California's best places to camp on the beach
Camping on California’s 840 miles of biodiverse coastline offers the chance to have the road trip of your life without breaking the bank. Choose your spot – from rugged and untamed in California’s north to moderate climates, desert flowers and the dreamiest sunsets you’ve ever seen in the south.
Wherever you land, you’ll pitch up and fall asleep under the stars to the sound of crashing waves. But plan your sleepovers wisely – camping on California’s coast is no secret, and places book up months in advance.
For miles of empty golden sand, head to Silver Strand State Beach in Coronado
The most southern beach-camping spot in California is also the warmest spot on this list. The deserted Silver Strand State Beach – with some 10 miles of golden sand to explore and endless, uncrowded waves to surf – is just 20 minutes from the Mexican border to the south and a short drive from central San Diego to the north.
There's only a beach and ocean in the direct vicinity, but all the city’s big attractions are within driving distance. Dine with San Diego’s hoi polloi in nearby Coronado, which has has dozens of excellent restaurants.
It’s strictly RVs only at Silver Strand; no tents allowed. There are more than 100 campsites available, plus restrooms, picnic tables, fire rings, potable water, a dump station and electric hookups on site.
Top tip: Book up to six months in advance via the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
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Admire soaring views of the Pacific Ocean at San Elijo State Beach Campground
Surfers love this tidy campground situated on the top of the cliff above San Elijo State Beach, with stair access down to the sand. It’s 1 mile south of the famous Swami’s surf break, which inspired the song "Surfin’ USA" by the Beach Boys, and nearby Encinitas is the epitome of a laid-back Southern California surf town, complete with meditation gardens, burrito shacks, juice bars and vegan cafes.
Tent and RV camping is allowed on San Elijo State Beach Campground’s large dirt pitches, many of which are separated by trees. There are restrooms with flush toilets on site, plus piped water, a camp store and fire rings.
Top Tip: Reservable up to six months ahead via California Parks; dogs welcome on leaches.
Surf at dawn after sleeping on the beach at San Mateo Campground
Not strictly on the beach, this secluded campground is a little inland from the world famous San Onofre State Beach and Trestles – considered by many to be the best surf spot in the world.
A 1.5-mile nature trail connects campers to the classic point break, with peeling left and right-handers and easy paddle-outs. Along with riding waves, there’s rugged bluff-top walking trails and wildlife spotting (look out for pelicans and and migratory waterfowl) and plenty of swimming opportunities on the three-mile stretch of beach.
San Mateo Campground has more than 150 pitches with fire pits, barbecues and picnic tables, plus there is water, restrooms (with showers and flush toilets) and laundry facilities on site. Some sites have electric hookup points. A small camp store sell essentials and there’s a dump station for waste. Book in advance via California Parks.
Hike, scuba dive and snorkel at Crystal Cove State Park
Situated north of the coastal city of Laguna Beach, high up on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, you get the best of park and beach at Crystal Cove State Park Campground, where there’s an emphasis on lower-impact camping (or basic tent camping).
Plots have easy access to the nearby Crystal Cove, a huge underwater park with excellent scuba diving and snorkeling – look out for the two historic anchors dating from the 1800s, and parts of a Navy plane that went down in the 1940s – plus, there are countless desert plants to explore in the state park’s 2400 acres of undeveloped woodland.
Facilities include bathrooms and showers, and a small number of RV hookups. Campfires are not allowed in the area. Seasoned campers may op for the 'primitive' campsites (no drinking water or showers) accessible via three-mile hike from the parking lot.
Book via ReserveCalifornia.com; park-entry fees are applicable, and permits are required for overnight camping.
Families and wildlife enthusiasts will love Carpinteria State Beach Campground
One of the most popular family camping spots in Southern California, Carpinteria State Beach Campground has more than 150 plots facing calm waters. Kids can splash around with lifeguards on duty, go tide-pooling, and spot harbor seals and sea lions bathing on the sand. The Tomol Interpretive Play Area is only a few minutes walk inland. Don’t miss the mile-long bluff-top hike with sweeping ocean views.
There are flush toilets at the campsite, which has several hookups available, plus hot showers, picnic tables and barbecue grills.
