Feet in the Sand: Best Places to Camp on California Beaches

Feet in the Sand: Best Places to Camp on California Beaches

The good news is that camping beach side is still possible in California.  All over the state, campgrounds are available for reservation throughout spring and summer. The bad news is because beach side campsites are rare, they're often packed with people and RVs and are booked up months in advance.

I recommend booking a midweek trip at one of the smaller campgrounds, as weekends are pretty much booked the minute the site reservations go live in early March.  

It took many hours to put this list together, tracking down databases and recommendations from friends and camping mavens, but I feel confident this list covers the most the most substantial collection of tent-ready sites worthy of your time.

Thanks to the popularity of our pieces on Free Camping Sites Throughout CaliforniaRentable Fire Lookouts and Our Favorite Beach Essentials, the Californist is compelled to put together an article on the best beach-side camping sites in California.  

Some sites, especially those in Southern California can be hugely popular, noisy and crowded. Almost all the sites below may be booked online, but anticipate six months outlook before you do so. The tragedy of the commons is a reality for ocean-side camping. I've vetted this list to ensure tent camping availability and removed RV camping exclusive sites.  

Southern California

Leo Carrillo State Park Campground (Malibu) - Located 28 miles northwest of Santa Monica on the Pacific Coast Highway (Hwy 1). Over 100 sites are available for tent camping.  The grounds crew are currently removing an existing bridge to improve the endangered Steelhead habitat, which will mean construction and various site closures throughout the grounds throughout 2016.  

Crystal Cove Cottages State Park (Laguna Beach) - Go back in time and stay in one of the last 24 beach cottages built in the '30s and '40s. Cottages have been restored. As described on the Crystal Cove Beach Cottage community page, "Located in the heart of Crystal Cove State Park's 3.5 miles of pristine coastline, the Historic District first developed as a South Seas movie set due to its seclusion and tropical aura.  The community thrived and became beloved for its relaxed, friendly atmosphere and picturesque landscapes." Registered as a National Historic Place in 1979. I've never stayed here, but I've heard this place is beautiful and experiential.  

Crystal Cove State Park Moro Campground (Laguna Beach) -  30 standard tent camping sites are available if you aren't able to find a Crystal Cove Cottage, tent sites all bookable online here

San Clemente State Beach (Orange County) - "Spanish village by the sea" is the slogan for San Clemente. This beautiful mile-long beach offers stunning water-based activities and bluff ocean views.  Lot's of trails and surfing available at one of the most popular surf destination campgrounds with 144 campsites available year-round and bookable here

Doheny State Beach (Orange County) - Located in the City of Dana Point, and on one of California's most popular beaches, 97 sites are available for tent camping.  There's often festivals going on near the property which means that campers can expect little peaceful relaxation.  Camping in LA is pretty rough typically, what can I say.  

Thornhill Broome State Beach (Malibu) - 15 miles south of Oxnard on Pacific Coast Highway.  9000 W. Pacific Coast Highway. Part of Point Mugu state park. Rocky beach, mainly meant for RVs, but a few tent sites available. Boondock sites requiring pack-in and out of all your belongings. Pretty bare bones camping, honestly. Wouldn't recommend this place unless you're truly desperate.

Hobson County Park (Near Ventura) - Located North of Faria Beach Park and Rincon Parkway, wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the base of the Santa Ynez mountains along Highway 1 (US-101) off the Ventura Freeway. Views of the Channel Islands and is footsteps from the beach. 

Carlsbad State Beach (San Diego County) - 204 standard sites are available in this San Diego county campground.  Lot's of swimming, diving and surfing opportunities here. One of San Diego's most popular beaches. All amenities are offered here for tent campers.

San Elijo State Beach (San Diego County) - Another full-service tent campground in San Diego north county. Two miles of coastline offer visitors great opportunities to enjoy swimming, surfing, diving and other water-based activities. 171 campsites are available here all bookable online.   

McGrath State Beach Campground (Oxnard)  - Closed due to El Nino flooding until further notice.  

Central Coast 

Carpinteria State Beach (Near Carpinteria) - 12 miles south of Santa Barbara in Carpinteria, this campground offers 80 standard tent camping sites and over 100 RV sites.  So yeah, again, this is the nature of tent camping next to the beach, you'll have RV neighbors in most of the campgrounds.   

Refugio State Beach (Near Santa Barbara) - Located 20 miles west of Santa Barbara off Hwy US-101 at Refugio Road. 63 tent sites are available all within steps of the Pacific ocean.  

El Capitan State Beach (Near Santa Barbara) - 132 sites available all year and bookable online, each site comes with a picnic table, fire ring and restrooms with hot showers in proximity. Lot's of hiking, tide pools and multi use trails throughout the beach accessible area. 

San Simeon State Park (35 miles north of San Luis Obispo) - 166 sites available at one of the California State Park systems oldest additions. With easy access to Hearst Castle, visitors can enjoy the beautiful shoreline, exquisite wildlife views and the scenic 3.3 mile trail that runs through the terrific San Simeon Natural Preserve. Riparian forests and coastal wetlands highlight the scene with wintering Monarch butterflies stopping annually in the Preserve. The State Park System states, "The 13.7 acre Pa-nu Cultural Preserve contains the most significant archeological site within San Simeon State Park. The site has been dated to 5,850 years before the present, and it contains significant evidence documenting prehistoric technology, subsistence practices and social organization over the course of several centuries." All sites bookable online here. 

