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The Best Beach Camping in California, From NorCal Wine Country to SoCal Surf Spots

California Camping Beaches and Islands
by Alex Bresler Jul 1, 2022

California’s beaches have a heck of a lot of variety, with beaches suited to swimmers, surfers, sunbathers, hikers, hang gliders, horseback riders — and campers. That’s right — even folks who want to pitch a tent can find a place on California’s coast or lakes.

From the foggy northern bluffs to the scorching southern sands, there are beaches across the state where campers pitch their tents closer to the Pacific even the most coastal of Airbnbs will get you — and at a much more stomachable cost. Many of the best sites for beach camping in California are managed by the California State Park service, which means it’s easy to reserve a shorefront spot online. But be warned: sites this epic tend to fill up fast.

If the thought of beach camping in California already has you California dreamin’ about your next camping trip, these are the best campsites to book up and down the Golden State’s 840-mile coast.

San Onofre State Beach: San Diego County

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Southern California surfers liken San Onofre to Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach. But the gentle, longboard-friendly surf beach is just one part of the state park. It also includes the San Onofre Bluffs and San Mateo Campground, both of which have tent sites.

Only the San Mateo Campground has RV hookups, indoor showers, and flush toilets. For surfers who’ve come a long way to chase San Onofre’s waves, the biggest reason to choose San Mateo is the 1.5-mile trail connecting the campground to Trestles, the park’s most celebrated (and challenging) surf break. The San Onofre Bluffs campground, on the other hand, gives campers front-row seats to the ocean from its perch on the Pacific Coast Highway. The view fully makes up for the need to use an outdoor shower, though you’ll only be able to camp here between mid-May and September, when the cold water feels pretty refreshing, anyway.

For larger groups, either campground is doable. They both have around 150 sites, including one group site each that can sleep up to 40 people at San Mateo and 50 at Bluffs.

Doheny State Beach: Orange County

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Doheny is California’s first state beach and a haunt for surfers, anglers, tide poolers, picnickers, and volleyball players in Dana Point (roughly 12 miles north of San Onofre State Park). Campers have a place in the ecosystem, too; specifically, on the beach’s southern end. There, you’ll find a campground with 121 total campsites and 33 premium beachfront sites. Tents, trailers, and RVs are all welcome as long as vehicles are less than 35 feet long, but there are no hookups.

Hookups aside, the Doheny State Beach campground is stacked with amenities. In addition to the 62-acre park and its mile-plus shoreline, campers have access to a marina, boat launch, volleyball courts, horseshoe and bonfire pits, barbecues, a five-acre lawn, an amphitheater, hot pay-for showers, flush toilets, and tons of nearby shops and restaurants.

With over a million annual visitors to Doheny State Beach, spots at the year-round campground are a hot commodity. Sites are reservable up to six months in advance — which is when you should book if you’re planning a summer trip — and walk-ins are not accepted.

Gaviota Coast: Santa Barbara County

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The longest undeveloped stretch of Southern California’s coast hugs the Santa Barbara Channel for approximately 76 miles. It’s called the Gaviota Coast and is home to three state park properties: Gaviota State Park, Refugio State Beach, and El Capitán State Beach. All three have mixed-use sites for stunning beach camping in California.

Gaviota State Campground has 39 tent, trailer, and RV sites near a pier and railroad trestle that make its panoramas endlessly photogenic. It’s generally busy during summer but is only open Friday through Sunday in the off-season. Refugio’s campground is slightly bigger with 66 year-round beachside campsites. RVs are allowed, but there are no hookups. El Capitán has the largest campground, with 119 standard year-round sites for RVs, tents, and trailers. Despite the campground’s size, all of the sites are nicely spaced out along the bluffs bounding El Capitán State Beach.

The drive from Gaviota State Park to El Capitán State is only about 15 minutes, so you’ll have a chance to see the whole stretch. If you’re a hiker, don’t miss the three-mile Aniso Trail, connecting Refugio to El Capitán.

Pismo State Beach: San Louis Obispo County

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Pismo Beach is famous for its clams. For ages, the bivalves were abundant on this slice of San Louis Obispo’s coast. Then, in the 1980s, Pismo clams all but disappeared. Now, they’re inexplicably resurfacing. Of course, none of that has much bearing on the fact that Pismo Beach is a great place to go beach camping in California — other than the fact that you can try clam digging while you’re there. But boy, oh boy — will you be happy as a Pismo clam if you give camping here a go.

Campers have two choices: the North Beach Campground, which has 103 mixed-use sites close to the shore, or the slightly inland Oceano Campground, which has 80 sites within the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. Reservations are required at North Beach from mid-May to November, and roughly half of the Oceano sites are reserved for RVs and trailers. For RV campers, there’s also a KOA campground between the Avila and Pismo beaches. Vans, cars, and tents are prohibited, but you can rent cabins if you’re not a tent camper.

Bodega Bay: Sonoma County

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Hear the name “Sonoma,” and you probably think immediately of wine country. But the reason grape varieties like pinot noir and chardonnay thrive in Napa’s cooler, wetter neighbor is the same reason that the region is so irresistible for beach camping: the beautiful Sonoma Coast.

Bodega Bay, in particular, has some of the best beach camping in California. Wedged between the town of Bodega Bay and Bodega Harbor, Doran Regional Park alone has five different campgrounds — Shell, Gull, Cove, Miwok, and Jetty — with over 120 campsites in total. The entire regional parks system has more than 200 year-round campsites, with another 46 tent and RV sites at Westside Regional Park in Bodega Bay. Reservations at either park are required and can be made up to a year in advance.