Enjoy your solitude at Gaviota State Park Campground
Situated in wild and pristine Gaviota State Park, some 40 pitches sit in the shadow of an impressive old railroad trestle. Trails lead down to the beach and its adjacent pier (a popular fishing spot) and up to the Gaviota Wind Caves – surreal sandstone formations with peculiar twists, turns and cavities, only a mile away.
Campers can also hike up the 1325ft Gaviota Peak for panoramic high cliff views of the Pacific Ocean. Watch out for mountain lions in the area.
Pitches come with a fire ring and picnic table. There are toilets on site, plus showers and drinking water. Tents and RVs welcome, but there are no electric hookups.
Bring your dog along to Jalama Beach County Park Campground
Midway between Santa Barbara and Pismo Beach at the end of a hilly, twisting road is the secluded Jalama Beach County Park, with more than 100 campsites for tents, trailers and RVs overlooking the ocean and beach to the west and the mountains to the east.
Hikes in the area weave along towering cliffs – it’s a prime place for whale spotting during migration season, while kite-boarders enjoy the strong winds.
Many of the tidy pitches are flanked by privacy hedges, and all have a picnic table and barbecue pit. There are also seven cabins for lucky early bookers, plus electric hookups, hot showers, restrooms and potable water. Dogs are welcome. The Jalama Beach Store and Grill serves warming clam chowder and homemade apple pie, and sells most things you might have forgotten.
Book via countyofsb.org.
Camp next to a private waterfall at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Campground
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Campground has only two camp spots, both of which sit above the iconic 80ft-tall McWay Falls, spilling directly into the azure Pacific Ocean below. This stop is a highlight on any Big Sur Coast or Rte 1 road trip – but campers get it all to themselves when the day trippers have gone home.
It’s a half-mile hike through tropical forests and 300ft redwoods to get to the environmental pitches, where there are fire rings, picnic tables and restrooms available, but no water or firewood (bring your own).
Book at ReserveCalifornia.
For a last-minute hook up try Pillar Point RV Park
Located 20 miles south of San Francisco, Pillar Point RV Park doesn't take reservations for its 49 sites, so those with an RV can simply rock up and try their luck.
The main draw is Mavericks – a monster wave that soars as high as an apartment building. Daredevils train to ride these moving mountains for a lifetime, and watching them is just as thrilling. Camping spots are scarce when Mavericks is "on."
It's a place where surfing legends are made, but it’s a beautiful spot to spend time regardless of the waves. Activities in the area include wine tasting, fishing, a 6-mile walking and biking trail next to the campsite and boating from the next-door marina, where you can also buy the catch of the day.
Facilities for RV campers include electricity and water hookups, plus complimentary cable TV and wifi. All RVs have to have their own fully functioning toilet to park up. There are no restrooms, showers or laundry facilities.
Shipman Creek campsite is an off-grid camping adventure
The wilderness camping spots on California’s Lost Coast Trail are not for the faint of heart – they’re only reachable on foot via a challenging hike along wild, tortured beaches, rocks and coastline. The total trail is 25 miles long, and completing it means spending around three days in the wild, carrying all your food and equipment with you.
The adventurous will be rewarded with mountain views, wild meadows, old-growth redwood forest and thrilling rivers and tides to navigate. Bring a tide table so you don’t get trapped or swept out to sea, and look out for sea lions and Roosevelt elks en route.
At the beach-side Shipman Creek campsite there are no facilities, but camping is free with a backcountry permit.
How to get there: The Lost Coast Trail begins near the mouth of the Mattole River at Mattole Beach, where there is a parking lot, a car campground, potable water and pit toilets, and ends at Black Sands Beach. The trail start at Mattole Beach at 3750 Lighthouse Rd, Petrolia. Permits are required.
Steep Ravine Beach has hot springs and cabins
An hour north from central San Francisco at Steep Ravine Beach, a cluster of primitive cabins with no running water, electricity or plumbed-in toilets sits overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a small rocky beach.
Come here to get away from the world and soak your bones in the hidden Steep Ravine Hot Springs at low tide. There’s also a clothing-optional bathing grotto nearby, maintained by locals.
Book via ReserveCalifornia.
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