My daughter still talks fondly about the camping trips we took when she was a child. Now in her 30s, her favorite memory is of the time a blue jay swooped out of a nearby Giant Sequoia tree and snatched her breakfast pastry off the campsite picnic table.
Her favorite trips were the ones we took to the ocean. We camped nearly everywhere — from San Diego to Washington State, and points in-between.
Camping is the ultimate “family togetherness” experience. It gets the kids outside, into nature and exposes children to “real” world adventures, far from the lure of video games and television.
My family camped in a well-used and well-loved tent trailer. Passed down in my husband’s family from father to son, the 1963 Wheelcamper still boasted the handmade curtains crafted by my mother-in-law. The green canvas of the “tent” was sturdy and in good condition into the 1990s. They don’t make things like they used to.
We recently gave the tent trailer to a new family; I hope they are loving it as much as we did.
California coastal camping
Summer is the time for coastal camping. Is there anything more serene than falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves under a canopy of stars? Whether you “rough it” in a tent or post up in a fully equipped RV, you can have the ultimate California beach camping experience year-round.
Most of the oceanfront campsites on this list are in high demand year-round, reserved on a first-come, first-served basis. Online reservations can be made up to a year in advance in some cases, and if your desired dates aren’t available, keep checking back as newly available dates are released in blocks one month at a time.
Dogs (on leashes) are permitted at most parks, but you’ll want to consult the campground website before making a reservation. Also, note that many of these campgrounds are on protected land, so be aware of site-specific rules and regulations designed to preserve the land and native wildlife.
Below are a few coastal camping spots, where you can sleep on, or next to, some of California’s best beaches.
San Elijo State Beach Campground
2050 S. Coast Highway 101, Cardiff
Perched on the edge of a towering bluff this sought-after camping spot is home to the Eli Howard Surf School, which offers camps and day lessons. Try to nab a spot on the campground’s west side, where you’ll catch dramatic sunset views and hear waves lapping from your tent or RV (and you’ll be a little farther away from the nearby train crossing).
Kirk Creek Campground
From San Luis Obispo, take Highway 1 north for approximately 60 miles to the campground.
Part of the Los Padres National Forest, this is an ocean-side paradise, with each site overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It offers a variety of opportunities for relaxation and recreation. The campground is located on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and is close to a variety of scenic trails. It offers fantastic views of the Big Sur coastline.
Doran Beach Regional Park
201 Doran Beach Road, Bodega Bay
Few campgrounds rival Doran Beach’s proximity to all kinds of ocean fun. You can go swimming, beachcombing, fishing or paddle boarding just steps away from your tent or RV site.
Adjacent to a wide, two-mile stretch of beach that juts into Bodega Bay, the campground includes 120 sites (hookups are not available) and restrooms with flush toilets and coin-op showers. The family-friendly beach is a popular place to walk dogs, search for sand dollars and bird-watch, while the jetty at the mouth of Bodega Harbor is a busy fishing and crabbing spot.
Parents with little ones will appreciate the beach’s gentle slope, as well as its soft, clean sand and the generally mellow surf break. Fun fact: Bodega Bay is also where Alfred Hitchcock filmed horror movie The Birds.
RV, trailer or tent camping
One of the advantages of a tent trailer is that they are lightweight. You don’t need a huge vehicle to pull it and it is easy see behind you in the rearview mirror. A tent trailer rolls low to the ground and doesn’t block your view.
You can rent an RV to see if you prefer RV camping. RVs are great if you are going to one place and intend to stay for the entire trip. If you want to travel around, you’ll have to pack up your campsite every time you want to take a side trip, unless you pull a second vehicle with you behind the RV.
Fifth-wheel trailers are spacious and comfortable, but need a special rig to tow.
A traditional trailer, like a tent trailer, offers the most flexibility. You can choose the size best for you and drop it at your camp site as you travel around to see the sights on day trips.
Tent camping allows you access to off-the-beaten-path views, locations and experiences.
Whichever camping experience you choose, there is one available for every age, lifestyle and level of camping experience.
My favorite campgrounds
There are so many wonderful campgrounds to experience in California it is hard to pick just a few favorites. Here’s my list of top five campgrounds.
To make a reservation at a California state park visit: www.reservecalifornia.com/CaliforniaWebHome or the webpage for the park you want to visit. You can see the specific camp site you want to reserve, which is a nice feature. However, like everything else in California, reservations fill up fast and you might have to wait until next summer to visit some of these extremely popular camping destinations.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Located 26 miles south of Carmel on Highway 1
On the western slope of the Santa Lucia Mountains, the peaks of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park tower high above the Big Sur River Gorge, where the Big Sur River enters this popular park. Walk along the banks of the river and among the redwoods, conifers, oaks, sycamores, cottonwoods, maples, alders and willows. A large campground accommodates hikers, bikers, car campers and RVers. Many campsites are located along the Big Sur River.
Carpinteria State Beach
The park is on Highway 224, off U.S. 101, twelve miles south of Santa Barbara.
It is a great little campground close to home that offers a mile of beach for swimming, surf fishing, tidepool exploring and camping. Lifeguards patrol the beach year-round and lifeguard towers are staffed roughly from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend. Tide pools contain starfish, sea anemones, crabs, snails, octopi and sea urchins. The campground is almost on top of nearby railroad tracks, so be aware that trains pass through the area regularly.
Pismo State Beach, Oceano Campground
555 Pier Ave., Oceano
Visitors can choose from many diverse activities including camping, surfing, swimming, fishing, bird watching, walking trails, a boardwalk through the dunes, a visitor center, free educational programs and a freshwater lagoon. The Oceano Campground features both hook-up RV sites and tent-camping sites.
Sequoia Kings Canyon National Parks
This dramatic landscape testifies to nature’s size, beauty and diversity with huge mountains, rugged foothills, deep canyons, vast caverns and the world’s largest trees. Camping here truly is like leaving the world behind and living in the forest.
The one “must” for camping in this park is dutifully stowing all your food in the bear-proof storage bins located in each campsite. We had bears walk directly through our campsite daily and never had a single problem with the creatures.
Lodgepole Campground is my favorite and is perched on the banks of the scenic and lengthy Marble Fork of the Kaweah River, at an elevation of 6,700 feet. The inspiring Giant Forest Grove and the mighty General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest tree in volume, are just 2 miles from the campground. Lodgepole Campground is 21 miles from the Sequoia National Park entrance.
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
Located along U.S. Route 199, approximately 9 miles east of Crescent City
This park offers out-of-this-world beautiful, secluded, large campsites with electricity and hookups. A few miles inland from the ocean, the park is densely forested with huge ancient trees. In fact, it contains 7 percent of all the old-growth redwoods left in the world. No roads or trails mark “Jed Smith’s” core … just pure, primeval majesty.
There are so many places to go and so many places to see across the United States. Try camping at Yellowstone National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina or Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. In addition, to state and national park campgrounds there are hundreds of private campgrounds that may have spots available this summer.
Most importantly, don’t forget the s’mores.