Jalama Beach (Near Lompoc) - Located 45 minutes from Lompoc and an hour outside Santa Santa Barbara, Jalama Beach is a county campground with a few rentable cabins and over 100 campsites. Booking is easily achieved online here, but the best sites next to the ocean are typically booked six months in advance, so plan ahead. There are also a few walk-in sites available. 2 night minimum during the weekends at $97.00. The best way to spot open reservations is to click the individual site on the map, which will bring up a 3-month outlook for the site reservations. 

Sunset Beach (Watsonville) - Located between Santa Cruz and Monterey, Sunset Beach campground offers 75 tent sites available with terrific pine trees, views of the oceanic horizon and sand dunes. Best sites are 25-37, 73 and 75. 

Gaviota State Beach (Near Santa Barbara) - A smaller, more intimate campground setting. Located 33 miles north of Santa Barbara of Hwy US-101. The campground will open with 37 of its 39 sites available for pre-booking online. All sites are within walking distance of the beach. Also recommended if you stay here, check out Gaviota Wind Caves hiking trail.  

Morro Strand State Park Beach (Morro Beach) - 54 campsites available at this Morro Bay campground, bookable between March 2nd through August 31st. Only a few sites are available, so expect booking well in advance, especially along the string of beachfront sites. 

Limekiln State Park (Near Big Sur) - Another intimate campground setting. Only a dozen or so campsites available near the beach, with 24 total campsites available throughout the grounds. Terrific hikes nearby for the Lime Kiln historic site, waterfalls and coastal redwoods. There are also two first-come first served sites available. 

Northern California

Seacliff Beach (Aptos) - The location of the famous Palo Alto concrete ship, one of three made. Once built for Navy freighter use, the ship was never used by the Navy, instead was purchased by a Nevada based company to be used as an attraction and had two seasons of use before the company went bankrupt and the ship was abandoned and left for the elements. Unfortunately, all 35 campsites here are for RVs only. 

Sonoma Coast State Beach (Jenner) - Located between Jenner and Bodega Bay off Hwy 1, there are over 120 tent sites are available split between two campgrounds, Bodega Dunes and Wright's Beach. Beautiful coast land with reefs, tide pools, natural arches, 10 miles of shoreline and 5,000 explorable acres. One of the largest beaches in the state.     

Reef campground (Jenner) - Fort Ross State Park offers 21 primitive campgrounds for first-come first-served use, no reservations required.  Sites include fire rings, bear boxes and picnic tables. Lot's of beautiful redwood hiking trails, fishing, surfing and critter watching opportunities here. 

Point Reyes National Seashore Campground (Point Reyes, near Santa Rosa) 12 sites are available at this coastal back-country camping area. The coastal campground is among three (Glen, Sky, and Wildcat) other back-country campgrounds available for hike-in use. You can find out more about back-country camping here, including permitting, parking, fees and trail head locations. There is also an awesome boat-in campground that uses a similar back-country camping permit, more information in that link above. $20 a night per site for a small group (6 or less people). The coastal campground can be accessed with a 2 mile approach hike.

Mattole Beach Campground (Petrolia) - 6-15 beachside campsites in car-camping acceptable area. The access road is gravel and continues 3 miles from the existing paved road. Located at the north end of the 25 mile lost coast trail. 

Big Lagoon Campground (Humboldt) - situated on a wooded peninsula, the campground offers waterside camping. Several sites are located directly on the lagoon, and the shore is accessible to all campers. 25 tent sites, all for $20 a night. No reservations, all first-come first-served.  

Clam Beach County Park (McKinleyville, Humboldt County) - 9 sites located 7.5 miles north of Arcata off Hwy 101 (Exit Clam Beach Park off-ramp). First come, first served basis and cannot be booked online. These are rustic, more primitive campgrounds, desirable for a camper like myself, though with only 9 sites available, it can be tricky planning your camping escape if you're driving from afar. 

Gold Bluffs Beach Campground (Orick) - Located within the World Heritage Site of an old growth redwood forest, one of the last remaining tracts of old growth redwoods that remain on the planet, this campground features 24 sites near the beach. No tree coverage at the campsites, which can also be windy. All sites a reservable after March 1st.  

Patrick's Point (Trinidad) - Located 30 miles north of Eureka, the one-square mile park allows you to camp next to the beach and collect agates, spot wildlife (whales, seals, birds and sea lions) and explore the many tide pools. Many of the ten camping sites straddle the Pacific, ensuring visitors get to wake to crashing waves. 

Clifford Kamph Memorial Park (Del Norte County): Wide, windswept and wild, this beach offers tent only camping, fishing and other activities. Location: 2 miles south of the Oregon border, off Highway 101. Bring warm clothing as it can be cold here. 

Nickel Creek Campground (Orick): 100' above the beach, half mile hike from the parking lot with 5 sites available. Free camping though! Pit toilets. Beautiful campground among the redwoods with a 2 minute walk to the shore.   

If you enjoyed this piece, please check out Our Favorite Beach Essentials, our piece on Free Camping Sites Throughout California and extraordinary Rentable Fire Lookouts. Be sure the crush the like button below and, if you feel compelled, like our Facebook

Closing Note

Let us know in the comment section about your favorite adventure destinations and campsites. One of our favorite spring activities is taking drives up the local ranges and coastlines exploring the area with day-hikes. If you find this resource interesting, check out our pieces on famous California drives: Rites of Passage and our favorite road trip: the Grand Tree Tour

As this site is a huge labor of love, if you feel compelled, please share a link or like our Facebook