The 20 Best Places to Camp in Southern California

Posted by
Emily Pennington
April 15, 2020
Updated July 28, 2023

best camping southern california

Southern California is so full of diverse landscapes that there’s something to please even the pickiest camper in your crew.

From radiant beach sunsets, to high mountain pine forests, to boulder-strewn deserts, the Golden State is home to some seriously epic overnight locales.

As the home of two national parks (Joshua Tree and Channel Islands), several mountain ranges, a handful of national forests, and dozens of world-famous beaches, SoCal has cemented its place as an outdoor lover’s paradise, one that locals and international visitors flock to each year.

But, with so many different options and landscapes, choosing the perfect campground can feel like a chore.

We’ve narrowed down our favorite sites into one big list, separated into full-service campgrounds and more rustic dispersed and backcountry options. Feel free to scroll past the developed campgrounds section if you know they’re not your scene.

Related Read: 11 Epic Winter Camping Spots in California

The Best Campgrounds in Southern California

For the discerning camper looking for amenities like toilets, RV hookups, on-site water, and advance reservations, developed campgrounds are the best bet. Below are our top ten – ranging from beach to mountain to desert.

1. Leo Carrillo State Park Campground

Leo Carrillo State Beach
Photo: Connar L’Ecuyer, National Park Service

Why you should camp here: Sycamore trees offer shade and privacy at this 135-site Malibu beach haven. 

  • Reservations accepted: Yes
  • Best season: Year-round
  • Campsite type: Tents, RVs (31 ft. max length)
  • RV hookups: Yes (20, 30, and 50 AMP), dump station available

Enjoy your morning cup of Joe oceanside at this ever-popular beach campground nestled into the heart of the Malibu coastline. This large campground offers two rings of well-spaced sites with chaparral shrubs and leafy sycamore trees for added shade and a little privacy.

The area also provides easy access to several hiking trails leading to magnificent viewpoints along the Santa Monica Mountains. Of course, you could just skip the hike and opt to feel the sand between your toes or take a dip in the ocean (the park has two lifeguard stations).

Leo Carrillo also features amenities galore for the lucky few who camp here. Token showers, flush toilets, drinking water, fire rings, picnic tables, and even a dump station can all be found here. Did we mention it’s pet friendly?

Related read: 7 Adventurous Islands to Explore in California

2. Buckhorn Campground

Why you should camp here: Escape the city smog and feel the crisp mountain breeze at this high-altitude oasis tucked into a dense pine forest.

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Late spring, Summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tents, small RVs (18 ft. trailer maximum)
  • RV hookups: No

Though the amenities at Buckhorn are few, we’d be remiss to not include it, because it’s just that special.

Situated at an elevation of 6,300 feet above sea level, this campground is home to 38 spacious sites hidden from the Angeles Crest Highway by a towering grove of lush pine trees and fragrant cedars. Visitors here have a vast network of trails to choose from. Hike to a waterfall, a swimming hole, or go crazy and jump onto the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail.

Each site at Buckhorn offers a picnic table, bear box, vault toilet access, and a fire ring (be sure to grab a free fire permit first!). Sites are first-come, first-served, and potable water is available. Because of its high altitude, the campground is typically open April-November, after the snow melts.

Related Read: 6 Road-Ready Campervan Rentals Near New York City

3. Malibu Creek State Park Campground

malibu creek state park
Photo: Channone Arif

Why you should camp here: Pitch your tent in the middle of an outdoor-lover’s paradise with easy access to rock climbing, hiking, and swimming holes just outside the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles.

  • Reservations accepted: Yes
  • Best season: Year-round
  • Campsite type: Tents, RVs (30 ft. max length)
  • RV hookups: No

Just a short drive from Los Angeles lay the immense, grassy foothills of Malibu Creek State Park. This area is home to a wide variety of outdoor activities, from rock climbing, to horseback riding, to biking, to scenic swimming holes. There are also 15 miles of streamside trails winding through chaparral, oak, and sycamore woodlands for the avid hiker in search of a workout. We have even listed the best hikes near Malibu for your convenience.

