×

14 Top-Rated Campgrounds near Santa Cruz, CA

Written by Brad Lane
Updated Jul 13, 2022

Campgrounds near Santa Cruz come with great views of Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean. They also feature fog-swept trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains, with massive trees lining the way. This expanse of landscapes encourages activities like surfing in the morning, exploring redwoods throughout the afternoon, and watching the sunset over colorful mountain ridges – all with nearby campgrounds to spend the night.

Many of the best campgrounds near Santa Cruz support tent and RV camping. And some 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 are just as popular. These spots along Monterey Bay 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.

Reservations are generally available six months in advance for state park campgrounds. Natural disasters may affect park operating hours. Consult California State Parks for the latest on road conditions and park closures.

Discover the best places to enjoy the natural side of Santa Cruz with our list of the top campgrounds near Santa Cruz.

1. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

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

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is an international tourist destination and campground tucked into the Santa Cruz Mountains, less than five miles from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This nearly 70-year-old park encompasses over 4,600 acres of mountainous terrain and 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. One of the best hiking trails near Santa Cruz tours these behemoth and ancient trees and is a two-mile hike from the park's campground. And 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.

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

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. Special ranger-led campfire programs occur near the campground between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Reservations are highly recommended during this same season.

The terrain at Henry Cowell provides enough attraction for an entire weekend without leaving the park. One of the best swimming holes in the state is the Garden of Eden within the state park, among many other forest-strewn landscapes on the winding banks of the San Lorenzo River. And the day-use Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell, just north of the campground, has over 20 miles of hiking trails to explore.

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

Campsite at Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Campsite at Big Basin Redwoods State Park

Big Basin Redwoods State Park is California's oldest state park and is less than an hour's 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 catering to different experiences. The park has nearly 150 individual campsites spread between five different camping areas. It also features separate group campsites, tent cabins, and dedicated hiker/biker sites.

Redwoods in Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Redwoods in Big Basin Redwoods State Park

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.

Editor's note: Big Basin Redwoods State Park received significant damage in the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire. Much of the park is closed throughout 2022. Small sections of the park's western coastal region have re-opened to the public. The state park maintains up-to-date information regarding the park's regrowth and rehabilitation.

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
Sunset State Beach | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Sunset State Beach has nearly 90 campsites near the ocean. The state park and campground are a half-hour drive from Santa Cruz and a mile south of the tent-only Manresa State Beach campground. Sites accommodate RVs up to 31 feet in length. Sunset State Beach is also popular for tent camping.

The campgrounds are within the shade of coastal pine and cypress trees, protected from the ocean wind by towering sand dunes It's a short drive to the beach from the campground or a scenic quarter-mile hike on the Beach Trail. All overnight guests at the campground have access to flushing toilets and coin-operated showers.

Sunset State Beach at sunset
Sunset State Beach at sunset | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

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.

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
S.S. Palo Alto shipwreck at Seacliff State Beach

Seacliff State Beach is a popular day-use destination and RV-only campground. It has 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 there. 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.

The S.S. Palo Alto was a concrete oil tanker originally built for World War I and 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. New Brighton State Beach

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. The campground sits atop a bluff with views of Monterey Bay and features over 100 sites, many within earshot of the ocean.

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

Address: 1500 Park Avenue, Capitola, California

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

6. Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort

Giant redwoods in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Giant redwoods in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

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/

7. Manresa Uplands Campground

Manresa Uplands State Beach
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. A 15-minute loading zone near the tent sites makes for easy unloading.

Every campsite has proximity to flushing toilets and coin-operated showers, as well as a short walk to the wide and welcoming beachfront.

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

The Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay KOA has easy access to the ocean and redwoods of Santa Cruz. It features tent and pull-thru RV sites with full hookups available. This KOA Holiday campground also specializes in a wide range of camping cabins. These indoor spots to sleep range from deluxe cabins that sleep six to cozy two-person cabins with a patio, all with full bathrooms.

It's not just the sleeping spots at the Santa Cruz KOA that make the campground popular. Other amenities include a new pool and park area built to provide a vacation experience without leaving the campground.

Kids tend to gravitate towards the massive recreation area, 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.

