Spanning almost two million acres and comprised of 10 distinct wilderness areas, Los Padres National Forest encompasses much of the south and central California coastline.
Los Padres has everything you could want in a national forest, as evidenced by the wide range in elevation across the expanse of the park (from below sea level to almost 9,000 feet).
Beaches, mountains, and trails, oh my! But what about camping options? Are there places to park your RV and set up a tent? Bathrooms? Is the wilderness dangerous?
There are many things to consider beyond the scenery when planning some Los Padres National Forest camping. Keep reading for tips and tricks to make your adventure into Los Padres a breeze!
About Los Padres National Forest
History of the Park
Lost Padres National Forest has an interesting origin story. It was first established in 1903 and named Santa Barbara National Forest.
After consolidating a number of smaller forests in 1936, President Roosevelt changed the name to Los Padres National Forest, meaning “the fathers,” a nod to the Spanish missionaries of the area.
The first ranger station in Los Padres, Chuchupate Ranger Station, was named for a local indigenous woman, Princess Chuchupate.
Today, Los Padres is home to 120 named mountains and miles of beautiful coastline.
Los Padres National Forest is one of the country’s most heavily visited national forests, with almost 2 million visitors a year!
Things to Bring
Because of the wide range of ecology throughout the forest, you’ll need to be prepared for many different conditions and activities!
Southern and central California is typically relatively warm and not known for its precipitation. However, that doesn’t mean you should forgo the beanies and rain jackets!
Nights can still get chilly, and you never know when you might get some rain.
In addition, it’s always a good idea to always have a swimsuit, hiking shoes, sunscreen, all-weather wear, and a water bottle on hand.
Los Padres National Forest Camping
To truly understand and experience the joy and magic of Los Padres National Forest, camping is the way to go!
And thankfully, there are plenty of camping spots and opportunities to suit your needs.
Best Spots to Camp
The smaller, northernmost division has 11 different campsites, and the larger section of the forest has much more, totaling 62 camping areas throughout Los Padres National Forest.
There is so much variety amongst the Los Padres campsites, and which site is best for you totally depends on your preferences.
If you’re a surfer with an RV, a coastal campground with RV hookups is going to be your best bet. But if you want to pitch up your tent surrounded by beautiful redwoods, you should seek a more inland campsite.
However, some standout camping areas are across the board, including Mt. Figueroa, Paradise Campground, Kirk Creek, McGill Campground, and Plaskett Creek.
These sites are renowned amongst fans of Los Padres National Forest camping for their gorgeous vistas and proximity to the sights to see.
What Kind of Camping is Available
What the different campsites have to offer ranges from your most basic areas to pitch a tent to sites with electricity and full RV hookups.
Of the 60+ campsites available in Los Padres, 17 have RV accessibility.
The sites range from free to $40 a night and typically have a plethora of spots available. Some are reservable, and some are first come, first serve.
Each campsite has different amenities, so make sure you do your research beforehand if you’re looking for specific facilities.
Camping tip: note that there are no cabins available – Los Padres National Forest camping is all DIY!
Things to Do at Los Padres National Forest
With all those millions of acres of wildlife and diverse terrain, the list of places to hike, rivers to kayak, lakes to swim, and trails to explore is mighty long.
Not every camping trip will allow enough time to hit them all, so here are a few notable sites and activities to hit on your first go at Los Padres National Forest.
Without a doubt, the Big Sur coastline is one of the most frequented and sought-after attractions of the forest, highly regarded as a national treasure.
Big Sur brings the mountains to the beach in its gorgeous, dramatic cliffs and is the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the contiguous United States.
For nature lovers, Los Padres National Forest is home to two condor sanctuaries: the Sisquoc and Sespe Condor Sanctuaries.
Here, you can observe the rare birds in their prime nesting habitat.
The Jacinto Reyes Scenic Byway is also a unique feature of Los Padres National Forest, stretching 38 miles through some of the most gorgeous coastlines of the entire state.
Los Padres has over 300 miles of hiking trails. The hiking opportunities are what draw many of the visitors to the Los Padres National Forest camping areas.
