1. Big Basin Redwoods State Park, North of Boulder Creek
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
2. Camp Edison, Shaver Lake, Northeast of Fresno
Shaver is one of the Sierra lakes created as part of a Southern California Edison hydroelectric project, and Camp Edison’s 252 campsites have electricity and cable TV. Half even have Internet. But power down: This camp has great lake access and mountain views. Campsites 119 and 121 have the best views but cost the most ($60). From $25; 559/841-3134; sce.com/campedison
3. Cold Springs Campground, Sequoia National Park, East of Three Rivers
A glacial-cut valley, Mineral King is surrounded by 12,000-foot granite and shale peaks. Pick a site alongside the Kaweah River or in the shade of aspens. For homemade pie and a shower ($5; bring your own towel), head to nearby Silver City Mountain Resort. $12 (plus $20 park entrance fee per vehicle); no reservations; 559/565-3341.
4. D.L. Bliss State Park, Lake Tahoe
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
5. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Northeast of Crescent City
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
6. Kirk Creek Campground, Los Padres National Forest, Big Sur
Scattered across a bluff, the sites are open to the stars and the sea. Pack dress-up clothes and blow the money you saved on lodging with a prix fixe dinner at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar ($$$$; 831/667-2800). $22; campone.com or 805/434-1996; book at recreation.gov
7. Minaret Falls Campground, Inyo National Forest, North of Devils Postpile National Monument
Riverfront sites overlook the Upper Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River; some have views of Minaret Falls. The short hike to the Devils Postpile lava formation is a must. $20 (plus $7 transit fee); no reservations; 760/924-5500.
8. Russian Gulch State Park, North of Mendocino
On the rugged Northern California coast, this campground offers an up-close look at Mendocino’s natural beauty, like at Devil’s Punch Bowl, where the ocean surges through a huge hole in the headlands. Don't miss the hike to Russian Gulch Falls. $25; parks.ca.gov or 707/937-5804; book at reserveamerica.com
9. Sabrina Campground, Inyo National Forest, West of Bishop
Bishop Creek flows past, and 2 miles away is trout-filled Lake Sabrina. Trails lead into the John Muir Wilderness with access to mountain lakes and the Sierra crest. Dine alfresco on hamburgers and homemade pie on the patio of the Lake Sabrina Boat Landing Cafe ($; 760/873-7425). $21; no reservations; 760/873-2500.
10. Saddlebag Lake Campground, Inyo National Forest, East of Yosemite National Park
At 10,000 feet, this is the highest drive-to campground in the state and has a dramatic, above-the-treeline feel. Insider tip: Just ¼ mile from the campground, you can hop a water taxi ($10 round-trip) across Saddlebag Lake for an easy hike into the stunning 20 Lakes Basin. $19; no reservations; 760/924-5500.
11. Summerdale Campground, Sierra National Forest, South of Yosemite National Park’s Southern Entrance
This campground is spread out under the shade of cottonwoods and pines less than 20 minutes from Yosemite ($20 park entrance fee per vehicle) and its Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. Have breakfast at the park’s historic Wawona Hotel ($; 209/375-1425). $20; 559/877-2218; book at recreation.gov
12. Summit Lake South Campground, Lassen Volcanic National Park
Smack in the middle of the park, this campground lies at the southern edge of the tiny but picturesque Summit Lake. Reserve early to snag site D9 or D10; both have great views and lake access. $16 (plus $10 park entrance fee per vehicle); 530/595-4480; book at recreation.gov