You won’t get very far in Northern California without stumbling on a breathtaking and iconic outdoor landscape. Whether it’s Mount Shasta, the Redwoods, the dramatic Big Sur coastline, the giant Sierra Nevada sequoias, or Lake Tahoe, there’s no end to the lush forests, scenic coastlines, and ancient lava beds here. That’s why the toughest part about camping in Northern California is deciding where to go! When it comes to Northern California best camping, the places are endless, with CA being home to a stunning and majestic landscape. From the sea to the desert to the mountains, California and its campgrounds never fail to impress. In fact, it’s something of a gold mine, with a whopping 19 national forests in the state and each having its own climates and natural wonders. Whether you want to “glamp” or indulge in traditional tent camping or RVing, California has them all.
As it is, California is full of gems, which you could explore if you’re RVing down the coastal California Highway, one of the world’s most scenic drives. Even if you aren’t, Northern California has enough sights and attractions off the road to keep you hooked for life! To that end, here are the 11 best places for camping in Northern California, CA.
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Russian Gulch State Park
Just north of Mendocino, three hours north of San Francisco, sits one of northern California’s most gorgeous rugged coastlines at Russian Gulch State Park. It’s one of the best camping places in Northern California. The state park has stunning landscapes ranging from redwoods and waterfalls to a glittering beach and even a leafy canyon.
Its crown jewel is the windswept headlands and sea cave at the iconic blowhole of Devil’s Punch Bowl. Plenty of photo-ops await you here, so don’t forget to bring your best travel cameras and the best camera hiking backpacks. Despite only being open during summers (May-September), the state park and its campgrounds are very popular due to the immense number and range of outdoor recreation. Think paddling, fishing, Scuba diving, swimming, biking, hiking, and more.
While there are many options for beach campgrounds here, the best is the Russian Gulch State Park Campground, which is more peaceful and private. Campers have their pick of a group site, 26 standard sites, and even 4 equestrian sites replete with water troughs, staging areas, and corrals. Moreover, you have spaces for cars, trailers, RVs (dry camping only), and tents, They lie on the park’s northeast edge under a shaded forest canopy, right next to the picturesque rocky coastline. What’s more, each of the campsites has a campfire ring and a picnic table. Finally, communal facilities including drinking water, showers, and restrooms are also available.
Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is nestled on the forested floor of the Big Sur River Valley in the heart of northern Big Sur. Not only is it one of the best-kept state parks in California, but it’s also an excellent base to explore the Big Sur coastline, which is home to Pfeiffer Beach, one of California’s best beaches. It’s what makes it one of the best camping places in Northern CA.
There’s so much to do in Big Sur that you’ll have a hard time deciding what to do next. Hikers will love the diverse hiking trails, so pack an excellent day hiking backpack and hiking snacks. Furthermore, there are more than three miles of Big Sur River access, including Big Sur River Gorge’s thrilling swimming holes. What’s more, the park is home to Big Sur’s largest public campground and the rustic-chic Big Sur Lodge. However, camping in the outdoors of Big Sur’s redwoods-meet-the-sea landscape is a legendary experience.
A scenic river and coastal redwoods are just some of the sights you’ll enjoy when camping at Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground. It lies just off Highway 1 and is very popular, so keep in mind that getting a reservation here can be absurdly difficult. So much so that reservations are full up to six months in advance, even in winters! Choose from 189 tents and RV bike-in, ride-in, and hike-in sites, some of which lie right by the river. Moreover, every site has a picnic table, a fire pit, and parking space for one car at the minimum. While there are no hookups, communal facilities include toilets, hot showers, and freshwater. The best bit? You can bring Fido here too, as long as they’re on a leash. To that end, here are the best camping dog tie-outs.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Big Basin Redwoods State Park is one of the most jaw-dropping gorgeous best camping places in Northern California. The park, which is filled with ancient coast redwoods, is nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains just outside San Jose and is California’s oldest state park. Those who love nature and the outdoors will have the time of their lives here. Traversing 80-mile long spiraling trails under the ancient, old-growth redwoods, and don’t forget to bring your trail shoes. Water babies have their pick of four waterfalls to choose to explore, where you can picnic, swim, and make a day of it.
