This article focuses on camping in Southern California!
Camping is one of my favorite activities.
There is something captivating about spending the night surrounded by rivers, lakes or mountains. Then, you get that peaceful feeling when thinking about setting a tent, gathering around a fire, walking at sunset and watching the stars.
Now, the thing with camping is that it can be challenging to find a spot. Things are not necessarily centralized. There are like 300 reservation sites (exaggerated approximation). Info is scattered all over the Internet or it is outside it (are you familiar with calling to book?)
Due to all these, dreams of spending the weekend at a campsite can shatter in a second.
But, do not lose hope, my friend! This guide has been designed to help you identify tent campgrounds.
After living in Los Angeles for more than 15 years and camping more than half a dozen times per year, I have developed some good knowledge about camping in Southern California.
I am sharing my best tidbits below!
Please note: This article contains affiliate links, meaning I may earn a commission if you make a purchase by clicking a link. Of course, this comes at no extra cost to you and helps me to keep offering solid information to readers.
Table of Contents
How to Use This Guide
This article is broken down by the counties of Southern California (Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside, Imperial).
Under each county section, I have listed the government institutions, organizations or businesses that operate a specific group of camping facilities (or a single facility). I am providing a link to the reservation website or to a page where you will find info about a specific campsite (some campsites operate on a first-come, first-served basis).
In addition, I am providing information on what campsites to choose and tips on how to navigate the reservation websites.
If we want to simplify the camping experience, we can break down campsites as public (operated by a government agency) or private (a for-profit organization).
Campsites at the federal level (inside National Parks, Monuments or Forests) and at the state level (State Parks) are operated by the same agency. Therefore, in this article, you may notice certain websites are going to be mentioned for each county.
Now that we are on the same page, let’s explore some campsites!
I consider myself a minimal camper. I try to keep the amount of gear at bay. In addition, I always have my gear packed, ready to throw into the car. Here is an idea of what I take on camping trips.
- Easy to Set Up Tent – A tent is at the core of camping for many. I recommend investing in a tent that you can set up in a couple of minutes and it is built to last. This makes all the difference when you change campsites often or are setting camp after a tiring day or at night. Coleman is an excellent brand. >Check Coleman’s tents here
- Inflatable Mattress – If you want to have a comfortable night’s sleep, an inflatable mattress is the way to go. EnerPlex manufactures super plush mattresses. >Buy an inflatable mattress here
- Sleeping Pad – If you want to ditch the bulky and heavy inflatable mattress, you can opt to acquire a sleeping pad. I have enjoyed my self-inflatable Sleepingo pad way too much. >Take a look at my sleeping pad here
- Travel Pillow – I just can’t make it without a pillow. Therm-a-Rest compressible pillow is a dream. >>Buy camping pillow here
- Cold Weather Sleeping Bag – The appropriate sleeping bag is another must that I recommend investing in. Even in Southern California, depending on where you are camping and the season, temperatures can drop below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. >Check out this affordable option from HiHiker
- Foldable Chairs – Portable chairs allow you to hang out on the campsite, under a tree, by the fireplace, lake, river, or beach. A classic Coleman camping chair is a solid choice. >>Buy portable camping chair
- Pillows and Quilts – I pack extra bedding just in case the weather goes bananas.
- Waterproof Camping Blanket – This serves as a picnic blanket, tablecloth, and throw. >Click to buy a super functional camping blanket
- Soft Cooler Bag – If we are camping for a couple of days, we bring a soft cooler bag with enough capacity for drinks and some food items. I love my CleverMade collapsible cooler bag. >Take a look at my cooler here
- Hard Cooler – For longer camping trips, we take a 48-quart cooler (and the soft cooler too). We have had a Coleman cooler for years. >Buy the same cooler I use here
- Solar Powered Lantern – With time, I have gotten tired of battery-operated lanterns. I have upgraded to a solar-powered one. The one manufactured by LuminAID works great. >Learn all about this lantern here
- Headlamps – These are a great addition to any camping arsenal. >Click to check these top rated headlamps
- Water Bottle – Do not forget to bring water! Keep yours cold by taking a beautiful Hydro Flask water bottle. >Check out the insane options her
- THERMOS Tumblers – I have been a fan of the THERMOS brand since I received a tumbler as a gift. The tumblers keep drinks hot for hours. >>Buy THERMOS insulated tumblers here
- Power Inverter – This is a must if you want to charge the phones fast in the car or charge multiple devices at once. >Check out this option by BESTEK
- Flip Flops – I always pack flips flops to walk around the campsite and use on public showers. I am partial to the Tevas brand. >>Take a look at these beautiful flip flops
- Towels – This is the accessory I always forget about. WETCAT’s Turkish Towels take minimum space and dry fast. >Buy a Turkish towel here
- Portable Power Bank – It is a pain to keep phones charged while camping. Having a power bank is a lifesaver. The Anker portable charger can charge a phone 5 times. >Buy this incredible power bank here
- Even in summer, I bring warm clothes because I do not want to be surprised by the weather. That includes a long sleeve shirt, long pants, thermal socks, and a thick jacket.
