California is home to 280 beautiful and diverse state parks. When planning a California state parks camping trip, the possibilities are endless! From towering trees to snowy mountains and the sea — this state has it all.
Keep reading for all you need to know about California state parks camping, including where to stay, how to make reservations, what things to do, and more!
What to Expect While Camping in California State Parks
California state parks camping trips are full of memories waiting to happen. Whether planning your first trip or eagerly awaiting your 100th, it’s always a good idea to do your research beforehand to help your trip go smoothly.
No matter what time of year it is, California state parks are often filled with eager visitors looking to experience nature in all of its glory. However, as with most outdoor destinations, warmer weather is when many visitors flock to spend time outside. Campgrounds fill up more quickly and parking is harder to find during this time.
If you can brave the cold, visiting parks outside of the busy season is often worth it! Not only do colder months have fewer visitors, but they also show a side of California’s beauty that not as many eyes get to see. Plus, snowy terrain opens the door to new winter activities such as skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, making snowmen, and more!
Most California state parks charge a day-use fee for vehicles and personal watercraft. The day-use fee is separate from the price of campground reservations. Museums and historical parks may charge their own admission fees, usually per person. Rates may vary based on weekends or holidays.
Various parking passes, such as the “California Explorer” Annual Day Use Pass, the “Golden Poppy” Annual Day Use Pass, and the Boat Use Pass, are valid at many state parks. Before heading to a park, make sure to check online or call the state park directly to avoid surprise fees upon arrival!
In many California state parks, pets are prohibited or only allowed in certain areas due to wildlife conservation efforts. Before taking your furry friend to come on your camping trip, make sure they’re invited!
Check the park’s website or call them directly for the most updated information before your travels.
Diversity of California State Parks
The third-largest state by area, California has a plethora of scenery to offer its visitors. No two state parks are the same! While some are filled with luscious greenery and lakes surrounded by mountains, others are arid and located in the middle of a desert.
No matter what you prefer, here are a few options to consider for your California state parks camping trip.
- Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park – Situated on California’s North Coast, this park has 145 beautiful campsites that come with a picnic table, food locker, and fire ring. Plus, the campground has showers! The sites are surrounded by plenty of hiking and the stunning redwoods and coastal views are guaranteed to make your trip extra special.
- Providence Mountains State Recreational Area – In the southeastern part of the state, this park is home to the Mitchell Caverns. Hiking and guided cave tours are popular attractions at this park. Five small developed campsites are available for eager visitors.
- Millerton Lake State Recreation Area – Over 40 miles of shoreline make this central California state park a wonderful destination for boating, fishing, swimming, and hiking. 135 campsites are RV and trailer-friendly and come with fire rings, picnic tables, and access to vault toilets. Some sites have electric hook-ups, and many of the sites have beautiful lake views!
- Anza-Borrego Desert State Park – This southern state park is California’s largest, and certainly one of the hottest. 147 campsites range from primitive options to RV accommodations, and there are even 11 camper cabins. Some sites also have access to a small general store! Hiking, biking, and horseriding are all common attractions at this unique park.
You can research any state park by visiting the California Department of Parks and Recreation’s Find a Park page.
Most California state park campgrounds require a reservation. Reservations can be made up to six months in advance and can be done either online or by phone. At most parks, campgrounds are quick to fill up – once you know when and where you want to visit, make sure to secure your campsite!
Throughout the state parks, there are 20 campgrounds that are first come, first served. If you plan to stay at one of these sites, it’s best to arrive early – these campgrounds tend to fill up with eager campers rather quickly!
Here are a few options for first come first served campgrounds.
- Manchester State Park – Located on the North Coast, this park has multiple primitive campsites that can accommodate RV campers up to 30 feet long. The park lies right along the ocean and is a great destination for hikers, bikers, or people looking to fish, boat, or enjoy a relaxing day at the beach.
- Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park – This unique park is only accessible by boat. A handful of environmental boat-in campsites are available to visitors and guarantee a special experience with nature. Lava rock, tall pines, seasonal wildflowers, and beautiful waterways weave throughout this park, making it a great place to hike or spend ample time on the water!
- Andrew Molera State Park – Primitive hike-in campsites with flush toilets and picnic tables are available at this park. Hiking, biking, sightseeing, and relaxing by the water are the most common activities for visitors to enjoy.
Many California state parks allow dispersed camping. However, park regulations vary and some may rule certain areas off limits, so it’s best to check the park’s website or give them a call before planning to disperse camp.
Plants and Wildlife
Black bears, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, venomous snakes and spiders, and other unwanted guests are known to roam around California state parks. Although sightings are rare, don’t panic and remain calm if you encounter one of these animals. All food, trash, and scented items should always be kept in an animal-proof container while camping.
Although home to many beautiful plants, less-inviting flora such as poison oak and spiky cacti can put a damper on one’s camping trip. Ticks may also hide in tall grasses and bushes. The best way to prevent mishaps is by avoiding contact with unknown plants altogether.
Every park has different things to keep an eye out for – make sure to read up on the plants and wildlife specific to the park you’re going to visit before you arrive!
Viewing Wildlife Safely
Birdwatching is a wonderful activity to enjoy while camping in California state parks – over 350 species of birds can be seen! If you’re extremely lucky, you might even see a California Condor – one of the rarest birds in the world!
Apart from the skies, many other animals roam California state parks on land. Elk, mountain lions, black-tailed deer, red squirrels, desert cottontail rabbits, and much more can be seen while camping in California state parks. Dolphins, sea lions, seals, and whales can be spotted in coastal parks.
How to Prepare for California State Parks Camping
The best way to prepare for your California state parks camping trip is to plan ahead. If you can’t decide where to go, make a list of the places that stand out to you. If you have time, you can even go to multiple parks – or bookmark one for a later journey!
When traveling, it’s always best to have a backup plan, especially if you’re relying on first come, first served campsites or dispersed camping. Knowing what to do in the event things don’t go as you initially hoped can help alleviate stress and increase your excitement for what’s to come. If possible, plan your trip early! The more time you have to plan, the more likely you are to get your ideal campsite.
Before leaving for your trip, check the weather forecast. Although the weather can change quickly, the forecast is typically accurate enough to prepare you for any significant weather events.
What to Pack
Packing for a California state parks camping trip doesn’t have to be tricky. Having a general idea of what you’d like to do while you’re there is a great way to come prepared! Many campgrounds do not have showers, so make sure you come prepared with enough changes of clothing to remain comfortable throughout your stay.
Even during the warmer months, it’s always a good idea to pack a pair of pants and a light jacket. Temperatures can drop drastically at night – even in the desert! Packing layers often comes in handy when you least expect it.
A swimsuit, towels, and water shoes are must-haves if you plan on spending time by the water. Sunblock and bug spray are always important to have on hand, regardless of the weather forecast.
Flashlights, extra batteries, a first aid kit, toilet paper, trash bags, and extra food and water should always be packed while going on a camping trip. Cell phone service and electrical outlets vary by the park – it’s always a good idea to keep printed copies of places you plan to travel to.
Things to Do
No matter what you’re looking to get out of a California state parks camping trip, there will certainly be plenty of activities for you and your family to enjoy!
No California state parks camping trip is complete without hiking – there are over 10,000 hiking trails in California! Whether you’re looking for a light stroll or want to spend all day hiking challenging terrain, there is certainly a trail for you.
Here are some of the best hiking trails to discover while camping in California state parks.
- Saddle Peak – Located at Malibu Creek State Park, this moderate trail takes an average of less than two hours to complete. Hikers will reach the summit of Saddle Peak and be rewarded with stunning views of the mountains, including a view from above the clouds!
