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11 Top-Rated Campgrounds near Santa Cruz, CA

Written by Brad Lane
Jul 5, 2019

With great views of Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean, campgrounds near Santa Cruz are further defined by the quick elevation gain of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Surfing in the morning, exploring redwoods throughout the afternoon, and watching the sun set over colorful mountain ridges can all be done in a day in Santa Cruz, with many great campgrounds nearby to spend the night. With so many things to do in Santa Cruz, a single camping weekend only provides a snapshot of all there is to see.

Supporting tent and RV camping, some of the best campgrounds near Santa Cruz are world famous, including Henry Cowell Redwoods and Big Basin Redwoods State Parks. Camping reservations are highly recommended for these international travel destinations, as well as the commercial campgrounds nearby, like Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort. Coastal campgrounds near Santa Cruz really tend to glow come sunset, and campgrounds like the one at New Brighton State Beach offer the noise of churning waves as a camping soundtrack.

Discover the best places to sleep in the wilderness with our list of the top campgrounds near Santa Cruz.

1. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park Editor's Pick

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park Redwood loop | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Tucked into the Santa Cruz Mountains less than five miles from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is an international tourist destination and campground. Encompassing over 4,600 acres of mountainous terrain, this nearly 90-year-old park gains its notoriety from the 40 acres of old-growth redwood trees within its borders. The tallest tree at Henry Cowell stands approximately 277 feet tall and is estimated to be over 1,500 years old.

A two-mile hike from the Redwood Grove Loop, one of the best hiking trails near Santa Cruz, the park's campground has over 100 sites for tents and RVs. Dispersed throughout a shady forest, the campsites have natural privacy and access to flushing toilets and coin-operated showers. The highest point in the park, an observation deck with big views of the Santa Cruz Mountains, is a half-mile hike from the campground.

Including the winding banks of the San Lorenzo River, the terrain at Henry Cowell provides enough attraction for an entire weekend without leaving the park. The day-use Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell, just north of the campground, has over 20 miles of hiking trails to explore. One of the best swimming holes in the state can be found at the Garden of Eden also within the state park. Reservations are highly recommended and available six months ahead of time.

Address: 101 N Big Trees Park Road, Felton, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=546

2. Big Basin Redwoods State Park

Redwoods in Big Basin Redwoods State Park

California's oldest state park, Big Basin Redwoods State Park is less than an hour drive from Santa Cruz. This internationally renowned camping and hiking destination is best known for the towering, 300-foot coastal redwood trees growing within its borders. The park's 80 miles of trails, stretching from sea level to 2,000 feet, also tend to get a lot of attention, including the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail that connects with other state parks in the area.

Camping options abound in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, with a variety of sites available that cater to different experiences. With nearly 150 individual campsites spread between five different camping areas, Big Basin also features separate group campsites, tent cabins, and dedicated hiker/biker sites.

Accessible amenities like hot showers, RV hookups, and proximity to hiking trails vary from one camping area to the other. Camping reservations are nearly mandatory at Big Basin, especially on summer weekends.

Address: 21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek, California

Official site: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=540

3. Sunset State Beach

Sunset State Beach | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

A half-hour drive from Santa Cruz, and a mile south of the tent-only Manresa State Beach campground, Sunset State Beach has nearly 90 sites that can accommodate RVs up to 31 feet in length. In the shade of coastal pine and cypress trees and protected from the ocean wind by towering sand dunes, Sunset State Beach is also popular for tent camping. It's a short drive to the beach from the campground, or a scenic quarter-mile hike on the Beach Trail.

Overlooking Monterey Bay, Sunset State Beach has a generous seashore, perfect for year-round activities like fishing, picnicking, and piloting remote-control gliders. For big family events next to the ocean, two large shade ramadas can be reserved next to the beach. All overnight guests at the campground have access to flushing toilets and coin-operated showers.

Address: Sunset Beach Road, Watsonville, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=544

4. Seacliff State Beach

S.S. Palo Alto shipwreck at Seacliff State Beach

A popular day-use destination and RV-only campground, Seacliff State Beach features over 60 parking spots overlooking the ocean, split between full hookup and non-hookup sites. Visitors park their RVs right next to the sandy two-mile beach and enjoy the landscape from here. This state beach is popular for fishing, swimming, and suntanning, and its most prominent feature is the half-sunken S.S. Palo Alto at the end of the pier.

A concrete oil tanker originally built for World War I, the S.S. Palo Alto was never used in military service. Instead, the ship was sold and sailed to Santa Cruz, where it had a short walk-on entertainment status with dance halls and arcades. Following bankruptcy and the Great Depression, the ship began the slow process of sinking into the sea. Today, the concrete remnant is well photographed but inaccessible, and more popular than ever with the local bird population.

