Search This Page

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

15 of the best campsites in California, whether you want easy car camping or to hit backcountry trails

By Suzie Dundas Jul 13, 2021
Yosemite National Park
Suzie Dundas/Insider

I've lived in northern California for the last eight years, and hands down, my favorite aspect of living here is access to outdoor recreation. From the Sierra Nevada mountains where I live to the deserts of Southern California to the coastal beaches along the Oregon border, California is loaded with stunning outdoor landscapes. And what's the best way to immerse yourself in those unique destinations? By camping, of course.

There's a lot of variety between the best campsites in California, but what they all have in common is that you won't find sites like these anywhere else. And you don't have to be a wilderness expert to find the perfect place to pitch your tent: many of California's best campsites have amenities like hot showers, cell service and Wi-Fi, and even coffee shops and restaurants. 

The list below covers some of the best public campsites in California bound to create happy campers, whether you want to car camp (drive right to your campsite) or backpack (carry everything on foot into a more remote campsite.) Remember that reservations may be required, and you may or may not be allowed to make campfires based on wildfire and drought conditions. 

Joshua Tree National Park Indian Cove Campground

Joshua Tree National Park Indian Cove Campground
Pitching a tent against dramatic rock formations at the Indian Cove campground.

Book the Joshua Tree National Park Indian Cove Campground

For an otherworldly, desert experience, camp in Joshua Tree National Park for a long weekend. The national park has several campgrounds, and while the Jumbo Rocks Campground is the closest to the park's most popular hikes, I prefer pitching a tent against the dramatic rock formations at the Indian Cove campground.

Locations 75 to 95 are the primo spots. There's no running water in any of Joshua Tree's campgrounds, so bring in plenty before you park – you are in the desert, after all.

Reds Meadow Campground

Reds Meadow waterfall
From this campground, you can walk to the trailheads for Devil's Postpile, rainbow falls, hot springs, and more.
Lara Kaylor/ Visit Mammoth

View Reds Meadow Campground

Mammoth Lakes is an undoubtedly awesome city for summer fun, filled with epic hiking trails through the eastern sierra, breweries and distilleries, and the year-round Mammoth Mountain resort. If you can get to town early, try to snag a spot at Reds Meadow Campground, which doesn't take reservations. But because it's about 20 minutes outside of the city limits, it tends to not get as crowded as downtown campgrounds (though it still gets crowded.)

Red's Meadow has a campground lake, a general store and cafe within walking distance, indoor bathrooms and showers, and best of all, access to amazing hikes. Campers can walk to the trailheads for Devil's Postpile, rainbow falls, hot springs, and much more. 

Yosemite National Park Pines Campgrounds

Yosemite National Park Pines Campgrounds
Nothing will make you feel more in awe than standing under a 1,000-year-old sequoia or looking up at El Capitan.
Suzie Dundas/Insider

Book the Yosemite National Park Pines Campgrounds

Yes, Yosemite gets crowded: but there's a reason for that. It's one of the most beautiful places in the U.S. and nothing will make you feel more in awe of our amazing planet than standing under a 1,000-year-old sequoia tree or straining your neck to look up at the rocky cliff of world-famous El Capitan. Yosemite has more than a dozen campgrounds, but the most convenient are the three campgrounds on the west end of the Yosemite Valley: North Pines Campground, Lower Pines Campground, and Upper Pines Campground (they're all in the same area.)  Lower Pines sites probably have the best views, but they're all winners. 

All sites have a picnic table and fire pit, plus potable water and clean restrooms, and hot showers. But the best part is the location: many sites have views of Half Dome, and you can walk to the Mist Trail and stops for the free Yosemite Valley shuttle, which stops at all the Yosemite Valley's best sites and trailheads.

Lassen National Park Manzanita Lake Campground

Manzanita Lake Area in Lassen Volcanic National Park
Ditch the crowds at this lesser-visited campsite.
Matt Switzer/National Park Service

Book the Lassen National Park Manzanita Lake Campground

Love national parks but hate the crowds? Then head north to Lassen National Park, one of the country's least-visited national parks. That makes it one of the best campgrounds in California if you want to snag a lakefront campground at the last minute.

While reservations are usually the best bet, the park's Manzanita Lake Campground is walk-in only from early October to the park's closing. Get there early (before 9 a.m.) to snag spot at the southern end of the campground for the best views of 10,463-foot-high Lassen Peak.

Prairie Creek State Redwoods State Park

Prairie Creek State Redwoods State Park
Some scenes from the "Jurassic Park" movies were filmed at this spot.
California State Parks/Facebook

Book the Prairie Creek State Redwoods State Park

One of the coolest places to camp in California (both literally and figuratively) is Prairie Creek State Redwoods State Park. There are more than two dozen trails in the park, including the famous "Fern Canyon" trail, where scenes from the "Jurassic Park" movies were filmed. Through the park and its campsites are hundreds of coastal redwoods – the tallest trees on earth. 