Though most sites offer lots of sunshine and little privacy, each spot provides ample space for two vehicles and up to 8 people. A reservable group campsite does exist for larger gatherings. Park visitors have access to flush toilets, token showers, and their own picnic table and fire ring. On moderate fire warning days, it is possible that only Duraflame logs and charcoal briquettes will be allowed, rather than traditional wood fires.

4. Jumbo Rocks Campground

Jumbo Rocks Campground

Why you should camp here: Scramble around in a wonderland of rocks at these private, well-spaced sites in the heart of Joshua Tree National Park.

  • Reservations accepted: Yes
  • Best season: Winter, spring, fall
  • Campsite type: Tents, RVs
  • RV hookups: No

Some would say that the entire point of visiting Joshua Tree is to get up close and personal with the park’s famous giant boulders and Seussian yucca trees.

Campers at Jumbo Rocks can do both. Though the amenities are few and far between, this campground is centrally located and ripe with opportunities to hike and scramble without ever hopping into your vehicle.

Each campsite is situated among the large, monzogranite boulders and features a picnic table and fire ring. No potable water is available here, so all water (including some extra to douse your fire) must be hauled in.

Multiple pit toilets are well-placed around the campground, so you’ll never have to walk too far, and recycling/trash receptacles are available on site. Looking for a family-friendly activity? The Jumbo Rocks Amphitheater is home to an evening program that details the park’s natural and cultural history. Check the schedule at the visitor center before heading to camp.

Related Read: 11 Unique Places to Stay in Southern California

5. Gaviota State Park Campground

gaviota state park southern cali camping
Photo: Shutterstock

Why you should camp here: Pitch a tent on a sandy plot and hike under a railroad trestle to a secluded and lesser-known beach near Santa Barbara.

  • Reservations accepted: Yes
  • Best season: Spring, Summer, Fall
  • Campsite type: Tents, RVs
  • RV hookups: No

Soak up some sun on the rocky, coastal bluffs of Gaviota State Park, located just 30 minutes north of Santa Barbara. It’s a short hike down to the immensely scenic beach from the campground, and visitors will get to explore a historic railroad trestle and take in epic views along the way. Interested in come epic SoCal hiking? The adjacent state park has a wealth of trails for all fitness levels, from the short trek to Gaviota Hot Springs to the long loop from Tunnel View to Gaviota Peak.

Each site here provides visitors with a fire ring (with grill) and picnic table. Flush toilets and showers are available. Spigots with drinking water are well-situated throughout the campground, and there’s also a small store on site for any items you may have missed. Lastly, we recommend bringing good tent stakes when camping here – it can get quite windy!

6. Sycamore Canyon Campground

Why you should camp here: Wind along the coastal curves of infamous Highway 1 on your way to a shady campsite just a stone’s throw from the beach at Point Mugu.

  • Reservations accepted: Yes
  • Best season: Year-round
  • Campsite type: Tents, bike-in, RVs (31 ft. max length)
  • RV hookups: No, dump station available

Most people wouldn’t expect to find green grass and plentiful shade trees at a beach campground, but Sycamore Canyon is tucked away into the folds of the Santa Monica Mountains, meaning visitors get to experience the best of both worlds.

The sites here are sure to fill any outdoor lover’s heart with joy, as they provide easy access to countless activities. Go bodyboarding in the Pacific Ocean, hike up to Mugu Peak and enjoy dramatic views, or try your luck at mountain biking part of the Backbone Trail. The Sycamore Cove day use area also has two lifeguard towers for safer swimming.

Each site offers a picnic table and fire ring, while the campground provides easy access to drinking water, flush toilets, and token showers. Book well in advance if you’re planning to visit on a weekend or during busy summer months.

7. San Onofre Bluffs Campground

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Camping at trail 6 for adventure guides.

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Why you should camp here: Spot surfers while sunbathing on the shore at this iconic SoCal oceanside campground that’s located midway between Los Angeles and San Diego.

