Camping at Joshua Tree National Park. Photo by Hannah Schwalbe/NPS
Camping at Joshua Tree National Park. Photo by Hannah Schwalbe/NPS

Last Minute Campgrounds in Southern California for Escaping Los Angeles Today!

Wouldn't it be great if you could go camping this weekend? Well, guess what—you can! Just because you didn't plan your camping trip months in advance doesn't mean your tent has to stay in the bag. Pitch that tent tomorrow at one of these SoCal campgrounds that accommodate last minute campers (even on holiday weekends!), and then break out the marshmallows. And if you think your kids need a little more incentive to embrace disconnecting for a weekend, check out these SoCal campgrounds with extra entertainment.

National Park Camping near Los Angeles

One way to pull off a last-minute camping trip is to head for a campground that either doesn't take reservations at all or holds back a certain number of sites for walk-ups. Almost all national parks fall into this category. If you want to be sure of securing a campsite, plan on getting there early, though. And if you don't mind going primitive as a last resort, there are almost always a few primitive sites available somewhere in a national park.

Joshua Tree National Park

Campsite fees: $15 (+ $30 park entrance fee per car)
Joshua Tree offers a surprising variety of desert terrain and is just over a two-hour drive from LA. The park has three campgrounds (Hidden Valley, White Tank, and Belle Campgrounds) that are first-come, first-served, while others take reservations via recreation.gov (including Cottonwood Springs, the only one with flush toilets). In hotter weather, one of the cooler, higher altitude, drive-up campgrounds might be more comfortable, in spite of the pit toilets. Note: When you arrive and find an open first-come, first-serve campground simply self-register and pay at the kiosk. The fee is $15 per night by cash or check only.

Musch Trail Camp

Campsite fees: $7 per person per night (plus $10 to park overnight)
This hike-in camp right in the middle of Los Angeles is convenient in one way (it's in the Santa Monica Mountains) and less so in another—you have to hike about a mile to reach it. But it's an easy hike you'd likely want to take anyway, and for your effort, you're rewarded with a camp that has room for 8 tents, plus has tables, running water, and a flush toilet. Because no reservations are accepted, the spots are available on a first come, first served basis. No campfires or smoking are permitted.

Death Valley National Park

Campsite fees: Free-$36
The great thing about driving five hours to the hottest spot in the western hemisphere is that, chances are, you will get a campsite. Note that some areas are closed during part of the year, so check the website before heading out. The only campgrounds open in the summer of 2021 are Mesquite Springs, Emigrant, Wildrose, Thorndike, and Mahogany Flat. The uber-desert park has plenty to fascinate kids (see our Death Valley with Kids review), and campgrounds that are first come, first served most of the year (only Furnace Creek takes reservations in the winter months).

Last Minute Campgrounds in Southern California: kids making s'mores

S'mores are the best thing about camping! Photo by US Dep't of Agriculture via flickr

National Forest Camping near LA

National forests also have plenty of last-minute options, and we are virtually surrounded by national forests in LA. Check for the many campsites that don't take reservations in the Angeles National Forest, the Sequoia National Forest, the San Bernardino National Forest, and Los Padres National Forest. Here are some local favorites:

Green Valley Campground

Campsite fees: $25-$54
Enjoy hiking through the pine-filled San Bernardino 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 firewood and other supplies. There are flush toilets (always nice) but no showers available. Some sites are available on a first come, first served basis; call 909-866-8550 to confirm that sites are open before packing your tent!

Wheeler Gorge Campground 

Campsite fees: $25-$40
Wheeler Gorge in Los Padres National Forest does take reservations, but it also holds some sites back for spontaneous campers. Streams run through the campground, and nearby trails offer miles of walking fun. All this just 15 miles outside of downtown Ojai.

Last Minute Campgrounds in Southern California: Chuchupate Campground

The perfect spot for hiking, marshmallow toasting, and stargazing. Photo courtesy of Chuchupate Campground

Chuchupate Campground

Campsite fees: $20
If your heart's desire is a tent among quiet pine trees on a moment's notice—and without driving too far—Chuchupate is your destination. It's a quiet little spot in the middle of almost nowhere, yet barely 90 minutes from most of LA. At the top of a small mountain in Los Padres National Forest, no one seems to know about this place; we've been there on summer holiday weekends and found it half empty. Don't expect any activities beyond hiking, marshmallow toasting, and stargazing, but it's a grand spot for all three. Chuchupate Campground is currently open for camping on a first come, first served basis with 22 sites held for reservations at Recreation.com.

