Camping on California’s 840-mile biodiverse coast offers the opportunity to take the road trip of your life without breaking the budget. Pick Your Place – From the rugged and untamed Northern California to the temperate climates, desert blooms and the most dreamy sunsets I’ve seen in the South.
Wherever you descend, you will rise and sleep under the stars to the sound of crashing waves. But plan your sleep wisely—camping on the California coast is no secret, and places book up months in advance.
For miles of empty golden sand, head to Silver Strand State Beach in Coronado
The hottest camping spot on California’s South Beach is also the warmest place on this list. The deserted Silver Strand State Beach—with about 10 miles of golden sand to explore and endless, uncrowded waves to surf—is just 20 minutes from the Mexican border to the south and a short drive from central San Diego to the north.
There is only a beach and ocean in the immediate vicinity, but all of the city’s big attractions are just a short drive away. Dine with hoi polloi San Diego in nearby Coronado, which has dozens of excellent restaurants.
It’s RVs only on Silver Strand; Tents are not allowed. There are over 100 campgrounds, as well as restrooms, picnic tables, fire rings, drinking water, a dump station, and electrical connections on site.
Most important tip: Book up to six months in advance with the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
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Enjoy soaring views of the Pacific Ocean at San Elijo State Beach Campground
Surfers love this elegant clifftop campground above San Elijo State Beach, with stair access to the sand. Located a mile south of Swami’s popular surf break, which inspired the song “Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys, nearby Encinitas is the epitome of a Southern California surf town, complete with meditation gardens, burritos shacks, juice bars, and vegan cafes.
Tent and RV camping is permitted on the large clay fields at San Elijo State Beach Campground, which are separated by many trees. Restrooms with flush toilets are located on site, as well as piped water, camp store, and fire rings.
Most important tip: They can be booked up to six months in advance via California Gardens; Dogs are welcome to run.
Surf at dawn after sleeping on the beach at San Mateo Campground
Not quite on the beach, this secluded campground is a little inland from world-famous San Onofre State Beach and Trestles – considered by many to be the best surfing spot in the world.
A 1.5-mile nature trail connects campers to the classic point splitter, with left and right hand peeling and easy putters. Besides surfing, there are rugged trails for bluffing summit hiking and wildlife spotting (look out for pelicans and migratory waterfowl) and plenty of swimming opportunities along the three miles of beach.
San Mateo Campground has more than 150 playgrounds with fire pits, barbecues, and picnic tables, plus there’s water, restrooms (with showers and flush toilets), and laundry facilities on site. Some locations have electrical connection points. A small camp store sells essentials and there is a dump station. Book in advance through California Gardens.
Hiking, diving and snorkeling at Crystal Cove State Park
North of the coastal town of Laguna Beach, up a cliff overlooking the Pacific, you can get the best of park and beach at Crystal Cove State Park Campground, where there’s an emphasis on less impact camping (or basic tent camping).
The plots have easy access to nearby Crystal Cove, a huge underwater park with excellent scuba diving and snorkeling – look out for the two historic marinas dating from the 19th century and parts of a Navy plane that went down in the 1940s – plus, there are a myriad of Desert plants to explore in the state park’s 2,400 acres of undeveloped woodland.
Facilities include restrooms, showers, and a small number of RV connections. Campfires are not permitted in the area. Experienced campers may work in “primitive” campsites (no drinking water or showers) accessible via a three-mile hike from the parking lot.
Reserve via ReserveCalifornia.com; Park entrance fees are applicable, and permits are required for overnight camping.
Families and wildlife lovers will love Carpinteria State Beach Campground
One of Southern California’s most popular family campgrounds, Carpinteria State Beach Campground has more than 150 plots of land facing the calm waters. Kids can roam with lifeguards on duty, tide pool, and spot harbor seals and sea lions bathing on the sand. The Tomol Interpretive Play Area is a few minutes’ walk inland. Don’t miss the mile long walk with sweeping ocean views.
There are flush toilets at the campsite, which has several hookups available, as well as hot showers, picnic tables, and barbecue grills.