Camping in Big Basin is an enthralling experience, as there are 142 unique campsites. While some of them are open throughout the year (Huckleberry Campground), others are open only in the spring and summer (Wastahi and Sempervirens Campgrounds). There aren’t any hookups in the park, though, so if you’re RVing, then you had better look up the RV boondocking batteries. What’s more, you’ll also find spots for groups (Sky Meadow and Sequoia) and even a horse camp to bunk with your horses. If you’re looking for glamping, head to Little Basin which has a recreation hall, pavilion, and a kitchen.
Amongst the standard campsites, Sempervirens Campground is one of the most amazing ones. It’s part of the Sempervirens Club, which was begun by Big Basin’s original founders! In fact, this campground was the club’s gathering place for hosting meetings and events, with the grounds holding a lot of important history within their borders. In fact, if it wasn’t for this group’s actions and efforts, the old-growth redwoods might not have existed today! Sempervirens has 27 car/tent sites and 7 RV sites, each of which has food lockers, picnic tables, and campfire rings.
Bodega Bay, which is part of Doran Regional Park, is one best camping places in Northern CA. The bay sits on the eastern edge of Santa Rosa and offers miles of trails for trail riding, mountain biking, and hiking. The two-mile stretch of the sandy beach is a water babies’ favorite, with activities on offer ranging from picnicking, walking, and playing in the sand to birdwatching, surfing, and flying kites. There’s even a boat launch that offers access to Bodega Harbor for a variety of water activities including kit surfing, stand-up paddling, kayaking, and sport fishing. So, you might finally get to use that amazing sea kayak! If that wasn’t enough, a rock jetty sits on the western end and is a popular place for exploring marine life and fishing.
The pet-friendly beach campgrounds of Cove, Gull, and Shell lie right across the road from Bodega Bay. While there are options for car, trailer, RV, and tent camping, there are no hookups, for obvious reasons. Moreover, each site has a picnic table and a fire ring, while RV pull-through sites even have dump stations. Besides potable water being available everywhere, the campsites even have restrooms with coin-operated showers, flush toilets, and restrooms with electrical outlets. The best bit? Aside from beach access, the campground is also disabled-friendly. And also, dogs on leash are allowed within, which means that it’s time to check out the best tents for camping with dogs!
Even though the park is open throughout the year, campers are advised to make reservations in advance, especially during the summer and holiday season.
Shasta-Trinity National Forest
The Shasta-Trinity National Forest is CA’s largest national forest and one of the best camping places in Northern California. The massive and lush region lies in the very north of California, a good four hours north of Sacramento. The 2.2 million-acre-huge forest has more than 6,000 miles of rivers and streams and is home to the spectacular Mt. Shasta, which is more than 14,000 feet in height.
Most of the activities here are centered around Shasta Lake, which is the shimmering crown jewel. Explorers will surely fall in love with the Lake Shasta Caverns, an incredible cave system with stalactites and stalagmites that you can see on a two-hour tour. There are many lakes and waterfalls in the region, such as Castle and Heart Lakes and Hedge Creek, and Mossbrae Falls. Mount Shasta rises magnificently in the background of Lake Shastina, which is a very popular stargazing spot. So, astrophiles should definitely pack their stargazing binoculars. During winters, the region turns into a wonderful winter landscape that’s perfect for downhill skiing, snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling.
Shasta Trinity has more than 100 camping spots spread across campgrounds, cabins, dispersed, group, and RV camping. For those who want to ditch the crowds, consider tent camping at the McBride Springs Campground, which lies close to Shasta City. It has vault restrooms and drinking water and has 12 RV and tent sites with fire rings and tables. Are you the glamping kind? Head to Lake Siskiyou Camp Resort which enjoys sweeping views of Lake Siskiyou and Mount Shasta. It not only has rustic tent sites but also cabins and homes for rent. However, its amenities are phenomenal; think a bar and grille, a Splash Zone inflatable water park, and beach rentals!
