Here’s Why You Should Go Camping Near California State Parks

Knobbly tufa towers rise from the waters of Mono Lake, one of the most unique destinations for camping near California state parks.

California is not shy about its immense natural beauty, geographic diversity, and amiable climate — all of which are catnip to campers. The California State Parks system is practically braggadocious, reveling in such statistics as being the largest state park system in the nation, with the most diverse natural and cultural heritage holdings of any state.

The state parks system comprises 279 units, including 87 state parks plus state beaches, recreation areas, natural reserves, historic parks, marine reserves, and more. Almost a third of California’s famous coastline — over 280 miles of it — is part of the state park system, as are 625 miles of lake and river frontage and some 3,000 miles of trails.

OK, California, we get it! We’re convinced! We’re ready to do some tent camping at California state parks or maybe go RVing or glamping. But there is one minor issue with camping near California state parks … they present an overwhelming amount of choices, between beach, forest, mountain, or desert destinations and the wide range of outdoor activities. You have to choose among camping styles and look for tent camping or glamping near California state parks or RVing with full hookups. So many decisions! Fortunately, all that decision-making is sure to result in a truly memorable time in a truly spectacular place. 

Planning for Camping at California State Parks

The first place to look when you’re planning to go tent camping, glamping, or RVing near California state parks is the department’s find a park tool. It allows you to browse by name, location (region, city, or county), or feature, including overnight facilities, boating, trail use, and day-use activities. There’s also an interactive map of all the state parks.

You might already have a particular region of California or type of camping destination in mind, which will help you narrow down the park options from many to not-quite-so many. For example, if you love the idea of camping at a sunny beach in Southern California, browse Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties, and look on the map for parks along the coast. If you want to go camping at a California state park in the redwood forest, focus on the North Coast region. Both these examples will present you with at least a dozen state parks to consider, so continue to narrow down the options to suit your personal needs and desires.

When you’re using the find a park tool, remember that campsites inside California state parks are only a fraction of the campsite options for any given trip. Private campgrounds near and around state parks are often abundant and present a wide range of amenities and camping styles. If you want to go glamping near a California state park, for example, your only options for any level of luxury will be found outside park boundaries. RV camping with full hookups is also rare at state park campgrounds but is typically available nearby.

Use BookOutdoors to find and book a great campground near one of California’s beautiful state parks.

Campground availability, of course, varies by destination and depends on remoteness and popularity. In parts of California with more extreme four-season climates, such as the Shasta Cascade region and High Sierras, campground options are also limited by season. 

Notable State Parks for Camping in California

California state parks — reflecting the state’s geography — are extremely diverse in scenery, ecology, and climate. Broadly, the most popular state parks for camping fall into beach, desert, mountain, and redwood forest categories. Other notable state parks are harder to categorize and offer a unique camping experience that can only be found in California.

Beach Parks

Southern California’s beaches are iconic with their sand, surf, palm trees, and year-round sunshine. State parks with campsites cover lengthy stretches of the coastline in San Diego, Orange, and Los Angeles counties. Among them are Silver Strand and Carlsbad state beaches in San Diego County; Huntington State Beach and Crystal Cove State Park in Orange County; and Dockweiler, Point Mugu, Santa Monica, and Malibu Lagoon state beaches in Los Angeles County. As the entire Southland is densely populated, there are plentiful options for campgrounds and other lodging close to these state parks. 

The Central Coast, spanning from Ventura County to Monterey Bay, also features some fantastic beach camping near state parks. This region is quieter than SoCal. Consider Carpinteria State Beach near Santa Barbara, Morro Strand State Beach in Morro Bay, and a long stretch of state parks and beaches from Big Sur to Monterey. Bay Area and North Coast beach parks are plentiful, too, with more rugged environments and cooler climates. Pelican State Beach is the farthest north, not far from the California-Oregon border.

Desert Parks

Nine California state parks are categorized as desert parks. Camping at these destinations requires careful consideration of the climate. Summertime camping under scorching-hot conditions is a deal-breaker for most, but winter and spring can be very pleasant and ideal for both tent camping in California state parks and RVing. 

Red Rock Canyon State Park in the Mojave Desert claims spectacular, colorful rock formations. It’s quite remote, not far from the southern tip of the Sequoia National Forest, and better suited to visitors seeking primitive camping near a California state park. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is one of the most popular desert parks for camping and the largest state park in California. Visit to explore its dramatically sculpted Colorado Desert landscape and spot big-horn sheep. Private and public campgrounds are available around the small hub of Borrego Springs.

Mountain Parks

As with desert camping in California, camping at California state parks in the mountains is a seasonal pursuit for most. Visitors going RVing to California state parks might be able to handle the cold at higher elevations later into the winter season than tent campers. 