- I pack clothes and toiletries on my Hynes Eagle Carry On Backpack. My husband uses a Columbia Backpack.
Camping in Southern California – Santa Barbara County
I call Santa Barbara my home away from home. There is a lot to like about this place.
The main city, with its Spanish Revival architecture and abundance of bougainvillea, is gorgeous. The beach towns of Carpinteria and Goleta buzz with beach and surfing culture. And let’s not forget about the dozens of vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Plus, the county has plenty of beaches, lakes, and hiking paths in the San Rafael Mountains.
- Jalama Beach – As the name implies, campsites are meters away from an undeveloped beach. On this site, you have views of miles and miles of raw coastline. The beach store is known for its Jalama Burger. The distance from Santa Barbara is 58 miles.
- Cachuma Lake – This lake, located within the Santa Ynez and San Rafael Mountain,s is a great place to escape the noise of the city. Campsite amenities include fishing, hiking, nature cruises, marina, general store, swimming pools and more. Cabins and yurts are available for rent. The Santa Ynez Valley is located minutes away. The distance from Santa Barbara is 24 miles.
Reserve California allows you to reserve campsites on the state beaches listed below. You cannot go wrong by staying in any of these. On the Reserve California webpage, enter “Santa Barbara” on the search box. The beaches are located 15 to 30 miles from Downtown Santa Barbara.
- Carpinteria State Beach
- El Capitan State Beach
- Refugio State Beach
- Gaviota State Beach
The National Park Service operates campsites on the Channel Islands National Park. Reservations are required and must be made through the Recreation.gov site or by phone. The number of campsites on each island is very limited. I recommend checking this page for specific information. Remember you need to arrange transportation from the mainland to the islands. This service is offered by Island Packers.
Even though the Channel Islands are part of Santa Barbara County, the boats connecting them to the mainland depart from the cities of Oxnard and Ventura.
The Los Padres National Forest district located in Santa Barbara County is operated by the United States Forest Service. This page provides specific information about the campsites located in the area. Look under the “Santa Barbara Ranger District” header (you may need to scroll down). Campsites in the forest are “first-come, first-served.” It is not possible to reserve in advance.
The Flying Flags RV Resort & Campground allows you to camp in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley. I cannot say enough good things about this place. By staying here, you will be super close to Solvang (California’s Little Denmark), Los Olivos and Lompoc. Plus, you can walk to have breakfast at Ellen’s Pancake House. This is one of my top recommendations on this guide!
Rancho Oso RV and Camping Resort is surrounded by Los Padres National Forest. This place has all sorts of amenities and resembles a small town. It is mainly an RV and cabin resort but some tent camping is allowed.
Camping in Southern California – Ventura County
This often-overlooked county in Southern California has enough activities, restaurants, breweries, and wineries to keep you busy.
Reserve California allows you to reserve campsites on the state beaches listed below. On the Reserve California webpage, enter “Ventura” on the search box. The beaches are located 4 to 6 miles from Downtown Ventura.
- Emma Wood State Beach
- McGrath State Beach
The County of Ventura Parks Department operates 12 camping parks all over the county. This is good news for campers since you can pick and choose. The best thing about these parks is that there seems to be good availability. You can find a place to stay even if you are looking at the last minute. Parks include the following (partial list):
- Faria, Hobson, and Rincon are located next to the beach. These are some of the coolest places to stay since you will feel like you are part of a big community/family. There is plenty to do in the area including hiking, surfing, and biking. These are located very close to Santa Barbara. Therefore, they are a good option if you want to explore the area on a budget.