  • Reservations accepted: Yes
  • Best season: Late spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tents, RVs (25 ft. max length)
  • RV hookups: No, dump station available

Ok, so this campground isn’t exactly on the beach. It’s a 3.5-mile-long stretch of sites located on a massive, rocky bluff that overlooks the Pacific Ocean from above. But don’t let that deter you. San Onofre Bluffs Campground provides relatively easy beach access via a series of rugged trails cut into the bluff.

It’s an area that’s world famous for surfers, and you’re sure to spot a few during your stay. Other outdoor activities in the area include biking the old 101 route, birding at Trestles Wetland Natural Preserve, or hiking one of the many inland trails at San Onofre State Beach.

San Onofre Bluffs Campground features cold outdoor showers, potable water, and chemical toilets. Each individual campsite also offers a picnic table and fire ring. Though no RV hookups are available, there is a dump station on site. Dogs are allowed in the campground and on the beach near trails 1 and 6, so feel free to bring your furry friend on a least no longer than six feet. The area is typically open from late May to late September, just in time for summer family fun.

8. Serrano Campground

Why you should camp here: Kick back in your hammock and lounge lakeside at this Big Bear camping gem that’s full of modern amenities. 

  • Reservations accepted: Yes
  • Best season: Late spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tents, RVs (55 ft. max length)
  • RV hookups: Yes, dump station also available

This 109-site campground (open late March through November) is located on the quieter northern side of Big Bear Lake, just a short drive from the restaurants and gift shops of town. That makes it a perfect place to soak up some quiet under the shade of hundreds of mighty pine trees, all just a short walk from the lake itself.

Serrano Campground provides easy access for outdoor recreation of all sorts, from hiking to fishing, boating, and mountain biking. The Big Bear Discovery Center is located just a mile away from the campground and is full of family-friendly interpretive exhibits.

The campground is chock full of amenities you don’t usually find this close to a stunning alpine lake. Each site comes equipped with a fire ring and picnic table, tucked under a grove of shady pine trees. Hookups for large RVs are available at some sites. Serrano Campground is stacked with features like a dump station, firewood sales, drinking water, camp store, showers, flush toilets, and trash collection. Try to book a spot along the Lake View Loop for the best scenery.

9. Paso Picacho Campground

Why you should camp here: Summit the mighty Cuyamaca Peak and camp among oak and pine woodlands at this scenic spot that’s just an hour east of San Diego.

  • Reservations accepted: Yes
  • Best season: Spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tents, RVs (30 ft. max length)
  • RV hookups: No, dump station available

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is a phenomenal jumping off point for exploring southern California, whether you prefer the desert or the forest. It’s located 4 minutes from Lake Cuyamaca and 45 minutes from Anza Borrego State Park.

Plus, 85-site Paso Picacho Campground is a stellar base camp for anyone looking to trek to the summit of Stonewall Peak (5,700 feet) or Cuyamaca Peak (6,512 feet).

Each site at this campground has a picnic table and fire ring for nightly revelry. No RV hookups exist onsite, but there is a dump station for those in need. The campground offers amenities like potable water, pay showers, flush toilets, and ice and firewood sales. During busy summer months, the parks service offers interpretive programs at the campground, suitable for all ages.

10. Idyllwild Campground

Idyllwild Campground Overlook

Why you should camp here: Sleep among the tall trees and howl at the moon when you stay at this high-elevation campground located in Mount San Jacinto State Park.

  • Reservations accepted: Yes
  • Best season: Late spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tents, RVs (24 ft. max length)
  • RV hookups: Yes

Campers lucky enough to score one of these 28 campsites will find themselves snoozing in a high mountain paradise full of hiking opportunities. As it’s already situated at an elevation of 5,400 feet above sea level, you won’t have to go far to take in the amazing views of the surrounding landscape.

Go rock climbing at Tahquitz Peak or Suicide Rock, trail run on one of the nearby dirt paths, or take the scenic tramway up Mt. San Jacinto from Palm Springs.

