16 Great Places to Go Camping in Southern California and Baja

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16 Great Places to Go Camping in Southern California and Baja

San Onofre Bluffs Campground

You can hear the waves crashing from your tent as you sleep right next to the ocean at this state beach campground north of Camp Pendleton. There are plenty of family-friendly activities, like nature programs and geocaching, and easy beach access down a short and steep path. It’s also close to Trestles, a world-class surfing site.

Distance from downtown San Diego: 60 miles

Fees: $40 a night

Best campsites: Sites 1 to 23 or 105 to 112, which have ocean views

How early to book: Campsites can be booked up to six months in advance on reservecalifornia.com. Many fill up immediately for the summer.

South Carlsbad State Beach Campground

Located right off the highway, this campground has a long road down the middle that’s great for kids to bike and play on, and the beach is just a short walk down a stairway. Take the family for swimming, surfing, skin diving, and fishing. The campsites have picnic tables and fire pits, and the bathrooms are equipped with showers. The on-site camp store has provisions like wood and ice, and Carlsbad is just a few miles away if you forget something or want a break from camp food. It’s a low-key beach getaway without having to travel too far.

Distance from downtown San Diego: 30 miles

Fees: $50 a night

Best campsites: Sites 36 to 53 and 183 to 205 are right on the ocean and in the center of the campground, away from the entrance and parking areas.

How early to book: Campsites can be booked up to six months in advance on reservecalifornia.com. Many fill up immediately for the summer.


Redemption Through Dirt and Surf

San Diego Magazine Food Critic Troy Johnson considers beach camping his annual "reset"


16 Great Places to Go Camping in Southern California and Baja

There’s something redeeming about dirt. That’s what my friends and I camp in every year at Carlsbad State Beach—a parcel of finely ground earth big enough for a couple cars, a fire pit surrounded by our folding chairs, a shade tent over a picnic table, our excessively large tents, and multiple surfboards.

"Dirt camping" is not necessarily brochure-ready material. But very few other parcels of dirt are perched on a sandstone cliff above a relatively secluded stretch of Pacific Ocean with some of the area’s best waves. When we feel too dusty, our pores full of silt, we grab a board, climb down the stairs, and surf our brains out. We return to the campsite, cue up our playlist on portable speakers, place the beach chairs atop the folding table for optimal views, open some craft beers, and drink and talk and laugh and watch the surf below. It’s a bare-chested life. When sunset hits, the entire campsite gathers at the edge to watch another day burn away into the wine-dark sea.

The road that splits the campgrounds into east and west (creating an imperative to reserve a site on the west side, over the ocean) is full of gangs of kids on their bikes, scooters, tricycles, skateboards. Someone plays an acoustic guitar. It’s an annual ritual for surf culture families, and their campsites get more elaborate with each coming year. Some have AstroTurf and cornhole. Many have flags bearing their family crests.

Having grown older in San Diego I don’t find as much time to surf as I’d like. At the end of the week in Carlsbad, I am completely drained, having surfed multiple times every day like I did when I was 15 years old and free of mortgage or worry. My body is sore. Everything I own is dirty. And I’m renewed. Once home, a shower and a clean bed has never felt so spiritual. —Troy Johnson

San Elijo State Beach

Get ready for your little ones to make friends at this beach campground, the most popular in the area. It’s packed with kids playing and riding bikes. Take the wooden staircase down to the beach for fishing, sandcastle-making, swimming, and surfing. Plus, Seaside Market is right across the street. Cardiff Crack (tri-tip) anyone?

Distance from downtown San Diego: 27 miles

Fees: $35 a night

Best campsites: Sites 145 to 163, on the north side next to the shore

How early to book: Up to six months in advance on reservecalifornia.com

Silver Strand State Beach

Leave your tents at home. This campground allows only RVs, motorhomes, and trailers. If you have the right equipment, it’s a cheap way to get an oceanfront room for the night or the weekend with the beach just steps away. Plus, you can put the Bayshore Bikeway to use for walks, bike rides, or runs, and venture into Coronado for shopping, dining, or a ferry ride.

