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Popular spots are already booked for peak weekends, but don’t put away your tent for the year. Here are awesome alternatives for redwoods strolling, beachcombing, and desert stargazing

Dakota Kim  – January 24, 2020 | Updated February 21, 2020

In case you haven’t heard, booking the most popular National Park campgrounds in California has become a Hunger Games-level competition. But in the process of vying for the most-visited campgrounds, campers are missing a lot of stunning finds, including local and private campgrounds. Instead of waiting in line behind seventeen Subarus at Yosemite, cruise into these hidden gems, put your feet up, and pat yourself on the back for picking a less popular site.

You Want: Oceanside Access

The impossible reservation: Doheny State Beach in Orange County’s Dana Point is a tough score for Fourth of July weekend and for large swaths of the summer. Waterfront sites can be hard to procure and can cost up to $60. It can also be party central depending on who’s pitching their tent next to you, and it may just be too popular.

The awesome alternative: San Onofre’s Military Beach is owned by the Marine Corps and allows tent camping, RV camping or cottage stays. You get to camp right on the beach with large fire pits and two surfing breaks are within walking distance, but campsites are close together. Still, those ocean views at sunrise and sunset are worth it.

You Want: Rock Climbing

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The impossible reservation: Little Yosemite Valley is the most popular campground in the park, mostly because it allows you to get to Half Dome relatively quickly. That means it gets booked instantaneously by every climber refreshing their page repeatedly.

The awesome alternative: Just a few hours from L.A. and the SF Bay Area, Red Rock Canyon Campground provides wide-open availability in winter and spring and decent availability in summer. The campground provides easy access to thousands of long routes, especially of moderate difficulty (there’s a reason why Alex Honnold calls Vegas home), with hundreds of short sport climbs. The vistas while climbing are incredible, offering views of the sienna-colored rock formations that ring the area.

You Want: Desert Stargazing

The impossible reservation: Maybe it’s all the Instagrammers, but Joshua Tree National Park is more popular than ever. During peak season in the spring, campsites like Hidden Valley and Jumbo Rocks are already booked for many weekends. Most of the campsites are closed during the blazing hot summer, and the three that are open are first-come, first-served. So getting a last-minute campsite at the iconic park can be challenging. Not only that, but it’s more crowded, brighter and louder than it was five years ago, with more campers and more developments in surrounding small towns. Seeing the stars in peace here is a little bit harder than it was before.

The awesome alternative: Anza-Borrego State Park is a designated International Dark Sky Park, which means that it’s largely undeveloped, and light pollution doesn’t interrupt your view of the twinkling celestial bodies above. Explore your options with a variety of stargazing-friendly campgrounds, or choose a local Hipcamp.

You Want: To Hug a Tree, Literally

The impossible reservation: Seeing redwoods in the most iconic spots during the busiest summer weekends can be challenging. Campsites at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which features 300-foot ancient coast redwoods, are already booked for the Fourth of July weekend.

The awesome alternative: If you’ve been rebuffed from Big Basin, you can look toward other local campsites, like Little Basin, or you can splash out and stay in a treehouse nestled amongst the majestic old red barks. Check out the Star Redwood Treehouse on Mystery Spot Road in Santa Cruz or this redwood treehouse AirBNB in Watsonville. If you’re in the East Bay, drive just 15 minutes from Oakland to Redwood Regional Park for some pretty tree-gazing.

You Want: Family-Friendly Nature Sightseeing

The impossible reservation: Camping at Scorpion on Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands is the most family-friendly way to go, so it’s often booked up sooner rather than later. Sometimes you just don’t have time to camp out in the Channel Islands, and the Scorpion campsite is probably already booked anyways. Never fear, for Santa Barbara whale-watching charters do go out to the Channel Islands—you just don’t have to camp there overnight.

The awesome alternative: Ocean Mesa Campground is a family-friendly site not too far from the whale-watching charters of Santa Barbara, which is a very kid-friendly city itself. At Ocean Mesa, the kids can frolic in the surf on the beach, swim in a heated pool, run around a playground, hike through the oaks, or just hang out in the tent, RV, or cabin. Then, it’s just a 20-minute drive to Santa Barbara and whale-watching tours like Condor Express. If Ocean Mesa is booked, try the Upper Oso Campground in the Los Padres National Forest, which will grant you a little extra time in the woods.