Camping in Central California: What to Do and Why It's Worth It

Updated July 19, 2021
Camping in Central California

Central California offers campers and outdoors enthusiasts unparalleled variety. From the Central Coast to the western drainages of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Central California has ample opportunities for both paid camping and no-fee dispersed camping.

Pinecrest Campground, Tuolumne County

Located near Pinecrest Lake in Stanislaus National Forest, this large campground features 200 sites and several amenities, including a day-use beach along the lakefront, as well as cabins, a shopping area, and a marina. Swimming, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, and more are easily accessible from camp. No recreational vehicle (RV) hookups are available.

Sunset Over Pinecrest Lake

Roads are paved, and campsites with metal fire rings and picnic tables sit nestled among pine trees. Facilities include improved restrooms with flush toilets and sinks. Drinking water is available. You can reserve both tent and trailer campsites.

Why It's Great

Pinecrest Campground is exceptional for its variety of activities and ease of access. Located 30 miles east of the city of Sonora, Calif., you don't have to travel far into the Sierras to reach the campground.

How Busy Is It?

Pinecrest experiences heavy use during its peak season from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Anticipate high traffic volume and packed campsites during summer months.

Availability, Season Dates, and Fees

Reservations are required. Plan at least 6 months in advance. The campground is open from early May to early October, depending on weather conditions. Tent-only sites cost $36 per night.

San Simeon Creek and Washburn Campgrounds, San Luis Obispo County

Hearst San Simeon State Park has two campgrounds and offers some of the best camping in California. San Simeon Creek features 115 sites and is a developed campground with flush toilets, coin-operated showers, and a dump station. It is closer to Highway 1 but also has more trees and foliage than Washburn. The beach is a short walk from camp. No RV hookups are available.

San Simeon creek beach, sunset

Washburn is considered a primitive campground. A raised boardwalk provides a quick route to the beach. Washburn is located on a plateau with fantastic views of the Pacific Ocean and Santa Lucia mountains. Facilities include fire rings, picnic tables, chemical flush toilets, and access to the dump station and water fill-up.

Why It's Great

Costal tide pools, nature reserves, and a large elephant seal colony living nearby give you a lot of entertainment options. Local wineries are a short drive from camp, and Hearst Castle is a few miles north off Highway 1. The vibe is laid back, there's a ton to do, and the facilities are top-notch.

How Busy Is It?

The State Park is heavily trafficked, but the campgrounds are reasonably secluded.

Availability, Season Dates, and Fees

Reservations are required. Plan at least 6 months in advance. Campgrounds are open year round. San Simeon Creek Campground tent-only sites cost $35 per night. Washburn Campground tent-only sites cost $20 per night.

Prewitt Ridge Campground, Monterey County

This dispersed campsite is a hidden gem nestled in the hills of the Los Padres National Forest near the Big Sur coast. The drive is more challenging than other campgrounds on this list, and no facilities are available. Plan to bring your own water, remove your litter, and properly dispose of all human waste.

Sunrise at Prewitt Ridge

Located off of Highway 1, the drive to Prewitt ridge takes you up Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, which is steep with winding switchbacks, and Coast Ridge Trail, a dirt road that is passable in a two-wheel drive vehicle when conditions are dry. Prewitt Ridge camping is about as primitive as it gets, but the breathtaking sights reward adventurers who are willing to brave the trek.

Why It's Great

Incredible views, hiking opportunities, and rustic solitude greet anyone willing to deal with the moderately challenging road conditions. This is camping in the rough, but your compensation is some of the most spectacular scenery in Big Sur.

How Busy Is It?

Because Prewitt Ridge is more difficult to reach and facilities are nonexistent, it is typically possible to find campsites. Roads may be closed. Call the Monterey Ranger District at 831-242-0619 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., PDT, Monday through Friday, for more information.

Availability, Season Dates, and Fees

Sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Prewitt Ridge is usually open year-round, though wet weather, fire restrictions, and road closures may affect access. Camping is free.

Rivernook Campground, Kern County

Adjacent to the Kern River just north of Kernville, this privately owned campground offers excellent facilities, RV hookups, Wi-Fi coverage, a general store, and beautiful scenery. Campsites are well-shaded, and many abut a small creek that runs through the campground.

Rivernook Campground, Kern County

Why It's Great

Rivernook offers plenty of opportunities for recreation, including hiking, river access, rafting adventures, and the amenities of Kernville within walking distance. Be aware that the Kern River can become dangerous, depending on water levels and weather conditions.

How Busy Is It?

Open for all seasons, Rivernook Campground requires a reservation. Weather may affect access. The Kern River is a popular destination during the summer months.

Availability, Season Dates, and Fees

The campsite is privately owned. Reservations are required. Book well in advance of travel. Sites are open year-round. Tent-only sites cost $45 per night, and partial and full hookup sites run from $60 to $75 per night.

Dinkey Creek Campground, Fresno County

Huddled amid a Ponderosa and cedar pine forest along Dinkey Creek in the Sierra National Forest, this campground is a favorite high-country getaway. There are 123 single family campsites with fire pits. Drinking water is available, and the campground has vault and flush toilets. No RV hookups are available, though large sites can accommodate trailers.

Dinkey Creek snow melting

Recreational opportunities include hiking, horseback riding, picnicking, and swimming in Slicks Pool and Honeymoon Pool within the creek. Shaver lake is located 12 miles away and has access to boating, fishing, and water sports. A trip to McKinley Grove, located 6 miles away, showcases giant redwood groves.

Why It's Great

Dinkey Creek Campground is popular for its scenic views and easily accessible hiking. Swimming and playing in the creek is mellow, and kids find opportunities to explore and discover nature. Staying at Dinkey Creek leaves you on the doorstep of the Sierras, with many options open if you are willing to explore.