Address: State Park Drive, Aptos, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=543

5. Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort

Giant redwoods in the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Adjacent to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, this RV-exclusive campground and resort encourages long weekends and extended stays. Reservations are recommended at this RV campground, which is within a short drive from the ocean, surrounded by California redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. On-site amenities include a kid-friendly clubhouse, clean bathrooms with hot showers, and complimentary Wi-Fi throughout the campground. For easy relief from the summer sun, the campground also lends access to a slow-current portion of the San Lorenzo River.

Address: 4980 CA-9, Felton, California

Official site: http://www.santacruzredwoodsrvresort.com/

6. New Brighton State Beach

New Brighton State Beach

Adjacent to the RV-exclusive Seacliff State Beach and the sunken S.S. Palo Alto, New Brighton State Beach is a campground popular with tents and small camper trailers. Featuring over 100 sites, many within earshot of the ocean, the campground sits atop a bluff with views of Monterey Bay.

The Pacific Migrations Visitor Center at the park highlights past inhabitants and settlers of the area. All overnight guests at the campground have access to flushing toilets and coin-operated showers.

Address: 1500 Park Avenue, Capitola, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=542

7. Manresa Uplands Campground

Manresa Uplands State Beach | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Fifteen miles down the coast from Santa Cruz, Manresa Uplands is a tent-only campground protected from the ocean wind by massive sand dunes. Overnight guests at the campground park their vehicle in an upper lot and make a short hike to their designated campsite. Every campsite has proximity to flushing toilets and coin-operated showers, as well as fast access to the wide and welcoming beachfront of Manresa State Beach.

Address: 205 Manresa Uplands Road, Watsonville, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=545

8. Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay KOA

Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay KOA | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Offering easy access to the ocean and redwoods of Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay KOA provides a perfect basecamp to explore the outdoors. Featuring tent and pull-thru RV sites with full hookups available, this KOA Holiday campground also specializes in a wide range of camping cabins. Ranging from deluxe cabins that sleep six and include full bathrooms to cozy two-person cabins with a patio, it's not just the sleeping spots at the Santa Cruz KOA that make the campground popular.

Kids tend to gravitate towards the massive recreation area at the Santa Cruz KOA, featuring a giant bouncing pillow and sandy playground areas. The KOA Express Fun Train tends to be popular as well, delivering kids to different play areas in the campground, including a banana bike rental station and outdoor cinema for post-sunset movies. Other amenities include a new pool and park area built to provide a vacation experience without leaving the campground.

Address: 1186 San Andreas Road, Watsonville, California

Official site: https://koa.com/campgrounds/santa-cruz/

9. Little Basin Cabins & Campgrounds

Hiker in the redwoods | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

A new addition to the state park system, Little Basin is a 500-plus acre campground adjacent to Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Previously a private corporate retreat space, and now owned by the state and operated by an independent concessionaire, Little Basin is a hidden gem for camping in the redwoods. Reservations are required for any of the 38 tent sites or dozen cabins available, all with proximity to an established network of trails, as well as nearby flushing toilets and showers.

Address: 21700 Little Basin Road, Boulder Creek, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=26852

10. Castle Rock Trail Camp, Castle Rock State Park

Castle Rock State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Less than an hour north of downtown Santa Cruz, Castle Rock State Park encompasses a high ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains and over 5,000 acres of rugged terrain. Popular for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding, over thirty miles of trails weave throughout Castle Rock State Park.

Connecting to other state parks in the area, including Big Basin Redwoods State Park, trails like Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail in Castle Rock State Park enable overnight backpacking opportunities.

The Castle Rock Trail Camp at Castle Rock State Park is hike-in only and features 20 first-come, first-served campsites accessible via a 2.5-mile hike. It's popular with backpackers on the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail. Campers are required to carry in all their gear and water to the Trail Camp, where pit toilets are available. A ranger or camp host is regularly on duty at the campsite to collect overnight fees and sell firewood.

Address: 15000 Skyline Boulevard, Los Gatos, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=538

11. West Ridge Trail Camp, Forest of Nisene Marks State Park

Hiking path in Forest of Nisene Marks State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

For a solitary camping experience surrounded by redwoods, the West Ridge Trail Camp at Forest of Nisene Marks State Park delivers on a true wilderness experience. It's approximately a six-mile hike to reach the trail camp at this state park on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, with six backcountry sites available by reservation only. Primitive restroom facilities and picnic tables are available in this remote spot surrounded by redwoods, but campers need to carry in all necessary gear, including water.

Address: Aptos Creek Road, Aptos, California
Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=666

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California Road Trip: With a dynamic coast, wild rivers, snow-capped mountains, and more than one active volcano, it's hard to know where to begin when planning a California vacation. Our article on the Best Places to Visit in California is always a good place to start, and for an extended itinerary, many of the best West Coast road trips connect numerous attractions throughout the state. To ditch the crowds of the mainstream attractions, our guide to California Off-the-Beaten-Path can point you towards more unique things to do.

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