Northern California is one of the best places in the state to camp, from the windswept coastline to the tranquil sequoia forests of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. From iconic parks like Yosemite and Sequoia and Kings Canyon to less-visited national forests like Shasta-Trinity, the options are endless. Here is the best camping in Northern California that should be on your list.
- Be aware of wildfire season – due to its dry summers California’s wildfire season is roughly from July to October, worsening in early autumn. Though with the increasing drought this year it’s unfortunately underway already. Check right before you head to your destination whether there will be any closures on Cal Fire, which lists all the current fires burning throughout the state.
- Check for highway closures – roads can be closed due to the aforementioned wildfires as well as landslides during the rainy season.
- Check for COVID-related closures – most national parks and forests are open or partially open now, but it’s important to check the specifics on the official government website of your destination, especially since some campgrounds are still closed. Parks can also have altered hours as well.
- Familiarize yourself with the campsite’s amenities- most developed campsites include a fire ring, a bear box to store food, picnic tables, potable water, and flush toliets or vault toilets in the area. Some campsites have hot showers and laundry facilities, but not always. Most campsites allow for RV camping but do not always have hook-ups on site.
- Take note of local wildlife – black bears are a common visitor to campsites, especially if there is improper food storage. Make sure to never bring food in your tent, the bears can smell it! If you do encounter a bear quietly and calmly stand your ground and wave your arms above your head so the bear recognizes you are a human.
- Consider buying an annual pass – if you plan on visiting more than two national parks in California, America the Beautiful Annual Pass is well worth it at $80. Park entrances include Yosemite, Lassen, Redwood, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon to name a few. Military and senior passes are also available. The California State Parks “California Explorer” pass allows you to get into most state parks and beaches throughout the state and is $195 for the year.
- Reserve your campsite early – some popular campsites take reservations up to six months in advance and fill up minutes after the spots are released.
The Best Camping In Northern California
Yosemite National Park
Location: Tuolumne/Mariposa/Mono/Madera counties
With iconic views of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley, this national park is no doubt one of California’s most popular national parks. For camping all sites are reservation only, there are no same-day reservations available. The following campsites are open in 2022: Wawona, Upper Pines, Lower Pines, North Pines, Camp 4, Hodgdon Meadow, Tamarack Flat, White Wolf, and Yosemite Creek Campgrounds.
There are three campgrounds located centrally in Yosemite Valley near Curry Village: North Pines, Upper Pines, and Lower Pines. Upper Pines Campground is the largest of the three with over 200 sites and is open year-round. RVs up to 35 feet are allowed. Camp 4 is the other only campsite in the valley and has 35 sites with a one-day before lottery system.
Before you go: From May 20th to September 30th visitors must enter the park during peak hours (6 am – 4 pm) with in-park camping/lodging reservations, regional transit/tour groups, and wilderness permits. Camping reservations are available 5 months in advance in blocks on the 15th of the month at 7 am PST. Reserve a spot through Recreation.gov. The entrance fee (separate from the reservation fee )is $35 for a 7-day vehicle pass. America The Beautiful annual pass is accepted.
Official site: Yosemite
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Location: Shasta/Lassen/Plumas/Tehama counties
Known for Lassen Peak (Mount Lassen) – an active volcano that is part of the Cascade Range – this national park features numerous volcanos, steaming fumaroles, miles of trails, and picturesque mountain lakes. There are seven campgrounds available, where the Southwest Campground (20 sites) is open year-round and the rest are open from May/June to September/October. Check here for 2022 opening/closing dates.
One of the most popular and largest campgrounds is Manzanita Lake with over 175 sites available with both single and group options. RV sites are available, but there are no hook-ups in the park. A more private option is Summit Lake South Campground, which is located on the south side of Summit Lake and has 49 sites available. Tent camping only.
Before you go: advanced reservations are recommended, especially in the summer. Reserve a spot through Recreation.gov. The fee to get into Lassen is $30 for a 7-day vehicle pass ($10 from December 1 to April 15) that can be bought online. No reservations are required to enter the park. America The Beautiful annual pass is accepted.
Official site: Lassen Volcanic
Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park
Location: Tulare County
Home to giant ancient sequoias, these two adjacent parks are popular spots to spend the night under the stars. There are fourteen campsites in the parks, including three open year-round. Campsites have a six-person capacity and group camping is available at Dorst Creek, Sunset, Canyon View, and Crystal Springs.
In Kings Canyon, the Azalea Campground in Grant Grove Village is open year-round and a short drive to the park entrance, Sequoia National Park, the Grant Grove Village Visitor Center, and the General Grant Tree Trail. There are 110 sites in total (20 in the winter). RVs are allowed up to 30 feet. Sunset Campground is another option in Grant Grove Village. It’s the largest campground with over 150 sites.
Lodgepole Campground in Sequoia National Park is one of the most popular campgrounds with over 200 sites. It is located next to the Kaweah River and is centrally located with easy access to hiking trails and amenities. Potwisha Campground is a year-round site with almost 50 spots available. It’s located in a lower elevation in the foothills and therefore usually does not get snow in the winter. RVs are accepted at both sites.