- Paseo Miramar Trail – At Topanga State Park, this hike is an ocean lover’s dream. The trail’s five miles show off beautiful sea views accompanied by wildflowers that line the path. For eager hikers wanting to see a new perspective, a couple of mini paths are attached to the main trail and lead to bluff tops.
- Emerald Bay via Lighthouse and Rubicon Trail – This unique hiking path stretches across both D.L. Bliss State Park and Emerald Bay State Park. The entire trail is 16.4 miles long and weaves through trees and wildflowers while overlooking the breathtaking Lake Tahoe.
Mountain biking is another popular activity on many trails – whether traveling by foot or on two wheels, don’t forget to keep an eye out for others while exploring!
With more than 3,000 bodies of water in California, there are so many ways to enjoy this state’s beautiful lakes, rivers, and streams. Watercraft allowances vary by the state park. Some areas allow motorized boats whereas others just permit kayaks, canoes, and sailboats. At some parks, watercrafts may be rented!
Before taking your boat out to the park, always double-check the rules and regulations on the park’s website.
- Clear Lake State Park – Named the country’s best bass fishing lake, this destination in Kelseyville is perfect for anglers looking to take home an impressive catch. In addition to bass – blackfish, catfish, blue gill, and Sacramento perch can be found within these waters.
- Brannan Island State Recreation Area – Surrounded by water, this spot is great for catching striped bass, perch, sturgeon, bullhead, and catfish. The island is located about an hour from both Sacramento and San Francisco, making it a very convenient place for those around central California!
- Henry W. Coe State Park – Fishing at this state park can be quite challenging, but it’s certainly rewarding. There are no creeks or lakes that can be driven to – fishing spots are located anywhere from 3.3 to 45 miles round trip from the nearest parking spot, and elevation gains range from 480 to 8,550 feet! Largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill, and green sunfish swim amongst the beautiful waters of this park.
If you’re looking to catch some waves, a California state parks camping trip will be the perfect opportunity!
For the best surf spots, check out the following places:
- Bolsa Chica State Beach
- Morro Strand State Beach
- Crystal Cove State Park
- Andrew Molera State Park
Swimming, paddleboarding, and windsurfing are other common activities found at these locations.
Rock climbing, horseback riding, scenic drives, hammocking, and more are other popular ways to spend your time while camping in California state parks.
Rock climbers certainly won’t want to miss Castle Rock State Park – there are four main trails that offer climbing spots, each with rewarding views of the park! Horseback riders will want to visit Red Rock Canyon State Park, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, or Mount Diablo State Park for some beautiful trails to stroll on.
For scenic drive enthusiasts, you definitely won’t want to miss Avenue of the Giants, a 31.5-mile scenic highway that stretches through Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The road weaves through the towering redwoods, guaranteed to be an experience you’ll never forget!
At Anza-Borrego State Park, visitors can choose from multiple scenic routes that take them through the captivating desert landscapes. Some roads are paved, but most are dirt – if possible, it can be handy to bring an off-road vehicle!
Whether you’re looking for adventure or a tranquil getaway outdoors, you’re sure to find something to do in these wonderful parks.
Enjoying California State Parks Camping
Ultimately, only you know which California state parks camping options appeal to you the most. However, you really can’t go wrong with any state park in the Golden State! Each park is unique and full of memories waiting to happen. Plus, who knows? You might just be surprised by how much an unassuming park can “wow” you!
Want to learn more about camping in other parts of the United States? Check out our other Campground Guides for all you need to know!
- About the Author
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Alanna Singletary is an avid outdoor enthusiast who takes any opportunity to spend time outdoors. Having attended college in the Appalachian Mountains, she has spent countless hours under the stars.
Alanna knows the rich experiences and learning opportunities the outdoors holds, and her passion for it drives her to share that knowledge with the world. Hammocking, hiking, kayaking, and camping are just a few activities that she enjoys most.
One day, Alanna hopes to take a cross-country camping road trip. Until then, she’ll continue seizing every opportunity to write and learn more about the great outdoors.