The Best Places for Beach Camping in California

The Golden State boasts 840 miles of biodiverse coastline and an abundance of beachside campsites.

The Best Places for Beach Camping in California

Enjoy sweeping views of the Pacific when you camp in the dunes at Gold Bluffs Campground.

Photo by Ashley Hadzopoulos

It’s no secret that California has some of the best beaches and coastline in the United States. Visitors come from all over the world to drive along Highway 1’s rugged bluffs, playing “spot the migrating whales” (or tide-pool dwellers and energetic otters). There are few better ways to enjoy this coastal wildlife than a night camping on or near the beach.

However, with rocky cliffs lining much of the state’s coast, beach camping in California is a little different than in other places. Some areas don’t allow camping directly on the beach, but rather a little ways back; others are more of a coastal cliff outpost than an idyllic stretch of white sand. And for much of the year, evenings are cool and windy, and the mornings foggy, especially north of L.A.—don’t forget that beanie!

That said, all of these beach campsites offer visitors a chance to immerse themselves in stunning examples of coastal nature. Here are 12 of the best places for beach camping throughout California, listed from north to south.

1. Gold Bluffs Campground

  • Location: Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
  • Type: Drive-, bike-, and hike-in tent camping all available

Next to California’s northernmost national park (Redwoods National Park), and a little over an hour from the Oregon border, is Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. There are several campgrounds within the park, but Gold Bluffs, which sits in the dunes along a peaceful 10-mile stretch of beach, is one of the most popular options for visitors. To get here, campers can choose between driving in via an unpaved, 6-mile road from Highway 101; hiking in on the 4.5-mile Miners Ridge Trail, or biking the Ossagon Trail (6–12 miles one way, depending on your route). This campsite is as easy to reach as you want it to be—but also far enough away from main roads to maintain its tranquility. Campers can really, truly fall asleep to the sounds of the waves (and not passing trucks).

How to book the campsite

Car campers can make a reservation on reservecalifornia.com for $35 per night per campsite.

If you want to hike or bike in, apply for a (free) backcountry permit before you go. You don’t need to reserve a campsite. The hike and bike section of the campground is first-come, first-serve and costs $5 per night, per camper. (Tip: Bring exact change, in cash, to pay for your stay at the self-service station.)

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There’s plenty of beach camping along the moody Lost Coast, but backpacking in this remote stretch of land is not for the faint of heart.

Photo by Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management

2. Shipman Creek Campsite

  • Location: The Lost Coast Trail, Humboldt County
  • Type: Hike-in tent camping

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 is 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 glimpse the enormous Roosevelt elk that call this area home.

How to book the campsite

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 $10 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 $77 or rent one for $5 at one of several nearby locations.

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The tents at Mendocino Grove are equipped with all the comforts of home.

Courtesy of Mendocino Grove

3. Mendocino Grove

  • Location: Mendocino
  • Type: Drive-in glamping

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 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.

How to book a tent

You can book a tent directly through Mendocino Grove’s website or on Expedia.

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Stroll along the sands of Limantour Beach and collect driftwood for a bonfire at Coast Camp.

Photo by Shutterstock

3. Coast Camp

  • Location: Point Reyes National Seashore, Marin County
  • Type: Hike-in tent camping

Located an hour north of San Francisco in 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.

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.

How to book a campsite

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.

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Kayak to your campsite in Tomales Bay.

Photo by Eleonora Patricola

5. Marshall Beach

  • Location: Tomales Bay, Marin County
  • Type: Boat-in tent camping

The more nautically minded might want to try a boat-in campsite on the north end of Tomales Bay State Park, which neighbors Point Reyes National Seashore. Although several beaches in the area 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.

How to book a campsite

There are only 20 permits issued per day for camping on Tomales Bay beaches, which can be reserved at recreation.gov. Campers must boat in to stay at the beach overnight and kayaks can be rented in Marshall at Blue Waters Kayaking for $135 (single) to $198 (double) for an overnight trip.

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The Steep Ravine Cabins in Marin County are steps from the beach and tidal hot springs.