Introducing Coastal California
Enjoy your loneliness at Gaviota State Park Campground
Nestled in the wild and pristine Gaviota State Park, there are about 40 courses in the shadow of an impressive old railway stand. Trails lead to the beach and its adjacent pier (a popular fishing spot) and even the Gaviota Wind Caves – surreal sandstone formations with bizarre twists, turns and hollows, just a mile away.
Campers can also hike to the top of Gaviota 1,325 feet for cliff-high, panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. Watch out for mountain lions in the area.
Playgrounds come with a fire ring and a picnic table. There are restrooms on site, as well as showers and drinking water. Tents and RVs are welcome, but no electrical hookups.
Take your dog to Galama Beach Park Campground
Halfway between Santa Barbara and Pismo Beach at the end of the hills, a secluded twisting trail is secluded Jalama Beach County Park, with more than 100 campgrounds for tents, trailers, and RVs overlooking the ocean and beach to the west and mountains to the east.
Hike the area along the steep cliffs – it’s a prime spot for whale spotting during migration season, while kite surfers enjoy the strong winds.
Several of the playgrounds are tidy surrounded by privacy hedges, and all have a picnic table and barbecue pit. There are also seven cabins for lucky early bookings, plus hookups, hot showers, restrooms, and potable water. Dogs welcome. Serving warm clam chowder and homemade apple pie, the Jalama Beach Store & Grill sells most things you may have forgotten.
Book via Countyofsb.org.
Camp next to a private waterfall at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Campground
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Campground has only two campsites, both of which are located above the famous 80-foot McWay Falls, cascading directly into the azure Pacific Ocean below. This stop is a highlight of any road trip on the Big Sur Coast or Rte 1 – but campers get it all to themselves when travelers head home.
It’s half a mile through tropical forests and 300 feet of redwoods to get to the eco playgrounds, with fire rings, picnic tables, and restrooms available, but no water or firewood (bring your own).
For a last minute delivery, try Pillar Point RV Park
Located 20 miles south of San Francisco, Pillar Point RV Park doesn’t take reservations at its 49 locations, so those with an RV can board and try their luck.
The main draw is the Mavericks – a brutal wave that rises to the height of an apartment building. Daredes train to ride these moving mountains for life, and watching them is just as exciting. Camping spots are scarce when the Mavericks are “on”.
It’s a place where surfing legends are made, but it’s a nice place to spend time regardless of the waves. Activities in the area include wine tasting, fishing, a 6-mile trail for hiking, biking next to the campground, and boating from the adjacent marina, where you can also buy the catch of the day.
Amenities for an RV camper include electric and water hookups, plus free cable TV and Wi-Fi. All recreational vehicles must have their own fully functional toilet to park them. There are no toilets, showers or laundry facilities.
Shipman Creek Campsite is an off-the-grid camping adventure
The wilderness camping sites of California’s Lost Coast Trail are not for the faint of heart—they can only be reached on foot via a challenging hike along the tormented wild beaches, rocks, and coastline. The route is 25 miles total in length, and completing it means spending about three days in the wilderness, carrying all your food and gear with you.
Adventurers will be rewarded with mountain scenery, wild meadows, ancient redwood forests, exciting rivers and tides to navigate. Bring up the tide table so they don’t ebb or flow into the sea, and look for sea lions and Roosevelt elk on the way.
There are no facilities at the Shipman Creek beachside campground, but camping is free with another country permit.
How to get there: The Lost Coast Trail begins near the mouth of the Mattole River at Mattole Beach, where there is a parking lot, camper van, drinking water, and pit toilets, and ends at Black Sands Beach. The trail begins at Mattol Beach at 3750 Lighthouse Rd, Petrolia. Permits are required.
Steep Ravine Beach has cabins and hot springs
An hour north of central San Francisco at Steep Ravine Beach, a group of primitive cabins with no running water, electricity, or plumbing toilets overlook the Pacific Ocean and a small rocky beach.
Come here to get away from the world and soak your bones in Steep Ravine’s hidden hot springs at low tide. There is also a clothing-optional bathing grotto nearby, run by locals.
Reserve with ReserveCalifornia.