The Best In Tent Camping Southern California  by Charles Patterson

The Best In Tent Camping: Southern California Guide Book

by Charles Patterson (Menasha Ridge Press)
The Best In Tent Camping Southern California  by Charles Patterson
Although every state has its natural delights, no state has the variety of outdoor experiences and environments you can find by visiting the sites outlined in this book. What other state has great places to camp on beaches, in alpine forests, dreamy coastal foothills, surreal Martian desert landscapes, and balmy offshore islands? Not one, and that’s why Cali is the champ. In this book, you’ll find a wide assortment of sites in a variety of areas. Visit even a fraction of them and your life will change for the better. We’re far too separated from nature in our modern lives, surrounded by modern conveniences that keep us from being “in the moment.” We spend too many hours indoors and in front of screens these days. Get outside! There’s no better way to destress and refresh your mental state. Pitch your tent. Climb. Ride. Fish. Hunt. Hike. Or just sit on a rock.

© 2018 Charles Patterson/Menasha Ridge Press. All Rights Reserved.

Trails from the "The Best In Tent Camping: Southern California" Guide Book
Displaying trails 20 of 50.

Displaying trails 1 to 20 of 50.

Arroyo Salado is badlands camping. It is in malpais (badlands) in the huge Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (ABDSP), which has everything: palm-studded canyons, cactus gardens, mountain pinyon forests, hot springs, waterfalls, bighorn sheep, American Indian pictographs and petroglyphs, historic settler trails, stage stops, and ghost towns. A good way to come into Arroyo Salado is on CA 86, off I-10, via the cities of Indio and Coachella through the date palm orchards. Stop and have a date shake at one of the stands. Then, carry on along the shore past Salton City and turn east on County Road S22. Notice Travertine Point on the right and the wave terraces cut into the mountainsides—in 1905, the Salton basin was accidentally transformed into a huge lake by an overflow of one the Colorado River’s canals. Near the wave terraces are traces of the American Indians who lived by the lake.
Borrego Springs, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
In the middle of March, I camped in Little Blair Valley on the edge of a tremendous meadow. The moon was so full that the tiny flowers sparkled from between the startlingly green grass. What a night! I was alone until morning, when a couple drove by in a rental car. They were lost and looking for the American Indian pictographs. We consulted his map, then they were off in a cloud of dust. The rest of the morning it was just me, watching the sun move across the valley and rocks. The County Road S2 turnoff to Little Blair Valley is 4 miles south of Scissors Crossing, about 31 miles from Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (ABDSP) headquarters in Borrego Springs. On the left, you’ll see the tiny stake sign embossed with LITTLE BLAIR. The road, usually passable by all passenger cars, goes a mile or so over a ridge into the valley. Here, you’ll encounter another stake sign indicating the CR S2 highway from which you just came. To the left is a wonderful area for camping in the soft meadow grass.
Mount Laguna, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
Drive through torrid Visalia on any July afternoon and you’ll know why the Yokut and Monache tribes fought over the summer camps by Atwell Mills, where it is pleasant during the day and cool at night. They built little, round thatched houses and carpeted the floor with oak leaves and ferns. The women gathered most of the food, and the men spent most of their time in the sweathouse. Summer was a time of plenty for them, with pine nuts, fish, manzanita cider, wild tobacco, and an occasional deer. The deer were stalked by one man alone, wearing a deer disguise and using arrows poisoned with rattlesnake venom. The American Indians here led a great life, but it went like the wind when the white man appeared on the scene, hot after the riches located in the Mineral King Valley.
Three Rivers, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
All roads that lead to Buckeye Campground also pass the Burger Barn in Bridgeport. Anytime is a good time for an everything-on-it burger, wrapped in wax paper, at the outside tables of this ageless monument to roadside dining. Historic Bridgeport’s Burger Barn is a famous relic of Americana. One assumes that the lean, tasty burger meat comes from close relatives of the sleek cattle grazing in the knee-deep grass around town. After all, this is cattle country. In Bridgeport, the heart of the Old West steadily beats. The campground has four loops. The first loop you come to on the left houses sites 42–68. Continue up the hill to find the other three loops. Two have pit toilets, and the other has flush toilets but was closed the last time I was up there.
