The West's best camping

Fair warning: Waking up at any one of these places will hook you on camping for good

California & Hawaii: 44 best campgrounds

From Santa Barbara to Big Sur, here are the best spots in California to pitch your tent--plus our top spots in Hawaii

  • Camping in California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park puts you within footsteps of creek and forest scenery.

    Lassen Volcanic National Park

    Thomas J. Story

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13. Big Lagoon County Park, North of Trinidad

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. 

14. Butano State Park, South of Pescadero

The Bay Area’s best quickie escape is a forest-fairy redwood grove that also happens to be 15 minutes from the beach. Soul-warming artichoke soup and olallieberry pie are a short drive away at Pescadero’s famous Duarte’s Tavern ($$; 650/879-0464). $25; parks.ca.gov or 650/879-2040; book at reserveamerica.com 

15. Gerstle Cove Campground, Salt Point State Park, North of Jenner

Camp with an ocean view at Salt Point State Park. Hike along the headlands, explore tidepools, and visit a pygmy forest of stunted pine trees. If the wind is howling, camp across the highway at tree-sheltered Woodside Campground. $25; 707/847-3221; book at reserveamerica.com 

16. Henry W. Coe State Park, Morgan Hill

A hiker’s dream, with 87,000 acres of grassy hillsides and ridges dotted with gnarly oak trees. Visit in spring for the best wildflowers and cooler weather. This is an open, sunny campground, so bring some shade with you. $12; 408/779-2728; book at reserveamerica.com 

17. Highland Lakes Campground, Stanislaus National Forest, West of Ebbetts Pass

A drive-to campground with backpack-worthy scenery. You’ll be drinking your morning coffee with one lake in front of you and another lake behind. Hit it in late June or early July to catch swaths of wildflowers framing high, craggy peaks. Opens in late Jun; $8; no reservations; 209/795-1381. 

18. Mattole Campground, King Range National Conservation Area, North of Shelter Cove

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. 

19. Pinnacles National Park, South of Hollister

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

20. Samuel P. Taylor State Park, Southeast of Olema

You’ve probably blown past this campground on the way to Tomales Bay. It’s irresistibly close to the Bay Area ― and popular. Pitch a tent in the cool, shaded grove and spend the day splashing in the creek, pedaling along a smooth section of the Cross Marin Trail, or exploring hiking trails that swoop up for views of grassy hills. The 13 creekside sites are picturesque ― but get road noise. The Orchard Hill loop is quieter. $25 (from $75 for group sites); 415/488-9897; book at reserveamerica.com 

21. Woods Lake Campground, Eldorado National Forest, East of Kirkwood

Easy-peasy access to idyllic alpine scenery. Nab a site in the small, quiet, pine-and-granite campground, then stroll over to a gorgeous, fish-filled lake to watch for dive-bombing osprey. Arrive by lunchtime Friday to get a good site. Opens Jul 1; $22; no reservations; 209/295-4251. 

22. Wrights Lake Campground, Eldorado National Forest, Southwest of Lake Tahoe

This is a day-hiker’s fantasyland, with relatively easy access to the southern Desolation Wilderness (permit required), which means you’re on the trail to pristine spots while others are still on the road. Bring a canoe ― the glassy lake is release-your-inner-Hiawatha awesome. Opens Jul 1; $20; 530/644-2349; book at reserveamerica.com  

23. Lower Billy Creek Campground, Sierra National Forest, North of Shaver Lake

On the forested shore of Huntington Lake, this spot is ideal for campers who want to sail, water-ski, fish, or swim. Most sites have lake views. History buffs, visit the Billy Creek Guard Station Museum (free; open Wed and Sat–Sun Jul through early Sep), adjacent to camp. Serious hikers should bag 10,310-foot Kaiser Peak (a difficult 14-mile round-trip). From $20; 559/855-5355; book at recreation.gov 

24. Trapper Springs Campground, Sierra National Forest, East of Shaver Lake

Surrounded by a banquet of granite domes, Courtright Reservoir is a rock climber’s paradise situated at 8,300 feet. A trail from the campground runs along the lakeshore to prime fishing spots. Nearby trails access the John Muir and Dinkey Lakes Wilderness. $18; no reservations; or 559/855-5355.

 

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