Before you go: reservations can only be made 30 days in advance. Reserve a spot for both parks through Recreation.gov. The entrance fee is $35 for a 7-day vehicle pass that can be bought online. No reservations are required to enter the park. America The Beautiful annual pass is accepted.
Official site: Sequoia and Kings Canyon
Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Location: Trinity/Shasta/Siskiyou/Tehama/Modoc/Humboldt counties
Managed by the U.S. Forest Service, this national forest is the largest in the state. Natural highlights include the majestic Mount Shasta and Shasta Lake, the largest man-made lake in California. There are two different types of camping in this national forest: improved camping (designated sites) and dispersed camping (areas that allow camping, but do not have specific sites with amenities).
Dispersed camping is free of charge and allowed anywhere within Shasta-Trinity, except McBride Plantations, Castle Lake, McCloud River Loop, and Lewiston Lake. One of the most popular places for lake camping is along the shores of Shasta Lake.
If you prefer to reserve a specific campsite, there are plenty of options including ones in the Big Bar Area which has easy access to hiking, mountain biking, and fishing in the Trinity River. RV camping is not allowed.
Before you go: there is no entrance fee required for Shasta-Trinity, but for some recreational areas fees or permits are needed and can be purchased onsite. America the Beautiful pass is accepted.
Official site: Shasta-Trinity
Redwood National and State Parks
Location: Humboldt County
This collection of parks is home to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and Redwood National Park (the largest park). Within these parks, there are a variety of camping options where you can spend the night nestled among these gentle giants. There are two ways to stay overnight in the parks: developed camping (reservations recommended) or backcountry camping (free permit required).
There are four developed campgrounds within the parks: Jedediah Smith, Mill Creek, Elk Prairie, and Gold Bluffs Beach. Jedediah Smith is a great place if you want to be close to Redwood National Park, where Gold Bluffs Beach allows for a coastal home base. Both are open year-round and accept RV camping.
Before you go: Camping reservations must be made through Reserve California which is the California State Park reservation system. There is no entrance fee for Redwood. Del Norte Coast, Prairie Creek, and Jedediah Smith require a $ 5-day pass. America The Beautiful annual pass is accepted.
Official site: Redwood
Inyo National Forest
Location: Eastern Sierra Nevada Range
Located partly in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, this national forest is stunning with highlights that include Mono Lake, an ancient saltine body of water with tufa towers; Mammoth Lakes, and June Lake. Campgrounds open seasonally from May/June to September/October depending on the weather. Minaret Falls Campground (27 sites) is one of the most popular in the area because of its picturesque location in the Reds Meadow Valley next to a creek and waterfall. There are no advanced reservations and RVs are allowed. The town of Mammoth Lakes is 20 minutes away.
Dispersed camping in Inyo National Forest is allowed south of Mono Lake towards the Crestview area and east of Highway 395.
Before you go: recreation passes for Inyo are $15/per person if entering through the Mt. Whitney zone and $5/per person for all the other areas and can be found on recreation.gov if you type in Inyo National Forest – Wilderness Permits. America the Beautiful pass is accepted.
Official website: Inyo
Emerald Bay State Park
Location: South Lake Tahoe
Home to the stunning Emerald Bay, this state park is an ideal location to camp in Lake Tahoe. Vikingsholm, a former summer estate in the area is worth a stop for its impressive Scandinavian architecture. There are many different hiking trails that lead down to the lake (vehicles are not permitted). The two campgrounds in Emerald Bay are Eagle Point Campground and Emerald Bay Boat Camp. Both boast unbeatable views and Boat Camp gas lakefront sites and is a boat-in campsite where you can paddle up to the site.
Before you go: Visitors can make campsite reservations six months in advance. There is a $10 entrance fee to get into Emerald Bay. California State Parks Pass is accepted.
Official website: Emerald Bay
Eldorado National Forest
Location: Central Sierra Nevada Mountains
Nestled within the central Sierra Nevadas, this Gold County escape in the eastern part of California is about a half an hour’s drive from Lake Tahoe. There is no shortage of outdoor activities, including hiking into Desolation Wilderness and climbing Lover’s Leap. There are plenty of campsites available including the Fallen Leaf Campground, which is a short walk to Fallen Leaf Lake, a great, less busy substitute for Lake Tahoe. Dispersed camping in Eldorado National Forest is allowed throughout the park, except for certain areas. Check here for more details.
Before you go: there is no entrance fee required for Eldorado, but there are some recreational areas where fees or permits are needed and can be purchased onsite. America the Beautiful pass is accepted.
