Get the starry nights, the campfire stories, the cosy sleeping bag, and all the best parts of camping in some of California’s most beautiful settings—but without the hassle of hauling loads of gear into the back-country. These glamping destinations give you the best of both worlds—a back-to-nature break from everyday life, but enough comfort that you won’t wake up with a sore back and covered in mosquito bites. And the settings? The hardest part will be choosing which one to head to first.
There’s Treebones Resort, for instance, which boasts alternative accommodations perched on wind-swept cliffs overlooking the Pacific. Or, head to an overnight safari trip amidst African wildlife at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, or spend a night under the desert stars at the Living Desert near Palm Springs. If you're looking to spend time further north, try a stay under sequoias with five-course meals included at Sequoia High Sierra Camp, or maybe a few nights in one of the eco-friendly tent-cabins of Costanoa Lodge?
For the super-active, there are the zip-lines and climbing walls on offer at KOA Ventura Ranch. For the nostalgic, there’s the all-Airstream hotel AutoCamp, with locations currently in Santa Barbara and Sonoma County, and another opening in 2019 in Yosemite. And finally, there's the coastline-kissing campsite at El Capitan Canyon, where you can choose between cedar cabins and safari tents on wooden platforms.
For most locations, everything, including bedding and meals, are included, though some sites require you to bring your own sleeping bag and pillow.
How about an overnight safari trip to see African animals just a half-hour drive north of central San Diego in Escondido? On a Roar & Snore Safari at the remarkable San Diego Zoo Safari Park (sister to San Diego Zoo), have a sleepover adventure in one of 46 comfy, safari-style tents that border an extensive grazing area for giraffe, rhino, gazelle, antelope and other exotic animals.
While visiting this extensive park, book a Flightline Safari—strapped securely into a zip-line, you’ll soar as high as 39 metres above the rhinos, giraffes and other animals below. You can even record the entire experience with a helmet camera to relive your experience at home. Also on offer are exhilarating Balloon Safaris and a Jungle Ropes Safari for children aged 7 and up to test their balance and jungle skills on rope bridges, tightropes and more.
All Roar & Snore Safaris include a ride on the Africa Tram and your choice of walking tours, from laid-back to active. Look for special themes throughout the year, such as the seasonal children's favourite Creepy Camp during Halloween (meet spooky, creepy critters and get special treats), or the romantic, adults-only Valentine’s Day overnights featuring a candlelit dinner and wine. All overnights include special activities, an after-hours opportunity to see the resident animals, a campfire programme, dinner, a snack and a park souvenir. And when you wake up in the early morning? Enjoy an open-air breakfast with views of grazing animals to photograph and observe, long before the park’s doors are open to visitors.
Along the spectacular Big Sur coast, you'll find a unique glamping experience: Treebones Resort, with 16 yurts perched on redwood platforms, each with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. Step inside for some surprisingly swanky touches such as queen-size beds and cushy couches, plus sinks, heaters and electric lights. Outside, deck chairs provide the perfect vantage point for jaw-dropping sunsets.
Other accommodations—truly unique ones—are available as well. Designed by a local artist, Human Nest and Twig Hut are 'wood-art' installations that up to two adventurous people can sleep in, making for a Big Sur sojourn unlike any other. And at the other end of the luxury spectrum is the solar-powered 45-square-metre 'autonomous tent', a cocoon-like structure that includes a private deck, claw-foot shower, king-size bed, gas fireplace and outdoor fire pit. Traditional bring-your-own-tent campsites with toilet and shower facilities are available as well.
In addition to simply revelling in the peaceful beauty of it all, there's no shortage of things to do nearby. Book a private guided day-long hike—your guide will drive you between trailheads—and visit Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Limekiln State Park, or enjoy sea kayaking with a local guide in San Simeon Cove, a natural harbour 15 miles to the south. Treebones also features a full restaurant, a sushi bar, a spa, a heated pool and hot tub (available to all residents) and an outdoor bar with that same ocean view, where you can relax with a glass of wine or a local beer after a day of hiking, kayaking or simply hanging out at the resort.
Bearded dragons, cheetahs, bat-eared foxes and Arabian oryxes—these are just a few of the remarkable wild animals that will be in your desert dreams—and outside your tent—when you book an overnight stay at The Living Desert in the Palm Springs region. From March to May, guests can enjoy a cracking campfire, exchange ghost stories and roast s’mores (a campfire delicacy of gooey melted marshmallows and biscuits). Then it’s time to curl up inside your private tent (camp beds are provided but you will need to bring your own sleeping bag and toiletries) and listen for night-time sounds, like the distant howls of coyotes in the Santa Rosa Mountains. Or just relax outside, gazing at a sky full of stars.
