6 Unique California Camping Spots
(From Desert to Coast)
The thing about the camping in California is that it’s literally endless. We’re no mathematicians, but just take a brief, by-the-numbers look at how many parks and recreation areas there are: 110 state parks, 19 national forests, 9 full-on national parks, 3 national recreation areas… the list (and numbers) go on.
Here’s another way to grasp the magnitude: There are 49 million acres of public recreational land in California. That’s about the size of the entire state of South Dakota. Considering South Dakota is the 17th largest state in the country, that means if the amount of recreational land in California were its own state, it would be larger than 33 US states and would constitute about 2% of America’s total land acreage.
What does all this number-crunching mean? Well, not only are we better mathematicians than we thought, but it’s also obvious that one lifetime would simply never be enough to experience every campsite in the state.
So, since time is short, and the list of California campsites is incredibly long, here are sixplaces—organized into Desert, Mountain, and Coast—where you can pitch a tent, hang a hammock, light a fire, crack a beer, tell a tale, play some tunes, and then curl up in an oversized synthetic tube sock sleeping bag and fall asleep under the stars.
Hidden Valley - Joshua Tree National Park
Situated in the Mojave and Colorado deserts, this lunar landscape is sprawled across about 800,000 acres and speckled with hundreds of mansion-sized boulders and thousands of cartoonish Joshua trees. It’s a national park that’s known for intensely starry skies, truly world-class granite climbing, hippy artist communes, and presumably more than a few drug-induced epiphanies down the years. In terms of camping, J-Tree is home to nine developed campsites. Arguably the most coveted of these—especially among climbers—is Hidden Valley. Not only is Hidden Valley unique in that it has its own microhabitat—full of pinyon, juniper, oak, mesquite, yucca, cacti, and of course, Joshua trees—but it also has easy access to the super scenic Hidden Valley Loop, which is a one-mile trail that travels through a maze of boulders and past some of the best climbing routes in the park. The likelihood of actually snagging a spot at Hidden Valley Campground is low, especially during climbing season, but if you get lucky, you’re in for one memorable desert camping trip.
Homestake Dry Camp - Death Valley National Park
The best part about Homestake Dry Camp is its proximity to the Racetrack Playa—a massive dry lake bed home to Death Valley’s famous “sailing stones”. These stones, some weighing over 500 pounds, mysteriously slide across the Racetrack’s sandy, cracked surface in the night, leaving visible shooting-star-like paths in their wake. While experts have recently determined that it’s a combination of thin ice and breezy winds responsible for the movement, we’re not buying it: definitely magic.
The Racetrack—and also Homestake Dry Camp—are difficult to reach due to the rugged 4WD road it takes to get there, but those with the right all-terrain vehicles are rewarded with supreme isolation and some of the darkest skies in the country. Camping isn’t allowed on the playa itself, but given Homestake Dry Camp is only a 15-minute drive south, an otherworldly moonlit stroll is well within reason. No sailing stone magic tricks about it!
D.L. Bliss State Park - Lake Tahoe
On the western shore of Lake Tahoe—one of California’s crown jewel destinations—D.L. Bliss State Park offers a slice of the Caribbean high in the Sierra. What makes it great, aside from the astonishing clear blue waters, is the sheer amount of activities packed into such a relatively small area. Hikers can visit the highest lighthouse in America at the Rubicon Point Lighthouse or see the gravity-defying Balancing Rock or even set off on the Rubicon Trail, which traverses the edge of the lake for 22 scenic miles before ending at Emerald Bay. Beachgoers can sunbathe on the expansive sands of Lester Beach or the slightly more off-the-beaten-path beaches of Calawee Cove. Kayakers, canoeists, and SUP-ers can put it at either of these beaches and paddle on the surface of the crystal clear waters. And scuba divers can dive below the surface in nearby Emerald Bay to explore shipwrecks in an underwater preserve.
For camping, D.L. Bliss offers around 150 campsites during the summer months. Amenities are pretty standard state park fare: bear boxes, a visitors center, wooden picnic tables, fire rings, and so on. But what’s cool about D.L. Bliss is the old-school vibe. Established in 1929, it’s one of California's original state parks, and as such, everything’s a little more laidback and manageable: small roads, small campsites, small parking pads, and tons of towering evergreen trees with thick, moss-covered trunks and plenty of shade. The campsites are the perfect places to retreat for some peace and quiet after a long day on the trails or water. In other words, this place is pure... bliss (sorry, we had to).
