Photo: Alla Khananashvili/Shutterstock

Camping Your Way Up California's Highway 1

California Road Trips National Parks Insider Guides Camping
by Kristin Hanes Sep 19, 2019

Driving up California’s Highway 1 is high on many travelers’ bucket lists — with good reason. The drive doesn’t just connect California’s charismatic coastal cities, from San Diego past Santa Barbara all the way to San Francisco, but it also takes you past the stunning scenery of coastal mountains, crashing Paficic Ocean waves, and weathered bluffs. To truly make a great trip extraordinary, though, camp your way up the coast. Grab your camping gear and get ready for an unforgettable adventure.

Rent a campervan and explore the variety of coastal campgrounds at California’s state parks. Not only will you save money on pricey lodging, but you’ll also go to sleep with the sound of the surf and the scent of salty sea air. You can also do this trip with a regular car, a tent, and other car camping supplies. You’ll enjoy campfires (or do without if there are restrictions), glittering starry nights, and morning walks by the sand dunes. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Below are favorite coastal campgrounds from San Diego northwards to beyond San Francisco. Try to make reservations at these campgrounds ahead of time, particularly if you plan on driving during the peak season summer months. You can reserve the campgrounds at the California state parks and state beaches up to six months in advance. Big Sur’s Kirk Creek Campground is in a national forest and can also be reserved six months ahead, as noted below.

1. San Elijo State Beach — San Diego

San Elijo State Beach, Encinitas, San Diego, California.

Photo: bonandbon/Shutterstock

This popular oceanfront campground is just 40 miles north of San Diego and features 157 campsites on towering bluffs. Look at the map carefully before booking your site, though, as some campsites are closer to the road, and others are closer to the ocean. You’ll enjoy a long, sandy beach and plenty of water sports at this beach park, where the Pacific Ocean waters are slightly warmer than up north. San Elijo is a popular spot for surfers, as well as snorkelers and scuba divers who come to explore the reef. When you need a break from sand and surf, walk across the Pacific Coast Highway to downtown Cardiff, which offers coffee shops, restaurants, and boutiques.

2. Crystal Cove Campground — Orange County

Crystal Cove Beach, Newport Beach

Photo: SunflowerMomma/Shutterstock

After you’ve spent the day exploring the sights and sounds of Los Angeles, you’ll be ready to take it easy at your next beautiful beachside campsite. Next on the list is Crystal Cove State Park’s Moro Campground, perched on a bluff high above the Pacific Ocean. Choose from 58 different campsites, all with extraordinary views. There’s a lot to appreciate about Crystal Cove State Park, including 3.2 miles of Pacific coastline, wooden canyons, open bluffs, and an underwater park offshore for scuba divers. If you want to get down to the water, put on your walking shoes. The beach is a good quarter-mile from the campground, down a hill, and through a tunnel under Highway 1.

3. Point Mugu Beach Park — Malibu

Point Mugu Rock along Pacific Coast Highway, Point Mugu, California

Photo: Andy Konieczny/Shutterstock

Five miles of ocean shoreline with sandy beaches, dunes, rocky cliffs, and river canyons are yours for the taking at Point Mugu Beach Park, just 90 minutes or so north of Los Angeles. This gem of a park offers 70 miles of hiking trails and beach camping at Thornhill Broome beach, which allows you to pitch a tent right on the sand. While you may love falling asleep to the crash of the ocean surf, you’ll also hear cars whizzing by on Highway 1. Nonetheless, this is a lovely, quiet beach and an amazing find so close to the bustling metropolis of LA.

4. Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach — Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara Channel

Photo: Wayne Via/Shutterstock

Once you near Santa Barbara on Highway 1, you’ll feel like you’ve arrived in the California you see in the movies. Palm trees sway in the warm breeze, and sand feels hot against your feet. Santa Barbara is paradise, with two gorgeous state beach parks with campsites just steps away from the surf. Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach are only three miles apart but have different vibes.

Refugio is a low-key beach with planted palm trees, but El Capitan has a more rugged vibe, with its tall cliffs and long wooden stairs leading down to the shore. Both are right next to exciting activities like surfing, hiking, kayaking, and fishing. Walk down to the beach to explore tidepools or use binoculars to search for dolphins and whales. Or, if you need a break from all the road-tripping, grab a beach chair and a book and enjoy a lazy afternoon as the sun nears the horizon.

5. Los Padres National Forest — Big Sur

California Coastline along State Road 1

Photo: Robert Bohrer/Shutterstock

Highway 1 through Big Sur is one of the most scenic parts of California’s coast. The two-lane highway winds along craggy cliffs with the Santa Lucia mountains on one side and the cerulean Pacific Ocean on the other. Within the Los Padres National Forest, the Kirk Creek Campground offers some of the best oceanside camping in the state, where each site overlooks the sea. From here, take a short trail down to the beach or explore a variety of scenic trails in the national forest. This campground — which you can reserve here — is a little rustic, though, with no running water. Be sure to pick up a couple gallons before setting up camp.

6. Manresa State Beach, Santa Cruz

Manresa State Beach

Photo: Sharonab12/Shutterstock

No visit to California is complete without a stop in Santa Cruz, which blends laid-back hippie culture with Northern California’s rugged beauty. Walk along the iconic boardwalk before exploring the surf museum and grabbing a beer at one of the many breweries. From Manresa State Beach, you’ll enjoy panoramic views of bluff-backed sand and sea, plus the rolling Santa Cruz mountains and forested Monterey Peninsula. Choose between 60 walk-in campsites that are only a short hike from the beach. Since these campsites are walk-in, they aren’t ideal for campervans or RVs, but if you are carrying a tent, you won’t be disappointed by this oceanside campground.

7. Half Moon Bay State Park, Half Moon Bay

Northern California beach

Photo: VDB Photos/Shutterstock

If you didn’t have a tent for the campground at Manresa State Beach, no worries. Just an hour north of Santa Cruz, and about 45 minutes south of San Francisco, you’ll find peaceful Half Moon Bay with four miles of broad, sandy beaches and a quaint downtown full of art galleries and restaurants. If you camp at Half Moon Bay State Park, a short access trail leading down to the beach is only 100 yards away. Francis Beach has 52 individual campsites with coin-operated hot showers, a bonus if you’re doing an extended road trip in a campervan. You can gaze right out upon the bright blue sea from this stunning campground, and it’s the perfect spot to watch a popsicle-colored California sunset.

Doran Beach State Park, Bodega Bay

View of Bodega Bay

Photo: RedXII/Shutterstock

About 90 minutes north of San Francisco, Doran Beach State Park feels worlds away. Walk down a two-mile stretch of sand and listen to the roaring surf, or meander through grassy dunes on the Bird Walk Coastal Access Trail. This glorious state park — not far from where Alfred Hitchock filmed the horror flick The Birds — features four different campgrounds with 120 campsites. The Shell, Gull, and Cove campgrounds are bordered by Bodega Bay on one side and an access road on the other. The Jetty Campground has Bodega Bay on one side and the beach on the other, so it’s our top pick at Doran Beach State Park.

Discover Matador