Best Camping In California: 17 Must Visit Spots

best camping in california

California is a well-known adventure location, thanks to its sunny days, stunning scenery, and relative accessibility, all of which make the state highly popular among outdoor enthusiasts. With so many options, however, it can be difficult to decide on just one place for a camping trip in the great state of California.

Thankfully, we’ve compiled this list of the 17 best camping locations in California. So, whether you’re looking for an easy-breezy car camping getaway with all the hookups or a beautifully remote place to pitch your tent, we’ve got just the spot for you.

Coming up, here’s the best camping in California:

1. White Tank Campground, Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is a world like no other. Here, you can explore vast desert landscapes, climb on stunning rock features, and search for shade under the park’s namesake Joshua Trees. For climbers, White Tank Campground is a veritable oasis, with world-class rock located just steps from your tent site.

Others can enjoy the impeccable night sky viewing opportunities in the campground, which is located in one of the darkest sections of the national park.

White Tank Campground is home to 15 first-come, first-served tent sites, none of which have electrical hookups or water, so come prepared and be self-sufficient. Since the tent sites are first-come, first-served, you’ll want to be sure to arrive early in the day during peak season (October-May) to claim your spot.

At just a 20 minute drive south of Twentynine Palms, White Tank Campground is located in a fairly accessible part of Joshua Tree National Park. Campsites are an affordable $15 a night and can accommodate a maximum of six people, three tents, and two cars, though some sites only have enough parking for one vehicle.

Oh, and if you want to have a campfire, buy wood in Twentynine Palms – all wood in the park is protected, so you’ll need to bring your own.

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Blue night sky with joshua trees in foreground
Starry Night in Joshua Tree National Park (c) Cierra Lagges

2. Lower Pines Campground, Yosemite National Park

Located at the heart of Yosemite Valley, Lower Pines is surrounded by staggering granite cliffs, spectacular waterfalls, alpine meadows, and giant sequoias. As one of just three reservable campgrounds in Yosemite Valley, Lower Pines offers unparalleled access to some of the most beautiful terrain in the National Park, with hiking trails starting just outside the campground gates.

This campground has paved roads, flush toilets, and drinking water, as well as picnic tables, fire rings, and food storage lockers at every campsite for $24-36 per night. There’s a free shuttle bus within the National Park, as well as easy access to the general store, restaurants, and bar in the nearby Half Dome Village.

Lower Pines is incredibly popular, however, so you’ll want to start planning your Yosemite adventures early. Campsites become available up to five months in advance on the 15th of each month at 7:00 am Pacific Time. this means that, for example, on January 15, you’ll be able to reserve campsites between May 15 and June 14 on the park service website.

A full list of date availability is accessible here. If you’re looking to camp at Lower Pines, we highly recommend being on your computer as soon as the sites become available or you just might miss your chance!

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Soaring cliffs surround Lower Pines campground, Yosemite

3. Whitney Portal Campground, Inyo National Forest

At the base of Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the Lower 48, is Whitney Portal, a prime camping location for anyone looking to venture into the John Muir Wilderness. Just 13 miles west of the town of Lone Pine, Whitney Portal is a fantastic location to start or end an expedition into the eastern Sierra Nevada,

The campground features three group campsites, some tent-only sites, and a few walk-in sites for people who want a bit more seclusion in the mountains. Whitney Portal is located within a thick stand of pine trees, but still offers great views of the surrounding granite peaks. There are vault toilets and drinking water available, as well as picnic tables, fire rings, and food storage lockers at every site.

Campsites vary in price, from $26-80 a night and are available generally from the end of April to the beginning of October, but that can change, based on snow conditions. Individual campsites are released on a 6-month rolling basis while group campsites are available up to 12 months in advance.

Climbers looking to ascend Mount Whitney need to apply for permits through the lottery system, while anyone looking to overnight in the John Muir Wilderness after their stay at Whitney Portal will also need to apply for a permit before leaving home.

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Whitney portal looking towards the Minarets – photo flic.kr

4. Plaskett Creek Campground, Los Padres National Forest

With rugged mountain scenery, coastal redwoods, and sandy beaches, there’s a lot to love about Big Sur. If you want to enjoy all that Big Sur has to offer, a campground that lets you access all the region’s beaches and mountains is exactly what you need. That’s where Plaskett Creek comes in.

Located just off of the famous Highway 1, Plaskett Creek Campground is a year-round camping destination, with prime access to Sand Dollar Beach, one of Central California’s best outdoor playgrounds.

Plaskett Creek is family-friendly, with dozens of single-family tent sites as well as a handful of group sites that can accommodate up to 40 people. Although there are no hookups, each site has a table, fire ring, and grill. There are toilets, sinks, and drinking water available throughout the campground, too for $35-150 a night. What’s not to love?

