These days, choosing the best place to camp within California’s 18 national forests is like choosing just one flavor of ice cream at the ice cream parlor. California boasts thousands of campgrounds that range in landscapes from the sierras to the desert, and from the redwoods to the bluffs; with styles of camping that range from primitive camping basics to modern-day glamping. Here are a handful of my regional picks for the best places to camp, whether by foot, car, boat, motorcycle or RV.
Tahoe National Forest
Tahoe National Forest is located in the northern Sierra Nevada and has over 75 campgrounds, yet it is not technically a part of Lake Tahoe Basin, home to the largest alpine lake in North America, covering 150,000 acres of wilderness, beaches, hiking trails, historic estates and just over 20 campgrounds.
Run by both the US Forest Service and the California State Parks, Lake Tahoe Basin camping in North Shore is near the best hiking and fishing; the South Shore is great for RVs and families; the East Shore is near beaches; and the West Shore is near historic sites, bike and hiking trails.
Redwood National and State Parks
The oldest California redwoods in the Redwood National and State Parks started as seedlings many years ago and camping among these 2,000-year-old beauties in this UNESCO World Heritage Site is divine. A 50-mile stretch that starts in northernmost California approximately 325 miles north of San Francisco, ending in the little-known town of Orick, Redwood National and State Parks have 4 campgrounds to choose from; 3 campgrounds in the redwood forest and one on the Pacific coastline at Golds Bluff Beach.
California’s Big Sur
Starting in the Monterey/Carmel area of Northern California and ending at Central California’s San Simeon near Hearst Castle, there’s more magnificent coastline camping on California's Big Sur where 3 tribes of Native Americans -- the Ohlone, Esselen and Salinan -- were first to inhabit the areas and where 3 million tourists visit per year. Camp streamside in the Big Sur Valley or camp ocean view bluff-side in the southern end of Big Sur. It is a stretch of California camping that you won’t want to miss.
Sequoia National Forest
The Sequoia National Forest, in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains of California, covers a whopping 1,193,315 acres and ranges in elevation from 1,000 to 12,000 feet. It has the highest concentration of giant sequoia groves in the world, covering 196,000 acres and some of the most diverse camping landscapes and offerings, with over 2,500 miles of roadways and 850 miles of trails. There are 14 national campgrounds in both Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
Yosemite National Park
The famous Yosemite National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in central eastern California that covers an area of 1,189 square miles of lakes, ponds, streams, hiking trails, sequoia, waterfalls and wilderness, boasts over 3.7 million visitors per year. There are 13 popular and sought-after nationally operated campgrounds within Yosemite for tents, RVs, groups and horse camping.
Crystal Cove State Park
With over 2,400 acres of wilderness and 3.2 miles of coastal beachfront, Crystal Cove State Park is in Southern California’s Newport Beach area between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach in Orange County. Crystal Cove Beach Cottages are an historic seaside colony of rentals within the 12.3-acre Crystal Cove Historic District, which is an enclave of rustic cottages built in the 1930s and ’40s and is a federally listed historic district on the California coast. There are currently 24 sought-after beachfront cottages available for rent, with another 17 to be restored. There is also tent, RV, family and bluff camping available at the Crystal Cove wildnerness area of El Moro Canyon.
Southern California’s Santa Barbara County has plenty of beachfront camping to choose from: Carpinteria State Beach, Gaviota State Park, Jalama Beach and Refugio State Beach. But if you want to get your glamp on, check out the luxury safari tents, fully equipped wood cabins and daily maid service at El Capitan Canyon Resort’s luxury campgrounds right across the road from El Capitan State Beach and a glorious Santa Barbara County beachfront. You can also find bluff camping El Capitan State Beach.
And … Personal Campground Favorites
There’s a California state campground in Malibu that was once owned by movie studio 20th Century-Fox, a private KOA campground in Santa Cruz where you can rent an iconic Airstream, a unique yurt camping experience on Highway 1 and seasonal camping in the middle of the San Francisco Bay at Angel Island State Park. And if the whole camping-on-an-island-bluff-while-being-close-to-the-sea-thing suits you, check out the campgrounds on Catalina Island, where I attended summer camp as a tween.
Always fond of waterfront camping, lakes like Lake Powell, Lake Shasta, Lake Tahoe, Castaic Lake and Pyramid Lake were where I camped and boated with friends as a young adult. Whichever campground you choose within California’s 18 national forests, you’re sure to create great memories, too. Pick a spot, pitch a tent and get going.