Where the Locals Camp: Best Southern California Spots

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Sunset at Hidden Valley Campground in Joshua Tree National Park. Photo credit: Joshua Tree National Park

As a SoCal native, I love to brag about the range of landscapes found within only hours from my home. “You can relax at the beach, snowboard in the mountains and hike in the desert all in the same day,” I explain. With endless sunshine, sparkling beaches, fiery deserts and must-see National Parks, Southern California really has it all.

Thanks to these breathtaking landscapes, this area has some of the best camping spots in the country. Southern California campgrounds can be found wedged between amazing rock formations in Joshua Tree, on cliffs overlooking San Onofre State Beach or beside a creek in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Whether you’re looking for an outdoor adventure or a relaxing retreat, plan your next California camping getaway now and book a stay at one of these 11 idyllic campgrounds.

Mount San Jacinto in California has great Southern California camping nearby
Photo credit: Shutterstock

1. Idyllwild Campground – Mount San Jacinto State Park

Stay at the Idyllwild Campground and enjoy the beautiful Mount San Jacinto State Park. Only two hours from San Diego and Los Angeles, Mount San Jacinto is the second-highest peak in Southern California. Adventurous travelers can hike all the way up the mountain, but those who wish to save their energy can take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which starts in Chino Canyon near Palm Springs. The mountain is home to subalpine forests, beautiful meadows and amazing panoramic views.

After a long day of exploring the state park, set up camps in the cozy Idyllwild campground. Located in the town of Idyllwild, this campground is close to local shops, cafés and restaurants. This campground includes 31 campsites, some of which can accommodate RVs and trailers as well as tents. There are flush toilets and coin-operated showers. Some site have electric hook-ups while others have full hook-ups. Reservations can be made online at Reserve California.

2. Malibu Creek State Park Campground – Malibu Creek State Park

Looking for a peaceful and secluded camping experience just a short drive from Los Angeles? Head to the Malibu Creek State Park, in the Santa Monica Mountains. This beautiful state park features rugged mountains, steep slopes, green plains and deep gorges, formed two million years ago by earthquakes, climate change and erosion. In addition to hiking and sightseeing, guests can go rock climbing, mountain biking, birding and fishing in the expansive state park.

The Malibu Creek State Park Campground includes tent sites as well as spaces for RVs and trailers. Campgrounds come equipped with a picnic table and a fire pit. There are laundry facilities, token-operated showers and potable water. Book your reservation online at Reserve California.

Tent at a Southern California campground in Joshua Tree National Park
Hidden Valley Campground in Joshua Tree National Park. Photo credit: Joshua Tree National Park

3. Hidden Valley Campground – Joshua Tree National Park

Fall asleep between stunning rock formations and Joshua trees at Hidden Valley Campground. This is the closest campground to the Joshua Tree Visitor Center and the West Entrance Station, making it ideal for those looking to explore the park. The site is particularly popular among outdoor adventurers, as it’s close to many hiking trails and rock climbing opportunities.

This campground is ideal for those looking to completely unplug, as there is no internet and no electricity. There is also no potable water or camp store, so be sure to arrive prepared. The campground includes 44 sites, but there is no way of making a prior reservation. All sites are first-come, first-served, so be sure to arrive early to snag the best spot.

4. Leo Carrillo State Park Campground – Leo Carrillo State Park

To camp by the beach, book a stay at the Leo Carrillo State Park Campground. The surrounding state park spans 1.5 miles of beach, perfect for swimming, sunbathing, surfing, picnicking, seeing tide pools and exploring caves.

The campground has 130 campsites and can accommodate tents, trailers and RVs. There is a camp store as well as token-operated showers, flush toilets and electric hookups. Camp sites also have a picnic table and a fire ring. Oak trees offer shade, and a trail leads from the campground to the beach. Make your reservation online at Reserve California.

Laguna Beach in Orange County, California, a great place to visit in july
Laguna Beach in Orange County, California is the perfect spot to visit in July. Photo credit: Gwen Kleist

5. Moro Campground – Crystal Cove State Park

In beautiful Laguna Beach, Crystal Cove State Park includes 2,400 acres of woodlands and 3.2 miles of Pacific coastline. Outdoor enthusiasts will love the park’s tide pools, sandy beaches and endless activities, including hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, surfing, fishing, scuba diving and, of course, camping.