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photo – Michael L. Baird, flickr.bairdphotos.com

5. Furnace Creek Campground, Death Valley National Park

Located at the heart of Death Valley National Park, Furnace Creek Campground is an ideal place to rest your head after a long day our in the wilderness. The hottest, driest, and lowest place in the United States, Death Valley National park is generally sunny, dry, and clear, which makes camping a breeze. At 196 feet below sea level, Furnace Creek sets you up well for an adventure in this unique environment.

Furnace Creek Campground is the only camping location in Death Valley National Park that takes reservations, though you can only reserve sites during the mid-October to mid-April peak season. At this time, individual campsites are released on a 6-month rolling basis while group sites are reservable up to 12 months in advance.

Advanced reservations are highly recommended for weekends during the fall, winter, and spring months, as this is a very popular time in the park.

Campsites at Furnace Creek feature drinking water, picnic tables, flush toilets, campfire rings, grills, and even a dump station for RVs. The campground is just a short drive away from some of the most popular trails, including the salt flats of Badwater Basin, so it’s a great starting point for any excursion.

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photo – flic.kr

6. Santa Cruz Scorpion Canyon Campground, Channel Islands National Park

If ocean side camping is your jam, you won’t want to miss out on sleeping under the stars at Santa Cruz Scorpion Canyon Campground. Located on the island of Santa Cruz in Channel Islands National Park, Scorpion Canyon provides visitors with great ocean views and fantastic access to the beach, which is sheltered from strong ocean currents.

Santa Cruz is the largest island in Channel Islands National Park, with public access only through water taxi (Island Packers) and charter flights (Channel Islands Aviation), which need to be reserved well in advance, or by private boat. Scorpion Canyon is the most family-friendly campground in the National Park, with 25 individual sites for up to 6 people and six group sites with a capacity for up to 15 people.

Each site has a picnic table and a food storage box for comfortable camping. Pit toilets and drinking water are provided, too.

Individual sites are released on a 6-month rolling basis and group sites are available up to 12 months in advance. For just $15-40 a night, Scorpion Canyon is a fun and affordable way to experience all that the Channel Islands have to offer!

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photo – flic.kr

7. Nelder Grove Campground, Sequoia National Forest

Have you ever wanted to camp among the tallest trees on earth? Welcome to Nelder Grove Campground, in Sequoia National Forst, a stand of pine and fir trees, and home to some of the world’s tallest trees – the giant sequoia. Not far from Yosemite National Park, the Nelder Grove Campground offers some quiet, secluded camping away from the crowds in the more popular sequoia groves.

With seven well-spaced out campsites, and minimal amenities (there’s no running water here!), the Nelder Grove Campground is no sprawling metropolis, but it’s a great spot to pitch a tent for a few nights in the mountains.

The campground is only open from May to December and all sites are free to use but are not available for reservation. So, on summer weekends, you’ll want to arrive early for a chance to sleep among giants. 

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photo – flic.kr

8. Twin Lakes Campground, Inyo National Forest

In the eastern Sierra Nevada, under the shadow of the snow-capped Mammoth Mountain, is the Twin Lakes Campground, which offers great lakeside camping and stunning mountain scenery. Located close to town, the Twin Lakes Campground is a great home base for any adventures in the Mammoth region, including fishing, boating, hiking, mountain biking, and rock climbing in the summer months.

The campground’s lodgepole pine forests provide ample shade and privacy for an outdoor getaway. Twin Lakes is open from the end of May to mid-October every year, with campsites released on a 6-month rolling basis. The campground is very popular on summer weekends, so book your site early to avoid disappointment!

Twin Lakes Campground is split up into two sections, one on either side of Twin Lakes. That being said, every campsite features picnic tables, fire rings, and access to flush toilets, drinking water, showers, and the campground’s general store.

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Also read: Top 10 Mammoth Lakes Family Activities For Summertime

photo – flic.kr

9. Algoma Campground, Shasta-Trinity National Forest

Just a short distance south of the California/Oregon border is the Algoma Campground, on the banks of the Upper McCloud River. This small, undeveloped camping area features 8 tent sites and a vault toilet, all of which is available free of charge.

Algoma Campground is the terminus of the McCloud River Trail, some 12 miles from Lower Falls. This camping area is fairly quiet, especially mid-week, though it can get somewhat busy on the weekends. Since there are relatively few amenities at the Algoma Campground, all visitors should come prepared for a few nights in a remote location that provides ample opportunity for solitude in the wilderness.

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10. Manzanita Lake Campground, Lassen Volcanic National Park

Located on the shores of the stunning Manzanita Lake, Manzanita Lake Campground is the largest camping area in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Home to fantastic fishing opportunities and great views of Lassen Peak, the campground is just one mile south of the park entrance, making it a great starting point for any backcountry adventure.