Distance from downtown San Diego: 11 miles

Fees: $50 a night

Best campsites: Sites 101 to 137 are on the beach.

How early to book: Up to six months in advance on reservecalifornia.com



Bayshore Bikeway

You can follow this bike path from the campground into Coronado to the north or the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge to the south. Start at Silver Strand State Beach on Highway 75 and walk, run, or ride up to 24 miles if you want to do a full loop, which includes a ferry ride back to Coronado. It’s flat and smooth, great for families and strollers.


16 Great Places to Go Camping in Southern California and Baja

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Sleep 5,000 feet above sea level in an oak forest with green meadows and rushing creeks in this mountain park 15 miles northeast of Alpine. While the Green Valley Falls campground is closed through August, the Paso Picacho Campground, with fire rings, flush toilets, and pay showers, is currently open. There are several good options for hiking that leave right from the campground, and nearby Lake Cuyamaca has fishing and boating. If you don’t have a tent, you can reserve one of the park’s cabins. The 12' x 12' cabins have full-size bunk beds, a wood stove, picnic table, barbecue, and fire ring.

Distance from downtown San Diego: 50 miles

Fees: $30 a night

Best campsites: Sites 6 and 7 sit farther off by themselves, making for a more quiet camp.

How early to book: Reservations are recommended for weekends. You can book up to seven months in advance on reservecalifornia.com.



Cuyamaca Peak

Start at the Paso Picacho Campground on Highway 79 and follow the trail 7 miles to the summit. It’s the second-highest point in San Diego County and a tough climb, but views from the top on a clear day are spectacular. Plus, if you’re staying in the campground, you can get an early start and come home to a real shower and dinner around the campfire.

16 Great Places to Go Camping in Southern California and Baja

The Ranch at Bandy Canyon

If you need your camping with a swimming pool, lodge, petting zoo, horseback-riding lessons, and individually decorated cabins, check out this 144-acre ranch in San Pasqual Valley. Each cabin has a rustic feel and a different arrangement, like Eagle Cabin’s loft, Bluebird Cabin’s wraparound porch, or Firehouse Cabin’s brick and lantern decorations.

Distance from downtown San Diego: 32 miles

Fees: Starting at $350 a night

Best cabins: Dove Cabin is the biggest on site, sleeping eight if needed—plus, it has a hot tub. If you’re seeking some solitude, Bluebird Cabin is the most isolated on the property.

How early to book: Summer weekends are mostly booked for weddings, but weekdays are typically available. Reserve through bandycanyon.com.

16 Great Places to Go Camping in Southern California and Baja

Idyllwild Park

The campground at Idyllwild Park is within walking distance of the quaint mountain town, so you can camp by night and check out its shops and restaurants by day. The town is touristy, but not as crowded as Julian on a weekend. Mile High Cafe is a hot spot for carbo-loading before hitting all the good hiking trails nearby, including the challenging Mount San Jacinto or the easier Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail. If you’re coming from San Diego, remember to wait a day or two before trying these high-altitude hikes or you might find yourself more frequently out of breath.

Distance from downtown San Diego: 110 miles

Fees: $25 a night, plus an $8 fee

Best campsites: Sites 43 and 44 have lots of room and are far away from the rest of the campground.

How early to book: Reservations are accepted April through October, and while there are still weekend sites available, it’s best to book through rivcoparks.org early.

Mount Laguna

There are multiple trails you can follow to backpack through the Mount Laguna area. We recommend following Noble Canyon, Pine Mountain, Cutca, or Wildhorse—or create a route that combines a few. You can camp for up to 14 days out of every 30, and open campfires aren’t allowed outside of designated campgrounds. But camping alongside the trails gives you the chance to experience the open mountains in peace.

Distance from downtown San Diego: 54 miles

Fees: $5 for an adventure pass for 24 hours, or $30 for a year

Best campsites: No official sites. Pitch your tent and enjoy!

