‘For an extremely large period of time,’ John McPhee writes in his novel Assembling California, ‘there was no California.’ California has been uniquely concocted over time from pieces and ever-shifting tectonic plates, giving it the impressively diverse range of terrains that makes it the best place for camping. From stargazing in the desert to leaping into a mountainous waterfall, California has every type of campground, and just like with concert tickets, reservations get nabbed up as soon as they’re available! Here is a list of nature’s prime real estate to book for this summer:
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park’s staggering views in the Sierra Nevada Mountains make its campgrounds a must-visit in California. The tallest granite monolith in the world, El Capitain guards over the vast park, with its sprawling meadows, deep valleys, towering groves of sequoias, rushing rivers, and thundering waterfalls. The park features amazing rock climbing, horseback riding, swimming, fishing, hiking, biking, and boating. May through September are peak traffic times for Yosemite, and reservations get snapped up within minutes of becoming available at 7am PST on the 15th of every month, five months ahead of the date. Tent and RV spots are available with varying amenities, some including electricity, potable water, flush toilets, campfire rings, and food storage lockers. If you’re looking for showers, head to Yosemite Valley at Half Dome or Housekeeping Camp as these are the only locations in the park with showers. Wawona Campground is a popular spot at the Southern edge of the park, and comes with an added bonus of the historic Big Trees Lodge, which is a perfect place to enjoy a cooked breakfast. An alternate camping spot in the campgrounds is the Summerdale Campground in Sierra National Forest, just 1.5 miles from Yosemite National Park and located in a beautiful meadow of wildflowers among the cottonwood trees.
Yosemite National Park, California, USA, +1 209 372 0200
Grab a bike, a kayak, climbing gear, or a saddle to enjoy the serene beauty of Northern California’s favorite camping ground. Lake Tahoe’s campgrounds are located lake-side and in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada surrounding the lake. Sandy beaches and beautiful hikes leading to panoramic views and hidden lakes abound, so be sure to check out which campground will best suit your needs. During summer months, ski resorts like Squaw Valley and Heavenly are open as hiking trails and if you’re in South Lake Tahoe, don’t miss the chance to take a gondola ride up to Monument Peak or hike up Eagle Lake Trail for some high-elevation swimming. Check out D.L. Bliss State Park for a spot by the lake with showers, toilets, and in convenient proximity to Tahoe City and Truckee River, which makes for exciting river rafting. Alternatively, opt for the unique boat-in camping offered at scenic Emerald Bay; Rental boats are available if you don’t have your own.
Joshua Tree National Park
If you thought the desert was a barren wasteland to be avoided at all costs, Joshua Tree National Park will quickly prove you wrong. Brilliant and vast blue skies stretch over the convergence of two unique desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado deserts. Camp among the peculiar Joshua trees, cacti, and wildflowers, and enjoy horseback riding, nature walks, rock climbing, and superb stargazing. The campgrounds cost $15 per site without water, but jump on a spot at Black Rock Campground or Cottonwood Spring Campground for an extra $5 that comes with access to potable water. Don’t forget to bring your own firewood!
Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA +1 760 367 5500
Ever gone to the beach and wished you could just stay there? Big Sur campgrounds provide the perfect stretch of coast, caught in between the Saint Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Step outside your tent and enjoy sunrise over the ocean, spot the California Condors, go for a hike, or climb down to get your surf on. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a favorite of the area, located among ragged granite cliffs, an 80 ft. waterfall that drops dramatically into the sea, beautiful trees, and diverse marine life. Restrooms and phones are available to the public as well as RV or tent-only sites.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, 47555 CA-1, Big Sur, CA, USA, +1 831 667 2315
Red Rock Canyon State Park
Camp like an explorer amidst the red canyons, cliffs, and buttes of Red Rock Canyon State Park. The park is located at the Southern tip of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and lets visitors hike among the dramatic rock formations and interact with the unique habitat up close. The Ricardo Campground is the only developed campsite, while others are more primitive with pit toilets, potable water, fire rings, and tables. Campsites are not available for reservation so come prepared with firewood and supplies, and grab a star constellation chart at the visitor center as you set out to experience the wondrous physical history of California.
Red Rock Canyon State Park, CA-14, Cantil, CA, USA ,+1 661 946 6092
Sleep under the protection of the pines and wake up to fresh mountain air every day at Big Bear, with an exciting day packed with fishing, kayaking, waterskiing, hiking, and biking to look forward to. The Big Bear Campsites are lined along Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains, just secluded enough to get close to nature but within close enough proximity to the nearby towns to stock up on supplies. Serrano Campground is the most popular spot because it’s right on the lake’s edge, but other campgrounds scattered through the forest are just as beautiful and all include running water, toilets, showers, firewood for sale, and a friendly camp host to help with any questions. RV spots right on the shoreline are another popular option for those looking for a little bit more luxury from their camping.
Sequoia National Preserve
Sequoia National Park encompasses glacial-cut valleys and idyllic groves of ancient Sequoias. Beautiful vistas on granite and shale cliffs reveal panoramic views of the park and the adjacent Kings Canyon Park making hikes worth the trek; swimming holes offer relief on hot days and the fishing is plentiful (with a permit). The Sequoia National Park campsites provide picnic tables, food storage and varying toilets, some with vault toilets and others with flush. There are no full bathrooms, but you can head over to Silver City Mountain Resort for showers at the cost of parking.
Sequoia National Park, California, USA, +1 559 565 3341
By Neha Pearce
Neha Pearce is a Bay Area native who spent the last four years studying psychology and English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In her last year as an undergrad she took course work in Film Studies and worked as an intern producer for a local media company.