Redwood National and State Parks
If you want to go big, the RNSP (Redwood National and State Parks) is one of the best camping places in Northern CA. The complex is home to three state parks and one national park, which are home to the tallest trees in the world – the redwoods. This immense coastal woodland system is around six hours north of San Francisco and overlooks the North Pacific Ocean.
This coastal redwood ecosystem is as unique as its old, with the towering trees lessening the temperature of the first and offering lots of shade. Explore and hike regions such as Stout and Lady Bird Johnson Groves and Fern Canyon. Gold Bluffs Beach is a great spot for watching the sunset and is named so for the iconic golden bluffs overlooking it. However, the best spot might be Redwood Creek Overlook, which sits 1,000 feet above the ocean and boasts views of both the Pacific and the redwoods. And, of course, the park is famous for the huge population of the majestic Roosevelt Elk, which you can spot in Elk Meadow.
While there are four campgrounds to choose from, none are as popular as the Jedediah Smith Campground. That’s because this lies on the wild waters of the Smith River nestled among old-growth redwoods. Not only does it have access to hot showers but restrooms too. Choose from 106 sites spread between the main and the outer loop, or you even have the option of cabins. Finally, the campground is open all year, but reservable only between May and September.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the best camping places in Northern California. The 160,000-acre park is dotted with gushing waterfalls, meadows, and stunning alpine lakes, but its star jewel is the volcanic terrain. For the uninitiated, this park has as many as 300 hydrothermal features and volcanoes, and a host of native species. In fact, it houses all four kinds of volcanoes found on the planet – plug dome, cinder cone, composite, and shield.
Those with a taste of adventure will love walking trails such as Bumpass Hell and Sidewalk to the geothermal features such as boiling pools, mud pots, and steam vents. Water bums should head straight to Manzanita Lake, which offers a host of kayaking opportunities. This is the perfect opportunity to whip out your lake kayaks or recreational kayaks for some water fun. Even history enthusiasts and culture vultures have something to look forward to here, namely the Loomis Museum. And, of course, who can forget about King Creek Falls, which navigates a lush meadow and reaches a dramatic 30-feet-high cascade?
You can set up camp at one of seven seasonal campgrounds, of which we’d recommend the Summit Lake South Campground. It sits on Summit Lake’s southern edge, right in the middle of the park, with picturesque water views. The reservable tent-only campsite has 46 secluded spaces for you to set up camp with your tent across 3 loops. There’s even a picnic area on the shoreline with a swimming area and picnic tables. While there are very less amenities at this seasonal site, there are potable water, trash counters, and food storage lockers (all seasonal).
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is not just one of the best camping places in Northern CA, but it’s one of the best camping grounds in California as a whole. The place has long been an inspiration for nature lovers, hikers, and artists. In fact, Yosemite’s beauty came to the fore in the 1920s, when Ansel Adams’ black-and-white shots of the park and its iconic sites showcased its beauty like never better.
The crown jewel here is Yosemite Falls, which sits at the end of an easy hike and is one of the world’s largest waterfalls. One of the park’s first “big climbs” is First Dome, so do invest in some good Moosejaw climbing gear if you intend to scale that. El Capitan is equally intimidating, as is Glacier Point. In fact, the park is full of hiking trails such as Mist Trail, Vernal Fall Footbridge, and Mirror Lakes. Tioga Road is one of the Instagrammers, while culture vultures will love Yosemite Museum and Indian Village. And if you like wheeled thrills, then there are mountain biking paths too.
Scoring campsites at Yosemite is akin to winning the state lottery! However, planning ahead will get you the best camping in the state. Those seeking solitude will love the year-round, solitudinous Upper Pines Campground on the valley floor. Choose from 304 sites at Tuolumne Meadows campground, if you want to stay outside the valley. However, this is more suited to hikers as it sits at 8,600 feet and has trails leading to Cathedral Lakes and Elizabeth Lake. Riverside camping is best done at the southern Wawona, which also offers easy access to Mariposa Grove’s giant sequoias. It’s also one of Yosemite’s best-camping sites. And if you’re looking at the highest drive-in campgrounds, head to Saddlebag Lake Campground at 10,000 feet.
