Sequoias, seashore, mountains, and more: Here are the best spots in California (plus Hawaii) to pitch your tent.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park, North of Boulder Creek, California
Your pick of four waterfalls is the payoff for tackling the roller-coaster trails that fan out under gargantuan old-growth trees in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Consider the easy-to-get-to hike-in sites if you want more space and privacy. $25; 831/338-8860; book at reserveamerica.com
D.L. Bliss State Park, Lake Tahoe, California
It isn’t easy (or cheap) to claim a spot along Tahoe’s glorious west shore. But here you can swim and sunbathe at Lester Beach, marvel at Balancing Rock, or simply ogle Tahoe’s famously blue waters. Reserve ahead to nab beachside ($35; sites 141–165). From $25; parks.ca.gov or 530/525-7232; book at reserveamerica.com
North Beach Campground, Pismo State Beach, California
Sites sit among pine-covered dunes bordering the beach, with privacy and wind protection. Beach walking and birding are prime activities. Winter campers can observe thousands of monarch butterflies clustered in the neighboring eucalyptus grove. From $20; 805/489-1869; book at reserveamerica.com
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Northeast of Crescent City, California
Set beside emerald Smith River, this camp is lush with ferns and old-growth redwoods. Walk to the 340-foot-tall Stout Tree and its mammoth brethren. $20; parks.ca.gov or 707/458-3018; book at reserveamerica.com
Kirby Cove Campground, Mill Valley, California
Foghorns and gulls are the wake-up call for all four spots at Kirby Cove Campground, near a beach just west of the Golden Gate Bridge on the Marin side. The sites are all tucked away from the wind in Monterey cypress and eucalyptus, but spot 1 is the best. Once the day-users pack their picnic baskets up the steep, mile-long approach trail, the centerfold city views are all yours. $25; no potable water; nps.gov/goga
Jalama Beach County Park, West of Lompoc, California
For the ultimate in scenic Santa Barbara camping, this Santa Barbara County beach is one of the most beautiful in California. You have to drive 19 winding miles south from Lompoc to get here, but the trek is worth it: 109 campsites on a gorgeously unspoiled sweep of coastline. You probably won’t want to get more than your shins wet — the water can be cold and rough — but surf-fishing, kite-flying, and beachcombing opportunities abound. Don’t want to camp? Reserve one of the park’s cabins. And order a Jalama Burger from the camp store. Campsites from $28, cabins from $160; reservations.sbparks.org
Leo Carrillo State Park, Malibu, California
Campsites sit under the sycamores on the east side of State 1 and on a gorgeous beach on the west side, with access to tidepools. Hike the Nicholas Flat Trail for coastal views. $25; parks.ca.gov or 310/457-8143; book at reserveamerica.com
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, California
With a priceless perch over the Pacific and only two hike-in campsites, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is more private paradise than crowded campground — which is why the sites are usually booked six months out. From site 1, shaded under Monterey cypress, you can sip your morning joe to the bark of sea lions. $30; no potable water; parks.ca.gov/jpb
Mattole Campground, King Range National Conservation Area, North of Shelter Cove, California
A million miles from everywhere, this small campground lies where a country road dead-ends at the Pacific. Summer weekends are crowded, but midweek you’ll have the windswept beach and surrounding headlands to yourself. Fill up your gas tank before leaving U.S. 101. There ain’t nothing out here. $8; no reservations; 707/986-5400.
Refugio State Beach, Northwest of Santa Barbara, California
Campsites sit along a crescent-shaped cove fringed by palm trees, where you can fish, swim, and snorkel. On Fridays during the summer, the park staff offers free sea-kayaking lessons at 9 or 11. From $25 (from $125 for group sites); parks.ca.gov or 805/968-1033; book at reserveamerica.com
Pinnacles National Park, South of Hollister, California
California’s answer to the Grand Canyon, with enormous rock formations, craggy cliffs, and caves for Indiana Jones–style exploring. Stop in the teensy town of Tres Pinos for wine at the Inn at Tres Pinos ($$$; closed Mon; 831/628-3320). $15 (plus $5 fee per vehicle); www.nps.gov/pinn or 831/389-4485; book at recreation.gov
Ryan Campground, Joshua Tree National Park, South of Twentynine Palms, California
Sites are tucked among jumbled piles of the quartz monzogranite boulders of Joshua Tree. A couple of miles from camp, a trail leads 1.5 miles up to the 5,461-foot summit of Ryan Mountain. $10 (plus $15 park entrance fee per vehicle); no reservations; 760/367-5500.
Big Lagoon County Park, North of Trinidad, California
Camp on a huge lagoon bordering the Pacific Ocean. The brackish water is relatively warm, and rich with river otters, shorebirds, and steelhead trout. Launch your canoe right from your campsite. Rent a kayak from Kayak Zak’s (from $15/hour) and paddle up to the sand spit to search for agate. $18; no reservations; co.humboldt.ca.us or 707/445-7651.
Namakanipaio Campground, Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii
The 10 newly renovated cabins at Na–makanipaio Campground in the Big Island’s Volcanoes National Park are about as close as you can (or want to) get to sleeping on an erupting volcano. At night, the sky may glow orange if Kilauea is burbling from Halema‘uma‘u crater, a half-mile walk away. Forget an alarm too; just listen for the calls of bright red ‘apapane and yellow ‘amakihi birds. $55, plus $10/vehicle; hawaiivolcanohouse.com
Na Pali Coast Kayak Camping, Kauai, Hawaii
Expect new guides and top-notch gear for these solo and guided kayak camping trips in Kauai. napalikayak.com
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