The Golden State’s mountains might be a little less famous than its beaches, but these destinations are stunning and packed with opportunities for outdoor recreation. A few highlights of the state park system in the mountains include Emerald Bay State Park in Lake Tahoe, which boasts a National Natural Landmark in the gorgeous Emerald Bay, and Castle Crags State Park around a dramatic rock formation just south of Mount Shasta. 

Mount San Jacinto State Park combines a mountain and desert experience, a high-elevation monument looming over the Coachella Valley. The easiest way to get there is via gondola ride from just outside Palm Springs.

Redwood Forest Parks

California’s redwood trees, the tallest trees and some of the oldest living things on Earth, are an awe-inspiring sight. There are no comparable experiences to camping under a grove of massive, towering redwoods amid a foggy, otherworldly forest. 

California’s remaining old-growth redwoods are strictly protected within Redwood State and National Parks, a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprising the national park plus Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith, and Prairie Creek state parks.  Also, look into camping near California state parks such as Humboldt Redwoods, Big Basin, and Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve. You could alternatively camp among giant sequoias, a relative of coastal redwoods, at Calaveras Big Trees State Park in Gold County.

Looking for a campground near one of California’s redwood state parks? Check out BookOutdoors.

Unique State Parks

California’s state park system includes some unique destinations that make for especially memorable camping experiences. Consider Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve in the eastern Sierra. It protects the ancient, mineral-packed Mono Lake and its sculptural “tufa towers.” There’s no camping inside the California state park, but campgrounds are available in the surrounding area. 

Clear Lake State Park includes the state’s largest freshwater lake and is on the edge of the Calistoga wine country. You can combine swimming, boating, and fishing on the lake with wine-tasting trips when you go camping or glamping near this California state park. 

Donner Memorial State Park includes a monument to the infamous Donner Party, who gave the high mountain pass near Truckee its name. Camping is available seasonally inside the park, as is private RV camping near the California state park.

Tent Camping Near California State Parks

It’s hard to make generalizations about tent camping near California state parks, as the experience varies so much by location and season. State park campgrounds tend to be sparse and on the rustic side. Expect little more than a cleared space, fire pit or fire ring with a grill, and a picnic table. Bathroom blocks sometimes include a shower and flush toilets, but pit toilets might be the only provision at some campgrounds. The same goes for other public camping near California state parks, for example on national forest or BLM lands.

Private campgrounds for tent camping near California state parks tend to offer a greater range of amenities and comforts. In general, the closer the state park is to a sizable town or tourist hub, the wider your range of campground options will be. Be sure to make reservations early at popular destinations, especially during weekends or the high season. 

What to Bring

California is known for its warm, sunny Mediterranean climate, with extreme temperatures in desert regions and at high elevations. This means most campers can forgo rain gear and cold-weather gear — a boon if you’re hiking in or prefer to pack light. However, it’s always a good idea to check the weather forecast, as when the rains do come, they can be heavy. 

Be aware of microclimates, too. The desert has a late-summer monsoon season that’s potentially hazardous. The Bay Area and North Coast are notoriously foggy — don’t underestimate the temperature drops that come with dense fog, even in summer months. Santa Ana winds that occur intermittently in SoCal from October through March are extremely high, hot winds that could potentially derail a tent camping experience. Bring tools and equipment to handle high winds.

California’s tendency to go up in flames means you absolutely must take fire dangers seriously. Check the regulations for your park or campground before making any campfire, and have a portable camp stove available for cooking. Wildlife can be a hazard, depending where you camp. In bear country, bear-proof food storage is essential. 

Glamping Near California State Parks

California is an excellent destination for glamping fans, as the trend has taken off across the state. It’s more widely available, and bordering on truly luxurious, around popular destinations such as Lake Tahoe, Big Sur, wine country, and in the High Sierras around Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon national parks. Given that there are hundreds of state parks covering every region, glamping near California state parks is a very achievable experience. 

For glamping with a mid-level of luxury, look into yurts, cabins, tented cabins, and cottages at private tent and RV campgrounds near state parks. Some state parks have those types of lodging available on site. These tend to be limited in number, so make reservations early if you prefer to camp in comfort.

What to Bring

As with all camping near California state parks, your packing list will vary considerably depending on destination and season. Glamping units tend to be relatively spacious and readily accessible by car, so overpacking needn’t be a concern. Bring some extra blankets in case of cold nights, plus all the home comforts you need to make your glamping experience enjoyable. If your unit has a kitchen, bring all the foods and drinks you like too!

Some glamping resorts are genuinely off the grid. You can either embrace the tranquility or resist it by bringing solar-powered chargers, a Wi-Fi hot spot, etc.

Full Hookup RV Camping Near California State Parks

It’s not difficult to plan full hookup RVing near California state parks. Few parks are so remote that it’s not an option. Full hookups are generally a feature of private RV resorts and campgrounds, though, so search in the vicinity of any chosen park. Many state park campgrounds and other public campgrounds do have RV sites, but with zero or partial hookups and few other amenities, along with size limits. Only around 20 California state parks have dump stations available for campers and day-use visitors, with a small fee per use required.

