11 of the Best Beach Campgrounds in California
Camping, and more specifically, beach camping, is one of my favorite pastimes. Early childhood memories involve packing our Crown Vic to the brim and hooking up our pop-up to the hitch to make the four-hour trek to North Carolina’s beaches. In fact, hanging in my bedroom is a painting my cousin made of me sitting on the steps down to the beach, wearing nothing but a diaper as a little kid.
Now three decades later and I’ve graduated from diapers and bare feet to board shorts and Chuck Taylors, while downgrading from a pop-up camper to a three-person tent and sleeping pad. Having spent the last few years in California, beach camping has become one of my favorite summer activities. I’m like a little kid come this time of year, begging his parents to take him to Disney World, except I’m begging my friends to go camping with me.
As such, in my latest post, I’m sharing what I think are some of the best beach campgrounds in California (save for my secret spots).
I’ll forewarn you, however, that for those warm spring and summer weekends, campsites, and especially California beach campsites, are hard to come by. Even by the first day of spring, I’m usually scouring the websites of my favorite beach campgrounds, constantly hitting my browser refresh, hoping for cancellations on upcoming summer weekends that are fully booked. Be that as it may, check out my list below of 11 of the best beach campgrounds in California.
Note: Most of these are county or state parks, and aren’t any “secret”, deftly hidden, or illegal campsites. You're on your own there. Yes, I know where some of those are, but no, if you message me, I won’t give you my favorite secret campsites. C’mon, I’ve got some principles!
Best Beach Campgrounds in California
South Carlsbad State Beach
Starting in Southern California and working our way up, we begin in San Diego County at South Carlsbad State Beach. South Carlsbad State Beach’s campground is unique for a couple reasons, one of which is the 3-mile-long beach, and another being the bluffs perched above the Pacific Ocean where it sits. With more than 200 campsites, this is a do-all, be-all California beach campground, and good for RV and tent campers. I’d probably recommend it most for families, although for surfers, there are a ton of great surf breaks between here and San Clemente.
San Elijo State Beach Campground
Similarly, San Elijo State Beach Campground is just a few miles south if you want another North County beach camping option. Unique to San Elijo State Beach Campground is the hike or bike campsite, available on a first-come, first-served basis, ideally for those hiking or biking through who need a San Diego County stopover. For surfers, or wannabe surfers, Eli Howard Surf School operates out of San Elijo State Beach. Bonus points for pet owners: Dogs are allowed just south at Cardiff State Beach. Between the surf, nearby reef (for snorkeling and diving), and warmer water and temperatures, I’d recommend San Elijo State Beach the most for a proper Southern California beach camping experience.
Point Mugu State Park
Now this is beach camping! Located on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), just north of Malibu, Point Mugu really comprises everything that I love about Greater Los Angeles (actually just over the county line in Ventura County). Here you've got everything from miles of ocean shoreline, to rolling mountains, to miles of hiking trails, to canyons, to rugged bluffs. Point Mugu State Park has two campgrounds, Sycamore Canyon, which is just inland, and Thornhill Broome, which is primitive camping directly on the sand by the crashing waves (sign me up!). What’s more, this is one of a few places along the Southern California coastline where you can have a fire actually on the beach. Real talk: This stretch of the Southern California coast, between Point Mugu and Point Dume, is among my favorite corners of California. For hiking, surfing, paddling, and outdoor adventuring, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better stretch of 15 miles in Southern California.
Refugio State Beach
Continuing up the coast into Santa Barbara County, Refugio is really just fun to say, but also a great beachfront campground along a stretch of California lined with coastal campgrounds. I camped at Refugio last summer, when one weekend summer afternoon I decided to drive up the coast until I found a campground with availability. Refugio it was!
Refugio State Beach’s campground is small, just 66 campsites, and nothing to write home about, but that’s why I like it. It’s just a simple, small, California beachfront campground. One of the best perks, however, is that during the summer months, kayak tours are offered by the state park lifeguards. With the lifeguard presence it has during the summer, I’d definitely recommend Refugio State Beach highly for families.
Limekiln State Park
Limekiln, located in the middle of Big Sur, played host to one of my favorite solo nights of car camping ever, occurring last year when Big Sur was all of a sudden an island. With no traffic, and no crowds, I made the trek up and over the mountains to Limekiln State Park, where I was able to get a last-minute beachfront campsite on a weekend night. While many may consider it a downside that the beachfront campsites at Limekiln are directly beneath the PCH underpass, a new moon night in Big Sur made it one of the most beautiful beach camping nights that I can remember.