- Camp Comfort and Dennison Parks are located close to Ojai, a mountain town known for its sunsets, festivals and wine tasting rooms.
The Los Padres National Service district located in Ventura County is operated by the United States Forest Service. This page provides specific information about the campsites located in the area. Look under the “Ojai Ranger District” header (you may need to scroll down). Campsite information for the Sespe Wilderness is located under the “Mt. Pinos Ranger District” header.
Campsites in the forest are “first-come, first-served.” It is not possible to reserve in advance.
The Ventura Beach RV Resort is located one mile away from Downtown Ventura. It is simple to walk to the town or the beach. There is even a river trail nearby. The resort has a swimming pool, hot tub, recreational room, basketball court, and bike rentals. Pancake breakfast is served on Sundays.
People love to stay next to Lake Casitas. With 400 camping sites, a water park, hiking trails, picnic sites, and a marina, this is hard to beat. The lake is located 30 miles from Downtown Ventura.
Lake Piru is another option for those who like to camp close to bodies of water located within the mountains. The campsite is almost on the border with Los Angeles County and close to I-5.
The Ventura Ranch KOA is located at the feet of the Topa Topa Mountains. The camp has swimming pools, Wi-Fi, climbing wall, nature trails, clubhouse and special activities (gem mining, movies).
Camping in Southern California – Los Angeles County
If you think Los Angeles is a big concrete block, well, think about that twice. This mega county (the most populated in the United States) has beaches, lakes, mountains, and deserts (in one word, everything). Of course, the campsites are going to be located relatively close to those attractions millions are interested to visit (Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica).
The County of Los Angeles operates 12 camping and RV parks (at least, that is what it is stated on their website). For tent camping, your best bets are Castaic Lake (45 miles from Downtown Los Angeles) and the Santa Fe Recreational Area (22 miles from Downtown Los Angeles).
Reserve California allows you to reserve campsites on the state parks listed below. On the Reserve California webpage, enter “Los Angeles” on the search box. The parks are located 30 to 50 miles from Los Angeles and 15 to 30 miles from Santa Monica.
Now it is difficult (like really difficult) to get a spot at these parks. They are located in Malibu and surrounded by gorgeous scenery. Everybody wants to stay there. If you do not find availability, check the website periodically since cancellations occur.
- Malibu Creek State Park
- Point Mugu State Park
- Leo Carrillo State Park
Several state parks in Los Angeles County operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Therefore, you will need to go to the park to find availability information. As an example, Red Rock Canyon State Park and Saddleback Butte State Park offer camping amenities.
Campsites on the Angeles National Forest and San Gabriel National Monument are operated by the United States Forest Service. This page provides specific information about the campsites located in the area.
Campsites in the forest are “first-come, first-served.” It is not possible to reserve in advance. Most popular campsites include Monte Cristo, Chilao, Buckhorn, and Crystal Lake.
Catalina Island provides camping opportunities too. For those of you who are not aware, this island, located 22 miles off the coast, can be accessed daily from San Pedro, Long Beach, Dana Point, and Newport Beach.
- Avalon, the main city on the island, has one tent campsite, Hermit Gulch, located 1.5 miles away from the ferry terminal.
- Two Harbors, the other town on the island, has 4 campsites and one of them has been voted “Best of the West” by a specialized magazine.
- Reach Two Harbor from Avalon using the Safari Bus.
- Primitive camping exists in the island but caters to people hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail
Camp Williams Resort has tent sites in front of the San Gabriel River. From here, you can hike (The Bridge to Nowhere is a popular trail), visit Mount Baldy or fish.
Bonelli Bluffs RV Resort & Campground has sites with views of Puddingstone Lake and is located close to the Pomona Fairplex, a large space used for fairs, concerts, and events. The resort is located 5 miles from the town of San Dimas and 25 miles from Los Angeles. Within close proximity, you can visit an aquatic park, a racetrack, and a golf course.
Malibu Beach RV Park has a privileged location. Who wouldn’t want to stay in Malibu? Amenities include washers, dryers, game room, convenience store, TV room, and picnic tables. There are tons of beaches and hiking trails to discover around. Check prices since they are high during summer.