The campground itself is heavily forested with Jeffrey and Ponderosa Pines. There are pay showers, a general store, and paved roads throughout the campground, with flush toilets and running water during the summer months. Campsites feature picnic tables, fire pits, food lockers, and great access to the kayaking, fishing, hiking, and other outdoor activities.

Campsites are available on a 6-month rolling basis and can be reserved from mid-May to mid-October. Outside of peak season, campsites are first-come, first-served, so arrive early in the day if you want to snag a spot!

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photo – flic.kr

11. Tuttle Creek Campground, Alabama Hills

Located in the shadow of some of the most stunning peaks in the Sierra Nevada, including Mt. Whitney and Mt. Williamson, Tuttle Creek Campground is a simple camping location just off of Whitney Portal Road.

Some 4.5 miles west of Lone Pine, this Bureau of Land Management-operated campground is open year-round, first-come, first-served, and is just $8 a night, making it an affordable option for many campers.

At the campground, you’ll find vault toilets, picnic tables, fire rings, and lantern holders, as well as water from March to October. The true attraction of Tuttle Creek, however, is the nearby Alabama Hills, whose splendid scenery was the backdrop for a number of different movies.

These days, the area offers ample hiking, biking, and horseback riding opportunities, especially during the springtime wildflower boom!

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Tuttle Creek campground – via BLM California

12. Mill Creek Campground, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park

Towering coastal redwoods, maples, and alders create a dramatic landscape at Mill Creek Campground in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. Just seven miles south of Crescent City, California on Highway 101, the Mill Creek Campground offers great access both to Mill Creek and to hundreds of miles of hiking trails both in the state and nearby national park.

The campground is open from mid-May to the end of September and features 145 tent or RV sites, though no hook-ups are available. There are hot showers, ADA accessible restrooms, dump stations, picnic tables, fire pits, food lockers, and trash receptacles for a comfortable, family-friendly camping experience.

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photo – flic.kr

13. Kirk Creek Campground, Los Padres National Forest

Oceanside camping? Yes, please. Located just off of Highway 1 in Big Sur, Kirk Creek Campground offers a few dozen developed campsites, each with a view of the Pacific Ocean. Open all year round, Kirk Creek is a veritable oceanside paradise, with ample opportunity for outdoor recreation and relaxation.

There are no utility hook-ups at the sight, but the campground has a plethora of single-group tent and RV camping sites. Every site has a picnic table and campfire ring and here are vault toilets throughout the campground. Campsites are released on a 6-month rolling basis, so be sure to plan ahead for camping during the popular spring and summer weekends.

From the campground, you can access plenty of hiking trails as well as a rocky beach. A short, five-mile drive will bring you to the extremely popular Sand Dollar Beach, the largest sandy paradise in Big Sur. Fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding are just some of the amazing activities you can enjoy at Kirk Creek Campground.

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photo – flic.kr

14. Nevada Beach Campground, Lake Tahoe Basin

Okay, okay, so this campground might technically be in Nevada, but it’s just over two miles north of the California/Nevada state line, so that counts, right? Situated along the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe, Nevada Beach Campground is an ideal home base for any adventure in the Tahoe region.

Sandy beaches and a forest of pine trees make this campground a comfortable place to pitch a tent, although it’s not far from the nearby towns.

With dozens of campsites for both tent and RV campers, alike the Nevada Beach campground is a family-friendly location. The campsites each have tables, fire rings, and grills, and flush toilets and drinking water are provided for all campers.

A short walk from the campground brings you to the 22-mile-long Lake Tahoe, where there are ample opportunities for hiking, boating, and relaxing in the sun. The campground is open from mid-May to mid-October, and individual campsites are released on a 6-month rolling basis, so don’t miss your chance to camp in this amazing location!

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photo – flic.kr

15. Cold Springs Campground, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park

Located in the heart of Mineral King, a glacially carved valley in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, Cold Springs Campground is an ideal location for anyone looking to camp in the park during the summer months. The campground itself is near the Mineral King Visitor Center and is nestled along the east fork of the Kaweah River, among aspen and evergreen trees.

Cold Springs Campground has 40 campsites, all of which are available for tents only on a first-come, first-served basis for $12 a night. Thirty-one of the sites have drive-in access while 9 require a 100-200 yard walk from the parking area. The campground has vault toilets, food storage lockers, and potable water during their open season. Other amenities, including a restaurant and a small gift store, are available at the private Silver City resort some 2.5 miles away.