Bridgeport, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
Santa Catalina Island is one of seven islands located off the coast of Southern California. Although some are off-limits to visitors and difficult to access, Catalina Island is by far the most welcoming of this oft-overlooked island chain, with tent camping options galore. It’s an unspoiled, unpolluted island waterfront camping utopia that gives visitors a chance to see what the California aquatic environment looked like before Western civilization settled here. There’s an assortment of great tent camping sites at Catalina Island, including hikein and boat-in campsites. Two Harbors Campground requires neither extensive hiking to reach, nor a kayak, but you’ll need to tackle an obvious problem—how to get to the island. The most affordable and popular way is by taking the Catalina Express shuttle to the island, from San Pedro. It’s a short trip, under 1 hour, and the ticket prices are moderately priced at around $70 for a round-trip.
Catalina, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
Cold Springs Campground is arguably the most beautiful campground in Southern California. Down by the gorgeous Kaweah River, this campground is situated in the shadows of Sawtooth and Mineral Peaks, Needham and Rainbow Mountains, and to the south, Miners Ridge. Winter scours out the valley so it feels brand new every summer. A waterfall cuts through the walk-in camping area. The rush of the water is white noise; you’ll sleep like a baby. I love this campground. Back in the 1870s, miners took one look at the rocks in the Mineral King Valley and rushed in. What excited them was the contact zone between reddish metamorphic rocks and grayish granite. So sure of silver was Thomas Fowler, a wealthy rancher from Tulare County, that he bet his entire fortune on his Empire Mine, boasting that he would pay off America’s national debt and then buy Ireland to free it from the tyrannical British. First, Fowler built the road into the Mineral King Valley.
Three Rivers, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
I drove through Idyllwild in a mist so thick the neon lights of the cute little mountain town could only blush through the fog. I found a place to park and drifted along a sidewalk until I ran right into a Mount San Jacinto State Park ranger who said this fog never happens this time of year. It was June 15; it was supposed to be sunny and at least 80°F. Back on CA 243, I leaned out the window and navigated by the stripes down the middle of the highway until FS 4S02 split off to the right, and I could reckon the road by aiming for the gap in the pines. After traveling down the narrowing road and across a stream, I was at Dark Canyon Campground, one of the most charming campgrounds in the very charming Idyllwild area of the San Bernardinos.
Banning, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
Dorst Creek Campground is all about family. On arrival you’ll notice squads of children splashing in the nonthreatening Dorst Creek or racing up and down the grassy slopes, as well as moms pushing their infants around in strollers. Most of the folks are tent campers laagered together in the tent-only loops, and their children quickly become friends. I saw lots of dads relaxing in lawn chairs, free and happy. On the Generals Highway, Dorst Creek Campground is a perfect base camp from which to explore Giant Forest, Grant Grove, and, farther afield, Cedar Grove. Not too far away is Hume Lake, with big-time swimming prospects. A quick run will get you groceries at Lodgepole or Stony Creek Lodge.
Three Rivers, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
Going from Los Angeles to East Fork, you’ll go through the town of Mojave, the desert, and then the Owens Valley, a 100-mile-long, 5-mile-wide trench—or graben, as geologists call lowlands bounded by faults—between the Sierras on the west and the White-Inyo Mountains on the east. It’s a magical place, and the American Indians coined the name Inyo, meaning “dwelling place of the great spirit.” It is a land of dramatic contrast and incredible beauty, where mountain and desert meld into breathtaking scenery, and glaciered peaks tower over shimmering alkali flats. Tumbling mountain streams become lost in the desert, and gemlike lakes shimmer against deep pine forests.