KOA has two campsites in Los Angeles County. One is located close to the Pomona Fairplex (25 miles from Los Angeles) and the other one is located in Acton (55 miles from Los Angeles). Both sites offer great amenities and there is plenty to do in the surrounding areas.
In Acton, you will also find the Soledad Canyon RV Resort & Camping. This resort is operated by the Thousand Trails group (like Rancho Oso in Santa Barbara). They are known for combining camping with resort-style amenities.
Camping in Southern California – Orange County
Home of Disneyland, California Adventure and Knott’s Berry Farm, Orange County receives millions of visitors annually.
Other than the theme parks, the county has renowned surf towns (Huntington Beach), a presidential library (Yorba Linda) and the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam.
Reserve California allows you to reserve campsites on the state parks and beaches listed below. On the Reserve California webpage, enter “Anaheim” on the search box. Once again, these are highly sought after campsites. Availability may be minimal. In my opinion, Crystal Cove is the most scenic. San Onofre is ideal for surfers.
- Bolsa Chica State Beach
- Doheny State Beach
- Crystal Cove State Park
- San Clemente State Beach
- San Onofre State Beach
Camping in Southern California – San Diego County
For many, San Diego is their favorite part of Southern California. I do not blame them since the county has plenty of beach towns, mountain towns where apple pie is baked, desert land, a thriving craft beer scene and a border with Mexico.
The city of San Diego is fantastic but I invite you to explore more of the county. In a way, that is where you are going to find the real California.
Reserve California allows you to reserve campsites on the state parks and beaches listed below. On the Reserve California webpage, enter “San Diego” on the search box. As you will see, the varied geography of San Diego county allows you to camp on the beach, mountain or desert. Because of this, mountain campsites are closed during winter and desert campsites are closed during summer.
- South Carlsbad State Beach
- San Elijo State Beach
- Silver Strand State Beach – This beach is located in very close to Downtown San Diego
- Palomar Mountain State Park
- Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
- Anza Borrego Desert State Park
The County of San Diego Parks & Recreation agency operates nine camping parks. Most of them are located in remote parts of the county but the site is worth a look. Now, the Guajome Regional Park is located 8 miles from the ocean (in Oceanside). By staying here, you can explore northern San Diego County.
I also like the William Heise County Park since it is located close to Julian, a town known for its delicious apple pies, cider, donuts, and turnovers. The area has good hiking trails and wildlife (deer, rabbits, Rio Grande turkeys).
Read More: Things to Do in Julian
The campsite at Kumeyaay Lake is my favorite in San Diego. Since the reservation system is through the Mission Trail Regional Park (and not through a government agency), it is easy to book a site even during holiday weekends. The campsite is located only 18 miles from San Diego. There are many restaurants and businesses around.
Campsites on the Cleveland National Forest are operated by the United States Forest Service. This page provides specific information about the campsites located in the area. Campsites in the forest are “first-come, first-served.” It is not possible to reserve in advance.
La Jolla Indian Campground is the only campground in San Diego County with river and tubing access. The area is located close to Palomar Mountain, Lake Henshaw, Santa Ysabel, and Julian.
The Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve consists of 190 acres with 7 recycled water lakes. The preserve has multi-use trails, fishing docks, boat rentals, picnic sites, playgrounds, and a water park. The preserve can be visited even if you do not have camping plans.
Read More: Santee Lakes Recreational Preserve
Campland on the Bay is one of San Diego’s best RV and camping park. On-site, you will find Mission Bay views, swimming pools, hot tubs, bicycle rentals, a game room, a skate park, and fire rings. In addition, the park has a restaurant, cantina, market, ice cream parlor and activities designed for kids.
The San Diego Metro KOA has all the amenities of a world-class resort. Other than sites to place a tent, guests can rent cabins and glamping tents. On-site activities include rock climbing, lase and biking. The site is located close to the San Diego Zoo, Old Town and LEGOLAND.
Lake Jennings, located 22 miles from San Diego, offers tent, RV, and group sites. Locals frequent the site as a local getaway but it is a nice option for those visiting the area. There are plenty of kids’ activities, a lounge, and a bait and tackle shop.
