly. Once you’ve seen some of its natural wonders like Vernal Falls, Yosemite Falls, Glacier Point, and Half Dome, you won’t have any doubt in your mind as to why so many campers list Yosemite National Park as a top-tier camping trip destination.

 

Pros:

  • Many landmarks
  • Hot showers available
  • RV sites available
  • Reservation not required

 

Cons:

  • No hookups
  • Seasonal dump stations

 

Red and white camping tent surrounded by trees during the nighttime.

Campers who like to climb will enjoy the rocky terrain in Yosemite Valley.

 

4. San Bernardino National Forest (Big Bear)

One of the most popular camping spots in southern California, San Bernadino National Forest offers cooler temperatures in the summer months due to its higher elevation than the surrounding valleys. Most campsites within the national forest have shaded spots, picnic tables, and fire rings for building a safe campfire. Make sure you buy your firewood where you’re going to be burning it and not transporting it from other locations. All the campsites within the national forest have restrooms and most have hot showers. RV sites with hookups are also widely available. 

Campers in the San Bernadino National Forest may want to check out Big Bear Lake, which is within the national forest and gives campers the opportunity to add fishing to their camping experience. Hikers will be thrilled to find the wide variety of hiking trails the criss-cross the San Bernadino National Forest in the immediate vicinity of Big Bear Lake. Relaxation in the hot springs, stargazing and wildflower picking are all popular activities at Big Bear Lake. It’s a really popular area for resorts so campers looking to steer clear of glamping and stick to nature may want to do extra research to find more isolated campsites. 

 

Pros:

  • Cooler temperatures
  • Picnic tables and fire rings
  • Restrooms and hot showers available
  • Big Bear Lake
  • Hiking Trails
  • Hot springs

 

Cons:

  • A popular tourist destination (in some parts)
  • Gathering firewood prohibited

 

5. Redwood National and State Parks

California Redwood trees are world-renowned for their massive size and mind-boggling ages. There are two types of campsites available to campers wishing to stay in Redwood National and State Parks: developed camping spots or backcountry campsites. Reservations are recommended at the develope camping spots and a free permit is required for the backcountry campsites. There is a fee for the developed camping spots, but it might be worthwhile to campers looking for restrooms, hot showers, dump stations, picnic tables, fire rings, and a visitor center. The towering maples alders, and of course the redwoods will add a sense of serenity to your campsite and the amenities will ensure that campers on short getaways will have all the comfort they need.

The backcountry campsite permit can be gotten for free at the visitor center up to 24-hours ahead of time. For absolute peace, experienced campers will likely skip the amenities and hookups and venture out into the backcountry campsites for stargazing or hiking along the 200 miles of backcountry hiking trails available in the Redwood National and State Parks. The redwood forest will provide a camping experience that is sure to last in the memory of campers who stay there, even for a single night or weekend getaway.

 

Pros:

  • Redwood forest
  • Developed Camping spots
  • Hookups available
  • Hot water and restrooms available
  • Hiking trails

 

Cons:

  • Entrance fee
  • Permit required for backcountry campers

 

6. Death Valley National Park

Some of you less die-hard campers may wonder why a national park with such a hostile name as Death Valley makes it into this guide. Yes, nighttime temperatures can still reach up to 100 degrees, but for campers who can weather the high temperatures, Death Valley National Park is a great camping experience. During holiday weekends campsites within the national park will fill up quickly, especially at the higher-altitude camping spots where the temperatures are lower. Expand your camping repertoire by heading into the desert backcountry for a challenging but fulfilling camping experience.

Wildflower picking, Furnace Creek visitor center, wildlife viewing at the flat dunes, hiking along the rim of a volcano, and the rainbow rocks at Artist’s Drive all set Death Valley National Park in another league from average camping spots. RV sites with full hookups (including water hookups for the desert heat) are available, but it is nearly impossible to secure one without a reservation. All the vegetation in the park is protected, so make sure you buy your firewood and don’t collect it from the area around the campfire. After you’ve been stargazing in the desert on an overnight camping trip, you’ll appreciate the serenity of nature and be happy to return to a more lush environment at the end of the getaway.