Mammoth Lakes, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
Though not quite the place to seek pure tent camping solitude, El Capitán State Beach may be the ultimate slice of unspoiled California beach heaven. This massive camping facility, located on a bluff above the beach, is the prime locale for every beach activity imaginable: sunbathing, surfing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and more. Although the camping area is often bustling with visitors and large RVs, you can easily find peace and quiet when you need it. There are acres of prime beach real estate below, perfect for all-day lounging sessions—just don’t forget your cooler, umbrella, and sunblock. The attraction of El Capitán has everything to do with its geography. The campsites are perched in a grove of oak trees atop a bluff above the shoreline. Most sites have unobstructed ocean views, and many offer natural privacy.
Goleta, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
About 60,000 years ago, a glacier flowing down an earthquake slip fault cut the U-shaped Upper Kern Canyon. Look southward along the Upper Kern Canyon and you can see how the glacier carved out the canyon, giving it rounded shoulders. In the Lower Kern Canyon, below Lake Isabella, where the glacier didn’t flow, the shoulders of the canyon are sharp and V-shaped. Fairview Campground, near the head of the Upper Kern Valley, is the best camping spot in the area. It’s set down by the river, well below the road and any traffic noise, with the mountains towering around. The sites are so well planned it’s hard to decide where to camp. The last time I was there it was spring, and the snow level was down to 5,000 feet, but it was warm and sunny down in the campground.
Kernville, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
The princess of campgrounds on Bishop Creek above the town of Bishop is tiny Sabrina Campground perched on the lip of Lake Sabrina. At 9,000 feet, the view of the pictureperfect lake, the glaciered mountain peaks marbled with rusty red metamorphic rock, and the deep blue sky is breathtaking. Sit on the sunny patio of the Lake Sabrina Boat Landing and eat an incredible old-fashioned hamburger grilled up by the pleasant hostess. That’s how you know you’re not in Switzerland after all, but in the Wild West. You’ll see lanky anglers swigging Budweiser, a big husky dog asleep atop an upturned aluminum boat, and cowpokes in 10-gallon hats stepping out of canoes, holding up 6-pound trout, just caught, their bright colors catching the sun.
Bishop, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
Fremont Peak State Park is deliriously pretty in April and May, when the spring grasses are green and feathery and the flowers are blooming. It’s a great place to go when the coast is socked in with fog. Climb to the peak and look out over some of the richest farmland and marine areas in the world. The drive up to the park from San Juan Bautista is alternately lovely, chilling, and lovely again. At first, you take a winding, old country road out of the valley and go up into oaks draped with mistletoe. Then you burst into Road Warrior country. On the left is the Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area, where off-road enthusiasts bring their vehicles. It’s a land of tire-ripped hills and torched brush. Scary. But persevere and you will arrive at the mountaintop to enter Fremont Peak State Park, with its oaks, pines, and incredible views.
San Juan Bautista, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” is a good motto for campers coming to Big Bear Lake on holiday weekends, but during midweek or off-season, the north shore is downright civilized. It’s a beautiful place, and the rangers and civilians are genuinely friendly. Hanna Flat Campground features good tent camping. The sites are set in stands of Jeffrey pine and spaced nicely to allow vistas of pine-covered and rocky hills with the blue-sky, big-country look. Manzanita grows under the pines, and there’s a mild riparian community by the cut along the campground. Best of all, the sites are engineered to give campers maximum privacy and space. Each site has an abundance of flat, spongy, and pine-needled ground.
Big Bear Lake, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