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One of the many lakes above Mineral King valley – photo flic.kr

16. Saddlebag Lake Campground, Inyo National Forest

At 10,000 feet, Saddlebag Lake Campground is the highest elevation drive-to camping location in all of California. Located within the Inyo National Forest near Lee Vining, this campground offers lakeside camping west of the Hoover Wilderness, near Yosemite National Park.

The campground features 20 individual campsites and one large group site along the shore of Saddlebag Lake. Tent camping and small RVs are welcome, though there are no hook-ups and minimal amenities. Sites are first-come, first-served and cost $22 a night, which gives you access to fire rings, bear boxes, vault toilets, and potable water during the operating season.

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photo – flic.kr

17. Pinnacles Campground, Pinnacles National Park

The smallest national park in California, and just a few hour’s drive from the Bay Area, Pinnacles National Park is a fun and welcoming outdoor destination. The park offers ample hiking and rock climbing opportunities, as well as a chance to see the great California Condor in its natural habitat.

The park’s only campground – the Pinnacles Campground – is located at the park’s main entrance and visitor’s center. The campground is open year-round and features family and group tent sites, RV sites with hookups, flush toilets, and drinking water. There are also showers, a general store, and a swimming pool, which is open from April through September.

Campsites range from $30-120 a night and are available for reservations. Individual and family campsites are released on a 6-month rolling basis while group sites can be booked up to a year ahead of time for a stay in this fun little park.

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Red and white tent glows under a dark, starry night
Home is where you stake it (c) Bureau of Land Management

Tips for Camping in California

Camping in California can be an amazing and rewarding experience. The state’s stunning scenery is truly a wonder to behold and, with such a diversity of terrain, there’s something for everyone to love. That being said since California is such a heavily populated and highly popular state, it can be challenging to find that solitude you’ve been looking for in the mountains. Here are some of our top tips for a successful camping getaway in California:

  1. Camp in the middle of the week. While this can be challenging to do for those of us who work 9-5 jobs, camping on weekdays is one of the best ways to avoid crowds. Sure, weekends might be more convenient for our work schedules, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find some solitude, especially in California’s national parks during that time.
  2. Plan ahead. Nearly all of the most popular campgrounds in California take or require reservations for the peak season (summer in the mountains and fall-spring in the desert), so plan ahead. Usually, you’ll be able to make campsite reservations up to 6 months in advance, so try to be on top of things when planning a camping trip, especially if you’re traveling a long distance to avoid disappointment.
  3. Verify any amenities. Some campgrounds have running water and flush toilets, while others are little more than a place to pitch a tent. Especially when it comes to water, make sure you know what amenities, if any, are available at your campground so you can be prepared to make the most of your time in the wilderness.
  4. Get a campfire permit. Most public lands in California require a campfire permit to light a fire or even operate a gas stove. Permits are free and easy to get in just a few minutes at the California Fire website.
  5. Bear-proof your food. Most, but not all, campgrounds in California’s bear country provide metal “food storage lockers” to keep food away from bears. At many of the campgrounds with these lockers, it is required that you use them and you may face a hefty fine for leaving your food in your car. At other campgrounds, there are no storage lockers, so keeping food in your vehicle is the recommended strategy. Check campground regulations to find out what’s expected of you.
  6. Understand the camping seasons. Many campgrounds in California are located on roads that are unmaintained in the winter, making them unpassable for most vehicles. Some campgrounds may open late or close early depending on snow conditions, and it’s always possible to have a late or early season snowstorm that shuts down a road. Check the weather before you venture out into the mountains and be prepared to handle whatever comes your way!
  7. Bring cash. Unless you’ve made your reservation online, you’ll probably have to pay upon arrival at your campsite. Few campgrounds accept check or credit card, so bring cash with you (exact change is preferable) to cover the cost of your stay.
  8. Check out permit requirements. While most campgrounds don’t require wilderness permits for visitors, many nearby hiking destinations require permits for both day and overnight hikers. To avoid disappointment, enquire about permit regulations, especially for more popular trailheads in wilderness areas.

Ultimately, the key to camping in California is to plan ahead and be prepared. Doing so will help ensure that you’re ready to make the most of your experience in the outdoors, regardless of how you like to camp. Happy trails!

 

Related content: 

How Do I Spend a Day In Yosemite?

10 Best National Park Day Hikes: Western U.S.

One Comment

  1. I was on a business trip to Paradise in 1973. A minor real estate matter affecting the BA Branch I represented. Completed my business and decided to camp out for the weekend and trout fish the magnificent streams. Having “camped out” in Vietnam in 1969, I wasn’t keen on it without my M-16. Nevertheless, I managed two troubled nights of sleep under the stars. I bought a cheap spinning rod, some #10 gold hooks, and Balls of Fire Salmon eggs for bait. I caught 17 gorgeous Rainbow trout in 2 days. Cooked over a campfire, it was superb. My Paradise story.

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