Photo by Steve Soesbe

6. Steep Ravine Campground and Cabins

  • Location: Near Stinson Beach, Marin County
  • Type: Drive-in tent camping or basic cabins

Yes, 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, wood-burning stove in each cabin that you can use to warm it up (and even cook).

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.

How to book a cabin or campsite

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 a weekend.

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Stay in a yurt overlooking the water at Treebones Resort.

Photo by Ryuji Morishita

7. Treebones Resort

  • Location: Big Sur, Monterey County
  • Type: Drive-in glamping

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.

How to book a tent or campsite

You can reserve a campsite or one of Treebone’s yurts or tents directly on its website, treebonesresort.com. Yurts begin at $360 per night while bring-your-own-tent campsites start at $105.

8. Kirk Creek Campground

  • Location: Big Sur, Monterey County
  • Type: Drive-in tent and RV camping

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.

How to book a campsite

Kirk Creek campground is open year-round; 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.

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In the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park portion of the beloved Big Sur area, there are two campsites above the iconic McWay Falls.

Photo by Shutterstock

9. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Campground

  • Location: Big Sur, Monterey County
  • Type: Hike-in

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.

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.

How to book a campsite

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.

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Scorpion Ranch Campground on Santa Cruz Island is just a half-mile walk from the beach at Scorpion Anchorage.

Photo by daveynin/Flickr

10. Scorpion Ranch

  • Location: Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park
  • Type: Hike-in

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; it 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 out. You’ll also notice cute island foxes begging for snacks; be sure to store all your food properly to protect these endemic creatures.

Before your visit, book a sea kayak tour to paddle some of the clearest, most biodiverse waters California has to offer, including a collection of 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.

How to book a campsite

You can reserve a campsite for Scorpion Ranch Campground at recreation.gov, for a fee of $15 per night for a single tent site or $40 for a group site. To get there, arrange boat transportation with Island Packers in Ventura Harbor.

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Thornhill Broome Campground is one of the few in the state that allows campers to set up on the beach itself.

Photo by Junkyardsparkle/Wikimedia Commons

11. Thornhill Broome Campground

  • Location: Point Mugu State Park, Ventura County
  • Type: Drive-in tent or RV camping

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.

How to book a campsite

You can book 40 sites online at reservecalifornia.com while the other 29 are tent sites available first-come, first-serve; all are $35 per night per campsite.

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A boat ride away from L.A. sits laid-back and beachy Catalina Island.

Photo by Shutterstock

12. Two Harbors and Parson’s Landing Campgrounds

  • Location: Catalina Island
  • Type: Hike-in tent camping

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 Parson’s 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.

Although there is a small shop and restaurant in Two Harbors, it’s recommended that you bring the majority of your food in from the mainland.

How to book a campsite

Reserve a campsite for Two Harbors Campground or Parson’s Landing on reserveamerica.com. Parson’s Landing costs $21–$27 per adult and $12–$18 per child per night. Two Harbors costs $28–$31 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.

What to pack for your beach camping trip

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:

  • Beach blanket: Be sure to pack a beach blanket for days lounging on the beach. If you’re hiking in, something small and lightweight like Matador Pocket Blanket Mini (1.3 oz.; $20) will be the easiest to pack.
  • Swimsuit: Especially in Northern California, the water can be too cold for swimming, but it never hurts to bring a bathing suit just in case.
  • Quick-dry towel: Skip the bulky beach towel and bring a lightweight camp towel to dry off with. Packtowel ($45, backcountry.com) is a good option.
  • Sunscreen: Pack an ecofriendly sunscreen, like Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Lotion SFP 50 ($12, target.com), to keep your skin safe while you swim and hike.
  • Dry bag: If you’re kayaking or spending time on a boat, use waterproof dry bags like those by Sea to Summit ($45 for a set of three, rei.com) to keep your gear from getting soaked by rogue waves.

This article was originally published in 2019 and most recently updated on June 15, 2022.

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Jessie Beck is a San Francisco basted writer and Senior Manager of SEO and video at AFAR. She contributes to travel gear, outdoor adventure, and local getaway coverage.
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