Address: 1186 San Andreas Road, Watsonville, California

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

9. Coe Ranch Campground, Henry W. Coe State Park

Coe Ranch Campground, Henry W. Coe State Park
Coe Ranch Campground, Henry W. Coe State Park

Henry W. Coe is one of the largest state parks in Northern California. It encompasses over 87,000 acres northeast of Gilroy. The landscape comprises steep ridgelines, rolling hills, and open valleys of the Diablo Range. This vast and undeveloped acreage is accessible from Santa Cruz with a 50-mile or approximately 90-minute drive.

The park has only 19 drive-in campsites at the Coe Ranch Campground. A long and winding road to the campground deters most large camping vehicles, but approximately half the sites cater to RVs under 25 feet in length. And almost every site includes big vistas of the park's backcountry.

Backcountry camping, also known as hike-in camping, is also popular at Henry W. Coe. The park has an incredible 250-plus miles of hiking trails and old ranch roads. Designated backpacking campsites are available along some of these routes, and dispersed camping is permitted in outlying zones of the massive state park.

10. Fremont Peak State Park

Fremont Peak State Park
Fremont Peak State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Fremont Peak sits above the Salinas Valley southeast of Santa Cruz. It's accessible from the city of San Juan Bautista and an approximately 45-mile drive from Santa Cruz. The last 10 miles of the route quickly gain elevation, with a narrow and winding route where RVs and trailers are not recommended. But stunning panoramic views of Monterey Bay await those who make the slow-going drive.

The park has 25 campsites split between two campgrounds: Valley View Campground and Oak Point Campground. Both enjoy big views, but Oak Point arguably has the better vantage points. Running water is available, but no flushing toilets are at either campground, only vault toilets. And perhaps because of the winding drive, the campground doesn't tend to book out as fast as others in the region.

Spend some time on the park's hiking trails if you're staying the night. One of the best views from the park comes from the Peak Trail, easily accessible from both campgrounds. This is an excellent spot to bring along a flashlight and catch the sunset.

11. Portola Redwoods State Park

Portola Redwoods
Portola Redwoods | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Portola Redwoods State Park is north of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, accessible via Highway 35, also known as Skyline Boulevard. It's approximately a 40-mile drive from Santa Cruz on either Highway 9 or Highway 17 to begin. However, with winding roads, including the long drop from the ridgeline into the park, expect the drive to Portola to take around 90 minutes.

This long descent from Skyline Boulevard to the park's 2,800 acres offers a true escape from the surrounding busy region. It's noticeably quiet in the redwood forests of Portola, and the sky-high trees add a sense of grandeur in every direction. The park has over 55 family campsites to soak in this scenery overnight.

The sites at Portola span the east side of Peters Creek, tucked between big trees. Car and van camping is the most prevalent, with only a few sites catering to RVs (24-foot maximum length). All sites are in proximity to flushing restrooms and a shower house, as well as the park's 18-mile network of hiking trails.

12. Castle Rock Trail Camp, Castle Rock State Park

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. It's popular for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding, with over 30 miles of trails weaving throughout the park.

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

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

Hiking path in 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 sites available by reservation only.

Primitive restroom facilities and picnic tables are available in this remote spot, but campers need to carry in all necessary gear.

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

14. Little Basin Cabins & Campgrounds

Hiker in the redwoods
Hiker in the redwoods | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Little Basin is a new addition to the state park system. It's a 500-plus-acre campground adjacent to Big Basin Redwoods State Park. It was previously a private corporate retreat space, and is 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.

The 2022 CZU Lightning Fire Complex tore through the Little Basin Property. As of 2022, the cabins and campgrounds are closed, with plans to reopen.

Address: 21700 Little Basin Road, Boulder Creek, California

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

More Related Articles on PlanetWare.com

imageMore Campgrounds in California: The state of California is blessed with many great natural spaces to spend the night. Seventy miles south of Santa Cruz, the numerous campgrounds near Big Sur highlight the dramatic nature of the Santa Lucia Mountains meeting the Pacific Ocean. Towards the national parks to the east of Santa Cruz, the best campgrounds at Yosemite National Park show off the mountain majesty of the Sierra Nevada Range. For further redwood appeal, campgrounds in Redwoods State and National Parks deliver with more towering forests.

imageHiking in California: The best hiking trails in Santa Cruz pair nicely with the campgrounds of the area. For a comprehensive list of all there is to explore in the state, our Best Hiking Trails in California article lays out the foundation for some great California adventures. For even more trails to trek, many of the best day hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail tour the state while crossing the country.

imageCalifornia 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.

Discover destinations, find outdoor adventures, follow the journeys of our travel writers around the world, and be inspired.

More on California