Full hookup RVing near California state parks is abundant in desert regions, the Central Valley, and southern coastal parts of the state, as these are popular destinations with “snow birds.” Many full-time RVers flock to these sunny regions in winter from colder parts of the U.S. and Canada. Campgrounds marketed to snow birds accommodate long-term campers with discounts for longer stays, plus plentiful amenities on site. High-elevation RVing near California state parks is a seasonal pursuit, so expect most full-hookup campgrounds in the mountains to close for winter.

What to Bring

Don’t forget that California has the highest gas prices in the nation. Unless you want to write “lots of extra money” on your packing list, lighten your RV’s load to help keep the costs down. 

Adapt your RVing checklist to your destination and personal needs. This might mean prioritizing outdoor recreational gear and sun protection, and leaving behind heavy winter gear and rain gear. Make sure your vehicle’s AC is in working order to handle California’s hotter climates.

Things to Do While Camping at California State Parks

The diversity of California’s almost 300 state parks means visitors enjoy an outstanding variety of things to do while camping nearby. Every popular form of outdoor recreation is covered within the park system, along with some unexpected activities too. Want to explore a ghost town? Tour a mad millionaire’s castle, then pop to the beach to see elephant seals? Perhaps you want to stand amid blooming California poppies as far as the eye can see. Those are only possible at select parks, but the following popular activities are more widely available.

Hiking

Almost 50 California state parks and beaches have hiking trails. They range from sparse, sun-baked desert trails with views for miles to hikes along mossy ground under sky-high redwoods. You might hike chaparral-covered hillsides just outside the mega-sprawl of Los Angeles or wind along a coastal bluff in foggy Mendocino. Adjust your hiking goals for elevation and climate, and don’t underestimate your need for hydration and sun protection in any region of California. 

Biking

Bringing your bike when you go camping at a California state park? Select one of the 22 state parks that feature bike trails, with varied terrain among them. 

Boating and Beaches

California’s coastal state parks are naturally popular destinations for beach-going and boating, as well as surfing and windsurfing. Be aware that those Pacific waters are cold, even in the sunny south. Boating on lakes, which is often possible with on-site boat rentals, is more concentrated in state parks in Northern California. Fishing opportunities are abundant when you’re camping in California state parks, with ocean, river, and lake fishing possible throughout the state. 

Photography

Photography enthusiasts will have zero difficulty finding subjects throughout California, a state known for its outstanding natural beauty. Look into some of the less-popular state parks if you’re pursuing unique vistas far from any crowds. Be prepared for some seriously powerful sunlight in much of the state, for much of the day. Plan photography sessions early in the morning for the gentlest light. 

Horseback Riding

Sixteen of California’s state parks feature horse trails. Among them are Del Norte Coast Redwoods, MacKerricher State Park, Point Mugu State Park, and Sonoma Coast State Park. Horse camping is also available at eight state parks in California. 

Rock Climbing

Rock climbing enthusiasts can focus on Castle Rock State Park, where the sandstone outcrops are considered ideal

Ready for Camping Near California State Parks

Whether you prefer tent camping, full-hookup RVing, or glamping, California really has it all. California State Parks is entirely justified in bragging about all its glories. So, you might not have been able to narrow down your options among all the amazing destinations for your camping trip. You might even have widened your scope. Sorry! If this is a problem, at least it’s going to be an enjoyable one to solve. 

FAQs About Camping Near California State Parks

Can you camp in California state parks? 

Not all California state parks have campgrounds, but those that do offer around 13,000 campsites between them. Most are reservable up to six months in advance. These are rustic campsites for tents and RVs, with length restrictions varying by park. Some state parks also offer family campsites, boat-in camps, more remote “environmental campsites,” and alternative lodging such as cabins, yurts, and tent cabins. 

Visit BookOutdoors to find great campsites near and around California state parks.

Can you drive an RV through California state parks?

Generally yes, but it depends on the type of park — some have no internal roads. Check on the California State Parks website or call the public information line (916-653-6995) to be sure. 

Are dogs allowed in California state parks?

Dogs are allowed in California state parks, subject to regulations. They must be on a leash no longer than 6 feet, and may not be left unattended. Campers may keep their dog in a tent or vehicle overnight. Dogs are not allowed in park buildings, on trails, or on most beaches.

What is the best time of year to visit California state parks?

This varies considerably from park to park, depending on the region and elevation. Desert parks are most enjoyable in winter and spring, as are parks around the Central Valley. Mountain parks are snowy and very cold in winter. Coastal areas tend to be pleasant year-round, but visit in summer for the warmest, sunniest days. The shoulder seasons of April to May and September to October are best for smaller crowds with mild weather. 

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