Wake up to enjoy an exclusive private tour of The Living Desert, a nature reserve of more than 1,000 acres of Sonoran desert that showcases the animals of the world’s deserts. The collection ranges from a tour of terrains representing and hosting North American and African desert wildlife to the Village WaTuTu, an authentic replica of a north-east African village, to Eagle Canyon, where golden eagles, mountain lions, bobcats and badgers thrive. Day visitors can feed giraffes, stop by a petting kraal (Afrikaans for enclosed livestock area), ride a camel or attend one of the twice-daily Wildlife Wonder Shows. Admission is included with overnight stays.
Wander through the site’s many geographical 'immersive' gardens which present plants from specific regions, including East Africa, the Mojave and the Chihuahua region of Mexico. Explore a network of paths that skirt the adjacent Santa Rosa Mountains before returning to check out the Discovery Center with its many exhibits on display.
Nestled among the giant sequoias of Kings Canyon National Park, roughly a 4-hour drive south of Yosemite Valley, is the remote Sequoia High Sierra Camp, a wilderness site where guests snuggle up in off-the-grid tent-cabins. It’s a 1-mile walk from the nearest car park (longer hike-in routes are available), but once you get to the compound of tents (elevation 2,524 metres), it’s nothing but glamping in truly exceptional Californian style. Three meals a day are served; dinners are five-course, open-air affairs prepared by a gourmet chef, and guests are served while seated at large communal tables. The canvas tents are equipped with luxurious rugs, feather duvets and woollen blankets on cosy beds, propane lanterns, and of course, stunning views of the surrounding Sierra Nevada just outside your tent flaps.
After a hot breakfast, hike to mountain meadows, jewel-like alpine lakes, or high summits with commanding views. Maps for several walking trails are provided, and the trails themselves range from a few miles to more demanding itineraries. You can also explore the country on horseback; trekking excursions are available for all skill levels, and can last anywhere from a few hours to several days. On these outings, the High Sierras are your oyster, to fish, swim or bird-watch (numerous species are native to the area—maybe you’ll spot a Williamson’s Sapsucker). Upon your return to camp, take a hot outdoor shower under a canopy of sequoia branches; the view of blue sky (or starry skies) above is unforgettable.
Here’s a glamping experience like no other—one that requires some work to enjoy, but that’s worth every ounce of effort. The work comes in the form of hiking or pony-trekking to one or more of the five High Sierra camps, open from June to early September. The most easily reached of the camps, May Lake, is a mile-long walk from Glen Aulin. From there, each camp is roughly 6 to 10 miles apart; all are strung along the 49-mile High Sierra Camp Loop trail. But once you’ve arrived, the scenery—some of Yosemite National Park’s most spectacular high country around Tuolumne Meadows—will make it all worthwhile. Plus, the fully equipped cabin tents at each site, complete with a woodburning stove to ward off the chill of the ~2,700-metre elevation air, mean you’ll only have to pack your personal items and toiletries. Showers are available at three of the camps (subject to water availability); all camps have toilets.
During your stay, enjoy hot dinner and breakfast, served family style with other guests—a great time to swap stories and hiking tips. Packed lunches for trailside picnics can also be ordered in advance. Guided hikes are available, lasting from 5 to 7 days, as are 4-to-6 day guided horse-riding trips, for both adults and children (minimum age for hikes is 7; for riding, 10).
These camps have been popular destinations in Yosemite National Park since the first location, at Merced Lake, was established in 1916. Because of the demand, a lottery system is in place to secure reservations. See the lottery guidelines for how to submit an entry.
Mountain bike through towering redwoods, horse ride across coastal meadows, explore beaches and rockpools, and then chill out in a fully equipped safari-tent 'bungalow'(with plush bedding, electricity and Wi-Fi) at the coastal Costanoa Lodge, an eco-adventure lodge in Pescadero. Roughly a 1.5-hour drive south from San Francisco, this peaceful retreat is surrounded by 30,000 acres of state parks from Big Basin to Año Nuevo State Reserve and Butano State Park. The grounds are heaven on earth for nature and wildlife lovers. Drift off to sleep listening to the sound of crashing surf and lonely coyote yelps; in the morning, wander along the empty beach and spot lounging elephant seals. Appealing extras include an outdoor hot tub with views of the coastal hills, and—to completely posh it up—a day spa offering on-site massages and body treatments.
As well as tent cabins, Costanoa has snug cabins with fireplaces, skylights and a group dry sauna, and traditional lodge rooms. Walking, kayak tours, guided bird-watching walks and yoga are popular activities here, and children can do things like make tie-dye t-shirts and ice cream at Costanoa Kids Camp, which runs from April to August. The campsite includes outdoor grills and picnic tables, or head over to the Cascade Bar & Grill, for locally sourced seafood and produce.