Official website: Eldorado
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Location: Santa Cruz Mountains
This state park is California’s oldest, established in 1902. The main sight is the ancient coastal redwoods, including old-growth redwoods. There are over 80 miles of hiking trails to explore with views of the Pacific Ocean and lush waterfalls. There are four developed campgrounds in Big Basin, including Huckleberry Campground which is open year-round, centrally located, and costs $35 per night and $10 per additional vehicle. A popular activity is horseback riding and then camping overnight with your horse. Horse Camp located in Rancho Del Oso allows this with advanced reservations. As of June 4, 2022 camping is currently not allowed in Big Basin.
Before you go: there is a $10 vehicle fee. California State Parks Pass is accepted.
Official website: Big Basin
Location: Sonoma County
Camping on Russian River is a great way to experience the beautiful local scenery on a budget and be close to the variety of activities that this area offers including swimming/wading in the river and wine tasting. Parker’s Resort is nestled in the redwoods right on the river in Guerneville and the views are hard to beat. Both tent and RV camping are allowed. Schoolhouse Canyon Park (also in Guerneville) is another excellent option and has been family-owned since the 1960s.
Before you go: the visitor center is located in Guerneville and is open 10-5 pm daily to help answer any questions you have about the area.
Official website: Russian River
Location: Central Coast
With breathtaking views of the rugged California coast, Big Sur is a camper’s dream. From the iconic Bixby Bridge towering over the clifts below to McWay Falls that spills into the Pacific Ocean, it’s hard to beat this natural scenery. One of the best campgrounds is Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park Campground, where reservations fill up six months in advance, even in winter. Standard sites are $35 and riverfront sites are $50. There is also the option for hike and bike camping for $5/night, where campers must arrive on a bike. Self-contained RVs with onboard flush toilets are allowed for a maximum of one night for $45.
Another great option is Kirk Creek Campground (40 sites) located in Los Padres National Forest for spectacular ocean views and beach access. Two sites are on a first-come, first-serve basis, whereas the rest are reservation only (three days in advance minimum, but highly recommended a lot earlier). RVs no longer than 30 feet are allowed.
Before you go: make sure to check the roads on the Caltrans website, especially during the rainy season when Highway One can be prone to landslides.
Official website: Big Sur
Salt Point State Park
This state park is known for its rugged coastal beauty, with miles of easy hiking trails, secluded coves, and vibrant tide pools. Camping, as well as group camping, is available. There are two campsites available: Gerstle Cove Campground (30 family sites) and Woodside Campground (79 sites), which are both $35 per night. There are also 10 sites available by the ranger station for campers on foot or bikes that are $5/per night.
Before you go: Camping reservations can be made at reservecalifornia.com or by calling 800-444-7275. Parking is $8. California State Parks Pass is accepted.
Official website: Salt Point
Russian Gulch State Park
Known for sights like the Devil’s Punchbowl, a collapsed sea cave, and the majestic Frederick W. Panhorst Bridge that rises 100 feet above the gulch, this state park in picturesque Mendocino County provides an unforgettable camping experience. Russian Gulch has 26 standard campsites, one group campsite, and four equestrian campsites equipped with corrals.
Before you go: the campsites are open from May until Labor Day. Reservations can be made six months in advance by visiting reservecalifornia.com or by calling 1-800-444-7275. Parking is $8. California State Parks Pass is accepted.
Official website: Russian Gulch
Smith River National Recreation Area
Location: Del Norte County
Flowing from the Klamath Mountains to the Pacific Ocean in California’s far northwestern corner, this recreational area is known for its fishing and water-based activities including swimming, rafting, hiking, horseback riding, and biking. The free-flowing nature of the Smith River (without a single dam) makes it treasured among conservationists. Camping in the Smith River is located in or near the river and the best time to go is from May to October before the rainy season begins.
The Panther Flat Campground is the largest and most popular campground that has an adjacent picnic area. It’s centrally located with easy access to the river and is nearby the visitor center. RVs up to 40 feet long are allowed. Patrick Creek Campground a bit further away and has historic charm with its rock walls, steps, and sunken campfire built in the 1930s. There is also a picnic area at this campsite as well as easy access to a fishing platform.
Before you go: developed campsites range from $8-$15 and are $5 per extra vehicle. Camping reservations can be made on recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777.
Official website: Smith River
Point Reyes National Seashore
Location: Marin County
Known for its miles of rocky coastline, this national seashore features the Point Reyes Lighthouse, where you can see gray whales migrating in the winter. There are extensive hiking trails that promise seaside views and bring visitors to spots like the cliffside Alamere Falls. One of the most popular hikes is Chimney Rock which offers views of Drake’s Bay and the Pacific Ocean and has fields of colorful wildflowers in the spring.
For camping, Point Reyes offers only hike-in and boat-in campsites. A popular spot is Coast Campground which is a 1.8-mile hike with a slight incline that starts at the Laguna Trailhead. This site is situated in a small coastal valley and provides easy access to the beach and the tidepools. There are 12 regular sites and two group sites. Boat-in camping is allowed in Tomales Bay, where there are twenty permits given each day including group camping for parties 7-25 people.
Before you go: camping is available through recreation.gov and can be made up to three months in advance to a day in advance (for boat-in camping).
Official website: Point Reyes