Marshmallows. Check. Bug spray. Check. Air mattress. Check. Camping season is upon us. Hurrah! And thankfully in this multi-terrain region of ours, you don't need to go far to enjoy a night or two under the stars. A weekend without electronics, breathing fresh air, and enjoying meals over the campfire: all this can be yours without driving more than an hour or two—in some cases even less! Read on to find an easy destination for you and your happy campers. (And if the one you want is full this weekend, check out a few last minute camping spots.)
Note that the California State Parks no longer use Reserve America. All state parks now use Reserve California.
1. Camp Williams Resort
24210 East Fork Road
Azusa, CA 91702
Reserve by phone
You don't often hear the words "camping" and "resort" used together, but this little known spot in the San Gabriel Mountains above LA pulls the two concepts together quite nicely. All campsites are river front—allowing for fishing from right in front of the tent—plus kids can pan for gold, go on bird walks, or take a walk to the camp store. And of course hot showers and flush toilets count as "resort" in camping circles. All this within easy reach of the city: a person could even run back to town for a Dodger game before sleeping under the stars.
2. Malibu Creek State Park
1925 Las Virgines Road
Calabasas, CA 91302
Another spot that's close to town but away from it all. Malibu Creek is a hop and a skip away from the Westside or the Valley, with so many quiet trails (quiet that is, except for bunnies and birds and the occasional snake), many of which are stream-side. Enjoy gorgeous meandering fields, often with deer foraging in the distance. M*A*S*H was filmed here, as were scenes from Planet of the Apes; you might recognize the terrain. Make sure to take a dip (at least your toes) at the rock pool. And if you're daring (and perhaps your kids are older), have a leap off of the large rocks into the refreshing water below. The group site is rather slanted, but nicely secluded from the rest of the camping public. Dogs on leashes are allowed at the campground, but are not allowed on the backcountry trails or dirt roads.
3. Leo Carrillo State Park
35000 Pacific Coast Highway
Malibu, CA 90265
Just 28 miles above Santa Monica, Leo Carrillo is a simple getaway destination, especially for those on the Westside. Campsites are tucked away from PCH, but with easy access to hiking trails, the beach, and tide pools. The camping area offers coin operated showers and flush toilets, as well as a camp store (whose motto is, "If we don't have it, you don't need it.") Regulars warn about pesky squirrels, but otherwise rave about this pleasant little nearby spot. Reserve early! Spots fill up quickly.
4. Point Mugu State Park
9000 W. Pacific Coast Highway
Malibu, CA 90265
Just a few miles beyond Leo Carrillo, Point Mugu is another great spot for a first tent camping experience. Easy to get to, easy to enjoy. There are two campgrounds here: Thornhill Broome is directly on the beach and offers outside showers and chemical toilets The beach is rocky, and the wind can be chilly, but you can't camp closer to the waves. Big Sycamore Canyon (also called Sycamore Canyon) is on the inland side of PCH and offers a more mountainous retreat, with a short hike back to the beach. There is lots of shade at Sycamore (unlike Thornhill Broome), and easy access to miles of hiking trails. Sycamore Cove beach is accessed via a trail that goes under PCH, and the route may be flooded during high tide. The surf here can be a bit rough, but this is balanced by barbecues and picnic tables on the beach. Driving to the beach is also an option; a parking pass from any campground in Point Mugu is good at the Sycamore Cove beach lot. Wood is generally available for purchase at the ranger booth.
5. Lake Hemet
56570 Highway 74, Box 4
Mountain Center, CA 92561
Looking for a different sort of terrain? Camping lakeside in the mountains is the stuff that movie camping scenes are made of (just don't let anyone smear honey and string around your tent!). Lake Hemet delivers on all fronts, not only offering lovely spots to pitch a tent, but even offering to rent you a tent and have it pitched and waiting for you if such is your preference. Onsite facilities (apart from the gorgeous, inviting lake) include a camp store, a kids' fishing area, and the Splashing Eagle Water Park—a swim area in the lake with giant inflatables and even a trampoline right in the water (open Memorial Day to Labor Day). Cabins are available, too, if anyone in your family can't be convinced to sleep without walls.
