California is one of the U.S.’s most beautiful states. Being one of the largest and most environmentally diverse states in terms of climate, terrain, and topography, California’s natural beauty comes in all different forms. So what’s the best way to see it? How do you avoid just driving by nature and instead spend some time exploring it? The answer: camping. Camping in California can bring you deep into the forest at Mendocino, out to the dunes at Pismo, halfway up a mountain in Yosemite, or out in the desert at Joshua Tree. The variety is mindblowing and the room for adventure endless.
We’ve put together a quick guide to camping in California with the goal of giving you the groundwork to plan an epic trip out into the wilderness. Enjoy!
California’s Best Camping Locations
Mendocino National Forest
Located three hours north of San Francisco, Mendocino is wild Northern California at its best. The forest is located in the Coastal Mountain Range, so your forest hiking can quickly turn into a more challenging mountain hike if you fancy it.
We recommend that you pick a campsite near a lake or a river so you have the option to cool down when the temperatures start to climb as they so rapidly do in Mendocino. Pulling the car up to a swimming hole and playing some music is the perfect way to relax after a long day of hiking through the forest.
Note: Mendocino has a great reputation for camping but it’s perhaps better known for wildfires. Before planning any trip, it is vital that you research temperature forecasts and take heed of any fire warnings in place at the time.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is California’s crown jewel when it comes to camping. The scenery is nothing short of breathtaking and the hardest part of your camping trip may very well be choosing where to camp. You can pitch a tent on any of the park’s campgrounds and you’re bound to have an excellent view.
It should be known that campgrounds in Yosemite are reserved campsites and making reservations months in advance is often the way to go. Here’s a little guide on making a reservation in Yosemite.
As is the case in Mendocino, wildfires are frequently a concern in the dry summers.
One of California’s most-famed characteristics is its rugged coast with sharp cliffs, hidden beaches and excellent views of the Pacific Ocean. While there are many places along California’s 840-mile coast where you can see this kind of scenery, no place tops Big Sur.
Watching the sun rise and set from your tent is pretty hard to beat. Just be sure to pack some warmer clothes because temperatures can be pretty cool on cloudy days and they always drop at night time, regardless of the season.
Jalama Beach is our favorite camping spot in the Santa Barbara area. It’s popular with RV campers, so if you’re planning on doing a drive up the coast with the family or with friends, Jalama Beach has to be on the list.
Our guess is that your camera will stay busy and you’ll cover at least a few miles while walking the beach just below the campsite.
Joshua Tree National Park
Maybe coastal camping isn’t as much your scene. No problem. About 130 miles east of Los Angeles lies Joshua Tree — a rugged stretch of land covered with cacti, scrub brush and, of course, Joshua trees. Located in Southern California’s Mojave Desert, the scenery is not at all what you picture when you close your eyes and think “camping in California”.
Before you reject the idea, try to picture the desert sunsets and stars that come out at night, protected from the city glow of Los Angeles.
Crystal Cove is one of the Golden State’s best easy-access campsites. You don’t have to make a road trip to feel a long way away from the hustle of urban Southern California life. Located in Laguna Beach, camping here can be a quick overnight from anywhere in the LA area.
Pitch a tent and look out over the Pacific Ocean to your heart’s content. You can mix with other campers at the main campgrounds or venture a little more off the beaten path and find your own spot.
California Camping Essentials
Up in Mendocino, you’re going to sweat through your t-shirts. It’s just the way it is up there. But pretty much every other campground on the list is going to see cool temperatures when the sun goes down. This is often refreshing after a long day in the sun, but it can be uncomfortable for the folks who didn’t bring a sweatshirt for stargazing.
Lightweight Backpack Tent
This is especially applicable for Yosemite and camping locations like it. Odds are you’re planning to do a few days of hiking and you don’t want a heavy tent to be the reason you didn’t finish. Bring something sturdy but light, that won’t hold you back.
Down Sleeping Bag
Check the forecast, this will be helpful if you’re headed out on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day or any of the other colder popular camping days.
Some of the hiking in these places gets pretty rugged. You don’t want to get a cut and have no medical supplies to disinfect it and cover it up.
Camelbaks and Water Bags
When it heats up at these campsites, it really heats up. Extra water can save the day. Have plenty at the ready just in case the sun decides to be tough on you and your crew.