Best California State Parks to Camp In

With sea breezes, dramatic waterfalls, and prominent mountain peaks, state parks in California offer tons of opportunities to hike, camp, fish, scuba dive, study wildlife, bike, or even gaze at the stunning displays of nature. Whether for weekend adventures or extended California road trips, California state parks provide a great contrast to the busy cities that surround them.

  • Emerald Bay State Park. Although Emerald Bay was declared a National Natural Landmark in 1969, California State Parks included the surrounding water of the bay as part of the park in 1994. Emerald Bay of Lake Tahoe attracts tons of hikers, bikers, and campers as it offers some of the most breathtaking views of the water and surrounding landscapes. There are tons of trails and paths to explore all over the park with each trail truly providing a unique perspective of the park. Emerald Bay State Park is without question one of the best state parks to camp in because of the diverse selection of outdoor activities. You can birdwatch, fish, paddle board, boat, lounge on the beach, swim, etc. all in one general location. Just be aware that parking can be pretty competitive. Be prepared for a longer walk if you are using free parking and get there early to make sure there is room for your vehicle. 
  • Patrick’s Point State Park. Located in the famed Redwood Forest, Patrick’s Point State Park balances life between two very different ecosystems with its impressive California Coastline and rich forest. Famous for its large red alders and whale watching opportunities, there are tons of activities available for patrons and campers. You can explore tide pools, hike through lush shrubs and trees, bike some trails, fish along the coast line, watch for sea lions or whales, have a picnic, or frolic in the wild flower meadows. Visitors have noted that the campgrounds are clean, well kept, and offer a fair amount of privacy and distance between campsites. The state park website recommends that campsites are reserved 6 months in advance. It is also important to know that swimming is not advised as the ocean water around Patrick’s Point can be dangerous and unpredictable. 
  • Crystal Cove State Park. This is for all those water loving humans, aquatic athletes, and beach bums. With 3.2 miles of beach, it truly is a paradise for those in love with the ocean. You’ll often find lots of surfers, scuba divers, swimmers, hikers, and bikers exploring the ocean and surrounding woodlands. There are 58 campsites here with 28 of those being RV/trailer sites. For those without, restrooms and showers are available. There are also 32 hike-in campsites spread over three campgrounds; just remember to get a permit beforehand. 
  • Limekiln State Park. Although there might be less variety among the outdoor activities at Limekiln state park, it still provides a pretty outstanding and classic woodland experience. Towering redwoods and staggeringly beautiful views of the Big Sur coast will give you an iconic California State Park experience that's just 56 miles south of Carmel. Limekiln is ideal for the casual outdoors man or woman looking for beautiful scenery and some fresh air. There are lots of short hikes with great views or destinations like waterfalls and coastlines. Although the campsite amenities are a little more plain and rough around the edges, it doesn’t seem to distract from the tranquility and serene environment. Like many of the other parks, be sure to reserve ahead of time. 
  • Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This state park is named after Julia Pfeiffer Burns, a well respected pioneer woman in the Big Sur country.  Big Sur is most known for its scenic coastline and fantasy-like coves, but few coves are as impressive or easily accessible as the one found at Julia Pfeiffer Burns. When visiting the park’s website, you will see a big, red warning urging visitors to follow the fenced areas and boundaries. There is no beach or ocean access at McWay Falls or Saddle Rock. Although you may not be able to get as close as you want, there are trails that get you the best view of the famous water features and landscape.
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