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. “From the sunny Southern California beaches to the Central Coast’s Mediterranean-like weather to the rugged, breathtaking scenery of the north, California mimics nearly every coastal climate and geography in the world,” says Debbie Sipe, CEO and executive director of California Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds.
Most of these 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.
Sipe recommends booking a midweek, off-peak-season visit to give you more flexibility, and points out that autumn is a great time to visit the state’s coastal campgrounds because the summer crowds have dwindled and the weather is still inviting. Still, be prepared for unpredictable temperatures any time of year, in terms of both camping equipment and clothing. The coastal regions can get chilly fog and/or high winds—especially north of Santa Cruz—which can burn off or die down for a beautiful, warm day.
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 eight coastal camping spots, listed south to north, where you can sleep on or next to some of California’s best beaches.
The San Elijo State Beach Campground—perched on the edge of a towering bluff—sees the most traffic March through November, but is an in-demand SoCal escape in the winter months too. Locals and visitors surf this stretch of Cardiff coastline year-round, and the campground 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).
In addition to easy beach access, one of this campground’s biggest draws is its proximity—just a three-minute walk across Highway 101—to the quaint town center of Cardiff, with its Seaside Market (head straight to the meat counter and order a piece of Burgundy Pepper Tri Tip or a local fisherman’s catch to throw on the campsite grill), yoga studios, coffee shops, the famous VG Donut & Bakery, restaurants, and shopping options, including a Patagonia store. The campground has a family-friendly vibe, and you’ll see hordes of kids riding scooters to the camp store for ice cream or biking to the onsite Bull Taco snack bar for a California burrito.
The coolest feature of the Crystal Cove State Beach Moro Campground in swanky Orange County is the variety of options for “roughing it.” In the main campground, there are 28 designated RV and trailer sites and 30 tent camping sites (no water or electrical hookups). Site occupancy is limited to eight people and there are clean bathrooms and token-operated showers available.
If you’re looking to get lost in woodsy nature, you can hike (a strenuous) five to eight kilometres from the Moro Campground parking lot to one of 32 backcountry sites (obtain a permit at the ranger kiosk first) in the 2,400 acres of undeveloped land in Moro Canyon. While there are pit toilets and picnic tables at these primitive sites, you’ll need to pack out everything you carried in.
On the other end of the accommodations spectrum, there are cottages available for rent in the park’s Historic District, ranging from studios to two-bedroom houses to hostel-style dorms. Dogs are allowed in the campground (on a leash) but not permitted on the beach or in the backcountry. Another fun benefit of this site is the year-round calendar of interpretive programs led by park staff. Go exploring in the tidepools or bird-watching, or make your own jewelry using found sea glass.
When it comes to idyllic coastal scenery and activity options for fun in the sun, Two Harbors Campground on Santa Catalina Island’s west end is as good as it gets. Take a one-hour express ferry from Long Beach, San Pedro, Newport Beach, or Dana Point to reach this Southern California island 35 kilometres off the coast.
The campground, which includes 42 sites, 13 canvas tent structures, and three group camping areas, feels ultra-secluded and serene, thanks to its bluff-top location on the island’s sleepier side. (For a truly remote beach camping experience, check out Little Harbor Campground, about seven miles east of Two Harbors.)
Rent all types of aquatic toys and equipment—snorkel and SCUBA gear, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, beach umbrellas, wetsuits—from Two Harbors Dive & Recreation Center and explore the island’s turquoise coves. You can also obtain hiking and biking permits (Catalina Island is home to some fantastic mountain biking and hiking routes—just keep your eyes peeled for the resident buffalo!) at Two Harbors Visitors Services, located at the foot of the pier. If you don’t want to haul in a bunch of camping equipment, this is also where you can rent a tent, sleeping pad, propane stove, and more.
