Top Campgrounds of Northern California
Why Northern California?
California is one of the most naturally diverse states from sea to shining sea. However, Northern California is set apart from its southern counterpart by its characteristic redwood forests, lush greenery, rocky coastlines, and alpine terrain, collectively providing an unreeling natural experience to its many yearly visitors. Travelers can find many types of lodging, but the region is especially accommodating to campers who want to bask in the glory of the great outdoors.
Juniper Campground, Mount Diablo
Mount Diablo is known for some of California’s most spectacular views: it is said that 35 of the state’s 58 counties can be seen from Mount Diablo’s peak on a clear day. Just two miles below, Juniper Campground, at a 3,000-foot elevation, provides vistas that rival those from the peak, and easily trump views from any other California campground. From the campground’s many viewpoints, visitors can clearly see the rolling pastoral hills of the Santa Clara and Silicon valleys. From nearby Diablo Valley Overlook, visitors will get a clear view of the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Many trails traversing and scaling Mount Diablo are easily accessible from the campground. Juniper Campground contains 36 campsites, providing picnic tables, fire pits, water, restrooms, and showers. Reservations are recommended, and campers are encouraged to contact Mount Diablo State Park before arriving to ensure there are no park closures due to fire danger.
Azalea Campground, Kings Canyon
Those familiar with King’s Canyon National Park can attest to its rugged terrain, and “road less traveled” appeal. It’s not that King’s Canyon is unpopular; it’s that it neighbors Yosemite National Park, an internationally renowned travel destination. Although it is often overshadowed by its southern-lying neighbor, King’s Canyon National Park offers comparable foliage and terrain, while attracting fewer tourists and families. Amid King’s Canyon National Park lies one campground that exemplifies the unparalleled beauty of the Eastern Sierras. Azalea Campground affords the camper an opportunity to camp in the heart of Grant Grove, a forest of soaring giant sequoias including the second largest in the world, 3,000-year-old General Grant. This campground does contain restrooms, and coin-operated showers, and is available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Glen Camp, Point Reyes
Point Reyes is a typical, albeit beautiful, example of the California coast. Within Point Reyes National Seashore, campers have their choice of four campsites that grant jaw-dropping vistas, uniting sky and sea with mountains and pine-sprinkled meadows. But a fifth, secluded campground is nestled deep within the woods of Point Reyes National Seashore: Glen Camp. The campground is hike-in only, meaning it can only be accessed by hiking to it. Glen Camp and accompanying 4.6-mile moderate hike deters most weekend campers and visitors to the area; however, for those determined to make the trek, departing from the crowds at the shore will be a justifiable reward. The campground offers a combination of northern coastal shrubs, chaparral, and deciduous vegetation that effectively provides shelter from the frigid and gusty coastal winds that are experienced at any of the other four campgrounds. There are 12 camp sites, which rarely fill up, each containing a picnic table, grill, and food storage locker. As an added bonus, the National Park Service has graciously furnished the campground with a vault toilet, a sink, and access to potable water. Be sure to explore the unique ecosystem surrounding Glen Camp and bound within the peninsula of inland Point Reyes National Seashore.
Big Basin Redwoods Camp
This campground is probably not suitable for those seeking a primitive camping experience; however, it still accommodates an escape for campers in a naturally extraordinary redwood forest. What makes Big Basin Redwoods State Park so special historically and naturally is that it is California’s oldest state park, established 1902, and contains over 18,000 acres of old growth redwoods, along with mixed coniferous, chaparral, riparian, and marshland vegetation that is unique to the Santa Cruz Mountains. Fauna, too, abounds in this region. While Banana Slugs and myriad species of birds are commonly found in these mountains and attract many visitors to the region, they coexist among a large number of bears and mountain lions. Always secure your food when camping, and avoid hiking to remote areas alone. Most of the park is accessible via its 80-mile trail system that employs gripping views of canyons and beaches through valleys of ancient redwoods. Big Basin Redwoods State Park offers family campgrounds, group campgrounds, tent cabins, and a trail, or hike-in, campground. For those who want a break from tent camping, tent cabins at Big Basin Redwoods provide a raised platform and screen doors, as well as the amenities provided at the traditional campgrounds of the park: picnic table, fire pit, running water, drinking water, full plumbing toilets, and showers. The beauty of these particular tent cabins is that they provide a more comfortable camp experience without any luxuries beyond a structured shelter and eating area. Essentially, they give campers the option of ease, and are ideal for families with small children or visitors to the region who want to immerse themselves in the surrounding beauty without sacrificing too much comfort.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns Campground, Big Sur
Newcomers to Big Sur are often left contemplating the spectacles that nature can craft. It is absolutely one of the most beautiful coastal regions of California. Within Big Sur, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, not to be confused with nearby Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, carries a legacy of endowing visitors with views of an 80-foot waterfall dropping from vertical granite cliffs – above which sits a redwood forest - of the Santa Lucia Mountains right into the Pacific Ocean in a beautiful, sandy alcove. Words, however, can only do so much to depict the majesty of the park. The best way to realize it is by visiting the park and camping at the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Campground. It is considered an “environmental campsite” meaning that a fire pit and restroom are provided, but there is no parking at the campsite, though there is a parking area a half-mile away: pack lightly. Most important to mention of the campsites is that there are two. Only two campsites at this campground, consistently rated the best and most scenic in California, means that reservations must be made at least six months in advance.
