Whether it’s the smell of the air, the crashing of the waves, or the chilly nights and warm days, beach camping on the West Coast has a definite allure. Kids love the novelty of camping by the beach, and many of the best locations are kid friendly. From the California/Mexico border to the Olympia Peninsula in Washington, the West Coast has a plethora of seaside campgrounds where families love to pitch a tent or park an RV. Here are some of the best beach campsites California, Oregon, and Washington have to offer.
Best Beach Camping in Southern California
The coast around Carlsbad has some of the best stretches of beach in the country, and South Carlsbad State Beach offers the opportunity to camp right above the water. Located on a bluff above sandy beaches, the campground is dominated by RVs, but you can still pitch a tent. The beach is just a short walk down wooden staircases built into the cliffs.
The trees around the campsites at Leo Carrillo offer relief on a hot beach day. Photo by Roberta Brown
While it’s on the east side of PCH, there are few coastal campgrounds as appealing as Leo Carrillo in Malibu. The campground is quiet and rustic, with a camp store that has camping essentials, some groceries, and some unexpected activities and toys. Perhaps the best thing about camping on the in land side of PCH is that Leo Carrillo has plenty of shady climbing trees to pitch a tent under, yet is still a stone's throw from the sand. The beach is a short walk across PCH, and if you have a dog, the Leo Carrillo dog beach is less than a mile away.
If Leo Carrillo is full, Sycamore Canyon 5 miles up the road has an almost identical set-up and terrain.
Best Beach Camping in Central California
A cabin at El Capitan Canyon is a short walk from the beach or llamas. Photo by Roberta Brown
Growing up nearby on the Central Coast, the El Capitan was always a go-to camping location, with two different choices. For a beach camping experience, head south of the 101 to El Capitan State Beach, which is located on cliffs just above a peaceful, quiet, and clean beach. Another option that’s not right on the shore but less than a mile away is El Capitan Canyon, which is on the north side of the 101. You won’t be sleeping in tents at El Capitan, instead the lodging is in permanent safari tents or on-site glamping cabins, adding a touch of luxury to the camping experience. As an added bonus for kids, El Capitan Canyon is home to a herd of friendly goats and llamas on a slope looking over the sea. Both of the campgrounds at El Capitan fill up fast so if they're full, check out nearby Refugio State Beach.
Another great beach camping destination near Santa Barbara is Refugio State Beach in Goleta. The campground is directly on the beach, with trees and grass that improve the ambiance, including palm trees lining the Refugio Creek that runs into the ocean. Activities you can start right from the campground include bike and hiking trails, kayaking, and a good swimming beach with lifeguards. Both tent and RV camping are welcome, and a camp store is available onsite outside of pandemic times.
Nothing says kick back quite like beach camping. Photo by Roberta Brown
Get away without being too far out of the city at Carpinteria State Beach. This beachside campground is located right next to the small city of Carpinteria, giving the feeling of a remote campground but the many kid-friendly activities of Santa Barbara just a few miles away. The campground itself is filled with kid-friendly activities, from the ocean waves that are gentle enough for beginner surfers and bodyboarders, to the Visitor’s Center with an indoor tide pool with live animals.
One of the Central Coast’s hidden treasures is Jalama Beach County Park – it could be because the beach is at the end of a twisting, 14-mile-long road that intersects with Highway 1. It’s located just north of Point Conception (where the California coast transitions to a north-south orientation from an east-west orientation), so the experience is much different from those south of the point, despite being only a few miles away. For my friends with kids on the Central Coast, a camping trip to Jalama Beach is a summer tradition. In addition to tent and RV camping, Jalama has cabins and yurts for rent; the cabins are fully furnished, so all you need to bring are linens. There's also a beach store with convenience products—don't miss the Jalama Grill and its World Famous Jalama Burger!
Pismo Beach camping. Photo by Kendall/CC-BY-2.0
There are tons of things to do in the Pismo Beach area, and one of the most popular is beach camping. What’s cool about Pismo State Beach are the two different types of camping experiences available. For a more traditional camping experience just yards away from the beach, the North Beach Campground and Oceano Campground have designated sites to pitch a tent or hook up an RV. At the Oceano Dunes SVRA, you can actually drive your car right onto the beach and pitch a tent on the sand. There aren’t designated sites here, though there’s a limit to the number of camping permits issued.
Be sure to skip stones at sunset across Morro Bay. Photo by Roberta Brown
Morro Bay is a California bucket list spot, so be ready to put in a little extra effort to get a campsite at this state park. The sites themselves are set far back from the water, but that just makes taking a walk down for sunset or moonlight on the water an even better family activity. There are kayaks available for rental on the smooth, protected bay, and you might well see otters or sea lions as you head off across the water to enjoy views of the towering, volcanic Morro Rock. A kayak is also a great way to get to some very secluded sandy beaches. The Morro Bay Museum of Natural History is another kid-friendly feature of this campground.
Best Beach Camping in Northern California
Search the tent for sea monsters at the end of the day! Photo by Roberta Brown
New Brighton State Beach in Capitola allows campers to enjoy Santa Cruz's eclectic vibe and beautiful setting along the Monterey Bay, while avoiding the hordes of tourists that flock to the downtown area. Growing up in the Bay Area, my wife and her family frequently stayed at New Brighton State Beach. The campground is very kid-friendly, and while it feels like you're in the forest, you're right in the middle of civilization. The beach has a more wild feel and is definitely quieter than others in the area; spend a few days at this tranquil beach and then go get the tourist experience with a day at the beaches in Santa Cruz. One thing to note: the campgrounds are first-come, first-served.
This state park is just outside the town of Half Moon Bay, about an hour from Downtown San Francisco. The campground is right on the sandy shores of the bay so you don't have to walk more than a few dozen feet to set up at the beach. Take in the views of one of California's most scenic areas on the three-mile-long Coastside Trail, which connects the area's four beaches. If you're looking for a non-beach activity while you camp, check out Lemos Farms, which has pony rides, goat petting and feeding, and a train ride.
Photo by Antonio Mendes/Unsplash
Best Beach Camping in Oregon
The massive Fort Stevens State Park near Astoria, Oregon may not be where Goonies was filmed, but it has the same look and feel of those ragged beaches from the iconic movie. A 4,300-acre park, Fort Stevens was once the site of a military installation at the mouth of the Columbia River. Today, there are still ruins scattered across the beach to explore, including the Wreck of the Peter Iredale, the rusted skeletal core of an old shipwreck from the turn of the century. The park offers tours of the various military relics and buildings that can be found around the park. There's also a disc golf course! There are campsites available for reservation that can accommodate tents and RVs; there are also yurts and cabins available for rent too—some of which are pet friendly.
Best Beach Camping in Washington
If you're looking to really get away from it all and leave civilization behind, then South Beach Campground at Olympia State Park is perfection. This campground is located along the Pacific Ocean within the sprawling, densely forested state park on the Olympia Peninsula. The campground's appeal is its isolated location amid miles and miles of hiking trails and scenic rocky coastline. Reservations are not accepted at South Beach Campground, so arrive early to ensure scoring a site.