From top to bottom, you’ll find varied terrain along the vast Pacific Coast Highway, which offers campers just about everything under the sun (or fog). Whether you prefer the far northern reaches of Redwood National Park or the southern surf beaches, there’s no shortage of camping destinations on the California coast. Campgrounds do fill up, especially in summer months, so it’s best to book well ahead of the season. Marine life includes migrating gray and humpback whales, California sea lions, and myriad bird life. It’s no wonder visitors from all over the world seek out coastal California.
The counties of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Sonoma encompass the northern reaches of California’s coastline. Here is where you’ll find rugged bluffs descending to pristine coves, ancient groves of coastal redwoods, historic lighthouses, and cozy towns. The Lost Coast, Sue-meg State Park (formerly Patrick’s Point), and Trinidad State Beach all lie north of Eureka’s Old Town. It’s possible to spot migrating whales and harbor seals at MacKerricher State Park or the nearby Mendocino Headlands. Sonoma Coast State Park begins at Bodega Head with 17 miles of beaches to explore.
San Francisco Bay Area
Surrounding this urban center is a surprising array of options for outdoor lovers. Cross the Golden Gate to the North Bay’s Marin Headlands, Muir Beach, and Muir Woods, all of which fill with campers on weekends. Hike the Tomales Point Trail to see herds of Tule elk, or kayak on Tomales Bay. If you want to camp on the bay near San Francisco, consider Rob Hill Campground above Baker Beach, ferry to Angel Island State Park, or check out a variety of Hipcamps. Follow Highway 1 south for the nearby beach towns of Pacifica and Half Moon Bay.
Stretching between Monterey Bay and Santa Barbara, this lengthy portion of the Pacific coastline includes the coveted regions of Big Sur, Morro Bay, and Pismo Beach—where you may camp among the beach dunes. Start off in the surf mecca of Santa Cruz, which includes a campground at Manresa State Beach. At the southern end, catch a ferry to Channel Islands National Park for walk-in campgrounds and sea kayaking. Be sure to bring binoculars for bird watching and whale watching offshore.
The southern shores between Los Angeles and San Diego are the stuff of California dreamin’. Beachfront campsites claim the most desirable real estate, with surfing, windsurfing, and beachcombing on your doorstep. Heading south from Newport Beach, check out these coastal camping options: Crystal Cove State Park, Doheny State Beach, San Clemente State Beach, South Carlsbad State Beach, and San Elijo State Beach.