Mono Lake Camping
Visitors to Mono Basin are treated to a summation of some of the best features of the Eastern Sierras. The drainage basin is a sprawling mitigation of the snow-laden mountains of Yosemite to the west and the arid Bodie Hills to the east, and is home to the geologically remarkable Mono-Inyo Craters and Mono Lake. The region’s history of volcanic activity has uniquely molded the landscape, presenting a vignette of the omnipotence of nature. The Lower Lee Vining Campground offers reeling views of the Eastern Sierras and easy access to Mono Lake, an oasis famous for its high salinity and tall tufa, limestone, formations. The 60 campsites sit on a beautiful, shaded parcel of river bed, with picnic tables, fire pits, and vault toilets.
Bridalveil Creek Campground, Yosemite
John Muir, California’s most celebrated pioneer and preservationist, once described Yosemite as “By far the grandest of all the special temples of nature I was ever permitted to enter.” His portrayal of the Yosemite Valley is not inaccurate. The valley is both special and grand, and upon first sight evokes a humbling sensation that is greatly amplified by the surrounding waterfalls and behemoth granite faces when standing on the valley floor. In the shade of Half Dome, standing parallel with El Capitan, and with the reverberating croon of landmark Yosemite Falls, it is difficult to fathom the creation of this sacred valley by the glacier that once filled it. Needless to say, Yosemite Valley is special and a definitive must-see for first time visitors of California. As one of the nation’s most visited National Parks, Yosemite offers many sleeping accommodations. From upscale The Ahwahnee to dispersed primitive camping and everything in between, Yosemite National Park does a great job of accommodate the druthers of all campers. Curry Village is the valley’s sort of town center; with a lodge, market, visitor center, ranger station, restaurants, shuttles, etc., it is no wonder that most visiting families flock to this epicenter. Try to avoid getting caught up in all of the amenities available at Curry Village and enjoy the many accessible Yosemite Valley features accessible by shuttle, or get out of the valley entirely to explore more of Yosemite National Park. Campgrounds within Yosemite Valley normally require advanced reservation and are bursting at the metaphorical seams. However, a short drive along the southeast extension of the main road, and with consideration to directional road signs, provides access to a superior, and far less bustling campground. The main advantage of Bridalveil Creek Campground is that it is situated halfway from the Yosemite Valley and Glacier Point, one of the key valley vista points by day, and notable for stargazing by night. Reservations are not permitted, and the campsites are generously large and beautiful. The campground is set within a dense coniferous growth that hugs a meadow split by Bridalveil Creek. Nearby Bridalveil Falls is worth the 0.1-mile walk-up vista, and a larger meadow, McGurk Meadows, is perfect for a relaxing stroll. The hike to the peak of Sentinel Dome, just a few miles up the road, treats hikers to unbeatable views of the valley and beyond from just above the tree line. Bridalveil Creek’s 110 first-come, first-serve campsites each contain a fire ring, picnic table, and food locker, and the campground provides restrooms and drinkable water. Bears are very active in Yosemite, especially when diverting from the more populated hubs, so be especially careful to securely lock up all food and toiletries to avoid an encounter.
Tuolumne Meadows Campground, Yosemite
When the crowds of Yosemite Valley become frustrating, head northeast to Tuolumne Meadows for a visual change of pace. Tuolumne Meadows is a section of the Tuolumne River dotted with meadows and lush, vast fields of grasses and wildflowers. Some of Yosemite National Park’s greatest hikes are located in the Tuolumne Meadows area. Because Tuolumne Meadows is 55 miles from the entrance to Yosemite Valley, it is probably not worth the commute. Instead, camping in Tuolumne Meadows Campground will grant instant access to the Meadows. The selling point of this campground is essentially its location and access to amenities such as groceries, an asset to backpackers that want to begin a leg of the famously challenging and scenic John Muir Trail from the northeast side of Yosemite National Park. The campground accommodates 304 campsites, with reservations available for half of them. Each site contains a picnic table, fire pit, food locker, nearby flush toilet, and potable water.
Gold Bluffs Beach Campground, Prairie Creek Redwoods SP
For fans of beach camping, the appeal of Gold Bluffs Beach campground is unparalleled. Set on the beach of pristine Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Gold Bluffs Beach is a consummation of California’s extravagant coast. Atop the Gold Bluffs (named for a discovery of gold among the sand in 1850), that seemingly protrude vertically from the sea, lies a beautiful redwood forest and lush, verdant Fern Canyon. Fern Canyon of Prairie Creek Redwoods takes visitors through its lush, precipitous walls of widely diverse ferns, and makes for a refreshing and inspiring day hike. In addition to Fern Canyon, most of the 70 miles of hiking and bike trails are easily accessible from the campground. Additionally, campers can take enjoyment in watching magnificent Roosevelt elk graze along the beach and in the campground amid the looming ocean mist. There are a total of 26 campsites that provide solar showers, restrooms, picnic tables, grills, and food storage lockers.
Pomo Canyon Environmental Campground, Sonoma Coast
Sonoma Coast State Park is unique to previously listed coastal destinations in that most of its vegetation and climate reflects that of coastal grasslands. Its rugged coastline of painterly rock formations and off-shore boulders make the park one of Northern California’s most scenic destinations. For additional scenic opportunities, the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean in Sonoma Coast State Park with a very wide and picturesque mouth. Pomo Canyon Campground is included in this list for facilitating access to multiple hikes with some of the most heart-stopping views in the entire California coast. The campground sits amid a second-growth redwood forest, but a brief, three-mile walk to Shell Beach, considered by many to be Sonoma Coast’s nicest beach, crossing over ridges with vistas of the Russian River Valley and surrounding grasslands will reaffirm that this is one of Northern California’s top 10 campgrounds. Pomo Canyon is not extremely well known by visitors from out of the general area because it is remote and not easy to locate, making its campground minimally inhabited. Pomo Canyon Campground contains 20 campsites with fire rings, and picnic tables. Potable water is available at neighboring campsites.
** Please note that Pomo Canyon Campground is currently and indefinitely closed due to lack of funds for maintenance.