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

25. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur

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

26. Kirby Cove Campground, Mill Valley, CA

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

27. New Brighton State Beach, Near Capitola

With 101 tent sites, most slots at the 93-acre New Brighton State Beach campground aren’t what you’d call secluded. But in early hours, the beach, which connects to nearby Seacliff State Beach and stretches 16 miles south to Moss Landing, is misty and deserted. Snag primo site 73—shaded by pine and Monterey cypress trees, settled on the very edge of a wall-like precipice, and bigger than most—and it’s easy to forget that Santa Cruz is only a few miles away. Premium sites $50, other sites $35, plus $10 day-use fee; parks.ca.gov

28. Boat-In Camp, Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe’s U-shaped Emerald Bay is one of the lake’s most gorgeous (and popular) stops. But there are only 20 sites at peaceful Boat-In Camp, part of Emerald Bay State Park, where teeming speedboat traffic quiets at glassy dusk and dawn. Here bald-eagle sightings are common, and the stunning, shore-hugging Rubicon Trail is steps from your tent. The waterfront real estate—sites 1, 21, or 22—is especially coveted, so you’ll need to try for a midweek reservation or cancellation. $35, including buoy; early Jul–early Sep; parks.ca.gov

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

29. Leo Carrillo State Park, Malibu

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 

30. Mesquite Spring Campground, Death Valley National Park, North of Furnace Creek

Set in the Grapevine Canyon wash, this is a great base for exploring northern Death Valley. Tour the Spanish-Moorish mansion, Scotty’s Castle ($11; 760/786-2392), and walk the rim of Ubehebe Crater. With a high-clearance car, you can take a day trip to Eureka Dunes, California’s tallest sand dunes. $12 (plus $20 park entrance fee per vehicle); no reservations; 760/786-3200. 

31. Refugio State Beach, Northwest of Santa Barbara

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 

32. Ryan Campground, Joshua Tree National Park, South of Twentynine Palms

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. 

33. Boulder Basin Camp, San Bernardino National Forest, North of Idyllwild

At 7,300 feet in elevation, this forested camp is peppered with giant boulders. Sites at the top of the campsite loop feature expansive vistas of the national forest. Walk 0.5 miles to the Black Mountain Fire Lookout for 360° views of the Santa Rosa Mountains and San Gorgonio Pass. $10; 909/382-2921; book at recreation.gov 

34. Doane Valley Campground, Palomar Mountain State Park, Northeast of San Diego

The camp is like a slice of the Sierra Nevada ― dense conifer forests and grassy meadows at 4,700 feet ― in San Diego County. Kids can fish in Doane Pond, and the 200-inch Hale telescope at Palomar Observatory (free; 760/742-2119) is a scenic drive up the road. $20; 760/742-3462; book at reserveamerica.com 

35. Doheny State Beach, Dana Point

Swimming and surfing are prime at this mile-long protected beach. Try to snag a beachfront site on the sand ($35). Don’t miss the spectacle of the small, silver fish called grunion laying their eggs in wet sand on the beach during full moons in June through August. From $25; 949/496-6172; book at reserveamerica.com  

36. Jalama Beach County Park, West of Lompoc

Windswept and wicked-waved, Jalama Beach lies on an isolated stretch of coast. Beachcomb, fly kites, and fish, but steer clear of the surf. Sites 1–7 and 48–60 are closest to the water. Jalama Burgers at the beach store ($) are legendary. $20; no reservations; 805/736-6316. 

 

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