California Camping Options

California Camping Options

Summer is camping season and this year it’s going to feel especially good to get outside and enjoy some nature.

California has tons of camping options from National Parks, to BLM, to private campgrounds to choose from. This list will give you an idea of where to start and some great options for awesome camping trips this summer. You’ll notice that I haven’t included any National Parks on this list, this is because I don’t want to contribute to any overcrowding as our National Parks open up and there are so many other options to explore in this great state.

Whether you are looking for a mountain, beach, river, or lake vacation, there is a little something for everyone here.

Traditionally established campgrounds

car camping in Big Bear
car camping in Big Bear

When I say “traditionally established” campground I’m talking about your standard type of drive-in campsites with a fire ring, picnic table, and bathrooms common in local and state parks. There is generally a nightly fee for the site, but costs will differ among campgrounds.

Onion Valley (Eastern Sierras)

Onion Valley is a high elevation campground just west of Independence off highway 395. The campground sits at about 9,600 ft and is great for acclimating to high elevations for hiking and backpacking. There are 87 sites most are on the smaller side, so if you have a large group you might need more than one. The campground has a sort of a labyrinth feel to it which I thought was cool.

Grays Meadows (Eastern Sierras)

Grays Meadows is just down the road from Onion Valley and also at a lower elevation of 6,000 ft. You still get the high desert landscapes but the campground sits along a creek which provides plenty of shade from oaks and other trees. Hanging out among the trees is a great way to relax.

Camp Richardson (Tahoe)

Camp Richardson might be one of the best summer and fall camping escapes. Enjoy the pine-filled forests and beautiful Lake Tahoe with the convenience of a marina, bar and grill, and a general store. It honestly feels a lot like summer camp. The campgrounds are located right by the lake between South Lake Tahoe and Emerald Bay.

Nevada Beach (Tahoe)

Okay, so Nevada Beach is technically in Nevada, but it’s only a couple miles from the California border and it’s right on Lake Tahoe. The campground is shaded by pine trees but the sandy beach is just steps away. Nevada Beach is great for paddleboarding, kayaking, and picnicking on the beach.

Pine Knot (Big Bear)

Pine Knot is located at the base of Snow Summit Ski Resort which is popular for mountain biking in the summer. You can even ride the lift up the mountain with your bike and bike down. There is plenty of hiking around and Big Bear Lake is just five miles from the campground.

Serrano (Big Bear)

Serrano is a huge campground with both tent and RV campsites located right next to Big Bear Lake. It is an awesome mountain escape for Southern Californians who are looking for a little mountain and lake getaway.

River Bend (Russian River)

River Bend is right on the Russian River so those who love water sports will be stoked. This campground is truly luxurious with its own private beach, kids play areas, laundry, hot showers, and wifi. They have tent and RV campsites as well as cabins.

Kirk Creek (Big Sur)

Kirk Creek is located on the bluffs of Big Sur overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and each campsite has a view of the ocean. Enjoy a walk down to the beach or hike in the hills, the dramatic coastline of Big Sur never disappoints.

Hip Camps

Glamping with Hip Camp
Glamping with Hip Camp

If you haven’t heard of Hip Camp yet, I’m so glad to introduce you! It’s like AirBNB but for camping or glamping. They are private campgrounds usually on a host’s property and every one is unique. Here are a few cool looking ones, I’ve stayed at Oak Haven before and had a wonderful time there.

Redwood Camp (Russian River)

Redwood Camp is located in the redwoods along Salmon Creek. Hike around the ranch and the redwoods or simply relax in the solitude along the creek.

Oak Haven (San Luis Obispo)

Oak Haven is a working farm in the hills near San Luis Obispo. The glamping tents are cute and comfortable and the shady oak trees keep things cool during the day.

No Place Like Dome (Santa Cruz)

You can watch some beautiful sunsets from the Geo-Dome on the Santa Cruz coast. This spot is on a horse sanctuary and offers a peaceful retreat from the world. There is no electricity so it is the perfect place to unplug for a bit.

Dispersed/primitive camping

Dispersed Camping in Alabama hills
Dispersed camping in Alabama Hills CA

Dispersed and primitive camping means camping outside of a traditional campground, usually on Forest Service or BLM land. There are usually no amenities like bathrooms or picnic tables, but popular spots will have established campsites. An established campsite means a spot that has been cleared and clearly camped on before. Dispersed camping is great because you don’t need to make a reservation, there are usually no fees and you can social distance from other campers very easily. You can find free campsites and areas all over California with

Alabama Hills

Alabama Hills sits in the Eastern Sierras in the high desert just below Mount Whitney. It’s become a popular spot in recent years for its unique landscape and beautiful views. It’s giant rock formations are it’s only cover so it can get quite hot out there in the summer, but there is tons of hiking, mountain biking, and rock climbing around to keep you busy.

Granite Mountain Wilderness

Granite Mountain Wilderness is located right by Mono Lake and is a great spot to explore the Eastern Sierras and Mono Basin from. The area is great for hiking, off-roading, and exploring Mono Lake and it’s unique landscape.

Mendocino National Forest

Mendocino National Forest spans the Coastal Mountain Range in northern California. It is the perfect spot to really get off the beaten path, there are in fact no paved roads or highways, so 4wd is probably necessary. But it is worth it for the hiking, lakes, and beautiful scenery.

Los Padres National Forest

Los Padres National Forest is just North of LA and stretches up the coast to Monterey County. Enjoy the beauty of the Central Coast with its rolling hills and oak groves.


Backpacking in Ansel Adams Wilderness
Backpacking in Ansel Adams Wilderness

Even though a lot of the larger thru-hikes are not allowing permits this year you can still do smaller and shorter backpacking trips around California. You can’t do walk-up permits this year either so you’ll have to book your permits in advance online, but that seems like a small price to pay for getting some outdoor time.

Desolation Wilderness

High alpine trails, lakes, and pine forests, what’s not to love about the Desolation Wilderness? Located right near Lake Tahoe, there are tons of trails and routes to choose from, one of the most popular being Aloha Lake.

Ansel Adams Wilderness

Find the beauty of the high Sierras in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, there’s a reason Ansel Adams came out here to photograph the landscape so often. One of the most famous and most photographed spots in Thousand Island Lake and Banner Peak, they are pretty spectacular and well worth the hike.

Angeles National Forest

The Angeles National Forest is a huge area and has tons of trails and routes to choose from. Some of the most popular peaks are Mt. Baldy and Cucamonga Peak. Southern California is hot in the summertime and water can be scarce so make sure to stay hydrated!

A few of my favorite camping essentials

Backpacking in Ansel Adams Wilderness

I hope this list gives you a good place to start planning your summer and fall camping trips. Even though some campgrounds are still closed there are tons of options for getting outside this summer.

Car Camping Essentials
Tips for Fall Camping
How to Go Camping Without a Reservation
Backpacking From Onion Valley to Mount Whitney

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4 thoughts on “California Camping Options

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