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12 Best Campgrounds in Southern California

Written by Brad Lane
Dec 2, 2019

Nothing caps off a California adventure like camping under the stars, and numerous campgrounds in Southern California deliver with big natural features and dark night skies. From beach camping in the summer to winter camping in the desert, there's a Southern California campground to visit every month of the year.

Catering to both tent and RV camping, places like Point Mugu, Palomar Mountain, and Death Valley offer scenic campsites on the coast, in the mountains, and across the deserts of Southern California.

For the ultimate desert attraction and great spots to camp in winter, Southern California's Joshua Tree National Park offers a stunning environment to wake up to in the morning. One of the best state parks in California, and the largest, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park also delivers with desert landscapes, including Tamarisk Grove Campground.

For coastal camping and a reprieve from summer temperatures, the Southern California coast is filled with postcard spots like Souths Carlsbad State Beach and Crystal Cove State Park.

Many quintessential hikes in Southern California stem from the region's best campgrounds. Campers looking to bag the peak of Mt. Baldy will find the Manker Flats Campground accommodating—and easy access to Mount San Jacinto can be found at the Fern Valley Campground near Idyllwild.

For lakeside camping, look no further than the banks of Big Bear Lake and 100-plus RV and tent sites at the Serrano Campground.

Stake your spot under the stars with our list of the best campgrounds in Southern California.

1. Jumbo Rocks Campground, Joshua Tree National Park

Jumbo Rocks Campground | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Surrounded by massive boulders and rock formations, it's easy to see why Joshua Tree is a special place when staying at the Jumbo Rocks Campground. Enabling easy exploration of the surreal desert landscape, all 124 sites at Jumbo Rocks are located near prominent features of the park, including Skull Rock. Staying the night at Jumbo Rocks enables visitors to experience the magical sunsets of this boulder-rich region, as well as the incredibly dark night skies.

Accommodating both tents and RVs, Jumbo Rocks is one of four campgrounds within the park that offer reservations during the peak season between October and May. Other reservable campgrounds include Black Rock, Cottonwood, and Indian Cove. With over 100 sites available, Indian Cove is another perspective-changing campground at Joshua Tree, with monolithic rock formations on all sides.

Numerous primitive camping opportunities also abound in Joshua Tree National Park, as well as several developed, first-come, first-served campgrounds. Ryan Mountain Campground is available between September and May on a walk-up basis and offers easy access to its namesake feature. Campgrounds at Joshua Tree offer only vault toilets and picnic tables. No water is available, so those camping should pack accordingly.

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/jotr/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm

2. San Onofre Bluffs Campground, San Onofre State Beach

Ocean sunset at San Onofre State Beach

A great RV campground on the Southern California coast, the San Onofre Bluffs Campground lines the Pacific Ocean with 175 sites available. Mostly catering to camper vans and recreational vehicles, these campsites also lend easy access to the waves of San Onofre Surf Beach—home to some of the best surfing in Southern California. Other popular activities from the campground include sunbathing, swimming, and fishing at San Onofre State Beach.

A mecca for Southern California sun and fun, San Onofre State Beach also hosts an inland campground that caters exclusively to tent camping. The San Mateo Campground has an additional 140-plus sites available, and a 1.5-mile nature trail that connects campers to the iconic Trestles Beach. Both campgrounds have access to flushing water and coin-operated showers.

Address: Old Pacific Highway, San Clemente, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=647

3. Serrano Campground, San Bernardino National Forest

Serrano Campground

Walking distance to the refreshing waters of Big Bear Lake within the San Bernardino National Forest, the Serrano Campground provides some of the best lake camping in California. Over 100 campsites accommodate tents and RVs at the Serrano Campground, which is located next to the Lighthouse Trailer Resort and Marina.

Mountain biking and hiking are just as popular as fishing and water sports at Serrano Campground with trails like the Cougar Crest Trail nearby.

A thirty-mile drive west from Serrano Campground, and accessible via the Rim of the World Scenic Byway, the Dogwood Campground is another popular place to spend the night in the San Bernardino National Forest. Seasonally available during the summer and shoulder seasons, the 87 sites at Dogwood Campground cater mostly to tent camping.

The neighboring and tourist-friendly community of Lake Arrowhead can be reached from the Dogwood Campground with a five-minute drive.

Address: 40800 N Shore Drive, Fawnskin, California

Official site: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/sbnf/recarea/?recid=26253

4. Green Valley Campground, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Stonewall Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Under an hour west of San Diego, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park provides a reprieve from the high temperatures of a Southern California summer. Within the Peninsular Range at elevations exceeding 4,000 feet, this heightened landscape supports a lush oak and conifer forest segmented by meandering streams.

A popular family campground, the park's Green Valley Campground features over 80 sites near the Sweetwater River and its many swimming holes. Hiking opportunities like the Pine Ridge Trail extend right from the campground, and all overnight users have access to running water and coin-operated showers.

