California’s amazing coastline spans some 840 miles. But it’s often in the state’s southern counties – or SoCal to the locals – where you find the best beach camping spots. Here’s five of our favourite beach campgrounds in SoCal, why we love them, and all you need to know before you head for the coast.
Related Post: Beach Camping Tips (The Ultimate Guide To Camping On Any Beach)
Leo Carillo State Park is located 28 miles northwest of Santa Monica on the iconic Pacific Coast Highway, which means you’ll be basking in those ocean vibes long before you arrive at the campsite. If you’re in a hurry, a more direct route can be found here, but we recommend you take your time on the PCH.
If you love to explore, Leo Carillo is the campground for you. This place wasn’t designated a state park for nothing; Leo Carillo has 1.5 miles of coastline full of tidepools, caves, and reefs just waiting to be explored. Bring your snorkel, look for exoctic animals, and explore every nook and cranny of the park. If exploring isn’t your thing, you can still have an amazing time surfing and hiking. The waves are first class and, if you get sick of the ocean, there are a wide variety of beautiful hiking trails.
Unfortunately, the main campground is not located on the beach; however, it is within walking distance. The campground is also the only place where you can build fires so don’t expect any big beach parties. Basically, this campsite is less for the beach lounger and more for the beach explorer. Also, expect to pay fees both for camping and for parking.
This campsite is also located just off of the beautiful Pacific Coast Highway. Just go north (past Leo Carillo State Park) until you see signs for Thornhill Broome State Beach (near Malibu), and you’re there.
As far as proximity to the water goes, this campsite is unbeatable; you’ll pitch your tent right on the sand and fall asleep to the sound of the ocean. Even better, each individual campsite has its own fire pit, so you can easily create a beach bonfire for that unforgettable beach camping experience.
The campsite is also extremely close to Malibu, so there’s plenty of delicious food options available if you head into town. A camping permit comes with free access to all the surrounding state parks, and there’s plenty to explore if you’ve got more than just a weekend.
This is a popular campsite, so make sure you book a spot well in advance. Most importantly of all: the beach is well-known for its strong riptides, so be careful! There are lifeguards on duty but don’t take any chances.
Crystal Cove is located just off of the – you guessed it – Pacific Coast Highway; this time south of Los Angeles near Laguna Beach. However, you can’t quite drive to the campsite; we’ll explain…
If you’re looking for a fancy campsite that’s easy to get to, look elsewhere; Crystal Cove only offers wild camping, and the nearest sites are a three mile walk from the parking lot.
That means you’ll need to carry all your gear in with you. Basically, it’s the backpacker’s choice and that’s why it made the list. The work is worth it though: the campsites are perched high up above the ocean and offer incredible views, but you won’t be able to access the water.
There’s a group camping site right off of the highway but it’s usually booked six months in advance, and besides, you didn’t come to Crystal Cove to camp the easy way, did you?
The campsites are first come first serve so arrive early for the best sites (not all the campsites come with great views). You’re not allowed to use propane grills or build fires at any of the backcountry campsites, so bring something you won’t mind eating cold (here’s some more advice on backpacking food). Also, dog owners should note only service dogs are allowed in the park.
If you’re in the San Diego area, this is the option for you. San Elijo State Park is located right by the town of Cardiff just north of San Diego, and the beach is just as awesome – if not better – than San Diego’s busier tourist beaches.
This is the quintessential beach campground: the pitches are near the water; the beach is relatively secluded; the surf is top-notch and beginner-friendly; and there are nearby tide pools and reefs to explore.
If you run out of supplies or want to enjoy a nice meal out, the town of Cardiff is just a short walk away. The individual sites are separated by shrubbery to give you extra privacy and you’ll have access to firepits so you can experience the all-important beach bonfire.
With 157 individual campsites, this campground is huge, so you’ll need to book your site well in advance if you want a spot near the water (unfortunately not all the sites are on the water). The campground has everything: restrooms, showers, laundry, and a convenience store. This might be a good thing for some of you, but if you’re looking for a more primitive experience you’ll want to look elsewhere.
Of all the campsites on this list, Santa Rosa Island is definitely the hardest to reach as it’s located on an uninhabited island within the Channel Islands protected wilderness.
It’s only accessible by private boat, charter flight, or by boat with the Island Packers tour company, which leaves from Valencia. The advantage to the last option (aside from price) is that you’ll also get a tour of the world’s second largest sea cave on the way back to shore.
It doesn’t get much more secluded or unique than this. After you get off your boat (or plane), you’ll hike through an island wilderness of truly remarkable flora and fauna, and arrive at your secluded campsite located right on a private island beach.
This option is definitely not for the first time camper. You’ll need to know how to safely get water from the backcountry, how to read tides, and how to tackle any number of other backcountry challenges.
You’ll also want to reserve your spot well in advance with the Channel Islands National Park Office because access to the islands is extremely restricted to protect the flora and fauna. You also can’t camp inland (why would you want to?) because of the still many undiscovered Chumash People archaeological sites. This is a trip you’re going to need to prepare for, but it’s absolutely worth it. =ZIP=