Chula Vista Campground

Campsite fees: No fee, but daily ($5) or annual ($30) park pass required
In Los Padres Forest, Chula Vista sits on Mount Pinos and is a favorite spot of star-gazers and astronomers. In fact, you have a good chance of being invited to look through someone's telescope in the parking lot. Altitude makes this a cool spot, and pine needles make it a comfy one. And since the campground does not accept reservations, you've got a great shot at landing one, if you arrive early in the day.

Cleveland National Forest

Campsite fees: No fee, but daily ($5) or annual ($30) park pass required
There are campgrounds aplenty in this 460,000-acre forest, and they can be found in the Descanso, Palomar, and Trabuco ranger districts. The Bobcat Meadow Campground is a quiet choice near several connecting trails, with campsites located in oak groves with views of the desert (but thankfully cooler temperatures thanks to the higher elevation). There are 20 campsites available and 2 pit toilets, and each parking spot can handle a vehicle towing up to 27-foot trailers, if you're so inclined. This campground also does not accept reservations, so just arrive early to claim your spot.

Last Minute Campgrounds in Southern California: Ricardo Campground

Ricardo Campground at Red Rock Canyon. Photo by Michael Jason Smith/CC BY 2.0

California State Park Campgrounds in Los Angeles

California State Park campgrounds are mostly reserved through ReserveCalifornia.com or via phone at 800.444.7275. Most of these campgrounds are very popular; they are reservable six months in advance and generally fill up shortly after bookings open. A few select campgrounds are not reservable and therefore usually have last-minute availability (e.g. Ricardo Campground at Red Rock Canyon, which has 50 campsites). It's always worth checking on the reservations site as well, though, for last minute cancelations.

Privately Owned Campgrounds near LA

Privately owned campgrounds like KOA are generally quite a different experience from state and national park camping, and tend to be a whole lot easier to reserve at the last minute—often accommodating drive-ups. These campgrounds vary tremendously in style, so we recommend reading plenty of online reviews before choosing one. Most have plenty of amenities for the inexperienced camper, and some offer playgrounds and other entertainment for kids.

Last Minute Campgrounds in Southern California: KOA

Scrambling up the climbing wall. Photo courtesy of KOA Ventura Ranch

Ventura Ranch KOA

Campsite fees: $36 and up
This KOA definitely knows how to show kids a good time (FYI, there is a $10 charge per person, so be prepared if you have a big party). You can set your tent up under the trees, then let the kids go to the playground where they can jump on the giant bouncing pillow, climb the rock wall, ride racing trikes, or fly the giant zip line. By night, staff lead mildly spooky walks through the "haunted" corners of the campground. Just be prepared for early morning wake-up calls from the resident peacocks. Campsites, swimming, and the ropes course are all open in 2021, but some activities are still on hold.

Temecula / Vail Lake KOA

Campsite fees: $36 and up
This campground makes a great base for a visit to some of Temecula's kid-friendly wineries; whether or not you're normally a fan of sleeping in a tent, it sure sounds better than driving back to LA after a day of wine tasting! The Temecula/Vail Lake KOA has a variety of bonus features, including mini golf, three swimming pools, basketball courts, and a cafe with a patio bar. The setting is pretty with plenty of trees, but only 15 minutes from Old Town Temecula.

Lake Isabella / Kern River KOA

Campsite fees: $36 and up
The Kern River is a delightful area to set up camp, and KOA makes it easy. The campground has every option from tents to cabins, and entertainment that includes a swimming pool, splash pad, and playgrounds—not to mention rafting on the Kern River.

camping and baby goats is heaven

Camping + baby goats = Heaven! Photo courtesy of Owlbee Farm Campground

OwlBee Farm

Campsite fees: $65
Ready for something completely different? How about camping on a working organic farm, surrounded by adorable baby farm animals who love visitors? This private campground between Mount Jacinto State Park and Palomar Mountain State Park is an animal lover's dream. Tents and RVs are welcome at the farm's 17 campsites (plus one indoor glampy room for non-outdoorsy types), and wifi is available. Organic eggs and veggies are available for purchase to cook over the fire. For 2021, campsite spacing has been adjusted to ensure proper six-foot physical distancing. Hand sanitizer and soap are available, and check-in is contactless.

Originally published June 5, 2012

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