The Moro Campground includes 57 family campsites, 27 of which are designated for RVs and trailers. There are on-site bathrooms and token-operated showers. The campground is also dog-friendly, so bring your furry friend! To reserve a campsite, visit Reserve California.

6. Green Valley Campground – Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in San Diego Country is a beautiful wooded area that covers 24,700 acres. Rivers, creeks and nature trails cut through the state park, which is home to diverse wildlife, including badgers, foxes and bobcats. The area can be explored on foot, on bike or on horseback.

There is a creek that runs through Green Valley Campground, perfect for splashing around in on hot days. The campground includes 81 campsites, which come with a picnic table and a fire ring. There are restrooms with flush toilets, pay showers and drinking water. There are no hookups. Make your reservation online at Reserve California.

7. Chilao Campground – Angeles National Forest

Spend the day exploring the San Gabriel Mountains while staying at the Chilao Campground in the Angeles National Forest. This area has a lot of beautiful hikes, including the Mt. Waterman Trail, the Bighorn Mine Trail and the Bridge to Nowhere.

The Chilao Campground includes two different loops for tent camping—Manzanita and Little Pines. Both are in a beautiful forested area, though it can get windy. The campground is available on a first come, first served basis, so be sure to arrive early. There is also no piped water, so make sure to come prepared. Bathrooms have vault toilets and there are no showers.

8. San Onofre Bluffs Campground – San Onofre State Beach

San Onofre State Beach is another great spot for anyone seeking a beach camping experience. Near San Clemente, The San Onofre Bluffs Campground is 3.5 miles long and is located on cliffs along the Pacific Coast, offering beautiful ocean views. Trails lead from the bluffs down to the beach, providing easy access to the beach. Here, campers can enjoy surfing, swimming, sunbathing, birding and fishing. Lots of local wildlife can be observed here, including sea lions, dolphins and lots of different bird species.

Each site at the San Onofre Bluffs Campground can accommodate up to eight people. Sites come equipped with a fire ring, a picnic table and parking spot. There are sanitation stations at the campground and free cold showers in the bathrooms. There are no RV hookups. To make a reservation, visit Reserve California.

9. Borrego Palm Canyon CampgroundAnza-Borrego Desert State Park

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California. This 600,000-acre park is located two hours east of San Diego, within the Colorado Desert, and is characterized by dazzling wildflowers, palm oases, slot canyons and starry night skies. Not sure where to start your visit to the park? Head to the Anza Borrego visitor center and learn about the local trails and activities.

The Borrego Palm Canyon Campground is the perfect place to set up camp after a day of exploring the park. There are 120 campsites, all with access to potable water, bathrooms and token-operated hot showers. Some sites offer full hookups. Only RVs or trailers may park in these sites. Make your reservation online at Reserve California.

10. San Clemente State Beach Campground – San Clemente State Beach

San Clemente State Beach Campground is located on cliffs overlooking the beach, where campers can wake up to breathtaking vistas. During the day, there’s swimming, surfing or fishing on the water.

There are two different camping areas—one for RVs and trailers and the other for tent camping. There are electrical, water and sewage hookups in the RV campground. Each site in the tent campground comes with a picnic table, a fire pit and a structure to provide shade. Campers can take hot showers and use flush toilets. There are also group sites, both of which can accommodate up to 50 people. Reservations can be made online at Reserve California.

Dad, son and daughter fishing in Big Bear Lake near one of the best camping spots in Southern California
Fishing is a popular lake activity from May to September. Photo credit: Dan McKernan/Big Bear Guide

11. Serrano Campground – San Bernardino National Forest

Traveling with a family? The Serrano Campground in the San Bernardino Mountains near Redlands is the place to be. Walking distance from beautiful Big Bear Lake, this area offers endless outdoor activities, including hiking, boating, water-skiing, mountain biking and fishing. The Big Bear Discovery Center is also located close to the campground, and is a great place to learn about the area and plan activities. The Center also plans local events, like arts and crafts, nature walks and story time.

This family campground has more than 100 sites for RVs, trailers and tents. Each campsite has a fire pit with grills. There are flush toilets and showers, and campers can buy firewood at the campground. There is a dump station and full utility hookups. Make a reservation at Reserve California.

Adina Keeling is a freelance travel writer from San Diego, CA. She worked in local news for a year until her wanderlust drew her to Costa Rica, where she is now based while freelancing and traveling the world. She has lived in three different countries and traveled to 27. An avid solo traveler, Adina wants to empower other women to safely travel alone.
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