5 Best California State Parks for Camping Fun

If you love to camp, you need to head to California. California state parks encapsulate the varied beauty of the state’s landscapes – from rugged mountain ridges to coastal cliffs, sandy beaches, hidden coves, and lush forests with soaring trees.

If you’re ready to get a taste of the state’s natural wonders, travel to one of these top-notch state parks and bask in the incredible views, camping, activities, and nature you’ll find at each one.

5 Fabulous California State Parks to Pitch Your Tent

California is brimming with beautiful state parks. Here are the 5 that should call your name first if you’re ready to have a camping adventure.

1. Emerald Bay State Park

Emerald Bay State Park

Photo credit to Visit California

Emerald Bay State Park is located in northeastern California. Emerald Bay itself, as well as the surrounding mountain peaks and ridges, were carved out by glaciers during the Pleistocene Epoch, which occurred tens of thousands of years ago.

This beautiful bay, famous for its natural granite deposits and crystal-clear water, connects with Lake Tahoe, so anyone interested in exploring the area by boat will find much to love.

Camping is available via campgrounds in close proximity to the water as well as boat-in campgrounds, which are ideal for visitors who travel to the state park by private boat.

Facilities and Campgrounds

Within Emerald Bay State Park, there are two options for camping: the Eagle Point Campground and the Emerald Bay Boat-In Campground.

Eagle Point has a total of 97 family-size campsites that can each accommodate up to 8 people and up to two vehicles. Every campsite includes a fire ring with a grate, a picnic table, and a bear-proof food storage locker. Campsites can be reserved in advance. Open campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Camping at Eagle Point Campground also includes access to drinking water, restrooms with flushable toilets, and hot showers.

Meanwhile, the boat-in campground is located on the north side of Emerald Bay. Boaters can park at a launch point, pack their gear in their boats, paddle to the boat-in campground, and camp ashore on waterfront campsites. This is a beautiful way to experience Emerald Bay.

Activities and Recreation

There are plenty of activities that will keep you busy and be having fun while camping at Emerald Bay.

Bring your boat for a bay excursion, or hike one of the many trails leading to the lake. You can also swim and sunbathe at various beach areas, go fishing, scuba dive or snorkel, or check out one of the museums to learn more about the area’s natural wonders.

Know Before You Go

To stay at the boat-in campground during the peak summer season, you’ll need reservations. Otherwise, during the spring and fall, you may be able to get a spot on a first-come, first-served basis.

2. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Photo credit to Visit California

Take in iconic, postcard-worthy views of the Pacific Ocean and hike among the seaside cliffs near Big Sur when you camp at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

Named after a famous pioneer woman, this park is a natural wonder and a true gem along California’s coast. Hike the trails and take in the ocean views.

Don’t forget to take the Waterfall Trail to catch a glimpse of McWay Falls, which is an 80-foot waterfall that pours onto a pristine beach.

Facilities and Campgrounds

There are two environmental campsites within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: Saddle Rock Camp and South Gardens Camp.

Environmental camps are primitive and located in areas that offer relatively untouched natural surroundings. As such, each campsite has a fire ring, a picnic table, and a food box to secure supplies from wild animal scavengers. Pit toilets are provided, too.

Activities and Recreation

Hike Waterfall Trail or Overlook Trail to start – these skim the cliffs and ridges that can span as high as 3,000 feet. You’ll be treated to breathtaking views of the ocean, the waterfall, and waves crashing onto rocky shores dotted with towering trees.

Don’t miss the Partington Cove Trail, either. It splits near the end – one fork leads to a rocky beach and a fantastic overlook spot, while the other takes you through a historic tunnel.

If you’re camping in December or January, the park also has some prime spots for whale-watching.

Know Before You Go

  • There is no running water provided at these campsites. Be prepared and bring your own water for drinking, cooking, and/or washing. Or, you can hike back across Highway 1 and get running water at the restrooms there.
  • The campsites are hike-in only, which means you will need to park, unload your supplies, and hike to reach your camp.
  • Julia Pfeiffer State Park contains gorgeous natural scenery and ocean vistas, but many of the beach areas are unsafe and, therefore, closed to pedestrians and campers.
  • These are highly desirable camping areas, which means they book fast. Booking six months in advance is a good practice to ensure you get a spot.

3. Big Basin Redwoods State Park

Big Basin Redwoods State Park

Photo credit to Reddit

The oldest state park in California is also one you should visit for memorable camping: Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

Of course, one of the main attractions of camping here are the towering redwoods, some of which are a few thousand years old and hundreds of feet tall.

The forest isn’t the only draw, however. You’ll also find waterfalls, views of the ocean, and an abundance of wildlife, including deer, bobcats, herons, and egrets.

