Credit: Nate Kadlac

8 of the Best Camping Spots in SoCal

Get a Breath of Fresh Air at These Picturesque Campsites in Southern California

If you live in Southern California, odds are you love the outdoors (there’s a reason we pay that sunshine tax!). And if you love the outdoors, odds are you love camping, right? We’ve rounded up a list of our eight favorite camping spots in SoCal—perfect for surfing, hiking, whale-watching, stargazing, s’mores-making, polar-plunging, bird-watching, tide pool-exploring and just about anything else you like to do in the great outdoors. Must we go on? If you’re looking for a new place to pitch your tent or roll up in your Sprinter van, look no further. We’ve got you covered with the inside scoop and everything you need to know before you book your next open-air getaway.

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San Onofre State Beach

Best Camping Spots in SoCal
Credit: Bennilover

One of California’s most popular campgrounds (seriously, a top-five most-visited state park!), this beach is undeniably gorgeous. If you’re a surfer, you’ll want to head to the San Mateo Campground because the surf just down the trail is world-famous (you’ve heard of Trestles, right?). The campsites have fire pits, picnic tables, hot showers and even flushable toilets. If you’re more of the sunbathing and whale-watching type, check out the San Onofre Bluffs. They’ve got tent camping and day-use parking for all you van-lifers–also equipped with their own fire pits and picnic tables. You’ll get access to six dirt trails to explore the area and beach below, cold outdoor showers and porta-potties for use and, of course, a view of the beautiful bluffs.


Observatory Campground on Palomar Mountain

Just about an hour and a half outside San Diego, you can find the stunning Palomar Mountain. If you’re a science or astronomy nerd, this is the perfect spot to set up your telescope (seriously, several of the spots even have level cement pads just for that). In less than 10 minutes, you can also drive down to the Palomar Observatory from here, which a center for astronomy research run by the California Institute of Technology. However, check their website to make sure it’s open before you go—they’ve seen some storm damage this year. As for the campgrounds, you’ll have access to drinking water, grills, trash cans, campfire rings, picnic tables and outhouses. During peak season, you’ll also get coin-operated showers and a flush toilet; it’s the little things. 


Crystal Cove State Park

If the name didn’t sell you already, Crystal Cove State Park is an Orange County gem you’ll definitely want to add to your list. If you wanna get primitive (as in no running water or bathrooms), there’s barebones camping options in the Lower Moro, Upper Moro and Deer Canyon campsites about a three-mile hike from the parking lot—just know there’s no fires allowed, so bring a backpacking stove if you plan on cooking. And, of course, pack it in, pack it out! Take all trash and belongings with you as you leave. If you’d like a little less hassle, check out the Moro Campground for large campsites with ocean views. From here, you can check out the Crystal Cove Historic District or enjoy a nice breakfast at the Beachcomber Cafe; their beignets are to die for, and they’ve got tables right on the sand. 



Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

There’s nothing like a desert sunrise, and Anza-Borrego Desert is the perfect place to see one (if you’re sleeping in a tent, you’ll be up that early anyways). This state park has plenty of campsites to choose from—four developed and eight primitive. Our favorite is Blair Valley. It’s free and first-come, first-served, but it’s got tons of spots, so you shouldn’t have much trouble. It’s also got vault toilets and is located at a bit higher elevation, so it doesn’t get as hot as the ones below. It’s just a massive stretch of undeveloped desert land with so much room to explore. If you’ve got a car with four-wheel drive, we recommend checking out the Mud Caves. They’re a bit dangerous, so proceed with caution, but it’s definitely worth the trek.



Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area

Best Camping Spots in SoCal
Credit: Eugene Kim

The second-tallest peak in California, Mount Jacinto is a force to be reckoned with. You can hike about 6,000 feet straight up to the summit or take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and save yourself some sweat. That’ll bring you to Round Valley Campground, the first of six campsites where you can pitch your tent. From there, you can keep hiking up to find the others and take your pick! If you’re not much of a hiker, there are also two drive-in campgrounds in the area: Idyllwild and Stone Creek. And for the really ambitious, you can actually take a two-day backpacking trip from the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway past San Jacinto Peak all the way to Idyllwild.



Joshua Tree National Park

Credit: Nate Kadlac

There are 500+ campsites within Joshua Tree National Park, but don’t get cocky–you’ll definitely still want to make a reservation around six months in advance for one of the five campgrounds within the park. If you’re more of a spontaneous (and competitive) type, check out the first-come, first-served spots. The earlier in the week you arrive, the better—but still, no promises. This national park boasts incredible rock formations, insane starry-sky views (seriously, we’re talking no light pollution), super fun hikes, flowing waterfalls, breathtaking desert sunsets and, well, Joshua Trees. Yeah, they don’t hand out national park status just anywhere. If you don’t end up finding a spot within the park, there are lots of options for camping outside the park as well. Good luck!


Leo Carrillo State Park

Just across Pacific Coast Highway from the beach in Malibu, Leo Carrillo State Park has more than 130 campsites. You can walk down to the sand easily from the campsites; once there, you’ll find caves, reefs and tide pools to explore along with backcountry paths to hike with an ocean view. The sites have fire pits and token-operated showers, but you should know, the token machine only takes $1 bills, so stock up on singles before you go–unless you want to be bathing in salt water. This campground also has a little store, so if you forget your toothpaste or want some extra snacks, you’re in luck. Pro tip: cell service is best near the front of the campground, so arrive early and get a spot there if you wanna stay on the grid. 



Sycamore Canyon Campground

Not far from Leo Carrillo, Sycamore Canyon Campground at Point Mugu State Park is another great place in Malibu to check out—especially if you love hiking or mountain biking. This place not only has rocky bluffs and gorgeous sandy beaches, but also 70 miles of hiking trails that will take you right from the shore into the Boney Mountains State Wilderness Area. This campground tends to attract social crowds, so fair warning: it might not be as quiet as others. But if you’ve got a large group of your own or if you like to stay up playing games or chatting by the fire with friends, you’ll love this spot. Maybe you’ll even meet some fellow outdoorsy friends!

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Sara grew up in San Diego and recently moved back after living on the Central Coast and traveling around Latin America for a while. Passionate about wellness both personally and professionally, she's worked for brands like Mindbody, Classpass, and Headspace and is a 200-hour registered yoga teacher (come take her class at YogaSix North Carlsbad!). Through it all, she's always had a passion for writing and loves contributing to Locale Magazine.




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