Can’t Miss California Camping
It’s hard, really hard, to compile any list ranking California’s incredible outdoor adventures.
The state holds the largest number of national parks and a good number of other public lands, each offering a magical experience. Enter the hard part – some places are perfect for camping while others offer incredible experiences but a subpar camping experience. Here’s some of our favorites, a combination of both:
1. King Range National Conservation Area
This forgotten piece of California’s northern coast is forgotten no more. It’s the longest undeveloped stretch of coastline in the state, and as you can imagine that means it’s spectacular. In 1970 it was designated as a conservations area; in 2000, the areas just offshore were designated as a national monument, and in 2006 Congress dubbed a good chunk of the area as protected wilderness. Yes, it’s wild. And, you can enjoy it without hoards of other people thanks in part to it’s hard-to-reach, semi-remote location.
More and more people are now making the 20+ mile trek along the Lost Coast Trail (starting at Mattole Beach and ending at Needle Rock or visa versa) with an overnight stop along the way. There is also ample backpacking in the King Range Crest. Permits are required and must be reserved online in advance at recreation.gov.
If schlepping across rugged terrain with pounds of gear isn’t your thing, you can still enjoy the immense beauty of the region from one of five developed campgrounds, all run by the Bureau of Land Management. (Note: One campground, Honeydew Creek, will be closing per a BLM representative) Four of them are tucked in the rolling mountains off-shore, but one campground, Mattole Beach, sits within feet of the stunning coastline. All are insanely cheap, by California camping standards, at $8.00 per night and they are rarely crowded meaning you can spread out and enjoy with relative peace and quiet. Amenities are very basic (table, fire ring, water and long-drop toilets) and vary from campground to campground. and 80 miles of hiking trails inside the range mean you can have an new adventure daily.
Roads in the area are rough, dirt in parts and collapsing in others, and reaching your destination will take time, especially in an RV or pulling a trailer. Be patient and enjoy the journey in.
2. Alabama Hills
Stunning and free. Let’s repeat: STUNNING and FREE. This little gem sits just off California’s Hwy. 395, a stretch of roadway that runs through some of the Eastern Sierra’s most beautiful landscapes. At the base of Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48, set among piles of jumbo rocks scatter across the landscape is where you’ll find Alabama Hills. It has plenty to offer guests – mainly total relaxation. Yes, hikers and photographers flock to the area primarily to climb Mt. Whitney (permit required) or try their hand at snapping a photo of the jagged peak through Arch Rock, a shot made famous by Ansel Adams. But, some of the best time spent in the area, is time spent doing nothing at all.
It’s simple. Find a spot, set up camp. However, there are two things to note. One, a fire permit is required if you want to have a campfire. It’s easily obtained, for free, at the intra-agency visitors center along Hwy. 395. And, second, there is no camping past the first mile of Movie Road, but the initial stretch is open to all.
The nearby town of Lone Pine offers all services including shops and restaurants as well as one heck of a museum dedicated to the movie-making history of the area. A fan of old westerns or not, it’s a must.
Also cannot be missed is the Manzanar National Historic Site a short drive north of Alabama Hills. This incredibly powerful, well-thought out, well-managed site has preserved the site of one of America’s cruel acts – one of several places where Japanese American citizens and immigrants were forced into incarceration during World War II.
3. Yosemite National Park
Yes, Yosemite National Park is only number on this list. Crazy, isn’t it? Yosemite is synonymous with the outdoors in California, and it is incredible, definitely worthy of the honor. Camping inside the park is magical for one reason – it brings you closer to exploring this incredible natural wonderland. However, crowded campgrounds with sites packed right on top of each other mean the camping experience may not be the best, even if time spent inside the park is out of this world. Still, do it. You won’t regret it.
Your best options inside the Yosemite Valley with an RV or trailer are the Pines Campgrounds – Upper, North and Lower. Of the three..North and Lower are the best. They are situated along the river, have incredible views and seem to have a bit more space. The Upper Pines campground is the larger of the three and is extremely crowded. In addition, the battle against bark beetle means the upper loops of Upper Pines have been decimated and most the trees recently removed. Other campgrounds inside the park include quite a drive if you’re looking to spend most of your time in the valley.
Your best option if you are in a tent is either Camp 4 or backpacking. Getting into the backcountry is honesty the best and most appeal option for those looking for a little solitude. Make sure to secure your backcountry permit first.
4. Death Valley
Again, it’s not about the camping, it’s about the park. Let’s keep in mind you are camping in a desolate area; what does that mean? No privacy. But, you won’t need it; you’ll be out exploring the incredible landscape with every free moment of your time.
5. Jalama Beach
This spot isn’t about the camping either unless your looking for a crowded, intimate experience, which honestly is what makes this place kind of fun. You can bond with other campers, share a burger at the beach bar and let your children play freely around the campground. If that’s not attractive to you then let it be the beach what pulls you here. Miles and miles of beautiful coastline await at this out-of-the-way county park. It’s not hard to lose the crowds, just take a walk down the rocky shoreline to enjoy some peace and quiet. Spend your day flying a kite, exploring tide pools, searching for sea glass or watching the surfers bounce in and out of the waves. There is just something special about this place, and a reason why locals may want to keep it to themselves.
It doesn’t lend itself to day tripping. While still relatively close to Santa Barbara, the drive into the park off the main highway is a 14-mile, curve-filled, pock marked road. Once you’re in, you’ll want to stay put.
Other Places of Note:
- Joshua Tree National Park
Come for both the camping and the park. Jumbo Rocks is the only place you can find to camp in your big rig, but if you’re in a tent, van or sprinter you can call any campground in the park home for a few nights, and they’re all pretty magical.
- Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
A place where developed camping can be as incredible as the park itself.
- Tronna Pinnacles
The what? The Pinnacles. If you’re looking for a little different experience, give it a try. The spires of rock shooting toward the sky from a vast stretch of nothing is interesting to say the least. It’s free camping and great star gazing if you happen to be in the area. Although, we drove well out of our way to check it out, and for the effort were a bit disappointed.