But if hiking isn’t your style, there are also 400 miles worth of rivers and streams as well as 37 bodies of water in Los Padres National Forest where you can fish.
In addition to the hiking, fishing, and hunting opportunities, campers can also partake in whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking, horseback riding, and mountain biking.
There is no shortage of fun to be had in and around the Los Padres National Forest camping areas!
Camping tip: if you’re keen to try something new, there are plenty of guided tours and activities available throughout the forest’s recreation areas.
Around the Los Padres National Forest camping areas are a few major California cities: Monterey, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, Ojai, and San Luis Obispo.
All are great options if you’re looking for a break from the great outdoors to shop or dine.
Along the Los Padres coastline are Goleta Beach, El Capitan Beach, and Refugio Beach. You can even camp at one of these beaches if it suits your fancy!
The Los Padres National Forest is significant and sanctified to local indigenous communities, particularly the Chumash people.
Evidence of their culture and community building can be found in prehistoric rock art scattered throughout the forest.
An estimated 20,000 sites in the forest can be attributed to former indigenous ways of life in Los Padres, including the remains of ancient villages, burial sites, rock shelters, and ceremonial locations.
Wildlife at Los Padres National Forest
Lost Padres National Forest has some of the most diverse flora and fauna of all the national parks in the country.
It is also home to many different endangered, threatened, or sensitive species of plants and animals to observe on your camping trip.
Read on to learn a little bit more about the inhabitants of Los Padres and how you can view them safely!
Wildlife You Can Expect to See
Los Padres National Forest has 468 species of fish and wildlife, from deer to boar to sea lions.
Of these nearly 500 observed species, 23 are considered endangered or threatened, and 54 are considered regionally sensitive.
Among these special Los Padres species, you’ll find bald eagles, bighorn sheep, peregrine falcons, and California condors.
When camping, it’s likely you may encounter some of these creatures, which is why it’s important to know how to observe them safely.
How to Observe the Wildlife Safely
It’s extremely important to keep a safe distance from the wildlife and remain calm in their presence, even if they approach you first!
Many of the critters of Los Padres are considered big game or predator species, such as bears, bobcats, mountain lions, and large carnivorous birds.
As majestic and tranquil as they may look in their own habitats, they can threaten human life and safety.
Luckily, there are 10 different wilderness areas and three recreation areas where you can safely observe the creatures of Los Padres National Forest under the guidance of the park service.
Camping tip: grab some binoculars for your camping trip! You may get a glimpse of some of the rare and highly coveted birds of Los Padres circling the trees.
Vegetation and Geography of Los Padres National Forest
Los Padres National Forest’s vegetation falls under two main categories: chaparral and forested lands.
The stunning redwood forests are one of the largest attractions (literally!) that draw people to the Los Padres National Forest camping areas.
These forest giants are things of legend, and if you’re lucky enough to see one in person, you’ll never ever forget it.
In addition to the redwoods, Los Padres boasts a myriad of other trees, most namely Pinyon pines and Conifer forest.
These forested ecosystems also provide habitat to many rare plants, including Hutchinson’s larkspur, California jewel flower, and serpentine plants that can only grow in very specific soil conditions.
Of the Los Padres flora, more than 30 are considered sensitive species.
Los Padres National Forest is one of the most botanically diverse forests in the United States, making it a must-see location for plant enthusiasts.
The management of Los Padres National Forest encourages using the forest as a living laboratory to observe and research the unique and endangered plants and animals that call it home.
Final Thoughts on Los Padres National Forest Camping
Between the lush redwood forests and rocky coastlines, you will surely find the perfect camping opportunity for you and your fellow campers.
There are fun adventures to be had here, no matter your tastes!
To explore even more prime national forest spots to camp and adventure, visit our guide to camping at Shawnee National Forest.
- About the Author
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Leah is a writer, editor, and content manager with a master’s degree in English. Naturally, she is passionate about all things writing and learning.
She is proud to call North Carolina (specifically, the Outer Banks) home and loves exploring the state’s stunning coastline, sprawling Blue Ridge, and everything in between.
Leah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org