From the Beach to the Mountains, 9 of California's Best Camping Destinations
Camping can be uncomfortable. It takes meticulous planning and requires more D batteries than you could possibly have in your junk drawer. It can be buggy, too hot, too cold — but for some reason the experience of pitching a tent, building a fire and spending a night outside without the distractions of television and the other trappings of living on the electrical grid is also extremely fun and rewarding.
It might be a touch late to make camping plans for Labor Day weekend, but the unofficial arrival of fall means it's the best time of the year to get your camping gear out of storage and sleep outside-ish for a night or a few. Southern and Central California are chockablock with good places to camp, but we did some research and polled L.A. Weekly staffers to come up with a list of some of the best locations for everything from a totally primitive tent excursion to a night of "glamping" (sorry) in a cushy cabin on the coast.
Nestled along the Santa Barbara County coast a meandering 40-mile drive southwest from Solvang and 60 miles northwest from Santa Barbara, Jalama Beach County Park is isolated but still has lots of creature comforts and conveniences (and, for better or worse, people). The campground’s 98 sites — RV sites with hookups, tent sites and seven cabins — all have ocean views and can be reserved in advance, which is recommended (there’s typically a waiting list for day-of arrivals). There’s a general store that sells forgotten supplies, clean bathrooms with showers and a restaurant that serves a burger people really flip for, but there’s no cellphone reception or Wi-Fi, so leave the phone in the tent and try to have a good time without checking Facebook every three minutes.
9999 Jalama Road, Lompoc. countyofsb.org/parks/jalama.sbc.
If you’re cool with pit toilets, have a four-wheel-drive vehicle and have the foresight to bring lots of water, camping at Kelso Dunes is a great way to feel as if you’re sleeping on another planet. But, like, one with plenty of breathable oxygen. The largest natural sand deposits in the Mojave Natural Preserve, Kelso Dunes offers roadside camping (the National Park Service offers plenty of tips and locations), hiking and weird phenomena: "The Kelso Dunes produce a 'booming' or 'singing' sound when sand with the right moisture content slides down the steep slopes. Try it for yourself — run down a dune slope (but don't trample vegetation!) to initiate the sound."
Kelso Dunes Trail, Mojave Natural Preserve. nps.gov/moja/planyourvisit/kelbaker-road.htm.
This image of the entrance of the Angeles National Forest does not do justice to what Buckhorn Campground looks like at 6,300 feet.
Located about an hour's drive northeast from La Cañada Flintridge in the Angeles National Forest, Buckhorn Campground has bears (cute! scary!) and doesn't take reservations, but at 6,300 feet, it's beautiful enough to take your chances. The grounds limit the size of RVs that are allowed, but the first come, first served tent-camping sites are nestled among gargantuan ponderosa pines and offer easy access to a network of hiking trails for only 12 bucks a night. There are vault toilets, and each site has a fire ring with a grill and a bear locker, so you can cook food and keep the wildlife away. And it's pet-friendly — except for the bears, I guess.
Angeles Crest Hwy., La Cañada Flintridge. fs.usda.gov/recarea/angeles/recreation/recarea/?recid=41690&actid=29.
Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles is a little farther flung than the other locations on the list — east of the Salinas Valley, 80 miles southeast of San Jose — but the landscape alone is worth the drive. Formed by volcanoes 23 million years ago, the park has rock spires, woodlands and unique talus caves, narrow canyons in the volcanic rock that were filled with tumbling boulders. The oak tree–filled (and, frequently, people-filled) campground has 134 sites for both tent and RV camping, each with a fire pit and picnic table. There's a general store and a swimming pool, too, so even though the landscape is prehistoric the camping has modern comforts. Dogs are allowed in the campground but not on the park's 30 miles of hiking trails, and reservations can be made up to six months in advance.
Pinnacles Campground, 2400 Pinnacles Hwy., Paicines. nps.gov/pinn/planyourvisit/camp.htm.
Calico Ghost Town
Yes, Calico Ghost Town is sort of tacky and touristy, but a little kitsch never hurt anyone. A legitimate silver strike ghost town that was purchased and gussied up for families traveling through the desert by Walter Knott in the 1950s, Calico has a "mystery shack," museum, a railroad, mine tours, ghost tours and a 265-site campground with bunkhouses for rent, as well as tent and RV sites. The campground doesn't have a huge amount of amenities — it does have restrooms, hot showers, fire rings and grills — but the attraction is what draws visitors anyway. Who doesn't need one more photo of himself looking dejected from behind bars in an old-timey jail?
36600 Ghost Town Road, Yermo. cms.sbcounty.gov/parks/Parks/CalicoGhostTown.aspx.
El Capitan Canyon
Courtesy El Capitan Canyon
El Capitan Canyon
A camping option for people who think actual camping sounds like cruel and inhuman punishment, El Capitan used to be a traditional campground but reopened in 2002 as a "luxury campground" with 122 cute cabins, six yurts and 26 canvas safari tents. A five-minute walk to Santa Barbara's El Capitan State Beach and nature preserve–adjacent, the grounds offer a heated swimming pool, complimentary bikes and, no joke, spa services such as hot stone massages. (They'll also arrange things like horseback riding excursions and winery tours for visitors looking to do more than lounge around a campfire.) Naturally, the luxury camping experience will set you back a couple — or 200 — bucks, but it's sure to make converts out of certain camp-phobes.
11560 Calle Real, Santa Barbara. elcapitancanyon.com.
Located 5,000 feet above sea level, Lake Arrowhead — formerly Little Bear Lake — has Alpine charm smack in the middle of the San Bernardino Mountains. There are a couple of campgrounds in the area: Dogwood Campground, which has 93 wooded sites, an amphitheater for entertainment and bathrooms that were remodeled in 2004, and is only five minutes from Lake Arrowhead Village; and Northshore Campground, a smaller grounds with 23 sites and the usual amenities like fire rings, picnic tables and restrooms. (Both are open May through October.) But the area also offers primitive camping for more adventurous travelers who are less attached to flush toilets. There are rules about where you can camp in terms of proximity to water, other campgrounds, trailheads and private property, so make sure to check those out before pitching a tent.
Crystal Cove State Park
Up for a challenge? Crystal Cove State Park, a beautiful seaside preserve in Laguna Beach, encourages visitors to climb the canyon trails to find hike-in primitive campsites with picnic tables and pit toilets, approximately a three-mile hike from civilization, aka the check-in at Moro Canyon Campground. Or maybe Moro is more your speed. There are 58 family sites — 28 for RVs and 30 for tents — that are pet-friendly and have picnic tables and bathroom access (and are closer to the beach). The park doesn't allow open fires (gas camp stoves are OK) or alcohol consumption, but there are a few restaurants nearby, including the Beachcomber Cafe, which has beer and a full bar.
8471 N. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. parks.ca.gov/?page_id=27227.
Tehachapi Mountain Park
The campground at Tehachapi Mountain Park, 100 or so miles due north of L.A. in Kern County, has 61 campsites (for $18 a day), two "camps" with cabins for groups of 40 or more and views for days. The grounds offer access to the Nuooah Nature Trail, a quarter-mile loop with signs that interpret the landscape. Or if you're up for a more strenuous excursion, people seem to enjoy the three-mile hike up to the top of the range. And word has it that September/October is the prime time to visit.
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