Facilities and Accommodations

There are a variety of ways to camp when you visit Big Basin Redwoods, State Park:

  • Reserve a tent cabin at Huckleberry Campground
  • Reserve a campsite or small cabin at Little Basin Campground
  • Ride your horse on the trails and stay at the horse camp in Rancho del Oso
  • Go backpacking on one of the many backcountry trails within the park and stay at trail camps

Little Basin Campground, in particular, includes shower houses/restrooms and drinking water, along with fire rings, food boxes, and picnic tables at each campsite or cabin. Cabins have both heat and electricity and include beds with mattresses.

If you have a larger group, you can rent the Recreation Hall or a kitchen, and gather at one of the many outdoor spaces.

Activities and Recreation

Little Basin has lots of fun things to do, including horseshoes, sand volleyball, tennis, and basketball courts, miles of hiking trails, and a playground.

To see the tallest and most impressive trees in the park, hike the Redwood Nature Trail, which takes you on a 0.6-mile loop. Along with this hike, you’ll see the Mother and Father of the Forest trees (the tallest specimens), the Chimney Tree (which is hollow and you can stand inside), and the Animal Tree.

If you’re looking for a day hike, try the Basin Trail loop, which is a 12-mile excursion through serene woodland and sunny coastal areas, not to mention a canyon full of redwoods.

Know Before You Go

Due to winter storm damage, many of the park trails may be closed early in the season. To check which trails will be open during your camping trip (especially if you’re visiting in June), head to the park information page on the California Department of Parks and Recreation website.

Also, note that trail conditions aren’t guaranteed. Park rangers may not know about a blockage on a trail. So if you encounter one, you’re supposed to turn back and notify the park office.

4. McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park

McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park

Photo credit to Pinterest

One of the most beautiful waterfalls in the state of California is located at McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park.

Burney Falls is 129 feet high and is fed from underground springs which flow into Burney Creek. Burney Creek eventually leads to nearby Lake Britton, which affords water-loving campers a lot of things to do.

Facilities and Accommodations

There’s one popular campground near Burney Falls within the park – Rim Campground. Here you can reserve a cabin or a campsite with amenities like modern restrooms, showers, and RV sites.

The cabins come in both one and two-room variations and include propane heaters for chilly nights, bunk beds, and spacious wooden porches.

Both the campsites and cabins are within walking distance from Burney Falls. They also offer park amenities like the camp store, picnic areas, fishing areas, and hiking trails.

Activities and Recreation

Hiking, fishing, and picnicking are all popular activities around Burney Falls. In particular, take the Burney Creek Trail to hike to the falls and to pass through forests of ponderosa pine, oak trees, incense cedar trees, and Douglas firs.

Another popular hiking trail is Pioneer Cemetery Trail, which runs along a historic wagon trail to a pioneer cemetery.

Don’t forget to visit Lake Britton for boating, more fishing, beach-combing, and swimming.

Know Before You Go

Cabins come with heaters but do not have running water or electricity. Make sure you pack flashlights and/or lanterns with extra batteries if you plan to reserve one.

 

5. Crystal Cove State Park

Crystal Cove State Park

Photo credit to Go Hike It

For beach lovers, Crystal Cove State Park can provide a unique camping experience in Southern California.

This park stretches along 3.2 miles of beaches and shoreline, which includes swimming beaches, tide pools, and coves to explore. There are also thousands of acres of wilderness for hikers, bikers, and explorers.

Plus, campers will enjoy the nearby urban areas, including the artist’s haven Laguna Beach and Newport Beach’s boating culture in the Corona del Mar area.

Facilities and Accommodations

There are lots of options for campers visiting Crystal Cove State Park:

Moro Campground has 58 family campsites with modern restrooms and showers available. These are drive-in campsites with space for up to 8 people. Here, you’ll camp in sandy coastal areas with views of the ocean.

The Upper Moro, Lower Moro, and Deer Canyon Campsites are all primitive, backcountry hike-in campsites. To reach them, you’ll have to hike at least 3 miles from the parking lot.

Each campsite has access to picnic tables and pit toilets.

Activities and Recreation

Activities at Crystal Cove are wide-ranging – you can do everything from hiking, scuba diving, and exploring caves and tide pools, to swimming, surfing, mountain biking, and more.

You can even have a leisurely breakfast with ocean views at the nearby restaurant, the Beach Comber, or you can travel farther afield and check out what the beach towns in the area have to offer.

Know Before You Go

If you plan to camp at one of the primitive campsites, you’ll need to bring your own water. Additionally, these are pack-in, pack-out sites, which means that anything you bring into your camp, including trash you create, must also leave with you.

 

Ready to Go Camping at California State Parks?

Now that you’ve read about some of the incredible camping opportunities in California state parks, it’s time to book your campsite or cabin. You can find where to make reservations on the California Department of Parks and Recreation site.

 

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