I prefer sleeping in the shade and seclusion of the redwood trees at the park's Elk Prairie Campground, but guests who prefer coastal views will like the sites built on the dunes at the park's Gold Bluffs campground, which look out over a stunning stretch of Pacific coastline.

Limekiln State Park

Limekiln Creek and Redwood Grove, Big Sur, California
Choose from the Coast campground or the Redwood camp. They both have restrooms and hot showers.
Doug Meek/Getty

Book the Limekiln State Park

Big Sur is one of the most stunning stretches of coastline in the United States, but the hotels in towns to the north like Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey get very, very busy. That's why I usually recommend campers head south instead to Limekiln State Park.

Campers can pitch their tent in the Coast campground or the Redwood camp, each with running water, restrooms, and hot showers. It's an easy drive north to the popular parks in Big Sur, and on your way home, you can swing by Esalen Hot Springs, where you can reserve a sunset soak in their oceanview hot springs.

Morro Bay State Park

Morro Bay State Park
Campers here have ocean views to the west and access to paddling, boating, and kayaking to the east.
Morro Bay

Book the Morro Bay State Park

One of central California's most recognizable features is Morro Rock, a monolith rising from the surf near the cool surfer town of San Luis Obispo. While most private campsites are on the inland side of Morro Bay, Morro Bay State Park is on the ocean side, giving campers ocean views to the west and access to paddling, boating, and kayaking on Morro Bay to the east.

Campgrounds have all the amenities you'd expect, but you can also walk to the Morro Bay State Park Museum of Natural History, Morro Rock Natural Preserve, and a waterfront cafe in case you get sick or roasting hot dogs.

San Elijo State Beach Campground

San Elijo State Beach Campground
Sleep perched on a bluff above the sand at this California beach campsite.

Book the San Elijo State Beach Campground

The campground at San Elijo State Beach Campground is beach camping at its finest. Campsites are perched on a bluff above the sand to make sure you have epic sunset views, but it's just a few stairs to get down to the shoreline when it's time to surf or go for a swim.

Encinitas is one of the coolest surf towns in California, and San Elijo Beach is squarely in the center of it all. Sites 1 through 39 are closest to the beach.

Big Bear Lake

Big Bear is just a short drive from LA, making it easily accessible for city dwellers.
Courtesy of Silvana Friedman

Book the Big Bear Lake

Big Bear is the closest mountain town to Los Angeles and camping in its hills is one of the best ways to beat the heat and relax in cooler climates for a long weekend. One of the best campsites in California is the Serrano Campground on the north shore of Big Bear Lake.

Wake up in the morning and grab a coffee from the marina store before swimming out to one of the lake's boulder piles, perfect for cliff jumping.

Emerald Bay State Park

In terms of pure beauty, it's tough to beat Lower Eagle Point at Lake Tahoe.
Suzie Dundas/Insider

Book the Emerald Bay State Park

Lake Tahoe is just as gorgeous as any national park on the West Coast, and fortunately, there are more than a dozen campgrounds around the lake's 72 miles of shoreline. But in terms of pure beauty, it's hard to find a campground more epic than Lower Eagle Point.

Perched on a peninsula overlooking Emerald Bay, it's ideal if your idea of the perfect day is lazing away the hours at a sandy alpine beach with turquoise-blue waters. And you'll be near plenty of great restaurants and breweries in the town of South Lake Tahoe.

Pianetta Ranch & Winery Camp

You'll be right in the middle of a working ranch and winery at this campsite.
Kristin M./Hip Camp

Book the Pianetta Ranch & Winery Camp

You don't have to be an avid hiker to love camping, as evidenced by Pianetta Ranch & Winery Camp. Tucked under a large oak tree are a few sites for tent camping, square in the middle of a working ranch and winery.

Guests can cruise around the more than 300 wineries in Paso Robles, then return to camp for an afternoon wine-tasting and campfire under the stars.

The Presidio

This is the only campsite in California that's actually in San Francisco.
The Presidio

Book The Presidio

If you care more about gourmet cuisine, sightseeing, and sea lions than you breaking in your hiking boots, book the only campsite in California actually in San Francisco: the Rob Hill Campground at the Presidio. Once a military complex, the Presidio is now a sprawling park with nature walks, scenic overlooks, beaches, museums, and more.

Campers get a fire ring, indoor bathrooms, bike racks, and BBQ grills. Unfortunately, there are no showers, so plan to jump in the ocean at Baker's Beach when you need to cool off. 