The park's Paso Picacho Campground is another popular place to pitch a tent or park an RV, and the Paso Picacho Group Campground accommodates up to 40 campers. Both campgrounds often feature incredibly dark night skies that are perfect for viewing the Milky Way.

Address: 14592-14674 CA-79, Julian, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=667

5. Manker Flats Campground, Los Angeles National Forest

View of Mt. Baldy from Lookout Mountain

A common starting spot for one of the best hiking trails in Southern California, Manker Flats is a high-altitude campground near the peak of Mount San Antonio—also known as Mt. Baldy. The Manker Flats Campground offers rustic accommodations and easy access to the Mt. Baldy Bowl Trailhead, which offers a strenuous route to the nearby summit. All 21 sites are known to fill on the weekends at the Manker Flats Campground.

6. Fern Basin Campground, San Bernardino National Forest

Fern Basin Campground | San Bernardino Nat'l Forest / photo modified

Just outside the mountain town of Idyllwild, this rustic campground features 22 sites and an abundance of recreational opportunities. The Marion Mountain Trailhead is within the campground and provides a strenuous 11.8-mile hike to the top of Mount San Jacinto.

Popular with peak-baggers and casual hikers alike, numerous less-strenuous hiking trails also stem from the Fern Basin Campground. For groceries, restaurants, live music, and one of the best small towns in California, the friendly community of Idyllwild is less than seven miles away.

Address: Forest Route 4S02, Banning, California

Official site: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/sbnf/recarea/?recid=26451

7. Tamarisk Grove Campground, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Desert sunrise at a campground in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

The largest and one of the best state parks in California, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park encompasses over 600,000 acres. The best time of year to visit Anza-Borrego is between October and May, when the 100-plus-degree summer heat subsides. One of the best campgrounds in the park is the Tamarisk Grove Campground. The most developed campground within Anza-Borrego, Tamarisk Grove is centrally located, with both campsites and cabins available. Drinking water is available for purchase at the campground.

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638

8. Furnace Creek Campground, Death Valley National Park

Zabriske Point near Furnace Creek Campground, Death Valley National Park

While camping in a place named Death Valley might not sound too appealing, the stark desert landscape of the largest national park in the contiguous states is far from inhospitable.

The Furnace Creek Campground is one of the most accessible campgrounds in Death Valley, with the park's most prominent visitor center located nearby. Some of the prettiest spots in Death Valley are near Furnace Creek, including the Golden Canyons and the inspiring Zabriskie Point.

Two other popular campgrounds can also be found in the Furnace Creek area of the park, including the Sunset Campground with 270 sites available. It's rare for all campsites to fill up in Death Valley National Park.

Most campgrounds in Death Valley National Park, including Furnace Creek and Sunset, have running water and flushing toilets available.

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/deva/index.htm

9. Moro Campground, Crystal Cove State Park

Pacific Ocean from Moro Campground | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Off the Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, Crystal Cove State Park encompasses miles of stunning beach and the vast inland expanse of Moro Canyon. The nearly 60 sites of the Moro Campground within the park incorporate both landscapes with nearby trailheads into Moro Canyon, and bluff campsites overlooking the ocean.

Coin-operated showers and running water are available at the campground, and more primitive camping spots are found at the hike-in-only sites at Lower Moro Campground.

Address: 8471 North Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=644

10. Doane Valley Campground, Palomar Mountain State Park

View from Mt. Palomar

Sixty miles north of San Diego, the verdant scenery and alpine features of Palomar Mountain State Park defy expectations of a Southern California camping experience. The best way to enjoy the rolling topography and lush forests of this stream-lined state park is to spend the night at the Doane Valley Campground within its borders. With 31 sites available and accommodating both tents and RVs, this family campground also features access to flushing toilets and coin-operated showers.

Address: 19952 State Park Drive, Palomar Mountain, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=637

11. Sycamore Canyon Campground, Point Mugu State Park

Point Mugu State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Some of the closest campgrounds to Los Angeles can actually be seen from the city within the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Stretching along the coast from Santa Monica to near Oxnard, this vast public space features endless amounts of outdoor recreation and places to spend the night.

With high bluff views of the ocean and a sprawling network of canyon trails to explore, Point Mugu State Park is only one of many great camping spots in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Farther east on the coast and closer to Los Angeles, Leo Carrillo State Park offers over 150 campsites close to the ocean, as well as a large-group campsite that can accommodate up to 50 people. Also near Los Angeles, Malibu Creek State Park offers generous views from its 50-plus campsites.

Overnight guests at any state park in the Santa Monica Mountains have access to flushing toilets and coin-operated showers.

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=630

12. South Carlsbad State Beach Campground

Stairs to South Carlsbad State Beach

For some of the best beach camping in Southern California, the 50-mile stretch of the San Diego coast is lined with stunning state beaches. Among the most popular for camping, thanks to the 220 bluff-top sites available, is the South Carlsbad State Beach Campground. With ocean views and easy access to the sprawling beach, all overnight guests at South Carlsbad are also within proximity to flushing toilets and coin-operated showers.

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=660

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