Spring Guide to Waterfall Camping in California

Make sure TLC’s Waterfalls is blasting on your headphones, ‘cause this Journal entry is about to turn up the volume on your wanderlust. The rains this winter might be causing wet socks today, but it’ll all be worth it when wildflower/waterfall/avatar-reenacting season blooms forth in a few months!

Here to help channel your grungy commute emotions into something to look forward to is our 2016 guide to waterfall camping, California edition. We’ve paired some of our favorite waterfalls in the state with nearby campgrounds for your weekend adventure inspiration. Just make sure you pack an extra pair of socks!

Upper Falls, Clear Creek Ranch

~1 hr from Redding

The absolute grandmother unicorn of waterfall campsites, Upper Falls consists of a tent cabin next to a trail to waterfalls and a swimming hole. Park once and spend your whole weekend blissed out on this spectacular landshare. If you want to explore beyond the property, Trinity Lake is down the road, as are the endless peaks and ridges of the Shasta-Trinity national forest.

Photo by Hipcamper, Ben Horton

McWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns Campground

~3 hrs south of San Francisco

Easily one of the most photographed natural places in California, McWay Falls is an absolute stunner, dropping directly into the Pacific Ocean above a gorgeous cove. The wheelchair accessible Waterfall Overlook trail might be one of the most known landmarks of Julia Pfeiffer Burns, but the park has a grove of old growth Redwoods and a rugged coastline that you might never get tired of.

The campsite is secluded and features views of the oceans through the redwoods, not to mention a few smaller waterfalls nearby. It’s walk-in, which means that you’ll need to plan ahead with backpacks and include a water filter for drinking. Once you’re settled in, the state park is walkable, making this a truly phenomenal single destination weekend on the Big Sur coastline.

Photo by Hipcamper, Aris Ford

Alamere Falls, Wildcat Camp

~1 hr from San Francisco

A beautiful cascade that empties out onto the beach, Alamere Falls is one of the many natural wonders of Pt Reyes National Seashore. The hike to the falls is a 13 mile round trip, which makes this a full-day adventure, and it is important to check the tides ahead of time, lest you get swept out to sea! The proximity of the trailhead to the Bay Area is a huge plus (as is the relative low elevation gain).

Wildcat is one of the most popular campsites in Pt Reyes, and for great reasons. It’s right on the ocean, and only a few miles down the beach from Alamere Falls. As far as walk-in sites go, this one is more like a backpacking trip (5.5 miles each way to the parking lot), but the views and beachside location are way worth it.

Sturtevant Falls, Sturtevant Camp

~30 min from LA

What’s only 5 minutes off the 210 and will definitely make your entire week? You’re thinking In-N-Out, but we’re sending you up into the hills outside Pasadena to Sturtevant Falls! This 50-foot waterfall is at the end of a 3 and a half mile out and back hike on a relatively flat trail, which makes it a great hike to take the whole family on.

Established in 1893, Sturtevant Camp is managed by the Friends of the San Gabriels, a local non-profit with a lease on the site from the Forest Service. The cabins here are rustic and surrounded by beautiful oaks, comfy adirondack chairs, and at least one badminton court! The hike to Sturtevant Falls is a short drive away, so this cabin/waterfall combination is perfect for a weekend mountain escape just over the ridge from Los Angeles.

Photo by Hipcamper, Alyx Schwarz

Big Falls, Barton Flats Campground

~2 hrs from LA

Coming in at almost 500 ft tall—and with a hike of less than a mile—Big Falls has a truly spectacular effort-to-awesome ratio. Over the ridge from Redlands and Yucaipa, the Valley of the Falls is a beautiful escape from the traffic of the Inland Empire, especially when it gets hot out (the trails here are very shady). A big bonus for the hike to Big Falls are the countless smaller waterfalls that run alongside the trail!

Barton Flats is a beautiful campsite off of scenic byway 38, half an hour north of Big Falls. Shaded by pines and the surrounding mountains, it holds its own as a peaceful place to spend a weekend. What throws it over the edge and onto this list is the trail that runs from the campground to nearby Jenks Lake. An hour hike gets you to clear and very fishable waters, exactly what you need to stare at after a workweek in front of a screen.

Photo by Hipcamper, David Young

Cedar Creek Falls, Paso Picacho Campground

~2 hrs from San Diego

A waterfall that slides into a large rock basin, Cedar Creek Falls provides hikers not only an amazing view, but an excellent pool to cool down in! This hike has very little shade, so pack loads of water ahead of time, and it’s important to realize that the way out is all downhill, meaning the slog back to your car will be uphill in the sun. If you leave early though, Cedar Creek should be spectacular and refreshing this spring!

About an hour down the mountain from Cedar Creek Falls lies Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, a massive natural space home to Paso Picacho campground. The campground serves as trailhead for several surrounding peaks, and is just a few miles down the road from Lake Cuyamaca. With 85 spots, Paso Picacho is a great place to camp with large groups (or friends that wait till the last minute to join your weekend trip).

Cottonwood Creek Falls, Boulder Oaks Campground

~45 min from San Diego

A less-known-about gem, Cottonwood Creek Falls lies at the end of a 1.8 mile jaunt next to a stream. Though it can be tricky to find the trailhead (make sure to read descriptions ahead of time), getting to explore the creek and surrounding vernal pools is a definite treat, especially given its proximity to San Diego. The surrounding peaks are inspirational, and after rainstorms, the pool beneath the falls becomes large enough to swim in!

Boulder Oaks Campground is a 10 minute drive from Cottonwood Creek, and exists in a unique intersection of outdoor pursuits. Aside from hosting a large equestrian camp, Boulder Oaks is one of the southernmost stops on the Pacific Crest Trail, and just a few minutes away from Interstate 8. As an easily accessed gateway to amazing hiking and riding, it can’t be beat.

Syllables and sass by Aaron Altabet

Aaron is one of Hipcamp’s loving and dedicated Interns this spring. He is a lover of dogs and boats and cheese, and often prioritizes hiking over purchasing office supplies. You can follow his decontextualized movements from Maine to the West Coast on Instagram.

Hipcamp Staff

Hipcamp is an online marketplace where you can list, discover, and book campsites and accommodations on private and public land. Hipcamp is your go-to guide to getting outside. If you’re a landowner, Hipcamp creates new revenue streams for your business, which can help conserve your land and keep it wild. #FindYourselfOutside #LeaveItBetter

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