It’s rare that such a small, mountainside campground would provide RV hookups, but Idyllwild is full of magic. Sites with both electric and full hookups are available. In addition, each campsite comes equipped with fire rings and/or barbeques and picnic tables.

The campground also provides drinking water, flush toilets, and coin-operated showers for all visitors. An on-site amphitheater and nature trail are sure to provide hours of activity for little ones, too!

Primitive Campgrounds in Southern California

If getting away from people is high on your priority list, and you could take or leave all the fancy amenities listed above, look no further than this round-up of our favorite backcountry and primitive campgrounds in Southern California.

As these sites are relatively unsupervised and do not have a camp host, we highly recommend you grab a fire permit, double check fire warnings, and read through camp restrictions before heading out to a remote area. Make sure you pack in plenty of water (at least a gallon per day, per person) and pack out all trash when you leave. Lastly, it is crucial to follow the seven Leave No Trace principles whenever you venture outdoors.

Some sites listed below are first-come, first-served car campgrounds in far-flung locales, some are dispersed camping areas, and some are worthy hike-in campgrounds along our favorite trails. Whichever one you pick, it’s sure to be a winner.

11. Joshua Tree Dispersed Camping

Why you should camp here: Enjoy a cozy campfire under a massive canopy of stars at these free, BLM camping areas near Joshua Tree National Park.

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Winter, spring, fall
  • Campsite type: Tents, RVs
  • RV hookups: No

The National Parks have often been called “America’s Best Idea,” but camping inside of one can be an expensive affair. Luckily, many of the country’s desert parks are surrounded by public land with designated camping areas for travelers on a budget.

Joshua Tree has two such spots in its vicinity: one near the west entrance and one near the southern entrance.

The legal dispersed camping area near the west entrance station is located off Sunfair Road and is little more than a dry lake bed. Sites are full of sunshine and offer the occasional makeshift fire ring but lacking in the privacy department.

On the park’s south side, there’s a large designated camping area just five minutes from the entrance, and many sites are bordered by mesquite trees and berms of dirt. You won’t find any bathrooms or amenities here, so packing in your water and packing out your toilet paper are musts.

12. Little Jimmy Campground

little jimmy campground
Photo: Chetan Kolluri

Why you should camp here: An easy hike in to this iconic woodland campground along the PCT will have big city dwellers feeling a world away from Los Angeles.

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Late spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tents only
  • RV hookups: No

Sure, you’ll have to backpack two miles in at altitude to enjoy the wooded splendor of Little Jimmy Campground, but getting there is half the fun.

After an immensely scenic hour-long drive along the Angeles Crest Highway, campers will need to park at Islip Saddle, don their packs, and traverse a well maintained trail through fragrant fir trees and ponderosa pines to reach the camping area. However, this is anything but standard hike-in fare. Once visitors pitch their tents, they’ll find a plethora of amenities ordinarily reserved for car campgrounds.

The campground boasts several bear boxes scattered around, picnic tables, vintage backcountry ovens, fire rings, and even pit toilets. For water, simply hike an extra .25 miles down the trail to Little Jimmy Spring, a perennial water source frequented by thruhikers (purify before drinking). The campground is a wonderful jumping off point for hikes up to Mt. Islip, Crystal Lake, and Mt. Baden Powell.

13. Scorpion Ranch Campground

Why you should camp here: Hang out on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean while checking a national park off your list at this hike-in campground that’s full of wilderness amenities.

  • Reservations accepted: Yes
  • Best season: Spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tents only
  • RV hookups: No

Enjoy some seriously secluded beach time and jaw-dropping ocean views at Scorpion Ranch. Visitors here will need to take an Island Packers ferry from the mainland (1 hour, reserve in advance), then hike a short, flat .5-mile trail to get to the campground proper. Once situated at their assigned campsite, travelers have the freedom to explore a vast network of coastal trails, search for wildlife, and enjoy some time in the water.

