It’s no secret that California has some of the best 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 beach and coastal 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 a few of the best:
The Lost Coast
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, but it’s best to stick to the established campsites, which are tucked into narrow valleys and protected from the elements. The popular Shipman Creek campsite is one spot along the trail where you can camp on the beach itself. 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, although the weather might be unpredictable.
If roughing it along the North Coast is not your cup of tea, book a spot at Mendocino Grove. This luxury glamping destination isn’t located directly on the shore, but it’s coast adjacent and a short drive to Mendocino’s numerous beaches. Or you can rent a beautifully built outrigger from Catch-a-Canoe on the Big River and paddle the day away.
Forget the sleeping bag; about the only thing you need to bring to Mendocino Grove is yourself. The site’s 60 roomy tents feature 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.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Located an hour north of San Francisco in the Bay Area’s very own national park, Coast Camp at Point Reyes National Seashore 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.
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 immediately before your trip.)
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 and a drinking water spigot on site, and you can buy firewood from the campground host for $8 a bundle. It’s a popular spot with folks from the Bay Area and vacancies are rare, so you’ll need to book your stay months in advance.
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.
Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties
Big Sur boasts 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.
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.
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 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.
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 some hot springs time at Esalen; the spring-fed tubs are only open to the public in the wee hours of the morning.
Channel Islands National Park
Santa Barbara and Ventura counties
Pack your bags and hop a boat to Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Santa Barbara 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 six people, and six 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.
Point Mugu State Park
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: 40 sites can be booked online, while the other 29 are tent sites reserved for walk-ins. Each campsite is equipped with a picnic table, grill, and fire ring. 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.