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Enjoy sweeping views of the Pacific when you camp along California’s coast.
The Golden State boasts 840 miles of biodiverse coastline and an abundance of beachside campsites.
Wildfires continue to impact natural areas around the state of California. For up-to-date information on fires, closures, and whether or not it’s safe at your camping destination, be sure to check CalFire’s website. Some campgrounds may also be impacted by COVID. Double-check their websites for the most current information on campground closures and regulations.
It’s no secret that California has some of the best beaches and coastline in the United States. Visitors flock from all over the world to drive along Highway 1’s rugged bluffs and spot the area’s diverse wildlife, such as migrating whales or energetic otters. And at the state’s many coastal and beach camping destinations, you can end your day of sightseeing with a night under the stars, being lulled to sleep by the waves of the Pacific. Here are 11 of the best places for beach camping in California.
If you’re looking for true adventure, backpack Northern California’s aptly named Lost Coast Trail, which cuts through one of the wildest sections of the state’s coastline. The area was too steep and rugged to build a road, so the only way to access its beaches is by foot.
The Lost Coast Trail is not for the faint of heart. It takes an average of four days to complete this 25.3-mile trail, and you’ll be trekking on tough terrain, carrying all your food, clothing, and shelter with you. But the scenery is dramatic: The King Range mountains, which the trail skirts, drop straight into the ocean, ending in black sand beaches. You may even catch a glimpse of the enormous Roosevelt elk that call this area home.
The Bureau of Land Management, which manages the area, doesn’t restrict camping along the Lost Coast Trail. However, it’s best to stick to the established campsites, which are usually tucked into narrow valleys and protected from the elements and wind. The popular Shipman Creek campsite is one spot along the trail where you can camp on the beach itself.
You do not need reservations for the campsites, but each person in your group will need a permit for the trail that you reserve online at recreation.gov. Permits don’t cost anything but there is a $6 reservation fee for each one. Summer tends to be the busiest season, with permits selling out months in advance. Spring and fall are your best bets for scoring a permit, but you’ll still want to try to reserve yours several months before your trip.
Also, campers are required to bring a bear canister to store food on this trail. Pick up the BearVault BV450 from REI for $70 or rent one for $5 at one of several nearby locations.
If roughing it along the North Coast is not your cup of tea, book a spot at Mendocino Grove. Forget the sleeping bag: This luxury glamping destination has 60 roomy tents featuring comfy beds, plush linens, and warm comforters. Communal gas barbecues are available if you’d rather cook than forage for a restaurant in town, but you’ll need to supply your own cookware and grilling utensils.
While Mendocino Grove isn’t located directly on the shore, it’s coast adjacent, and a quick drive to Mendocino’s numerous beaches. Or you can rent a beautifully built outrigger from Catch-a-Canoe, which is just a short walk down a trail from the campground, and spend the day paddling along the Big River that flows from the campground out to the ocean.
Located an hour north of San Francisco in the Bay Area’s very own national park, Point Reyes National Seashore, Coast Camp is the perfect place to try backpacking. Tucked away in the sand dunes near Limantour Beach, this hike-in campground features 14 different sites and is accessible by a 1.7-mile, wide, flat fire road—basically a dirt and gravel road.
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There is water onsite, as well as picnic tables and vault toilets, so you still have some creature comforts, but a lack of cell service makes this spot feel remote. (Though, should anything go wrong, you’re not too far from your car.) You can gather driftwood from the beach to build a bonfire, so don’t forget to get a beach bonfire permit at the Bear Valley Visitor Center when you pick up your camping permit.
While you can reserve your spot online at recreation.gov, you must pick up a permit in person at the ranger station immediately before your trip.
The more nautically minded might want to try a boat-in campsite on the north end of Tomales Bay State Park, which neighbors the Point Reyes National Seashore. Although there are several beaches in the area that allow camping, the small sandy cove of Marshall Beach, which sits across the bay from Marshall, is one of the more popular spots (thanks to its rare, and in-demand, vault—aka no-flush—toilet).
For a truly unique experience, plan your trip for the fall, which is the best time of year in Tomales Bay to see bioluminescence. This natural phenomenon, in which light-emitting sea creatures like algae cause the water to glitter with specks of blue and white light, is best viewed on a dark, moonless night.
There are only 20 permits issued per day for camping on Tomales Bay beaches. You can reserve one at recreation.gov. Campers must boat in to stay at the beach overnight and kayaks can be rented in Marshall at Blue Waters Kayaking.
There are cabins at Steep Ravine, but this isn’t a glamping experience. Just steps from the shore in Mount Tamalpais State Park, the 10 primitive structures have no running water, electricity, or en suite toilets. You’ll need to bring your own sleeping bags, cooking supplies, and other essentials. There are, however, vault toilets, drinking water, and an old-fashioned stove in each cabin that you can use to warm them up with firewood.
Time your visit to coincide with a negative tide to soak in the hidden Steep Ravine Hot Springs right by your cabin. These geothermal vents on the beach at the base of the cliffs are only exposed during low tides. You can dig out your own little bathtub on the beach, or head to the hot springs grotto, maintained by locals. Word of warning: The grotto is clothing optional.