San Bernardino County
San Bernardino County, the largest county by area in the United States, is dominated by high desert but has some mountain terrain.
For example, this is where you will find the notorious Big Bear Lake, Lake Arrowhead and San Gorgonio Mountain. Parts of Joshua Tree National Park and the communities of Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms fall within county boundaries.
To the north, you will find the vast Mojave National Preserve.
Reserve California allows you to reserve campsites on the Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area. On the Reserve California webpage, enter the name of the park or “San Bernardino” on the search box.
The San Bernardino County Parks agency offers camping facilities at seven locations. My favorite spot, from the parks operated by the county, is the campsite at Calico Ghost Town, a silver mining town that boomed in the 1880s.
Campsites on the San Bernardino National Forest are operated by the United States Forest Service. This page provides specific information about the campsites located in the area. Campsites in the forest are “first-come, first-served.” It is not possible to reserve in advance.
The campsites in the forest are divided by area. The Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead areas are the most popular ones with people coming from Los Angeles. Some of the forest areas extend to Riverside County.
The National Park Service operates two developed campsites (Mid Hills and Hole-in-the-Wall) in the Mojave National Preserve. Roadside and backpacking camping is allowed. However, it must be done in areas that have been used for this. Check this page for specific information. You need to plan carefully this adventure since this is desert camping.
The Bonita Ranch Campground is located within the San Bernardino National Forest and is close to the Lytle Creek, Glen Helen Regional Park, Mount Baldy and trails ending in waterfalls.
Camping in Southern California – Riverside County
Riverside County has a way too many fun things to do. It is home of Temecula (and its wine country), the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains, Joshua Tree National Park, Palm Springs, and the Coachella Valley. The good news is that with the abundance of campsites, we can choose what is more convenient.
Reserve California allows you to reserve campsites on the state parks listed below. On the Reserve California webpage, enter “Riverside” on the search box.
- Lake Perris State Recreational Area
- San Jacinto State Park
The National Park Service operates eight campsites at Joshua Tree National Park. For five of them, reservations can be made online. The other three operate on a “first-come, first-served” basis. This is an incredible place to camp and you cannot go wrong securing a spot here. I will try hard to get space at the Jumbo Rocks Campground.
The Joshua Tree Lake RV and Campground is located north of the park. Other than visiting the National Park, people go to rock climb in the area and to attend desert art and music festivals.
The Palm Springs / Joshua Tree KOA is located in Desert Hot Springs. So, it is logic that the resort counts with a hot tub fed by natural springs. Other than that, you will find mini-golf, game room, geocaching, and bingo. During your stay, you can visit the Aerial Tramway, a zoo, and the Indian Canyons (with palm oases).
Sam’s Family Spa Hot Water Resort is another place where you can enjoy a naturally heated swimming pool and four hot mineral pools.
Indian Oaks Trailer Ranch is located close to wine tasting rooms, a casino, golf courses, and Downtown Temecula.
Reflection Lake RV Park & Fishing Campground (Hemet) is equipped with the best camping facilities. The park has a store, picnic areas, basketball courts, and playgrounds.
Lake Hemet is a popular camping and fishing location. The place seems to be popular with celebrities and filming crews. Do not get confused. This lake is located in the San Jacinto Mountain, not in the town of Hemet (which is a desert town).
Camping in Southern California – Imperial County
In all honesty, I am not familiar with this part of California. I did some research about tent camping but wasn’t that successful. Seems like the area caters more to RVers (there are tons of RV camps).
The Imperial County page states dry camping is allowed at Wiest Lake and Palo Verde Park.
The Bureau of Land Management operates a campground at Squaw Lake.
When it comes to camping, booking as much in advance as possible is advised. Campsites operated by federal and state agencies sell out quickly.
If you are not able to secure a spot at a National or State Park, trying to find a campsite at a county or regional park may be the best option. The facilities at these places are excellent and availability is better.
As with all things, you will get better at finding camping spots with time. I have “go-to places” in every county.
It is easier to book a camping spot for a weekday.
I recommend checking availability in private parks. Most of the times, the price difference is not that much and you end up getting tons of amenities.
Hope you have enjoyed this guide to camping in Southern California. Happy camping!
What are your favorite spots to camp in Southern California?
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