Nearby attractions include pick-your-own farms, the 19th-century Pigeon Point Lighthouse, the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve (home to blue heron, foxes and deer) and two renowned Pescadero institutions, the Arcangeli Grocery and Bakery and Duarte’s Tavern, both of which serve up local artichoke-inspired delicacies.
With zip lines, climbing walls, teepees and deluxe cabins, this isn't your typical just-off-the-highway campsite. Tucked into the coastal hills of Santa Paula, a little over an hour north of Los Angeles in Heritage Valley, this sprawling, family-friendly destination is part of the nationwide KOA chain. The 'glampsite' feature teepees that sleep up to 8 people, as well as fancy safari-style tents (with king-sized beds, futons, microwaves and mini-fridges). Also available are bring-your-own-tent pitches (without hook-ups) that feature picnic tables and fire pits, and are in easy reach of the activities area and creek.
Nothing is cramped or close together here—the grounds and facilities are so spread out that some visitors opt to zip around to the activities and pool area on the motorbikes or golf carts that are available to hire. Just watch out for peacocks—the beautiful birds make themselves right at home here. In addition to the teepees (which can be furnished with Native American touches such as fur throws, cowhide rugs and Native American blankets for an extra charge), there are also deluxe and studio cabins with partial kitchens, air-conditioning, coffee makers and Wi-Fi.
There are attractions here that are a few steps up from usual campsite fare, too—fly through the air on the aforementioned 400-metre zip line (tickets required) or the giant jumping pillow before heading out for a walk on family-friendly trails or taking a dip in the swimming pool. Other activities include gem mining, tie-dying, outdoor film nights and seasonal events, such as the Halloween costume competition and haunted hayride, and the 'human ball drop' on New Year’s Eve. KOA Ventura Ranch is pet-friendly, but dogs must be kept on leads.
Sleep in a shiny silver bullet at the Airstream and luxury-tent hotel AutoCamp. Several of the sleek trailers are fully outfitted for you and your family or friends, with a little deck and Adirondack chairs outside, a gadget-filled kitchen, cosy quilts for snuggling under, and even fancy toiletries that will make Mum smile. Each trailer also includes two bikes—perfect for a special time with one of your children, exploring attractions in Santa Barbara such as Stearns Wharf, the beach or the bustling Santa Barbara Public Market, where you can pick up designer cupcakes, crusty artisanal bread and other treats for supper back in your super-cool Airstream.
Santa Barbara is the original, but not the only, AutoCamp in California. You get a similar ambience at the Russian River location in Sonoma County, but there are more accommodation options, with 10 luxury safari tents in addition to 20 Airstreams. The activities are a little different too: walk down to the Russian River to swim or canoe, play lawn games or lounge by a fire pit inside or outside the mid-century-modern-style clubhouse. The 280-square-metre building also offers a shop where you can stock up on snacks and local beer and wine.
Opening in February 2019, AutoCamp Yosemite will be the largest and most remote site, near the historic mountain town of Mariposa. You’ll be able to enjoy many of the same amenities, plus a heated pool, a mid-century-modern clubhouse, and a lake with a rowing boat and canoe. Yosemite National Park is about 40 miles away and accessible via a daily shuttle.
With a reputation as one of the most enchanting glamping experiences in the state, El Capitan Canyon—nestled amidst the rolling coastal hills 30 minutes north-west of Santa Barbara—is one of those pinch-me getaways everyone should experience at least once in their life (but we bet you’ll book a return visit before you leave). The leafy compound is so secluded that it’s hard to believe that more than 100 cabins and safari tents occupy the lush hillside landscape, surrounded on three sides by the shoreline and wilderness of El Capitan State Beach.
Guests can choose from basic canvas tents built on wooden platforms, fancier cedar cabins with bathrooms and kitchenettes, or an Adventure Yurt with a domed skylight that allows for easy stargazing. All the accommodations are situated along a wooded drive that winds its way into the hilly portion of El Capitan State Beach, where wildlife abounds, as well as goats, sheep and a donkey named Eeyore. But the real draw here is the proximity to the coastline itself, where you can walk, bike, or drive under Highway 101 to access the sandy beach and tide pools. Visitors can even go on a leisurely llama trek to a field that offers sweeping views of the Pacific. Complimentary bikes are available for guests; the friendly staff can also arrange surfing lessons, whale-watching excursions, kayaking or wine tasting. There is also a summer concert series on site, May through September.
Pet owners should be aware that because El Capitan Canyon is designated as a wildlife corridor, in an effort to protect local wildlife, there is a no pets policy throughout the canyon.
Insider tip: cook your own meals—there’s a shop on site for groceries—or choose from the selection of gourmet-style ready meals available.