Amenities at Scorpion Ranch include potable water, pit toilets, picnic tables, and food storage containers. Ravens and Santa Cruz Island foxes have grown accustomed to tourists, and it’s imperative that campers properly store all food and smellables. No fires are allowed at any campground in Channel Islands National Park, but enclosed gas stoves are ok.

14. Mount Pacifico Campground

Why you should camp here: Bask in quiet solitude at this stunning but less-traveled campground in the San Gabriel Mountains.

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Late spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tents, small RVs (4WD needed)
  • RV hookups: No

It’s surprising that this is one of the lesser-traveled campgrounds in the San Gabriel Mountains, because it lies just beneath a 7,124-foot mountain summit with breathtaking views in every direction.

These shady campsites can be accessed by either hiking in approximately 6 miles each way or by driving in with a high-clearance vehicle (gate key may need to be obtained from forest service office). Unless you hike the trail in late April – early May when the Pacific Crest Trail hikers plow through, you’re likely to have the place to yourself.

The campground is primitive, but each site here hosts a phenomenal view of Antelope Valley and the surrounding San Gabriel Range. There’s a pit toilet, picnic tables, and fire rings for visitors to use. The only downside? You’ll need to pack in your own water and bear canister. Be sure to bring extra H2O if you plan on staying the night and exploring the area.

15. Big Bear Yellow Post Sites

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Why you should camp here: Feel totally alone and away from the bustle of Big Bear’s town center at these remote campsites situated deep in the San Bernadino National Forest.

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Late spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tents, small RVs (4WD required on most)
  • RV hookups: No

Who doesn’t love a free campsite? Lucky campers who have a high-clearance or 4WD vehicle who want to explore the area surrounding Big Bear Lake but also escape the crowds, look no further.

The yellow post campsites are near-perfect getaways for experienced campers who don’t mind hauling in all their water and food and hauling out their trash. These sites each come equipped with a picnic table, a fire ring, and parking for up to two vehicles. Eight people are allowed to camp at each location.

The yellow post campsites are few and far between, each one boasting a different view of the surrounding mountains and lush, forested landscape. No bathroom facilities are provided; this is true backcountry camping.

Call the Big Bear Discovery Center (closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays) to check on road conditions and fire restrictions before heading out. Sites are often closed in winter/spring due to bald eagle nesting habitats. A free California Campfire Permit is required to have a fire or light a camp stove anywhere within the national forest boundary.

16. Reyes Peak Campground

Why you should camp here: Perched high above the quaint mountain town of Ojai, this is a small, rugged oasis for peakbaggers in search of epic mountain vistas.

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Late spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tents, small RVs
  • RV hookups: No

In summer and on the weekends, more developed campgrounds near Ventura and Ojai, CA can fill up quickly and feel like little more than an outdoor apartment complex in their crowdedness. Reyes Peak is a blissful retreat from all that noise.

Situated at an altitude of 7,000 feet above sea level, this campground only offers six first-come, first-served sites for intrepid travelers. The area is a great hub for high mountain trailheads leading to Pine Mountain, Reyes Peak, and several backcountry campgrounds within the Los Padres National Forest.

Campsites here are nestled in a classic, alpine pine forest landscape, surrounded by Jeffrey pines, manzanita, white fir, and sugar pines. On a clear day, campers will even be able to spot the Cuyama Badlands and the Channel Islands. Each site comes equipped with a picnic table, fire ring, and BBQ grill. There’s only one pit toilet to share for the entire campground, and visitors here will need to pack in their own water for drinking and cooking.

17. Mono Campground

Why you should camp here: Sleep under the stars to the soundtrack of a nearby river at this shaded, meadow campground near Santa Barbara.

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tents only
  • RV hookups: No

Mono Campground is so lush that it’ll make you feel like you’re in the foothills of the Sierras. Located alongside a gently rushing stream, this “hike-in” location is really just a quick, 300-yard stroll from the parking area off Camuesa Road.

