Best Tent-Only Campgrounds on the California Coast

I just love the golden state and with summer coming quick, I’m itching to get out there and do some coastal camping in California. The sun, the salty air. Something about it just makes you feel so good.

The only thing that’s tough about the California coast is it can be hard to get off the beaten path without going far into the backcountry. And well…that’s not always convenient. Sometimes you just want to hop in your car, drive and hour, and pitch a tent, and not have to worry about preparation. But that doesn’t mean that you want to be camping in a paved parking lot full of RVs either.

If you are looking to soak in some of that California soul, here’s the best places to go camping in California where there are no cars allowed.

Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park

Getting to the Channel Islands requires some effort, but with the chance to encounter dolphin pods, mola molas, and whales in the Santa Barbara Channel, the one hour Island Packers boat ride  to Santa Cruz Island is all part of the fun.  While camping is allowed year round on all 5 of the islands in Channel Islands National Park, the Scorpion Ranch campground at Santa Cruz is the most accessible for a weekend jaunt and also has the most developed facilities. Once the ferry lands on the island, it is a half mile walk from the pier to the large campground, which sits in a grove of trees surrounded by grasslands and coastal sage scrub. Once you get settled, there are 6 different trails that leave from the campground ranging from a quick 1/2 mile stroll to a more strenuous 8 mile hike that leads to expansive coastal vistas. What makes camping on Santa Cruz Island really unique, however, are the opportunities to get out on the water. Sea kayaking here is world-class with sea caves, rocky coastline, and kelp forests, and for an extra fee, Island Packers rents and transports kayaks out to the island. And don’t forget your snorkel and thick wet suit. Sightings of sea lions whizzing around the kelp forest are almost guaranteed. Reservations are required and sites get booked up months in advance, so plan ahead.

Planning a trip? Check out our post about the Top Things to Do on Santa Cruz Island!
Best walk up campsites in California: Camping at Santa Cruz Island(Photo:Dhilung Kirat)

Angel Island State Park Campground

With ferries departing from all over the San Francisco Bay area, Angel Island State Park in the middle of the Bay offers a quick and quiet escape from the commotion of the city. Coastal campsites are spread out all over the island, with views of the SF Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, the famous cityscape, and the rolling Marin Headlands. All sites have potable water and a pit toilet. To explore the island, hit the trail to the top of Mt. Livermore, the island’s tallest point, or rent a bike from the Angel Island Company and cruise around the island’s permitter. When that stomach starts to growl, head to the Angel Island Cantina for lunch and wash down some super fresh Hog Island Oysters with a locally brewed Lagunitas IPA. Reserve your campsite here.

Best walkup campsites in California(Photo: Eugene Kim)

Wildcat Camp

Secluded in a grassy seaside meadow along Point Reyes National Seashore, a camping weekend at Wildcat Camp is a perfect place for beginner backpackers to get their feet wet. From the parking lot, the campground is a 5.5 moderate mile hike from the Palomarine trailhead in Bolinas. Along the way, the trail is packed with unobstructed views of the Pacific, as long as fog hasn’t rolled in. Besides the views and beach access from Wildcat, the main attraction is Alamere Falls, a waterfall that crashes down from the bluff onto the beach and is the only major waterfall in Point Reyes. Reservations are highly recommended, especially for the warmer months, as sites do book up in advance. Sites 6 and 7, while small, are considered the best due their isolated location and views from high up on the bluff. All sites are equipped with a grill and picnic table, meaning campers don’t have to skimp on meals during overnight trips.

Best walk up campsites in California: Wildcat Campground at Point Reyes(Photo:Miguel Vieira)
Best walk up campsites in California: Wildcat Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore(Photo:Sean Voisen)

Andrew Molera State Park, Big Sur

While most of the places to go camping in California’s Big Sur get snatched up months in advance, the 1/2 mile walk to the 24 first-come, first-served campsites at Andrew Molera State Park is enough deter some campers. This means if you arrive early enough in the day, you might just get lucky and snag a site right along the Big Sur River which runs right through the middle of the Park. The campground is an open meadow, so sites don’t afford a ton of privacy, but location more than makes up for that. Twenty miles south of Carmel, Andrew Molera has some of the best hiking trails in Big Sur, including an 8.8 mile loop along a coastal bluff with spectacular views that also provides access to a remote beach cove. If the loop is too ambitious, the campground itself is just a short walk down the river to Molera Beach, a two-mile long strip of quintessential central coast sand.

**Update: Part of the Big Sur road was washed out this summer. Make sure to check current park status before you head out to Andrew Molera.
Best walk up campsites in California: Andrew Molera State Park(Photo: Kelly the Deluded)

Castle Rock State Park

Nestled high up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Castle Rock State Park has two campgrounds located deep in the redwoods. The first is the Castle Rock Trail Camp which is a 2.6 mile hike from the main entrance parking lot. The 20 first-come, first served sites are each equipped with a fire ring and a table. The campground also has vault toilets, safe drinking water, and firewood available for purchase. Those looking for a bit more seclusion can venture further to the primitive Water Gap Trail Camp, where there are only 6 sites but no water. From either of these sites, campers have easy access to the Skyline to Sea Trail where they can spend the day hiking through old growth forests, with some wide open views of the Saratoga Gap. And while not directly on the coast, you’ll still get that ocean breeze, and with the beach less than thirty miles away, you can easily make a side trip on your way home.

Best walk up campsites in California: Camping at Castle Rock State Park(Photo:Sathish J)
Where would you like to tent-camp in California? Share your plans in the comments!

Written by Kristen Bor

Hey there! My name is Kristen, and this is my outdoor blog. I discovered the power of the outdoors in my 20s, at the time I needed it most. Now 15 years later, prioritizing that critical connection with nature continues to improve my life. My goal at Bearfoot Theory is to empower you with the tools and advice you need to responsibly get outside.

20 comments on “Best Tent-Only Campgrounds on the California Coast

  1. Angel Island is great for even just a day hike, but it gets crowded during the day. I would love to camp there for a night and get to explore the Island in the evening and early morning. I haven’t camped at Castle Rock, but been past those campgrounds on a hike and everything about Castle Rock is just stunning. If you continue on the Skyline to the Sea trail, it connects to Big Basin State Park, and there is a backpackers campsite in Big Basin just a couple miles from the ocean!

    So far my favorite California site has been the Bicentennial Campground in the Marin Headlands. It’s free, quiet (only 3 campsites available), and has one of the best views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge right through the trees!

    1. Camping on Angel Island was really fun. We did 2 nights. There are a ton of deer and raccoon’s on the island that come out at night. Makes it interesting. During the day, you can rent a bike and ride it around the island. There are a lot of old buildings to see – sometimes they can be a little creepy at night but it made it fun.

      The main difficult thing was carrying all the gear and food/drinks to the campsites though. Ours was over a mile hike.

  2. This list should be expanded to include Kirk Creek Campground in Big Sur! By far my favorite for that region!

  3. I grew up camping at Andrew Molera and loved it
    . Looking forward to taking my kids back next year! Thank you for helping me find it, because I had trouble remembering the name

  4. I never tried hiking and camping before, but these images are telling me to try this new adventure. I’ll talk it through with my partner and hopefully be on track this summer for the first time.

  5. Hi,

    These sure look like excellent spots but my favourite one is Wildcat camp, i just love the greenery and the view.

    Also tent only camp are better in the sense that they do not have all the noise and disturbance of a regular camp ground or a trailer ground.

  6. I went to Point Reyes last year and stayed at Sky Camp, its a 3.2 mile hike up and it has the best views.

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