You can reserve a campsite or cabin at Steep Ravine at reservecalifornia.com. It’s a popular spot with locals and while you can sometimes find a last-minute campsite, it’s best to book your stay months in advance—especially if you want a cabin during the weekend.
Big Sur has some of California’s most-photographed coastline and some of the state’s most-beloved coastal camping. In the southern end of the Big Sur Coast, off Highway 1, is Treebones Resort, a glamping destination with six yurts. Try one of its two “nests,” built by local artist Jayson Frann. You’ll need to bring your own sleeping bags and a backup tent because these structures made of woven driftwood and sticks are not waterproof. Don’t feel like risking damp weather? The domed Autonomous Tent, perched high on the hillside, has over 500 square feet of living space, a shower, and a compostable, flushing toilet.
You can reserve a campsite or one of Treebone’s yurts or tents directly on its website, treebonesresort.com. Yurts begin at $320 per night while bring-your-own-tent campsites start at $95.
If you’d rather opt for a more traditional outdoor experience in Big Sur, Kirk Creek Campground is your car camping destination. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, it has spots for tent and RV camping. Each of the 40 sites holds up to eight people and two cars and is equipped with a fire ring and picnic table. The best campsites are numbers 8–22, which are closest to the ocean and furthest from Highway 1. This is a dry campground with vault toilets, so you’ll need to bring your own water.
Kirk Creek campground is open year-round and you can reserve a campsite at recreation.gov for $35 per night. Campsites book up quickly, though, so it’s worth making a reservation well in advance.
Feeling lucky? Try scoring a night at one of the four-person environmental campsites at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. These two sites, the only ones in this park, are located about a half-mile hike from the parking lot and right above the famous McWay Falls. You won’t be able to see the falls from your tent, but you’ll be the only people in the park once it closes for the night.
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Spend the day hiking to Cone Peak, at 5,155 feet, the tallest coastal mountain in the lower 48. At night, head to Treebones for some outstanding omakase at the Sushi Bar or garden-to-table campfire fare at Wild Coast Restaurant, also onsite. If you’re up for a late-night adventure, book hot springs time at Esalen; the spring-fed tubs are only open to the public in the wee hours of the morning.
Campsites at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park cost $30 per night and offer discounts to seniors and persons with disabilities. It’s popular and often books up six months in advance, but you can make reservations online at reservecalifornia.com.
Pack your bags and hop a boat to Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Ventura to camp at Scorpion Ranch on Santa Cruz Island. Enjoy a free, unofficial dolphin- and whale-watching tour as a part of the boat ride to the national park.
The Scorpion Ranch Campground has 25 individual sites that hold up to 6 people, and 6 group sites that accommodate up to 15 people. The campground is a flat, half-mile walk from the pier and beach. There are no services on the island, so you’ll need to pack everything in and pack everything out. You’ll notice cute island foxes begging for snacks; be sure to store all your food properly to protect these endemic creatures.
Book a sea kayak tour to paddle some of the clearest, most biodiverse waters California has to offer. Your guide will take you through sea caves if the tide is right. In the evening, hike up to Cavern Point for sunset, and enjoy fantastic views of mainland California and the island’s harbor.
Scorpion Ranch campground is currently closed for construction but is available to book for December 2020 and onwards. Campsites cost $15 per night for a single tent or $40 for a group site. You can reserve a campsite for Scorpion Ranch Campground at recreation.gov.
To get there, arrange boat transportation with Island Packers in Ventura Harbor.
Unlike at most California beaches, you can actually spend the night on the sands at Thornhill Broome Campground north of Malibu. The 69 primitive campsites here see a mix of tent campers and RV campers. Each campsite is equipped with a picnic table, grill, and fire ring, but use of the fire ring is only permitted when fire danger is low. (A sign near the entrance of the park indicates the status each day.)
Point Mugu State Park is home to 70 miles of hiking trails, but if you prefer to spend your time in the water, this is a good spot to body surf and swim.
You can book 40 sites online at reservecalifornia.com, while the other 29 are tent sites available first-come first-serve.
Tucked away just off the beach at the resort town of Two Harbors in Catalina Island sits the Two Harbors Campground. With views of the harbor and Pacific Ocean, it’s an idyllic beachside campground but also close enough to town and the ferry from San Pedro for easy accessibility, even on an island that prohibits visitors from driving cars. Campers can choose between renting a basic campsite and setting up their own equipment or reserving one of Two Harbor’s 12 tent cabins, which come equipped with cots, a two-burner stove, and fully charged lanterns.
For a more adventurous experience, campers can head to Parsons Landing Campground, a secluded, on-the-beach campground on the northeast side of Catalina that you can only access by hiking or kayaking. Shade and water are not provided, but you can preorder a locker with firewood and water for $20 and spare your back the extra weight.
Reserve a campsite for Two Harbors Campground or Parsons Landing on reserveamerica.com. Parsons Landing costs $20–$25 per adult and $11–$16 per child per night. Two Harbors costs $27–$30 per night for a tent site and $65–$85 for a tent cabin. There are direct ferries available from San Pedro to Two Harbors via Catalina Express.
As for any camping trip, you’ll want to pack your essentials—tent, sleeping bag, warm clothes, and a comfy camping chair—but here are a few beach-specific items you should remember to bring with you when you camp:
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