Best places to camp in California

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From top to bottom, California’s got eye candy for every type of traveler. What makes it relatively unique is its many ecosystems all residing near each other. In one direction is verdant forest, in the other direction is ocean. It’s got sky-scraping mountains and the deepest desert valleys in the continent.

Whether you’re interested in roughing it or glamping, there’s a campsite for you. If you’re a beach-lounger, you’ve got options. If you’re a rock climber, you’ve got options. And if you’re a photographer, you’ve got too many options. Camping is a great way to save money while immersing yourself in nature — an experience hotels simply cannot replicate.

I’ll show you the best places to camp in California. Although some people swear by Colorado having the best campsites in the U.S., I’ll show you campsites in California that are equally as stunning.

Big Sur is part of the famously beautiful Pacific Coast Highway. (Photo by RuthChoi/Shutterstock)

Best camping spots in California

Big Sur

Big Sur is not the part of California you often see in movies and TV shows. It’s the ruggedly stunning area between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It’s what makes the Pacific Coast Highway such a bucket list item. It’s such a treasure because many parts of it have been completely unadulterated by civilization.

Big Sur is the crown jewel of California’s Central Coast. If you’re interested in camping this area, consider Kirk Creek Campground, which will provide you unbelievable views of the area while hanging over the Pacific Ocean. It’s located on a bluff within Los Padres National Forest, and it’s not a disappointment. For $35 per night, it’s hard to beat — and it’s open every single day of the year.

Yosemite National Park

Possessing some of the most famous geological formations on the planet, Yosemite National Park is a no-brainer destination for those desiring a California camping trip. It’s got the very photogenic Half Dome, which soars more than 4,700 feet from Yosemite Valley. To stand at its base is one of those realize-how-insignificant-you-are kinds of experiences. It also offers El Capitan, which is a 3,000-foot tall slab of granite, best known as the ultimate aspiration of extreme rock climbers.

Yosemite isn’t just for hardened climbers and hikers, of course. There are plenty of hiking spots and leisurely walks that can bring you to perfect areas to watch the sun rise or set. Set up camp in The Pines Campgrounds — they’ve got something for everyone. We recommend North Pines Campground, as it’s practically attached to a list of popular hiking trails. It’s also not far from restaurants, bars, a general store, and optional guided tours. Don’t worry, it’s not as gentrified as it sounds.

Half Dome is an almost spiritual experience. (Photo by Victor Bordera Sentandreu/Shutterstock)

San Diego Beach

More of a warm climate person? Do you prefer to spend your camping trip tanning on a hammock instead of negotiating an 80 degree incline with blisters on your heels?  You want a beachfront campsite in the San Diego area. To be precise, head to South Carlsbad State Beach. Just steps away from the ocean, this is a site that’s extra family friendly. It’s got activities for children (but isn’t the beach enough?), and you can engage in all the fishing, surfing, and picnicking you can stand.

There’s also a Campfire Program the kids might like, which occurs every Saturday. There’s story-telling, sing-alongs, games, and education about nature and local history. And if you’re planning to camp with a small child, first read our post about camping with baby.

Redwood National and State Parks

Redwood National Parks: Perhaps the location I hear most on the bucket list of friends and acquaintances. Yes, it’s got the tallest trees in the world (seriously, you can’t comprehend how big they are if you’ve not been), but this national park is also full of rivers, prairies, and miles and miles of gorgeous coast.

If redwoods are what you’re after, you’ve got to stay at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. It’s where you’ll find the biggest, stateliest, most imposing trees on offer. And bonus, this campground also sits beside the beautiful Smith River.

Giant redwoods are on everyone’s to-see list. (Photo by Fernando Tatay/Shutterstock)

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley isn’t nearly as off-putting as you’d suspect. Its rich variety of wildlife scoff at the name. You’ll see desert bighorn sheep, fox, mountain lions, bobcats, and plenty more. There’s a definite beauty to utter barrenness — and it actually comes with its own perks. Astonishing natural formations take place that rival the lushest greenery of Northern California. And did you know that Death Valley is one of the top places in the world to stargaze?

From the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes to Racetrack Playa (that area where boulders appear to migrate), to snow-capped mountains, Death Valley’s got a lot to see. We suggest checking out Norther Death Valley, Mesquite Spring Campground, to be specific. It’s the opposite of luxury — there are picnic tables, but you’ll have to provide everything else. Fortunately, it’s just a 16-minute drive from Scotty’s Castle and some semblance of civilization. You’re also just eight miles from the must-see Ubehebe Crater.

Tahoe

The area Tahoe sprawls across is like an over-saturated technicolor motion picture. Every direction you look you’ll find hues and pastels more beautiful than the last. Lake Tahoe holds the title for the largest alpine lake in the U.S., though it’s far from the only attraction in the area. Just start hiking and you’ll happen upon unexpected postcard views. Senior editor Brendan stumbled upon this view while out hiking near lake Tahoe (and the below picture isn’t even Lake Tahoe).

Senior Editor Brendan snapped this shot of Eagle Lake while hiking in Tahoe. (Photo by Brendan Dorsey/Million Mile Secrets)

Tahoe is nestled within the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Whether you’re interested in camping in the mountains, the forest, or the beach of Lake Tahoe, you’ve got plenty of options. I recommend Fallen Leaf Campground, which is a site on the perimeter of Fallen Leaf Lake, just a mile or so south of Lake Tahoe. You’ll receive some of the best views of mountain peaks towering over alpine trees.

What do I need to know about camping in California?

There are a number of factors to consider when planning a camping trip to California. One of the most important is gear — you don’t want to be caught out in the elements unprepared. If you’re camping in a more populated area, say near an RV park, this is less of an issue. But if you plan to venture anywhere more secluded, be sure to come prepared.

Also take into account the ecosystem in which you’re camping. While you may be camping in the mountains if you’re heading to Northern California, you’ll be in the lowest point in North America if you opt for Death Valley. Step 2 after choosing your location is researching the most comfortable season for your camping trip. Death Valley can reach 120 degrees, and may not exactly be suitable for hanging out in a tent.

Always remember to digest the rules of your chosen campground. Helpful websites include the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, National Forest Service, State and local governments such as Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Where can I camp for free in California?

If you’d prefer to avoid the hassle of having to make a campsite reservation or the expense of paying site fees, don’t worry. Free camping in Colorado is easy — if you know where to look. You won’t get the amenities of a paid site, but being able to avoid the crowds can be totally worth it.

Many of the best free sites can be found on National Forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. Camping in national forests is free throughout the U.S. (unless otherwise noted), and California possesses approximately 19 million acres of National Forest land. Use the National Geographic Adventure Road Atlas or any USGS maps to help you locate these areas.

Use miles and points to minimize your costs

Remember, if you hold any of the best rewards credit cards, you can get discounts on everything from groceries to restaurants to rental cars. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card allows you to redeem your points at a rate of 1.25 cents each for travel, including rental cars. And through September 30, 2020, you’ll receive the same return when you redeem your points for restaurants and groceries.

If you’re interested in using points for free flights to your desired camping destination, or if you want a free hotel or rental car, read our post on the Chase Travel Portal. If you want to learn how to use your points towards restaurants and groceries, read our post on Chase Pay Yourself Back.

Also be sure to check out the best cash back credit cards of 2020, which can help you offset literally anything, including campground fees.

Let us know if you’ve got any California camping recommendations! And subscribe to our newsletter for more posts like this delivered to your inbox once per day.

Joseph Hostetler is a full-time writer for Million Mile Secrets, covering miles and points tips and tricks, as well as helpful travel-related news and deals.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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