California’s geographic immensity is such that its northern half alone covers more area than most U.S. states and many nations. Further, Northern California is packed with diverse, distinct, and undeniably gorgeous landscapes, including such iconic places as redwood forests, Yosemite, and Lake Tahoe. (OK, Nevada, we know that one’s partly yours, too.) It’s a camper’s paradise, whether you prefer tent camping, backpacking, RVing, or glamping.
For anyone familiar with SoCal’s balmy beaches, big cities, and sun-baked deserts, planning a camping trip in Northern California might mean revising everything you thought you knew about the Golden State. (No need for rivalry – we love No and So equally!) Outside the major cities marking NorCal’s imaginary southern border, the region is wild and unspoiled, with real winter weather in the mountains and coastal fog to challenge that famous California sun.
Camping in Northern California might mean pitching a tent next to a pristine alpine lake, RVing through wine country, or scoring a luxury glamping spot atop a coastal bluff. Whatever your ideal camping trip in Northern California looks like, it promises to be unforgettable.
Where to Go Camping in Northern California
Northern California generally includes lands from the Bay Area northward, encompassing hundreds of miles of rugged, redwood-lined coast. Inland, it starts somewhere south of Sacramento and stretches from the upper reaches of the Sierra Nevada to the lower Cascades. Locals might bicker over the real dividing line, but let’s not get into it here.
The more developed Bay Area and Sacramento area destinations of Northern California are known for their urban attractions but don’t rule out camping in the wider vicinity. Natural treasures are abundant, and some campers prefer to stay within easy reach of “civilization.” You might combine a few hotel nights in San Francisco with a few more camping in neighboring Marin or Mendocino. Within 30 minutes of Sacramento are stunning stretches of the American River and the Sierra foothills, which are fabulous places for camping.
The cities become smaller and fewer, the forests denser, mountain roads windier, and cell phone signals weaker the farther north you go. Camping in Northern California’s more remote regions, therefore, involves extra planning to ensure you’re stocked up on provisions. Your packing list and other plans will depend largely on the region where you’re camping.
Here is an overview of Northern California’s popular camping regions.
North Coast and Redwoods
The coast of California north of San Francisco is characterized by unspoiled sandy beaches with excellent beachcombing, along with tall headlands, dramatic sea cliffs, and lagoons. The ancient, iconic redwood forest reaches right up to the coast in much of Northern California, presenting the amazing option to combine beach and forest camping in one experience. Farther inland is the more remarkable stands of old-growth redwoods. Many parks protect these giants and manage visitation, including Redwood National and State Parks, Del Norte Coast State Park, and Humboldt Creek State Park.
Consider Bodega Bay, Sue-Meg State Park, and Humboldt Lagoon State Park for camping in the North Coast and redwoods regions. Some key hubs for visitors include the cities of Eureka, Crescent City, and Klamath. You might score a spot for pitching a tent or getting an RV site right by the beach if you book far enough in advance. Guala and Trinidad are popular beach locations where you can enjoy the RV lifestyle.
Shasta Cascade covers California’s northeast corner and includes some of the state’s most spectacular landmarks. These include Mount Shasta, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Lava Beds National Monument, and Burney Falls, an awesome waterfall inside McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. Much of the Shasta Cascade region is national forest land. Seven national forests cover the region, including Shasta-Trinity, El Dorado, and Rogue River-Siskiyou national forests.
Redding is the main hub of the region, which is otherwise largely undeveloped and ideal for that sense of serene, far-from-anywhere style of camping in Northern California. Cold, long winters mean this region is largely limited to summer camping. Lassen Volcanic National Park, for example, has very limited road access from November through May due to heavy snowfall.
The upper reaches of the Sierra Nevada mountain range are in Northern California and present some of the region’s top camping destinations. Most famous is Yosemite National Park, followed by California’s share of Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Lakes, Mono Lake, and Truckee. These are high-elevation camping destinations suited to summertime camping only. Campers going RVing in Northern California should also research mountain routes and road conditions before hitting the road in the High Sierra.
California’s Gold Country is famous for its history – it’s the region where the ‘49ers struck gold. The gold is mostly gone, although gold panning is still a fun activity you might like to try while camping in this region. What remains is the beautiful countryside in the Sierra Nevada foothills, with hot summers and mild winters suitable for some of the best four-season camping in Northern California. The American and Stanislaus rivers are great for riverside camping, while Calaveras Big Trees State Park offers a redwood experience far from the coastal forests.
Campgrounds in Northern California
Both private and public campgrounds are plentiful in Northern California’s more popular regions.
For the greatest range of amenities, including full hook-up RV camping in Northern California, look to private campgrounds. They are plentiful in all the popular camping destinations, although concentrated around visitor hubs.
For glamping in Northern California, options are fewer but can be very enticing for those who enjoy home comforts and luxuries. Look for glamping resorts near Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and along the coast in Mendocino.
Public campgrounds in national and state parks are typically in high demand and require advanced reservations. National forests in Northern California also offer developed campgrounds along with dispersed camping.