How early to book: N/A


16 Great Places to Go Camping in Southern California and Baja

Indian Cove Campground

Set up camp among Joshua Tree National Park’s signature otherworldly boulders and rock formations. This campground has the basics—fire pits, picnic tables, and outhouses, but no water or camp store. Cell phone reception is spotty or nonexistent, so plan ahead. If you’re willing to rough it, it’s worth it. You can find a secluded spot hidden among the red rocks, explore Joshua Tree during the day, and take in the incredible celestial views at night.

Distance from downtown San Diego: 170 miles

Fees: $50 a night

Best campsites: Sites 4, 6, 7, 20, and 47 are cradled by giant rock formations and still have plenty of room.

How early to book: Book up to six months in advance on recreation.gov. Sites are available October through May and fill up quickly.



Lost Horse Mine

For this Joshua Tree trek, start at the trailhead on Lost Horse Road and follow the 7-mile loop that leads to an old relic from the gold rush. The moderate trail also gives you some pretty views of the desert landscape. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep, creosote bushes that can live for thousands of years, and the famous Joshua trees that inspired Dr. Seuss.

16 Great Places to Go Camping in Southern California and Baja

Lazy Sky Boutique Retreat

This stylish, minimalist Yucca Valley site consists of five tepees and canvas tents, total. The latter come with mattresses and bed frames, fresh sheets, and towels. All accommodations share a bathroom with two toilets and an outdoor shower, as well as a full kitchen with dishes and a French press, plus pots and pans, and a barbecue grill and patio dining area. Catch live music at Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown, or take in a "sound bath" at the nearby Integratron (below)—said to be a time machine designed in part by Venusian telepaths. 

Distance from downtown San Diego: 150 miles

Fees: $135 a night for a tepee

Best campsite to book: Try either the Golden Moon or Rising Sun tepees for a unique experience.

How early to book: Reserve three months in advance via Airbnb.

16 Great Places to Go Camping in Southern California and Baja

Vallecito County Park

Take the family to explore Julian’s historic Butterfield Stage Station, a reconstruction of an old stagecoach stop. It’s been turned into a tourist attraction and said to be haunted, so if you believe in ghosts and want to cozy up to them, pick a nearby campsite. There’s also a small graveyard, a playground, and a horseshoe court nearby, plenty of trees for shade, and bathrooms with showers.

Distance from downtown San Diego: 90 miles

Fees: $22 a night, plus $5 fee

Best campsites: Sites 1 to 6 are next to the station. Sites 23 to 44 are a little bigger and more spread out.

How early to book: Reserve online at reservations.sdparks.org or by phone at 877-565-3600. There’s usually plenty of space in the spring and fall.

16 Great Places to Go Camping in Southern California and Baja

Bow Willow Campground

With just 16 campsites, this is a more secluded getaway within the southern section of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It makes things easy with picnic tables and ramadas, but be aware that there’s no running water. The main highlight is the epic stargazing, but daytime views of the open landscape and mountains are equally impressive. Park or pitch a tent right up against the rocky hillside to soak up gorgeous views. Spring brings wildflower season, but avoid a trip in the summer, when it’s very hot.

Distance from downtown San Diego: 105 miles

Fees: $15 a night

Best campsites: Any that sit right up against a hillside. No reservations accepted.


Open Air and the Open Road

San Diego Magazine Digital Editor Sanna Boman Coates—@cylinderella on Instagram—turns her camping trips into a two-wheel adventure


16 Great Places to Go Camping in Southern California and Baja

Photo: Staci Wilt

One of my favorite things to do in the summer is to go motorcycle camping. Few things beat the feeling of heading up into the mountains or out to the desert for a weekend, bringing only what you can carry on the back of a Harley. It’s the opposite of glamping, but that’s part of what makes it fun.

Packing up a motorcycle with everything you need is an art form in itself. I have a tent made for kids—I have to sleep diagonally to fit—but it packs up tiny, so I can just throw it in a duffel bag with a change of clothes and strap it to the back of my bike.