The best backcountry campsites in California

Sometimes, the best thing about camping isn't camping itself – it's getting to wake up in beautiful and remote destinations miles away from traffic, people, and the stress of civilization. 

These California campsites below aren't accessible by car. Instead, you'll need to hike your way in, carrying everything you need on your back, including your food, tent and sleeping bag, and water or water filter. You'll need to have basic backcountry knowledge, some extra first-aid and emergency skills, and the fitness for hiking long distances with an additional 30 pounds on your back. Backcountry campsites have no amenities, no bathrooms, no potable water – if you didn't carry it in, it isn't there. 

But if you're ready to head into the backcountry, these are three of the most exceptional California campsites tucked away in the mountains across the state:

Cathedral Lakes

The high-altitude weather makes for a pleasant stay here even in the middle of July and August.
Courtesy of Jean Beaufort

Book the Cathedral Lakes

Another campsite in Yosemite? You bet – Tuolumne (rhymes with "follow me") Meadows is high above the Yosemite Valley on the park's eastern side. Though it's snow-covered and inaccessible in winter, it's simply stunning in the summer, and the high-altitude weather makes it far more pleasant for hiking in the middle of July and August. If it's your first backpacking trip, head to Cathedral Lakes, which is also part of the beautiful John Muir Trail.

You'll be able to camp near the shore of the still, bright-blue lakes that perfectly reflect the nearby giant rock formations and mountain peaks. You can go to Lower or Upper Cathedral Lake; I recommend Upper for fewer crowds (though campsites at Lower Cathedral Lake are closer to the water.) It's about a 3.5-mile trek to the upper lake and gains only around 1,000 feet, so it's a good route for beginner backcountry campers.

Evolution Lake in Kings Canyon National Park

This lush valley surrounded by towering Sierra peaks is a jaw-dropping place to sleep.
Tom Hilton/Flickr

Book the Evolution Lake in Kings Canyon National Park

Kings Canyon National Park sits squarely in the middle of the Sierras, north of Sequoia National Park and south of Yosemite. The Evolution Valley is the most beautiful place to camp in the park, but it's a trek – it's nearly 16 miles from the nearest trailhead (the Florence Lake Trailhead.)

You'll need to be very bear aware, and be sure to bring extra layers for the evening as forest fires are forbidden year-round. But if you put in the work to get there, you'll find campsites along a lake in a verdant valley surrounded by towering Sierra peaks – an alpine paradise for sure. The trailhead is outside the park, so you'll need a Sierra National Forest Backcountry Permit; it'll be honored once you've hiked into the park boundary.

The Lost Coast

You can camp anywhere along this coastal trail, making it a more secluded option.
Bureau of Land Management California/Flickr

Book The Lost Coast

There aren't too many places in the country where you can hike along the coast the whole time and still be in undeveloped wilderness. Fortunately, you'll find that in northern California in an area appropriately called "The Lost Coast." As you hike, the mist and fog from the ocean crash up against steep mountain peaks, creating an otherworldly (if sometimes damp) experience. You can camp anywhere along the trail, so consult the map to decide where you want to base yourself.

Spanish Flat and Shipman Creek are two of the most beautiful areas along the trail. If you start at the Black Sands Beach trailhead, you can easily do a quick overnight trip to camp near Shipman Creek.


What should I pack on a camping trip?

A solid camping checklist is imperative for a good camping trip. It's always best to overprepare since many campsites are remote and you can't just run down to the local store to pick up items you forget.  Not to worry, start here for our essential camping packing list

And if you're not quite ready to invest in buying all your own gear, consider renting camping gear from companies like Arrive Outdoors.

What should I look for in a campsite?

Always consider what kind of camping you want to do and who you'll be camping with. If you're going with kids, you may want a campsite full of amenities, whether that's a pool or just hot showers. 

If you're a more seasoned camper and want to explore more remote areas, consider booking dispersed camping sites. They're available for free on most Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or United States Forest Service (USFS) land.

For those who want to bring their dog along, check out our tips for camping with dogs, plus the best pet-friendly campsites

Where can I find a last-minute camping reservation?

Due to increased demand, many campgrounds are booking up fast, especially for summer weekends. Try to book a campsite as far in advance as you can.

However, if you're seeking last-minute reservations, consider alternative sites to book camping reservations that go beyond the usual federal campgrounds, such as Airbnb campsites or Tentrr, which connects private landowners with campers for more secluded stays.

Disclosure: Written and researched by the Insider Reviews team. We highlight products and services you might find interesting. If you buy them, we may get a small share of the revenue from the sale from our partners. We may receive products free of charge from manufacturers to test. This does not drive our decision as to whether or not a product is featured or recommended. We operate independently from our advertising team. We welcome your feedback. Email us at
"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." - John Quincy Adams