The Golden State is blessed with 840 miles of coastline dotted with ocean-side campsites perfect for nearly every adventure. Here are six of our favorite beach camp spots in CA to get you started.
Set along 3.2 miles of shoreline between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach, this popular park offers a variety of overnight options. Glamp in one of the early-20th-century cottages in its federally recognized Historic District. Car or RV camp at the 58-site main campground to take advantage of ample parking, clean restrooms and coin-operated showers. Or head inland a few miles to the 32 backcountry campsites surrounded by 2,400 acres of undeveloped land in Moro Canyon. No matter where you sleep, you’ll have easy access to tide pools teeming with sea life, kayaking and bodysurfing in Crystal Cove and 18 miles of hiking trails, including the mellow 4.2-mile Moro Canyon Trail and the 9.7-mile Crystal Cove Loop. REI makes exploring this area by boat easy with a guided tour of the Plus, REI hosts plenty of events at the park ranging from butterfly hikes to kayaking tours.
Walk-in sites $25 per night; car camping sites $55 per night, RV and trailer sites $75 per night; cottages from $185
Los Padres National Forest
Perched on 100-foot ocean bluffs overlooking the misty Big Sur coastline, Kirk Creek is hands down one of California’s most scenic campgrounds. The Instagram-worthy views also mean its 40 tent and RV sites are a hot commodity. Plan to book your stay at least a few weeks in advance to secure a spot, or if you’re feeling lucky, there are seven first-come, first-served slots. The campground is surrounded by some of the area’s best beaches: Sand Dollar, Big Sur’s largest beach and a popular surfing and fishing spot, is a 10-minute drive south, while Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, home to 80-foot tall McWay Falls, is just 30 minutes north. (Fire damage has temporarily closed part of the cascade’s overlook trail, but you can still score waterfall views along the first third of the route.) Hikers will be hard-pressed to find a more ideal base for exploring the more than 300 miles of trails that spiderweb along the coast and into Los Padres National Forest. Our recommendation? The 5-mile Vicente Flat Trail, just across Highway 1 from Kirk Creek, starts with coastal views as it heads inland to a redwood grove and grassy hillsides that bloom with Technicolor wildflowers each spring. Coast, a funky café 35 minutes to the north, sells picnic snacks, and your muscles will thank you for reserving an evening soak at the nearby Esalen Hot Springs.
$35 per night
Head a few miles north of Fort Bragg up Northern California’s Mendocino Coast and you’ll find one of the state’s most pristine and unique stretches of sand dunes. The state park that protects them is also home to 143 campsites for both tents and recreational vehicles, complete with restrooms, picnic tables, food lockers and fire rings. For a little more seclusion, skip them in favor of MacKerricher’s 10 first-come, first-served walk-in sites just a 50-yard trek from the camp road. (Walk-in sites 7, 8, 9 and 10 have the best ocean vistas.) Wherever you stay, you’ll score wildlife views. More than 90 species of birds can be spotted around trout-stocked Lake Cleone, and the observation platform at Laguna Point makes it easy to spy resident harbor seals and migrating gray whales, which pass through mid-December to April. The 6.1-mile MacKerricher Coastal Trail, also known as the Haul Road from its time as a logging route, is great for cyclists and extends from colorful Glass Beach through the park to the Inglenook Fen-Ten Mile Dunes Natural Preserve. Or if you need a change of scenery, redwood hikes like the 8.4-mile Fern Canyon Trail are just a 25-minute drive south in Van Damme State Park.
$45 per night
Point Reyes National Seashore
Camping in the Point Reyes National Seashore, just an hour and a half north of the Golden Gate Bridge, takes some effort. None of the campgrounds are accessible by car, so you can either hike to a backcountry site or, better yet, paddle to one of the 15 secluded beaches along sheltered Tomales Bay that allow overnight stays. Most require the use of a portable toilet, so the permanent outhouse at Marshall Beach makes that stretch of sand a favorite for campers. Pick up a permit at Bear Valley Visitor Center and be sure to stock up on water, firewood and food. (Pro tip: Load up a cooler with freshly harvested oysters from nearby Tomales Bay Oyster Company, which start at just $17 a dozen.) Hit the water at Miller Boat Launch or Lawsons’ Landing, and you’ll reach camp in about an hour. (Novice paddlers should be sure to read the park’s boating guide and consider signing up for a kayaking class before heading out.) Then there are 15 miles of unspoiled bay to explore, or you can head inland to trek the national seashore’s 150 miles of trails on foot, such as the popular Tomales Point Trail. The 9.8-mile out-and-back winds through the grassland and coastal scrub of seashore’s Tule Elk Preserve and offers the chance to see some of the 400-plus elk that call the peninsula home.
$20 to $50 per night
REI offers beginner kayak classes in the area for those who are new to the sport, or for those looking to sharpen their watercraft skills.
Santa Barbara County
This mile-and-a-half-long, palm tree-lined crescent of sand 22 miles west of Santa Barbara can feel wild, but it’s also chock full of amenities, including fire rings, picnic tables, restrooms and pay showers. Campsites are just steps from the sea, so you can leave your tent and be fishing, swimming or surfing beginner-friendly breaks in minutes. A stretch of the California Coastal Trail runs through the 66-site campground, making it easy to hike 5.7 miles of mellow path out and back to El Capitán State Beach, where experienced surfers can test their skills on its noted right-hand point break when conditions are right. From late May to August, Refugio’s lifeguards offer guided kayak tours of the coast, and be sure to make a side trip to Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, a shopping district full of converted warehouses home to surf shops, restaurants, street art and urban wineries such as Kunin and Municipal Winemakers.
$45 per night
Santa Catalina Island
Santa Catalina Island is just an hour ferry ride from SoCal’s Dana Point, Newport Beach, Long Beach or San Pedro, but it can feel like a mini Galapagos: The island is home to nearly 150 unique plant and animal species, as well as a resident herd of American bison. For a seriously cushy setup, book a site at Two Harbors Campground. Located on the west end of Catalina, it recently introduced four-person “convenience camping” tents with amenities like REI cots, a 2-burner stove, a Yeti cooler and a battery for charging gadgets. You can also pitch your own tent or snag a six-person tent-cabin. All three come with access to showers, chemical toilets, fresh water, picnic tables, barbecues and fire pits. Campers can even arrange to have their gear transported to and from the pier for $5 a bag or pay $15 for Two Harbors General Store to drop off ice, hot dogs, s’more kits and other groceries. You will, however, need to make the quarter-mile trek to the village of Two Harbors to pick up a hiking permit in order to explore the island’s 165-plus miles of trails, including the 39.6-mile Trans-Catalina Trail.
Want to enjoy the adventure without planning the details? REI offers guided treks on the Trans-Catalina Trail.
Tent sites from $26 per person per night; tent-cabins from $60 per person per night; convenience camping site $75 per person per night. Two-night minimum weekends; three-night minimum weekdays.