Twenty miles from downtown Santa Barbara, Goleta’s crescent-shaped Refugio State Beach is lined with large palm trees that offer majestic mountain views to the east and views of the Channel Islands to the west. The 66 dry campsites (no RV hookups) are located steps from the sand, providing an ideal access point for swimming, fishing, scuba diving, surfing, and kayaking. (Roughly Memorial Day through August, state lifeguards will periodically lead kayak tours of the coastline, so inquire of a park attendant when you arrive.)
The beach itself is a busy spot year-round, especially for families, as the waves are generally on the mellow side, and the California Coastal Trail that runs right through the campground is a beautiful route for leisurely walks and bike rides. Other perks: Each campsite includes a picnic table and a fire pit (firewood is available for sale by the camp hosts), and there is a small camp store in case you forget any essentials (read: s’mores fixings). Also, wine enthusiasts take note: Refugio State Beach is only about a 20-minute drive from the heart of Santa Barbara Wine Country.
Although sections of the Big Sur area are affected by a bridge rebuild, you can still enjoy much of what the naturally beautiful Central Coast has to offer. Just off Highway 1, Kirk Creek Campground delivers everything you’d expect of an epic Big Sur camping adventure—incredible ocean views (from every single site) and a convenient base camp for exploring some of the most pristine beaches and majestic forests in the state. An expansive network of trails—520 kilometres worth!—along the coast and into the nearby Los Padres National Forest is a hiker’s dream.
The dog-friendly campsite includes 33 tent/RV sites (no hook-ups or water, including drinking/cooking water) that each have a picnic table, fire ring, and grill, as well as five smaller hike-in sites if you prefer to get a little further off the beaten path. Your camping permit gets you free access to Sand Dollar Beach, the area’s largest sand beach and a popular surfing and fishing spot, and stunning Pfeiffer Beach, where you’ll happily spend hours scouring the shoreline dotted with huge, mossy rock formations.
Few campgrounds rival Doran Beach’s proximity to all kinds of ocean fun—you can go swimming, beachcombing, fishing, or paddleboarding 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 (parents with little ones will appreciate the beach’s gentle slope, as well as its soft, clean sand, and the generally mellow surf break) is a popular place to walk dogs, search for sand dollars, and bird-watch, and a jetty at the mouth of Bodega Harbor is a busy fishing and crabbing spot. Fun fact: Bodega Bay is also where Alfred Hitchcock filmed horror movie The Birds.
If you travel with a boat in tow, the harbor’s launch can accommodate watercraft up to 6 metres in length, and you can fish and explore the rocky inlet’s protected coves. Just above Doran Beach, a walking trail winds through grassy sand dunes and leads to a small boardwalk with benches for you to sit and soak up the seaside serenity. Keep in mind that this beach often gets hit with some pretty strong winds coming off the ocean—great news for the kite flyers, but less ideal for tent campers.
A few kilometres north of Fort Bragg, you’ll find one of the wildest, most pristine, and diverse coastal ecosystems in California. In addition to more than 140 campsites, MacKerricher State Park includes a variety of protected habitats, from tidepools and sand dunes to forest and wetlands. Each habitat offers an up-close picture of native wildlife—harbor seals lounging in the sun, migrating gray whales swimming right off shore, black-tailed deer nibbling foliage at the edge of the park’s 12-hectare lake, and more than 90 species of birds foraging the kelp beds and coastline.
Explore the park by bike with a ride along the Haul Road Coastal Trail, an old logging route used to transport lumber to the mill in Fort Bragg, and continue onto the Coastal Trail, which tours the Inglenook Fen Ten Mile Dunes Natural Preserve. Check the park bulletin boards for current activities, including docent-led hikes and Junior Ranger programs for kids. A private horseback tour operator called Ricochet Ridge Ranch leads rides around the park and beach.
Located at the south end of the park’s 15 kilometres of coastal territory, campsites include picnic tables, food storage lockers, and fire rings, and restrooms are located throughout the four camping areas. There are also 10 “pack-in” sites that are accessible by a 45-metre walk.