D.L. Bliss State Park, Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is one of the USA’s top tourist attractions, so it’s no wonder that it’s one of the best camping places in Northern California. There’s no end to the things to do at Lake Tahoe, which is home to so many lovely sandy beaches. So, you can enjoy everything from lounging on the sand and picnicking to swimming, kayaking, and paddleboarding. South Lake Tahoe is particularly popular for its great hikes such as the Lighthouse Trail to the Rubicon Point Lighthouse, the country’s highest elevated lighthouse. Likewise, the Rubicon Trail, the Fallen Leaf Lake Trail, and the Cascade Falls Trail are all excellent for hiking enthusiasts.
Despite Lake Tahoe being open in the winter for alpine activities, most of the amazing campgrounds are shut during winters. That’s because of not just the cold temperatures, but also the massive amount of snow on the ground. One of northern CA’s best camping happens here at the historic D.L. Bliss Campground, which lies on Lake Tahoe’s western shores. Choose from 165 small and wooded campsites, of which 20 are lakeside ones and 58 are tent-only ones. While trailers and RVs are permitted, vehicles larger than 18 feet aren’t permitted. What’s more, there are even designated bike and hike-in sites as well as group ones.
Each site has a fire ring, food locker, and picnic table, but there are no hookups. But, the campground amenities are excellent and include an amphitheater, tap water, and restrooms with coin-operated showers and flush toilets. The best bit? Your four-legged companions are allowed, albeit leashed.
Salt Point State Park
The 6,000-acre-huge Salt Point State Park is one of the best camping places in Northern CA. The park is a beautiful and wild meeting of land and sea along the Sonoma Coast, an hour north of San Francisco.
Marine life lovers will absolutely love jumping into the offshore waters, which are protected as one of CA’s first underwater parks. In fact, the seabed and tidepools are teeming with marine life. Hikers have some 20 miles of trails to explore that lead to stunning honeycombed sandstone and wind-and-water-carved tafoni formations. If you love forests, then do indulge in the short and steep hike up to the pygmy forest of pine and stunted cypress trees. But, that’s not all. Fisk Mill Cove, which lies at the park’s main entrance, is very popular for abalone diving. Furthermore, a leveled bluff-top trail meanders through a fern and rhododendron forest to reach gorgeous views.
This park has two campgrounds, the pine-shaded Woodside and the oceanside Gerstle Cove Campground. The latter boasts exciting sea views, but only on days when it’s calm and not windy. Choose from 30 drive-in sites that remain open throughout the year. All campsites, except the overflow camping, have a food locker, picnic table, and a fire ring. While there are no showers, the campground does have restrooms and drinking water and allows leashed dogs.
Channel Islands National Park
What makes Channel Islands National Park one of the best camping places in Northern California? For one, this Northern CA camping ground is home to San Miguel Island, one of the world’s most incredible abandoned islands. That and the other four islands that encompass this offshore national park is a perfect example of primeval California, circa hundreds of years ago. They can be reached via a 1.5-hour ferry ride from Los Angeles. Since none of them are connected to the mainland, they have a wondrous fauna populace. So, there’s everything from dolphin spotting and whale watching to kayaking and hiking the trails. Birdwatchers will especially love the islands, as they’re home to at least 10 land bird species that cannot be found anywhere else on Earth! Fishing is a popular pastime, so do bring your fishing backpacks and fishing sunglasses.
Every isle boasts a small campground, but Scorpion Canyon campground on Santa Cruz island is the easiest to reach. While you’ll have to lug your gear for around half a mile from the dock, rewards are aplenty. Think a night sky that twinkles with thousands of stars and a serenity that can be found in very few places in the world. There are 31 tent-only walk/hike-in primitive sites, of which 25 are individual sites and 6 are group ones. However, all sites require reservations. Moreover, the campground even has pit toilets, potable water, food storage, and picnic table.