 

Pros:

  • Variety of campsites
  • Backcountry camping spots
  • A variety of activities
  • RV sites with full hookups
  • Sparsely trafficked in the colder months

 

Cons:

  • Reservation required for RV sites
  • High temperatures
  • Seasonally crowded

 

Person camping beside a black and white tent in Death Valley.

Put your backcountry camping skills to the test in California’s Death Valley.

 

7. Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Park

About four hours’ driving from either San Francisco or Los Angeles, the Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Park offers some of the best camping in northern California. Most of the campsites within the national park are first-come, first-served, but it is possible to make a reservation at some other camping spots. There are also RV sites but be warned there are no hookups in the park at all. Dry camping and backcountry camping is the name of the game in King’s Canyon National Park. A wilderness permit is required to camp outside of the designated campsites, but they are easily obtained. 

Campers can take hiking trails to the foothills area of the park, where they can pick wildflowers or just enjoy the oak woodlands and river canyons. Primitive campers or those just looking for a quiet place for stargazing can head to the Cedar Grove Area in King’s Canyon, which is more remote and less heavily trafficked by other visitors. Make sure to pay attention to fire warnings and be prepared to pack away your supplies at night to protect against bears. For film buffs, campers can visit Zabriskie Point, the shooting location for the Antonioni film of the same name. Anyone will appreciate the fascinating effects of long-term erosion in this section of the park.

 

Pros:

  • Hiking trails
  • Reservations possible
  • RV sites
  • Gorgeous scenery

 

Cons:

  • Permit required
  • No hookups at RV sites or campsites

 

8. Joshua Tree National Park

A little over two hours outside of Los Angeles, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the locales that can only be found in the state of California. The landscapes play a part in that, but the eponymous Joshua Tree is what really sets this national park apart. Often rumored to have magical properties, these trees have been admired for centuries by people passing through the area. Birdwatching enthusiasts will love the camping experience in this national park, which is a natural rest stop for many migratory birds. There are three environments within Joshua Tree: the Colorado Desert in the south and east, the Mojave Desert in the north, and the Little San Bernadino Mountains in the west. 

With this diversity, campers will have plenty to explore within the park. The Joshua Tree grows in the northern part of the park, so if that’s the main attraction you should look for campsites in the Mojave Desert section. All the campsites in this national park are first-come, first-serve and do not require a reservation. That being said, there is a fee to camp in any of the official camping spots within the park. Plan well, because some of the campsites have picnic tables, fire rings and fire pits, and water hookups, while others have no hookups at all. Whichever variety of campsite you choose, Joshua Tree will endear itself to any camper with its supernatural charm. 

 

Pros:

  • No reservations required
  • Many possible activities
  • Multiple environments for campsites
  • Hookups available
  • RV sites available

 

Cons:

  • Admission Fee

 

Final Verdict:

The Golden State is a land of unparalleled natural beauty and, in some cases, flora and fauna that do not exist anywhere else in the world. Replete with national forests, national parks, state parks, and nature reserves, California has a ton of environments that offer campers an immense variety of camping experiences. From the tidepools in Southern California to the Sequoia and Redwood National Forests in Northern California, campers will never be bored and they will be frequently astounded by the unreal beauty of California’s natural landscapes. 

Camping in California can be tricky at times because, with such a large state park system, they have many rules. The environments at these campsites are often sensitive and require special rules about firewood, waste disposal, and pets. The availability of amenities such as picnic tables, hookups, and restrooms will vary depending on how rural the park is and how sensitive the surrounding environment is. But for campers who are courageous or curious enough to try primitive camping, California has everything to offer. Now that you know the best places to camp in California, pack up your tent and sleeping bag and get lost in the Golden State.

 

Bonus tip: Check out this video to learn how to go primitive camping for free in Joshua Tree National Park!

 

Riley Draper

Riley Draper

Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.