Tent set-up at Lake Hemet
6. Carpinteria State Beach
5361 6th St.
Carpinteria, CA 93013
Back to the seaside idea, Carpinteria is another great spot to camp by the surf. Many of the sites here have ocean views and sounds (not just select sites), and swimming, surfing, and tide pooling are all within reach. Sea lion and seal spotting is common December through May. And all this just 12 miles south of Carpinteria, host of the California Avocado Festival every October. A little lore: Carpenteria was named for the large "carpentry shop" run by the local Chumash who once made canoes and other sea vessels in the area. The Chumash chose this spot because of naturally occurring tar, which they used to seal the boats. (Like other area beaches, tar is still sometimes present in the sand here. Don't let this deter you. Tar is easily removed from feet, hands, etc. by rubbing it with olive oil and other cooking oils, or Vaseline.) Dogs are not allowed on the beach.
7. Doheny State Beach
25300 Dana Point Harbor Drive
Dana Point, CA 92629
Park Office: 949.496.6172
Make your reservations early, for these spots fill up quickly. And it's no wonder. Campsites are at sea level, meaning no stairs to climb up or down to the beach. Enjoy nearby kayaking, surfing, wind surfing, fishing, and biking at the spot voted "Best Camp Site" eighteen years in a row by The Orange County Register's Best of Orange County. Flush toilets and showers are available (bring quarters for the showers). Pay attention to festival times throughout the peak season, which may mean larger than normal crowds, loud music, and increased traffic.
8. El Capitan State Beach
100 El Capitan Terrace Ln.
Santa Barbara, CA 93117
If you're willing to drive a wee bit farther, head to El Capitan, about 20 miles north of Santa Barbara, just off the 101, for beach surf, tidepools, hiking and biking trails, and rustling trees. Many sites even have an ocean view. The park provides restrooms and pay showers, but there are no trailer hook-ups, and no disposal station. Dogs are allowed at the campground - on a leash - but are not allowed on the beach at all. What's not to like? Well, some campers dislike the close proximity to the Amtrak train track, though most say the sound of the nearby waves balances the occasional sound of the trains.
9. Serrano Campground
40650 North Shore Lane
Fawnskin, CA 92333
If camping in Big Bear strikes your fancy, this campground is the most popular spot up there. Campers enjoy sleeping under tall trees that are walking distance from the lake, with campground amenities that include flush toilets, showers, and drinking water. The town is very close, for anyone who likes easy access to creature comforts or dinner out. And just a few steps from the campground visitors can rent kayaks and paddleboards to enjoy the lake. Also a short walk away is the Big Bear Solar Observatory; check opening times in advance to plan a visit. One more thing to check in advance is campfire status; during the driest part of the year, the park sometimes issues a ban on campfires.
10. Green Valley Campground
33900 Green Valley Lake Road
Green Valley Park, CA
Some sites available on a first come, first serve basis
Trout fishing anyone? You can do it here in nearby Green Valley Lake. But if you don't fish, no worries. There is plenty more to explore. Enjoy hiking through the pine filled San Bernadino Forest, take a swim in the lake or rent a kayak or paddle boat. The campground is between Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake, meaning a short drive gives you even more to do and see. A small nearby camp store sells fire wood and other supplies. There are flush toilets (always nice) but no showers available.
Photo by Mommy Poppins
11. La Jolla Indian Campground
22000 Highway 76
Pauma Valley, CA 92061
Read about the pricing.
No reservations are taken here (except for group sites). It's first come, first served. But if you can nab a space, you're in for a treat. The campground is located on Palomar Mountain, which overlooks the nearly 10,000 acre La Jolla Band of Luiseno Indians reservation. Much of the surrounding land is untouched and is graced with sage, wild flowers and oak trees - the latter once a major food source of this tribe. Enjoy hiking and river tubing during your stay. Showers are available from 8am-6pm. (Note: the campground opening dates are announced each year on its Facebook page.)