How Busy Is It?

Dinkey Creek is very busy in-season. It is a popular destination during the summer months.

Availability, Season Dates, and Fees

Reservations are required. Plan at least 6 months in advance. Dinkey Creek Campground is open from Memorial Day through the end of September, depending on weather conditions. A single tent-only site costs $34 per night, and double sites cost $68 per night.

Oceano Campground and Dispersed Camping, San Luis Obispo County

Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is an off-road paradise. The campground offers 24 sites, but dispersed camping is possible with a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Established sites feature full hookups. Coin-operated showers and restroom facilities with flush toilets are available.

Oceano Sand Dunes of the central coast of California

It is possible to camp directly adjacent to the beach and in the open dunes area. Dispersed campsites are primitive, and you must bring your own water and dispose of all trash and human waste.

Why It's Great

If you love off-road adventuring, Oceano Dunes is a playground. However, the California Coastal Commission has banned off-highway vehicle (OHV) access starting in 2024. This may prove beneficial for campers, however.

Nearby, you can access Oceano Memorial Park, and fantastic beaches are a short walk from camp. A private lagoon offers fishing, and a trip to Pismo Beach requires only a short drive north along Highway 1. Several wineries are within driving distance.

How Busy Is It?

Though Oceano Dunes is usually open year-round, it can be very busy when OHV traffic is high.

Availability, Season Dates, and Fees

Reservations are required for the campground and dispersed camping. Plan at least 6 months in advance. Camping is open year round. Tent-only sites in the campground cost $35 per night, and dispersed camping requires a $10 fee per night.

KCL and Selby Campgrounds, and Dispersed Camping on Carrizo Plain, San Luis Obispo County

The Carrizo Plain National Monument offers a unique opportunity for outdoor recreation that differs substantially from California's beach and forest camping. The National Monument is California's largest remaining native grassland habitat and includes more than 246,000 acres of space. Administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Carrizo Plain has two established campgrounds and dispersed camping opportunities.

Carrizo Plain National Monument in Spring

The KCL Campground consists of 12 sites, and Selby Campground has 13 campsites. Conditions are primitive and established campgrounds offer few amenities. Sites include fire pits and a shared vault toilet. Plan to provide your own water and pack out all trash. Dispersed camping is available in the foothills, but no camping is allowed on the valley floor.

Why It's Great

This massive area is home to one of California's premiere wildflower bloom events, usually running from March through late April. Depending on weather conditions, late-blooming flowers may be viewable into May or even early June.

Wildlife is also abundant, and species include pronghorn antelope, burrowing owls, wild boar, American badgers, red foxes, and much more. Carrizo Plain is tranquil, with silence predominating on the open grassland. Ancient Native American art is viewable at the Painted Rock sandstone formation.

How Busy Is It?

During wildflower season, expect campsites to fill up fast. During the rainy season from November to April, roads may not be passable. Call the Visitor Center at 805-475-2035 for more information.

Availability, Season Dates, and Fees

Campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Camping is open year-round, though access may be limited or prohibited depending on weather and fire conditions. Use of campsites and dispersed camping is free.

Cachuma Lake Campground, Santa Barbara County

Situated 25 miles north of Santa Barbara in Los Padres National Forest, Lake Cachuma is a reservoir with limited access for water craft. Only human-powered "simple" craft are allowed on the lake, and swimming is prohibited. However, the lake is well stocked with fish, and boat rentals are available.

Lake Cachuma, Santa Barbara County

More than 400 sites are available, including both tent-only sites and spaces with RV hookups. Flush toilets and hot showers are centrally located. A small general store with a gas station sits near the entrance, and a swimming pool is open during daylight hours. The adjacent Cachuma Lake Recreation Area features an 18-hole disc golf course, playgrounds, and a marina.

Why It's Great

The campground is relaxed with an abundance of wildlife close by, including mule deer, California quail, turkey, and wild boar. Santa Barbara is a 30-minute drive south along Highway 154. Nearby, the city of Solvang and world-class wineries await. Just outside of camp, the Tequepis Trailhead offers a challenging 8.4-mile round-trip hike to Tequepis Peak. Lake and ocean views reward those who brave the ascent.

How Busy Is It?

Although Cachuma Lake can be very busy, it is typically possible to find accommodations with adequate planning because the campground is so large.

Availability, Season Dates, and Fees

Reservations are required. Plan at least 6 months in advance. the campground is open year round. Tent-only sites cost $25 per night, and sites with hookups run from $40 to $50 per night.

Leave No Trace

No matter where you camp, clean up after yourself and leave your site better than when you found it. Pack out and dispose of all trash. Secure food correctly. If you are camping at a dispersed site, you must bury all human waste, or collect it for removal and disposal.

Booking a Spot

All state-operated campsites now require booking through the Reserve California system. Check availability and book as soon as possible. Reservation dates become available 6 months in advance.

Unique Beauty

California's geographic diversity is unrivaled. You can start your day on a ski slope amidst an alpine forest, travel through deserts and wetlands, and end your day cozied up next to a campfire on the beach.

Somewhere within Central California's vast and varied landscape, you will find a spot to fulfill all of your outdoor adventuring dreams. Camping in Central California is accessible, majestic, and convenient.

Camp California

The natural treasures of the Golden State are abundant and within reach. Many other fee-based campgrounds are open throughout the year, as are countless secluded no-fee campsites on public land. With so much BLM and national forest land spread across the state, you can discover private spots and solo sites hidden within breathtaking landscapes. All you have to do is head outside, explore, and savor your secret, secluded campsite!

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Camping in Central California: What to Do and Why It's Worth It