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California’s Best Coastal Campgrounds

California’s Best Coastal Campgrounds

8 spots where you can camp out close to the Pacific Ocean

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.

Book Ahead (But Last-Minute Is Always Possible)

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.

Book a midweek, off-peak-season visit for the most flexibility—and keep in mind 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.

Tips Before You Arrive

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.

San Elijo State Beach, Cardiff-by-the-Sea

This beach campground in North San Diego County will delight both surfers and foodies. The beach itself is a magnet for surfers from March through November, but is blissful during winter months, too. Take a few lessons at the on-site Eli Howard Surf School or just catch the sunset from the west side of the campground. You’re walking distance from the town center of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, home to an amazing deli counter at grocery store Seaside Market (try the Burgundy Pepper Tri Tip) and the sweets of VG Donut & Bakery. (more on beach camping in Cardiff-by-the-Sea)

Crystal Cove State Beach Moro Campground, Laguna Beach

Choose from 28 designated RV and trailer sites and 30 tent camping sites at Crystal Cove State Beach, a Laguna Beach gem that’s a lot more than just sand and surf. Hike about three miles from the Moro Campground parking lot to the 32 backcountry sites, located within the 2,400-acre Moro Canyon (you’ll need a permit from the ranger kiosk). Want something more plush? Book one of cottages in the park’s Historic District, which range in size from studios to two-bedroom houses. Check the campground’s calendar for interpretive programs like tidepooling, birding, or making jewelry from sea glass. (more on beach camping in Laguna Beach)

Two Harbors Campground, Santa Catalina Island

This idyllic campground on the west end of Santa Catalina Island offers 42 sites, 13 canvas tent structures, and three group camping areas—plus lots of fun things to do. Rent kayaks, beach umbrellas, and snorkel gear from Two Harbors Dive & Recreation Center to explore the island coves, or hit the hiking trails through Two Harbors Visitors Services, where you can also rent camping gear. For a more remote camping experience, head to Little Harbor Campground, seven miles from Two Harbors. Getting to this SoCal island, about 20 miles from the coast, is easy: Take the one-hour ferryfrom Newport Beach, Dana Point, Long Beach, or San Pedro. (more on beach camping on Catalina Island)

Refugio State Beach, Goleta

Kayak or swim off this lovely, crescent-shaped beach in Santa Barbara County, with views of Channel Islands National Park on one side and mountains on the other. The campground features 66 dry campsites (but no RV hookups) right off the sand, making it easy to go fishing, diving, or surfing; during summer, you can often join lifeguard-led kayaking tours. Campsites come with a picnic table and a fire pit, and you can buy firewood and other necessities (say, marshmallows) at the onsite camp store. Bonus: the campground is about a 20-minute drive from the heart of Santa Barbara Wine Country. (more on beach camping in Santa Barbara County)

Kirk Creek Campground, Big Sur

This campground right off Highway 1 provides a classic Big Sur adventure—sweeping ocean views from each site and an excellent base camp for hiking miles of trails that trace the coastline and wind into the nearby Los Padres National Forest. The dog-friendly Monterey County campground offers 33 tent/RV sites (no hook-ups or water) with picnic tables, fire rings, and grills, plus five hike-in sites that are literally off the beaten path. Make the most of your camping permit, which grants you free access to both Sand Dollar Beach, Big Sur’s largest sand beach, and gorgeous Pfeiffer Beach, with its dramatic rock formations. (more on beach camping in Big Sur)

Doran Regional Park, Bodega Bay

Swim, fish, paddleboard, or go beachcombing at this campground that sits next to a family-friendly beach on Bodega Bay. The Sonoma County campground has 120 sites (no hookups) plus restrooms with coin-op showers. The beach, which has soft sand and a mellow surf break, attracts dog-walkers, birders, and folks looking for sand dollars, while the jetty at Bodega Harbor is popular for fishing and crabbing. Keep in mind: This beach gets breezy, so tent-building can be a challenge, but this is a great spot for flying a kite. Fun fact: Bodega Bay was the backdrop for the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds. (more on beach camping in Bodega Bay)

MacKerricher State Park, Fort Bragg

This Mendocino County campground, just north of Fort Bragg, offers 140 campsites and one of the most diverse coastal ecosystems in California. You’ll see a variety of protected habitats—tidepools, sand dunes, forest, and wetlands—along with native wildlife such as harbor seals, black-tailed deer, and more than 90 species of birds. (Look out onto the waters and you might see migrating gray whales, too.) Campsites include picnic tables, fire rings, food storage lockers, and easy access to restrooms. Ride your bike along a former logging route, the Haul Road Coastal Trail, and the Coastal Trail, which heads into the Inglenook Fen Ten Mile Dunes Natural Preserve. Check the park bulletin board for activities like docent-led hikes or Junior Ranger programs, or book a beach horseback tour through Ricochet Ridge Ranch. (more on beach camping in Fort Bragg)

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