When the road is closed, hikers can still access the sites by backpacking in on the nearby trail system. Mono is also a great jumping off point for local Santa Barbara hikes. Explore the Cold Springs Trail, hike around hillside Gibraltar Reservoir, or trek to the nearby hot springs to soak your tired bones.

Each campsite at Mono Campground is located in a meadow and shaded by sturdy oak trees. Pack in water for cooking and drinking, as the USFS does not guarantee that the river will always have a steady flow.

There are vault toilets on the property, and each individual site offers campers a picnic table and flat spot to pitch their tent. Be sure to follow Leave No Trace principles and pitch your tent on dirt, rather than in the meadow!

18. Southfork Campground

Why you should camp here: Feel a galaxy away from Los Angeles and explore the geologically fascinating Devils Punchbowl area at this car-friendly hideaway in the San Gabriel Mountains.

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Late spring, summer, fall
  • Campsite type: Tents, small RVs (up to 16 feet)
  • RV hookups: No

Situated on the lesser traveled northern side of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, the Southfork Campground is rustic, SoCal camping at its best.

Gaze up at craggy mountainsides and sip on a beer from the comfort of your very own campfire ring. The area is open for hiking and equestrian use.

Popular trails in the area include the Manzanita Trail (to wooded Vincent Gap or rocky Devils Punchbowl) and Big Rock Creek to Islip Saddle, where trekkers can check out seasonal waterfalls and hunt for an elusive bighorn sheep.

Every campsite at Southfork provides visitors with a fire pit and picnic bench for easy meal prep and after dinner card games. The campground also offers a vault toilet for all sites to share. Travelers to Southfork Campground must pack in all water for drinking and cooking and pack out all trash.

19. Alabama Hills

alabama hills camping california
Photo: Emily Pennington

Why you should camp here: Nab a killer view of Mt. Whitney and scramble for hours in the massive boulder field at this classic California camping area.

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Spring, fall
  • Campsite type: Tents, RVs
  • RV hookups: No

So, yes, by including the Alabama Hills, we are creeping into central California territory a little, but we feel that the killer views, epic recreation opportunities, and close proximity to Los Angeles make this location too good to not include on the list.

If you’re unfamiliar, Alabama Hills is a free, dispersed camping area nestled in the high desert of the Owens Valley, just outside of Lone Pine, CA. It’s managed by the Bureau of Land Management and is famous for its world-class rock climbing and nearby hiking.

You won’t find any amenities at this spot, so be sure to pack in all your food and water and pack out your trash and toilet paper when you’re through. Adventurous travelers to these parts will find a plethora of amazing adventures just outside of camp. Hike up to an alpine lake, go mountain biking along the many dirt roads, climb the Shark’s Fin, or grab a permit and try to summit Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48. A free California Campfire Permit is required for all stoves and fires.

20. Anza-Borrego State Park

Photo: Chad McDonald

Why you should camp here: Camping options abound at this desert state park that’s famous for its spring wildflower superblooms.

  • Reservations accepted: No
  • Best season: Winter, spring, fall
  • Campsite type: Tents, small RVs (4WD required for most)
  • RV hookups: No

Anza-Borrego is one of the very few state parks that allows for backcountry camping within the entirety of its boundaries. The park has hundreds of miles of dirt roads for the avid four-wheel-driver looking to get way out in it.

Coyote Canyon, Sheep Canyon, and Fish Creek are all great spots, but we recommend checking out the backcountry brochure or calling the ranger station for road conditions before venturing out into the desert.

Though vault toilets exist at most of the named primitive campgrounds in the area, you won’t find many other amenities here. Campers should pack in all food and water and bring a metal fire pit if intending to have a campfire at night.

Anza-Borrego gets so little rain that fire scars cannot be adequately washed away, and ground fires are not permitted. Visit in springtime for a phenomenal show – electric pink and orange cactus blooms, red ocotillo flares, and tiny monkey flowers paint the ordinarily arid desert in a wash of color.

Check out our guide to more great camping spots in Anza-Borrego.

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