Drive up to Big Bear on CA 330 and you feel like a rat in a maze. The road zips up through carnival-ride corners shouldered with impenetrable chaparral. Oncoming traffic appears out of nowhere. Suddenly, behind you, there’s a string of impatient cars. You pull over, and they fly by in a flash of waxed paint and chrome. You’ll find a different scene on CA 38. Drive out of Big Bear into a sea of granite and lodgepole pine and feast your eyes on Old Greyback himself, San Gorgonio Mountain at 11,502 feet (named for an obscure Christian martyr). Come up from the bottom, from Redlands down in the desert, and suddenly you are in subalpine (boreal) forests of lodgepole pine twisted by the storms. The chaparral is high-altitude chaparral. There’s manzanita, bush chinquapin, and snowbrush, plus all the alpine wildflowers. It’s incredible!
Angelus Oaks, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
Horse Meadow Campground is my favorite campground. I don’t even know why. Maybe it’s the long grind up the mountains, or the terrain—that dry, big-sky country look with the pines, boulders, and open green meadows. Maybe I watched too many Westerns when I was a child. The sky at Horse Meadow Campground just seems a little bit bluer. The campsites at Horse Meadow are roomy and offer a great view. Salmon Creek runs through the campground and gurgles just enough to lull you to sleep. Below the meadow, it gathers in pools deep enough for you to take a freezing dip. When you hop out, warm yourself on the hot granite slabs.
Kernville, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
Why is the arborescent tree yucca (Yucca brevifolia) called the Joshua tree? I have it on good authority that a group of Mormons was laboring across the trackless wastes, under a blazing sun, when they entered a Yucca brevifolia forest. Out of nowhere a cloud blocked the sun. In their ecstasy, the pioneers proclaimed the strange plants Joshua trees, referencing the Old Testament prophet who called on God to block the sun. Indeed, the tufted branches resemble an old, robed prophet imploring the heavens with raised hands. I visited Joshua Tree National Park with a group of friends. We taxed our bones trekking up the strenuous trail to the top of Ryan Mountain. When my wife, who stopped speaking to me on the rigorous ascent, saw the snows on Mount San Jacinto and the Little San Bernardinos and the Lost Horse Valley spread below, she relented graciously and acknowledged that the carrot was worth the climb.
Mecca, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
For many, the open camping experience of the Kern Plateau is tent camping as it should be, especially for hunters, anglers, hikers, 4x4 enthusiasts, and off-road motorcyclists. Most often referred to as Kennedy Meadows, this unspoiled high-sierra plateau boasts acres of granite outcroppings, tall redwood trees, and pristine green meadows. Think of it as Yosemite Valley without the excess bureaucracy. It should be noted that there are formal, maintained campgrounds located in the area with facilities—Kennedy Meadows, Troy Meadow, Horse Meadow, and Fish Creek Campgrounds—but that’s not what this is all about. For more information on these campgrounds, visit the U.S. Forest Service website at
Inyokern, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
Kirk Creek and Plaskett Creek Campgrounds are like fraternal twins. They occupy the most isolated stretch of CA 1, north of San Simeon and south of Big Sur. About 5 miles apart, on the best stretch of Los Padres National Forest coastline, these campgrounds offer the most relaxed camping on the entire Southern California coast. Kirk Creek lies on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Set in gorse—a spiny, yellow-flowered bush—it gets quite a lot of wind. Of course, the view is shockingly immediate, as if you are suspended over the ocean itself. The sites are separated and private until you stand up; the brush surrounding the sites is about chest high. This does, however, give you some relief from the oceanic blasts. Thankfully, there’s a fence along the edge of the precipice. Just south, goat trails lead down to a rocky point and a sandy cove at low tide. Navigate these trails during daylight hours.
Lucia, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:
The La Jolla Valley Hike-In tent-camping sites are little known and seldom used. Little info about these campsites can be found anywhere, and you may not believe they exist until you motivate yourself to walk up there and take a look. A variety of routes lead to this destination, all of which offer picturesque views of the ocean amid pristine terrain. The numberone reason to visit this place: This is the only true backcountry campground in the Santa Monica Mountains. The sites offer 360-degree views without any sign of civilization, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find another soul in the area.
Malibu, CA - Campgrounds - Trail Length:

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