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Ready, Set, RV: Exploring California’s Great Outdoors

Beaches, parks, and scenic drives await—all on your own terms

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Posted a month agoby Katrina Hunt

Editor’s note: As communities re-open after their COVID-19-related closures, keep in mind that some parks, businesses, and attractions may still be closed or have new protocols in place. Before traveling, familiarize yourself with local guidelines and regulations for all of the destinations you visit and check out Visit California’s Responsible Travel Hub.

Fresh air, gorgeous scenery, and a healthy dose of freedom—it’s all waiting for you. If you’re ready for a getaway with both wide-open spaces and a lot of autonomy, consider an RV road trip around California.

“When you’re in your RV, or camping, you’re in control of your environment,” says Dyana Kelley, President and CEO of CampCalNow, California’s campground association. “You can spend as much or as little time as you want in any one place. You can go off on a hike all day and come back, and never see a soul.” Such trips, she adds, literally and figuratively “put you in the driver’s seat.”

California is home to nine national parks and 280 state parks—as well as thousands of park campsites that range from the no-frills wide-open spaces of Hungry Valley in Los Angeles County to the sumptuous redwood scenery and big campsites of Calaveras Big Trees State Park in Gold Country. The state’s deep inventory of private campgrounds and RV parks further increase your options, many having pools, cafés, and even tennis courts.

Likewise there are vehicles for every style of trip too, from the converted minivan–style Jucy vans that sleep four and have a kitchen, to full-size RVs with a bathroom, says Kelley. “These days, you can even stay at campgrounds that will bring the RV or trailer to your site for you,” so all you need to do is show up. Other grounds have stationary lodgings—such as cabins, yurts, and even covered wagons—that offer plenty of away-from-it-all ambience. Kelley shares more tips on how to plan your next RV trip below.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Pick Your Wheels

If you’re new to RVing, start by getting acquainted with the various vehicle selections. GoRVing.com offers a helpful breakdown of trailers and RVs to help you decide. Options range from ones you can hitch to your own car or truck,  such as towable pop-ups and fifth-wheel trailers, to self-contained motorized RVs that range in size from full-sized vans to long, bus-style motorhomes.

Both GoRVing.com and CampCalNow can direct you to rentals at your starting point, using agencies such as CruiseAmerica, Bates International Motorhome Rentals, or El Monte RV (all offer one-way as well as round-trip rentals). For throwback-style vehicles, check out Orange County–based Vintage Surfari Wagons for trim VW camper vans, or San Diego–based Little Guy Trailers and Sonoma County’s Vacations in a Can, for retro teardrop-style trailers.

Try to choose a vehicle that’s compatible with the the region you plan to explore. You’ll love having the extra space of a motorized RV if you’re exploring the desert or mostly traveling along big freeways. That said, a smaller camper van might be better suited for the scenic drive along Highway 1 and other winding roadways.  

Choose Your Scenery

Do you want to do a coastal drive or go off the grid a bit? CampCalNow lays out 12 suggested trip themes on its website, including nature-based itineraries that feature beaches, hiking trails, waterfalls, and caverns.

Kelley says a lot of folks who RV their way through California take the “I-5 Challenge,” going north or south on Interstate 5, to or from Oregon. Along the way, you can stop to see the alpine scenery of Mt. Shasta, the olive-oil hub of Corning, the state capitol in Sacramento, and the beaches of San Diego.

Want to create a hike-filled trip? Check out CampCalNow’s 52 Hike Challenge. “The adventure travelers and backpackers go more along the 395 corridor,” Kelley says, referring to a thoroughfare that provides easy access to Lake Tahoe, Yosemite National Park, Mammoth Lakes, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. “Or maybe you just want to be on the coast all the time—you could create an entire trip out of beaches.”

Start Browsing Campgrounds to Create Your Itinerary

National and state park campgrounds typically take bookings on a rolling basis, up to six months ahead of time— through Recreation.gov for national parks, Reserve America for state parks and Hipcamp for a variety of locations But California also has a bounty of private campgrounds and RV parks, which can potentially have sites available on short notice. Their offerings can accommodate a wide variety of priorities, too, whether that’s showers, a pool, and free WiFi, or sweeping views of wide-open spaces.

Here are a few super-scenic, newbie-friendly private campgrounds to consider, listed north to south, and most with RV hookups:

Caspar Beach RV Park and Campground, Mendocino County: This North Coast spot, which also features log cabins, is surrounded by state parks and faces its own protected cove. The resort has bike trails, a store, and even cable in the RV sites.

Dillon Beach Resort, near Tomales Bay: This resort of charming, tiny house–style cabins sits on 55 acres along the Marin-Sonoma County Line and has big views of the Point Reyes Peninsula. You can rent a surfboard, chill on the private beach, and eat at the on-site locavore cafe.

Carmel River RV Park, Monterey County: Just 4.5 miles from Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey, this park is also close to glorious coastal spots such as Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.

Casa de Fruta RV Orchard Resort, Hollister: Located about 15 miles from the garlic-loving town of Gilroy, this 300-space RV park sits on the grounds of the fabulous fruit stand, sweets shop, and 24-hour restaurant Casa de Fruta. Kids will love the on-site playground, miniature train, and carousel.

Ocean Mesa RV and Campground, Santa Barbara County: Park an RV or pitch a tent at this gorgeously scenic spot right next to El Capitan State Beach, just north of Santa Barbara.

Mono Campground at Crystal Cove State Park, Laguna Beach: This Orange County park is coastal bliss, with wooded canyons and an underwater park just offshore for diving, snorkeling, and kayaking.

Vail Lake KOA, Temecula Valley: This 385-acre park in the Inland Empire has nice access to the area’s rolling-hills hikes—not to mention wine country. The park offers RV and tent sites and also has three pools, mini golf, and pickle ball courts.

The Springs at Borrego RV Resort: Set within massive Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a few hours east of downtown San Diego, this resort offers plenty of options for hiking and stargazing (the region is an International Dark Sky area). The resort also features a nine-hole golf course, three dog parks, catch-and-release fishing, and mineral pools.

Paradise by the Sea, Oceanside: This resort just north of San Diego boasts of being the only RV resort situated on a Southern California beach—in this case, Buccaneer Beach, which has surfing, picnic areas, and harbor fishing.

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