Tuolumne Meadows - Yosemite National Park
These days, you’d almost have better luck winning the lottery than finding a campsite in Yosemite Valley. It’s basically the Times Square of national parks. The boom of climbing culture had something to do with it. So too did the accessibility of San Francisco. But probably the biggest contributor to the bumper-to-bumper, tent-to-tent way of life on the valley floor is the awe-inspiring cathedral of granite cliffs, giant sequoias, and 2,000-foot waterfalls. And it’s one of those places that everyone should—and many people consequently do—see at some point.
But! If you want a Yosemite camping experience that’s a little more off-the-beaten-path, Tuolumne Meadows Campground is the way to go. Located about an hour northeast of the Valley on Tioga Road, it’s home to 304 tent and RV sites, 7 group sites, and even 4 horse sites. While amenities are limited (just sinks and toilets, no showers), this campground isn’t meant to make visitors feel comfortable; it’s meant to serve as a base camp to some of the park’s best adventures.
For climbers, Tuolumne Meadows offers a cooler temperature alternative when the Valley is hot and crowded, it features huge domes, exposed ridge traverses, and steep vertical face climbs. For hikers, one of the best day hikes in the park—the beautiful 14-mile round trip Clouds Rest Trail—is just a 15-minute drive away. There’s (bone-chilling) swimming in nearby Tenaya Lake and fishing in the Merced River. And the Tuolumne Meadows themselves feature one of the most picturesque Sierra Nevada backdrops we can think of: a sprawling subalpine meadow exploding with colorful wildflowers during the summer months, a lethargic river snaking its way through the grass, and stands of fragrant evergreen trees giving way to bulbous granite domes on the horizon.
Gold Bluffs Beach - Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
With the largest ocean in the world on one side and the tallest trees on Earth on the other, Gold Bluffs Beach is a humble strip of sand sandwiched between some of nature’s most epic bodies of work. To get here, visitors peel off of Highway 101 onto Davidson Road, a bumpy, pock-marked gravel road that loops and swoops below Redwood giants for six long miles. Long, because between the 15 mph speed limit and all the ogling at fern groves and 500-year-old trees, it takes about 30 minutes to get to the beach parking lot.
Once you arrive, you’re in for a real treat. The campground itself has 24 tent and truck sites that can be reserved in advance. They’re set against wavy stands of beach grass, they’re dog-friendly (even though nearby Redwood National Park is not), and they offer easy access to about eight miles of undeveloped beach. The best part? The beach comes complete with rocky cliffs, Roosevelt elk that roam the shore, and maybe even the odd whale sighting. The other best part? Gold Bluffs Beach offers supreme access to one of the most picturesque hikes in America: Fern Canyon. This short hike takes visitors through a narrow creekbed funnel with 20-foot walls on either side that are draped with lush verdant ferns. For all you Jurassic Park fans out there, this is where one of the most memorable dinosaur attacks of the movie was filmed.
Del Norte Campsite - Channel Islands National Park
Only 11 miles off the crowded coast of southern California, the five islands that comprise Channel Islands National Park are about as worlds-away as you can get. Accessible only by boat or airplane, these undeveloped private islands offer one step back in time and another step into a distinct ecosystem. In 2018, roughly 400,000 people visited the Channel Islands. That’s about 3.5 times fewer people than live in San Diego alone! (You might want to check our math on that one—our arithmetic skills can only last so long.)
This means that for those lucky enough to visit, they’re met with pristine beaches, impossibly green hillsides, and fascinating wildlife-viewing with island foxes, dolphins, sea lions, seals, and more than 350 different species of birds. The only thing at the Channel Islands with more diversity than the flora and fauna might be the number of activities to do here. Hiking, backpacking, kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving, surfing, whale watching, wildflower viewing—you name it, the Channel Islands have it. Except for ice climbing. And skiing. You get the point.
For camping, Channel Islands has that in spades, too. Each of the five islands has one established campground that visitors can reserve in advance. But for a truly memorable camping experience, the four backcountry spots at Del Norte Campsite, on Santa Cruz Island, are where it’s at. To get here requires a moderate 3.5-mile hike from Prisoners Harbor, which travels through island oak woodlands and sage shrublands, along scenic bluffs, and through canyons. The reward at the end of the tunnel? Unparalleled seclusion.