Sometimes we’ll cheat and bring a chase driver—usually a friend with a truck who carries all the extra stuff that won’t fit on the bikes: coolers, chairs, hammocks, beer, blankets, food.

I have a group of friends who I regularly motorcycle camp with. We’ll head to Idyllwild or Joshua Tree or Mexico—anywhere within a few scenic hours of San Diego. The ride there is usually the main event, and it’s what makes motorcycle camping different from car camping. Getting to end a long day of riding twisty mountain roads around a campfire with your best friends is just an added bonus.—Sanna Boman Coates


Las Cañadas

There’s no shortage of things to do at this campground and park south of Ensenada. There are activities for kids, including zip lines and climbing structures, hanging bridges to climb across, a water park with waterslides and play structures, horseback riding, mountain biking, and ATV rentals. You can choose to stay in tents or cabins, and there’s a store for supplies on-site.

Distance from downtown San Diego: 98 miles

Fees: About $23 a night

Best campsites: Sites aren’t numbered. Spots near the kids’ water park are popular with families, while the lakeside area is more relaxed and less crowded.

How early to book: Plenty of campsites are available, so no need to make reservations.

16 Great Places to Go Camping in Southern California and Baja


This romantic retreat is made up of 19 tented cabanas built into the surrounding vineyards in Ensenada. Each has a king or queen bed on a frame, air conditioning, a minibar, chimney, and a patio on a raised platform for better views. You can try mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking, or zip lining. A restaurant on-site has breakfast bowls and Mexican fare like mollettes, plus wine and cheese tastings. It’s near the beach as well, so you can rent a sailboat or go scuba diving, fishing, or whale watching.

Distance from downtown San Diego: 73 miles

Fees: About $210 a night (two-night minimum on weekends)

Best campsites: You don’t get to choose when making a reservation.

How early to book: Reserve by email or by phone. It’s best to book early for weekend stays. Find more info at cabanascuatrocuatros.com.mx.



El Salto Canyon & Waterfall

Head 9 miles north of CuatroCuatros to Highway 1 at km 76 and follow the easy, one-mile out-and-back path to the waterfall. You can extend the hike by crossing the creek to explore further. The canyon and waterfall are more than 100 feet high with spectacular views from below.

Guadalupe Canyon Oasis Hot Springs and Nature Reserve

How does your own private hot spring sound? At this campground nestled in the mountains of Baja, every campsite has its own attached hot springs pool with temperatures up to 125 degrees. Each site also has a palapa, grill, and place to set up tents; and the campground has flush toilets, showers, and a camp store. Some sites accommodate groups as big as 14 with four cars, making them perfect for a getaway with friends. While staying at the campground, you can hike to see caves with ancient petroglyphs, use the giant mud bath, or do some rock climbing. There are also cool pools for swimming and rock jumping. The road to the campground is long and bumpy, but that’s the price you pay for a hot spring at the finish line.

Distance from downtown San Diego: 140 miles

Fees: Starting at $40 a night, larger sites are $125 on weekends

Best campsites: For a big group, go for El Indio or La Playita, which can house up to 14. For a romantic trip, El Mirador is more secluded and has beautiful views.

How early to book: You can reserve a week in advance at guadalupecanyonoasis.com, but the campground recommends doing so much earlier.

Ruben’s Camp and Kiki’s RV, Camping and Motel

These two sites are right next to each other on the Sea of Cortez in San Felipe, Baja, and provide a range of accommodation choices. Kiki’s has both motel rooms and RV sites, while Ruben’s Camp has car camping sites, each with its own palapa. The location can’t be beat: Since San Felipe is on the east coast of Baja, you can see the sun rise over the ocean from your tent.

Distance from downtown San Diego: 245 miles

Fees: About $16 a night for Ruben’s, $60 for Kiki’s

Best campsites: Look for spots at the very east end of the camp, facing the ocean.

How early to book: Plenty of campsites are available—check kiki.com.mx—so no need to make reservations.


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