Last-minute camping in Southern California

5 great no-reservation campgrounds near Kings Canyon, Anza-Borrego, Bishop, Mammoth Lakes, and Santa Barbara

Kings Canyon
Photo: David Fenton

Kings Canyon National Park  

  • Sunset Campground: At a pleasantly cool elevation and less than a mile from the Grant Grove of giant sequoias, this camp is an ideal base for exploring both Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Forget something? The Grant Grove Village market and restaurant are a half-mile away. $18; 559/565-3341. 
  • Plan B: Try next-door Azalea Campground. $18; nps.gov/seki or 559/565-3341.

East of Santa Barbara

  • Chula Vista Campground in Los Padres National Forest: Way up near the summit of Mt. Pinos, this 12-site walk-in camp is an escape from the summer heat. Campsites are shaded by Jeffrey pines, and a dark sky is perfect for stargazing (amateur astronomers set up telescopes in the parking lot). Bring water—plus your hiking boots and mountain bike. Free; 661/245-3731. 
  • Plan B: McGill Campground, a couple of miles down from the summit. $16; www.fs.fed.us/r5/lospadres or 661/245-3731.

Near Mammoth Lakes

  • Convict Lake Campground: Most people come to Convict Lake to catch trout, but there’s plenty more to do. Hiking trails lead into the John Muir Wilderness, horses are available for hire, and the neighboring resort has a first-rate French restaurant. Then again, you could just kick back in a lawn chair and stare at the glacial cirque of Convict Lake, backed by the jagged, sky-high Mt. Morrison. Only 25 of 88 sites are reservable; the rest are for the last-minute crowd. $20; www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo or 760/924-5500. 
  • Plan B: Another last-minute lake­-view spot is Lake Mary Campground, just outside the town of Mammoth Lakes. $21; www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo or 760/924-5500.

Anza-Borrego Desert

  • Blair Valley Campground Borrego Springs: This primitive camp has open sites with bare-bones amenities (a couple of vault toilets). Bring plenty of water and a tarp for shade. Within easy hiking distance are Native American pictographs, a 1930s homesteading site, and the box canyon where the first road from the east into Southern California was cut by hand. On new-moon weekends, amateur astronomers gather on the north side of Blair Valley’s dry lake. Free; parks.ca.gov or 760/767-4205. 
  • Plan B: Neighboring Little Blair Valley Campground attracts tent campers, not RVs. Free; parks.ca.gov or 760/767-4205.

Near Bishop

  • Grandview Campground: See the world’s oldest living trees at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, 5 miles from camp. Serious hikers will want to bag the summit of White Mountain Peak, third highest in California. Campsites are tucked among a grove of junipers and piñon pines. Make sure to bring everything you need; if you forget the ice, it’s a winding 17-mile drive back to U.S. 395. $5 donation suggested; www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo or 760/873-2500.
  • Plan B: Sage Flat Campground, on the other side of U.S. 395 in Big Pine Creek’s glacial canyon. $21; www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo or 760/873-2500.

Next: Last-minute campgrounds in the Rockies

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