From mountains to deserts, forests, and the ocean, California is home to some of America’s most majestic national landscapes. It has 110 state parks, spectacular beaches, and historical forest reserves. So it is understandable if you feel overwhelmed by choice.
But there are some spots worth exploring if you are after traditional tenting with all the necessary camping equipment or a more luxurious glamping and fine dining experience.
Yosemite National Park
Acquiring a camp spot at Yosemite national park is a bit like winning the lottery. You need a lot of patience and a bit of luck, but if you plan ahead and manage it, the payoff is worth every moment. Those attending for the first time will fall in love with the year-round Upper Pines campground that sacrifices solitude for a breathtaking location on the valley floor, within walking and shuttle distance of the main attractions.
You will find the 304-site Tuolumne Meadows campground outside the valley, with trails leading to Elizabeth Lake and Cathedral Lakes. At the southern end of the park, Wawona is home to spacious sites spread along the Merced River, allowing for easy access to the nearby sequoia trees of Mariposa Grove.
While Big Sur might have a legendary landscape, securing a spot at this campground is incredibly difficult. But, just down the road from the always famous Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is the lesser-known and tent-only Ventana campground.
This hidden gem is tucked away in a quiet redwood canyon and offers hotel-level amenities like restrooms and shower stations. Additionally, it sports a chic Airstream bar that serves cocktails and snacks in a makeshift outdoor lounge beneath the towering redwood trees. Finally, if you are willing to splurge, opting for the luxury glamping tents will grant you access to the spa and pool facilities of the Ventana Big Sur resort next door.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Located in the Santa Cruz mountains, Big Basin offers visitors the choice of four breathtaking waterfalls, ancient redwoods, and spiraling trails to explore. With 142 campsites to choose from, picks like Huckleberry campground are open all year round, while others like Wastahi are seasonal.
There are spots available to home large groups of 40-50 people, tent cabins, and even a horse camp that will give you a chance to bunk with your equestrian friends, although dogs are sadly not allowed. A kitchen, pavilion, and recreation hall are also available for hire.
Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park is home to at least 40 unique groves of redwoods, with the most popular being the famous Giant forest, where you can find the tallest tree in the world: a 275ft-high and 36ft-wide sequoia tree by the name of General Sherman.
Nearby you will find the seasonal riverfront Lodgepole campground, which is close to the visitor center and offers easy access to the giant forest, restaurant, and Wuksachi Lodge.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Prairie Creek may not be home to many coastal redwoods, but the camp’s creekside sites do boast California’s most spectacular redwood trails. From the visitor center, follow the Prairie Creek trail to the Cathedral Tree trail, which makes a loop through the park’s ancient forest, featuring the most picturesque redwood stands.
Alternatively, you could choose the Jame Irvine trail that will take you 4.5 miles away to Fern canyon, an overgrown streambed that is adorned with walls of lush fern and moss.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
If you look past the unique volcanic terrain of this national park, you will be met with over 160,000 acres of alpine lakes and meadows dotted with crashing waterfalls. You can choose from seven seasonal campsites, the most popular being Manzanita Lake which includes tent areas and camping cabins, or Butte Lake, ideal for those looking for privacy and seclusion.
If you want access to Summit Lake, located in the middle of the park, there is a campground perfectly located along the southern edge of the water. Lastly, you can join the 2.3-mile roundtrip hike, taking you past some must-see locations.
Channel Islands National Park
Accessible only via a 1.5-hour ferry ride, the five islands that make up this offshore national park will give you a glimpse into the past of what California’s coast looked like hundreds of years ago. Each isle features its own campground, the easiest to reach being Santa Cruz’s Scorpion Canyon.
You will have to carry your belongings half a mile from where the boat docks, but you will be rewarded with a night sky rarely seen on the mainland. While visiting, you can snorkel or kayak in the protected waters surrounding the islands, but you will need to book in advance for this luxury. If this water isn’t for you, trek to the highest peak for sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is a whopping 800,000 acres, with a surprisingly diverse collection of landscapes and campgrounds. Jumbo Rocks is the largest campground, and as the name suggests, it is filled with massive boulders, making it a climber’s fantasy. It is also perfect for exploring the desert environment and famous rock formations, including Skull Rock.