12. Santa Catalina Island
Reservations: 310.510.TENT (8368)
Catalina Island is a little island with a big selection. Choose from six camping options (including boat-in camping for those with water crafts). Best bet for families is Hermit Gulch. (What's not to like? They offer showers, flush toilets and rangers who sell firewood?). Ah, luxury. Downtown Avalon is just a mile downhill, and the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden is even closer. They also rent out camping equipment, and offer tent cabins. Other Catalina camping options include Little Harbor Campground (there are showers here, too, and easy access to the beach) and Two Harbors Campground
where you can pitch your own tent, or sleep in one of their tent cabins complete with cots. Be sure to read the camping guidelines before you head out (good to know, for example, that you need an easily obtainable camping permit on the island). And consider your ferry ride options, too. (Catalina Ferries offers service from Marina del Rey.) Dogs are not allowed at most campgrounds.
13. Campland on the Bay
2211 Pacific Beach Dr.
San Diego, CA 92019
Prices vary widely depending on site; see the full rate schedule.
Rustic and woodsy it's not. But Campland on the Bay has lots of appeal. Enjoy all the shores of Mission Bay have to offer including the close proximity to SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo. At the campground choose from swimming, volleyball, bike rentals, arcade games, sand castle competitions, and movies to name but a few activities. The facility offers a range of camping options from tent sites to full RV hook-ups. Flush toilets and showers available. Added bonus? Restaurants are nearby for those us who may tire of charred hotdogs and cold cereal.
14. Crystal Cove State Park Moro Campground
8471 N Coast Hwy.
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
If camping with an ocean view sounds like heaven, Crystal Cove can bring you there. The campsites on the bluffs come with the perk of pleasant, recently built amenities at one of the state's newest state parks. (And yes, that means hot showers and restrooms.) The beach is a steep walk down, or there are hikes in the hills as well. The ocean view sites are half RV, half tents only, with 58 in total. Primitive back country sites are also available, for die-hard campers. The coastal walk from the campground leads through wooded canyons to tidepools, sandy beaches, and plenty of flowers in spring. Park staff and docents conduct interpretive programs year-round, including guided hikes, tidepool walks, and geology talks, so ask about programs when you check in.
Cooking breakfast at Wheeler Gorge Campground. Photo by Mommy Poppins
15. Lake Casitas
11311 Santa Ana Road
Ventura, CA 93001
Wait. Is this place in Southern California? Just have a look at some photos, and you'll wonder, too. Though swimming is not allowed (the lake is a drinking water supply), boating and fishing are more than welcome. Largemouth Bass and Rainbow Trout are two of the many species that call this place home. Lucky little guys. Have a look around as you walk or bike along a trail on the eastern side of the lake. And if you're itching to get wet, head to Water Adventure, a family-friendly water park. Tents, tent trailers, campers, and RVs are all welcome at the campground. Playgrounds for the kids, and warm showers for us round out this splendid place to pitch your tent. Dry storage space is available for kayaks, RVs, and canoes. Dogs are allowed but must be on 6' max. leashes at all times. Campsites usually open in May for the summer season.
Note that the following campground has been closed since the Thomas Fire but is due to reopen April 12, 2018:
Wheeler Gorge Campground
17017 Maricopa Highway
Ojai, CA 93023
Reservations through Recreation.gov
Oh to wake up to the sound of a babbling creek! If this sounds like bliss to you, have a stay at Wheeler Gorge Campground. Streams actually run through the campground meaning you don't need to go far to enjoy a splash and some wet and rocky exploring (and to find some frogs). Nearby trails offer miles of walking fun. All this just 15 miles outside of downtown Ojai. Two night minimum stay is required on weekends, and three night minimum stay on holiday weekends. Dogs are allowed but must be on leashes at all times.
Top photo by USDA Forest Service via flickr
Originally published on March 28, 2012