What to Bring Camping in Northern California
Your packing list for camping in Northern California will depend largely on your camping style – tent camping, RVing or glamping – as well as the season and destination. Always check the weather forecast in the specific region where you will camp, as temperatures can vary considerably across even short distances.
Northern California can get cold even in summer, especially during foggy days along the coast and at higher elevations. Bring appropriate clothing and bedding, with layers available to suit various conditions. If packing light isn’t a big concern, bring rain gear, just in case.
Always prioritize sun protection and hydration, even if the forecast isn’t for sunny weather. The sun is powerful all over California, even when it’s foggy or cool. Some destinations for camping in Northern California do not have a drinking water supply, so check in advance and always bring plenty with you.
Black bears live throughout Northern California and are attracted to campsites. Brush up on bear safety. Bring bear-proof canisters for food and other scented items if you’re tent camping away from developed campgrounds with bear-proof storage. For far less concerning wildlife encounters, bring binoculars. During the gray whale migration season (December through May), you can often spot them from coastal headlands and even beaches.
Electronic devices aren’t always essential, and many campers enjoy the chance to get away from them. Expect spotty cell service and WiFi away from urban areas, and notice that some glamping resorts promote their off-the-grid status as a selling point. If this will be a problem for you, look into solar-powered chargers, WiFi hotspots, signal boosters, and similar devices. Also, remember offline entertainment, such as books, games, and toys, if your storage space allows it.
Things to Do While Camping in Northern California
Almost every outdoor activity you can imagine is possible while camping in Northern California. Your options are even wider if you’re RVing in Northern California and bring your outdoor equipment. Many visitors combine camping with boating, fishing, biking, horseback riding, and hiking. More niche pursuits while camping includes rock climbing, mountaineering, white-water rafting, paddle boarding, and scuba diving.
All of Northern California is top-notch hiking country, with enough varied and dramatic scenery to wow even the most avid global adventurers. Your options might include sections of the Pacific Crest Trail, the west coast’s most famous backpacking route. Redwood forest hikes are another undeniable highlight of Northern California, with some trails combining forest and coastal views. Waterfall hikes are abundant all over Northern California as well.
The high peaks and alpine lakes of Lassen present pristine views and tough hikes. Hiking in the park’s hydrothermal areas reveals steaming springs and bubbling mud pots. Yosemite’s trails are also incredible, especially those with views of Yosemite Valley. Get away from the Valley if you prefer to hike on quieter trails. You need to be pretty fit to handle more challenging hikes in Northern California’s higher elevations, but shorter, easier trails are generally available as well.
Mountain biking and road biking are popular activities among campers in Northern California. In the mountains, it’s a seasonal pursuit, but in warmer coastal and central valley regions, you can ride the bike trails all year round. Some top NorCal bike trails include the scenic South Lake Tahoe Trail, a mostly paved 10.9-mile loop, and the Downieville Downhill Trail for experienced riders, accessible via shuttle from the Sierra County town of Downieville. The Ten Mile Beach Trail is a gentler ride, 3 miles of paved track near Fort Bragg.
There are probably nearly zero people who go camping in Northern California without taking photos daily. The entire region is stunning, and many of its vistas are genuinely unlike any other place in the world. If your camping trip is focused on photography (get it? focused!), there’s not much additional planning required. Northern California is always ready for its photo shoot. Expect to adapt to shifting light, especially along the coast and in the redwood forest, where fog is always a dynamic presence.
Yosemite Valley has been photographed from every angle by millions of visitors, but that doesn’t make it any less inspiring. The redwood forest is challenging to capture due to the sheer height of the trees (apparently, they’re famous for that), so get creative with your angles. Don’t miss the more subtle subjects inhabiting the ecologically rich forest floor; bright yellow banana slugs are especially showy. From rugged coastal cliffs to snow-capped Sierra peaks, there are few finer places for photography and camping than Northern California.
Ready to Go Camping in Northern California?
Whether you want to go glamping, tent camping, or RVing in Northern California, you are sure to make memories for a lifetime. This vast region is truly one of the most glorious places on Earth – no hyperbole – and the best way to experience its beauty is by immersing yourself in the great outdoors. Invest some time in planning the best camping trip for you, researching your local destination, and booking your campsites ahead of time.
FAQs About Camping in Northern California
When is the best time to go camping in Northern California?
Unless you have considerable winter camping experience, Northern California’s mountains are only really suitable camping destinations in summer. Most campgrounds are closed in winter, and the mountains become snow sports destinations. The coast and central valley regions are great for camping year-round, especially if you’re RVing in Northern California. However, the warmest temperatures are in summer, and off-season campers should prepare for rain and potentially cold nights.
Spring is best for wildflowers and the peak flow of waterfalls. During late summer and fall (and often beyond), be aware of fire season dangers. Wildfires occur suddenly and spread rapidly in Northern California and can derail a camping trip.
Where can you camp in Northern California?
Northern California has countless campgrounds and vast public lands for dispersed camping. There are developed campgrounds in and around national parks, state parks, and national forests. Private campgrounds for tent camping, RVing, and glamping are abundant and offer the widest range of amenities and different camping styles.