If you think Refugio is small, then you’ll really think Limekiln is small, with only 12 beach campsites (29 campsites all total). But that’s what camping is all about, right? Nonetheless, the contrast of the redwoods and Pacific Ocean in the middle of Big Sur makes it one of my favorite California state parks for camping. Limekiln also has day use access, for picnicking at the beach or amidst redwood groves, and hiking trails, such as the Falls Trail that meanders to a 100-foot waterfall. Because of Limekiln’s size, you’ll want to book reservations months in advance.
Kirk Creek Campground
Literally down the street from Limekiln State Park is Kirk Creek Campground. Listen, I’m just going to say it, you probably won’t find a better ocean view campground in all of California. Where else do you have the combination of open bluff campsites, Pacific Ocean sunsets, star-filled skies, and dramatic views of the mountains meeting the ocean. However, be aware that there is no water and no hookups. As such, it’s best for tent camping, with 32 campsites all-total. That view!
Finally, with Big Sur camping and hiking, beware of poison oak from here on north up the California coast. Believe me, I speak from experience.
Can a resort really be considered camping? I’ll let you be the judge. Camping or not, Treebones is one of my favorite properties in all of California. I believe the view does the talking.
Truth be told, Treebones Resort at its core is glamping. I mean it’s right there front and center on the home page, “Let’s go glamping.” So I consider Treebones like California’s gateway to beach camping. It’s neither on the beach, so you won’t wake up with sand in every nook and cranny, nor camping as I’ve discussed here, where conveniences like water, electricity, food, and bathrooms may not be convenient. Most of their accommodations are yurts, equipped with plush beds, hot and cold running water, towels, and linens, while the property has a garden-to-table restaurant and sushi bar. However, they also have campsites, and the "Human Nest," which is basically an open-air hut made of tree branches.
Manresa State Beach Campground
Continuing up the California coastline we come to Manresa State Beach on Monterey Bay. Sorry RVers, this is for walk-in tent camping only. And that’s exactly why I like Manresa State Beach, because it feels like beach camping as it should be. Conveniences here are more in the way of bathrooms and showers, albeit the showers are coin-operated. Since it’s walk-in camping (60 campsites), I'd consider bringing a cart to carry all of your things to your campsite. Nonetheless, there is 20-minute parking that’s relatively close to the campsites. It’s then a short walk to the beach.
Manresa State Beach is a state-protected beach on Monterey Bay. It is operated by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. The 138-acre site was established as a California state park in 1948. Aptos fire and Rescue had some fun practicing drills yesterday. Photo by @alison_gamel #ManresaStateBeach #aptosfire #rescue #jetski #visitsantacruz #drills #montereybay
Doran Regional Park
Doran Regional Park is a 120-site campground in one of my favorite corners of Northern California, Bodega Bay in Sonoma County. It, too, was the result of a last-minute camping trip, which showed upon arriving and experiencing some of my windiest camping conditions to date. Nonetheless, Doran Regional Park is a pretty special stretch of land, jutting out into Bodega Bay, just 60 miles north of San Francisco, and less than a half-hour from Sonoma County vineyards. With Bodega Bay, Salmon Creek, and the Russian River all nearby, it’s a great spot for water sports.
Lastly, compared to many of the other beach camping spots I list here, I found Doran Regional Park to have more availability. In other words, you won’t necessarily have to book a campsite six months in advance.
Sonoma Coast State Park
I’m just going to go ahead and come out and say that Sonoma Coast State Park is my favorite state park in California. I liken Sonoma Coast State Park to a mini Big Sur, with dramatic landscapes, hiking trails atop bluffs, beautiful beaches, and giant rocks (namely Goat Rock, which sticks out into the Pacific Ocean). Sonoma Coast State Park has several campgrounds, a couple of which, Willow Creek and Pomo Canyon environmental campgrounds, are typically open seasonally. Year-round campgrounds include Bodega Dunes and Wright's Beach, of which Wright's Beach is my favorite.
Wright's Beach doesn't have showers, but registered campers can use the token-operated showers at Bodega Dunes (a few miles south). Dogs are allowed on a leash at Wright's Beach, while they're only allowed in the campground of Bodega Dunes. Lastly, like most of California’s North Coast, due to cold water temperatures and strong rip currents, the Sonoma Coast beaches are not for swimming.
Gold Bluff Beach Park
Last, but certainly not least, is Gold Bluff Beach Park, way up the California coast. And I have one word for you: Redwoods. This, and the solitude of the Redwood Coast, is why this corner of the West Coast is so special. But it takes a little work, since the closest major metro, San Francisco, is 325 miles away.
Gold Bluffs Beach Campground is located in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, several miles off Highway 1, accessible only by dirt road. Yes, you’re in the cut. And with campsites amidst the dunes mere feet from both the Pacific Ocean and towering redwood trees, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more uniquely California camping experience. Note that sites can only be reserved during the summer months, but are otherwise available on a first-come, first-served basis. Just don’t feed the elk (yes, seriously, elk).