A few miles north, the Bodega Dunes Campground has 99 tent sites of its own. Just north of that, between Bodega Bay and the mouth of the Russian River, there’s yet another campground at Wright’s Beach. It has 27 developed sites and accepts walk-ins.

Primitive sites are also available at the Willow Creek and Pomo Canyon environmental camps in Sonoma Coast State Park. There are 32 sites between them, all of which are first-come, first-served and near some of the best trailheads in the area. The Kortum Trail is a local favorite, traversing roughly 4.5 miles from Wright’s Beach.

Point Mugu State Park: Ventura County

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Midway between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, Point Mugu State Park is a year-round destination for California beach camping. There are two campgrounds — Sycamore Canyon and Thornhill Broome — as well as the La Jolla group campsite just across the Pacific Coast Highway from Thornhill Broome’s 62 primitive beachfront tent sites. Sycamore Canyon is smaller with only 31 sites, but it’s outfitted for RVs and trailers as well as tents. When you’re not at your campground, you can take advantage of Point Mugu’s 70 miles of hiking trails or hop a boat at Channel Islands Harbor (about 20 minutes north) to check out Channel Islands National Park.

Carpinteria State Beach: Santa Barbara County

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With more than 200 campsites split between four campground loops — Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel — Carpinteria State Beach has some of the most varied beach camping in California. Santa Rosa is just for RVs and trailers, complete with full hookups, while the other three loops welcome tent campers. Santa Cruz is particularly desirable with 12 premium beachfront sites. Both Santa Cruz and Anacapa also have group sites for up to 25 people; Anacapa’s Raccoon site is the largest with room for up to 40 people.

Camping with a group that large can be hard to coordinate, but Carpinteria State Beach is particularly well-suited for a trip with the whole extended family. Minimal rip tides and waves that break far from shore make it one of the safest swimming beaches in California for all ages. Just warn the little ones not to panic if they hear loud, guttural barking in the distance — Carpinteria’s harbor seal sanctuary is just a couple of miles down the beach.

Point Reyes National Seashore: Marin County

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An hour north of San Francisco, West Marin’s Point Reyes National Seashore protects a whopping 80 miles of Pacific coastline. It includes several beaches and multiple campgrounds accessible only on foot or by boat. These campgrounds are Coast, Glen, Wildcat, and Sky; Coast and Glen are the largest with 12 sites while Wildcat has a mere three. Any of them will scratch your California beach camping itch, but if you want to sleep as close to the water as possible, you can pitch your tent on the shore of Tomales Bay.

Tomales Bay is a boat-in primitive camping area that only issues 20 permits per day. The bay’s big-name beach is Marshall Beach, which is one of two spots where 15- to 25-person groups are required to camp. The bay’s big-name island is Hog Island, famous for oysters. On the way to or from your camping adventure, be sure to stop at the Hog Island Oyster Company farm, bar, and shack for a proper taste of Point Reyes.

Morro Bay State Park: San Louis Obispo County

morro bay best beach camping in california

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You’ll know you’ve hit Morro Bay State Park when you see Morro Rock looming almost 600 feet over the shore. A State Historic Landmark, the volcanic formation is estimated to be 23 million years old, is considered a sacred site for the Salinan and Chumash tribes, and was used as a navigational aid tool for European sailors as far back as the 16th century.

The Morro Bay State Park Campground sits a few miles south of Morro Rock. Because of its proximity to a natural lagoon, saltwater marsh, and the Pacific Ocean, the park is a significant birdwatching site. You can learn more about the area’s ecology, from sand dunes to tidal forces, at the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History, the only museum in the California State Park system. Or you can play a round at the park’s 18-hole golf course if that’s more your speed.

The campground itself has 134 tent, trailer, and RV sites. The first 30 have water and electrical hookups. In the unlikely event that all 134 sites are full when you plan on visiting, there are two other campgrounds nearby at Montaña de Oro State Park and Morro Strand State Beach.

Jalama Beach: Santa Barbara County

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Greater Santa Barbara has a slew of state parks and beaches to entice campers. But don’t overlook this county park about an hour north of the city, especially considering that every single one of Jalama Beach’s 107 campsites offers oceanfront views. The space is outfitted for tents, trailers, and RVs, and 31 sites come equipped with electrical hookups. There are also seven cabins for rent that sleep four each. Reservations are allowed up to six months in advance year-round, although 16 sites are designated walk-ups: half for tents, half for RVs.

The surf here can be rough, and the wind sometimes intense, so swimming is not always advised. But definitely bring a surfboard if you know what you’re doing. Other activities include beach caving at low tide, whale watching during spring, and hiking to the Point Conception Lighthouse via the 11-mile, out-and-back DeAnza Trail. After a busy day outdoors, the Jalama camp store has all the essentials you’ll need, from food and firewood to fishing gear.

Crystal Cove State Park: Orange County

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Crystal Cove is one of few remaining coastal stretches in Orange County that’s mostly undeveloped. In addition to a three-mile beach, the park also spans 2,400 backcountry acres and has an underwater park where campers can scuba dive. All told, Crystal Cove is one of the prettiest state parks in California.

One of the park’s coolest features is the collection of vintage cottages available to rent. They date back to the early-to-mid-20th century when Crystal Cove was a small seaside colony. But you can also BYOA — that is, bring your own accommodation — in the shape of a tent or RV. The park’s Moro Campground has 30 tent sites, 27 full hookup sites, and 32 primitive backcountry sites, although the latter are a considerable hike away from the beachfront.

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