As promised two weeks ago, here are my recommendations for great campgrounds in Central California. With nearly 1,500 campgrounds in the state, I certainly haven’t seen them all, but these are some I have enjoyed the most.
Yosemite National Park: Every list of great places to camp in Central California has to start with Yosemite. Hands down, Yosemite is one of the top wonders of the world, and people come from nearly every nation to visit it.
If you can handle the summer crowds, you should camp in Yosemite Valley sometime in your life. It’s not a wilderness experience, but it’s a lot of fun. You can get around without too much worrying about traffic or parking if you ride the shuttle bus or bring bikes. Yosemite offers something for everyone, including a lot of ranger-led activities such as day and night hikes, nature talks, junior ranger programs, photography walks, documentary films about the park, astronomy programs, campfire programs, art activities, demonstrations of Native American culture and historical reenactments.
Three campgrounds (Lower Pines, Upper Pines, and North Pines) offer drive-in camping. Housekeeping Camp offers camping shelters with bunks along the Merced River. Tent cabins with bunks are available at Camp Curry.
While Yosemite Valley remains the most popular destination, you can have more of a wilderness experience by camping outside the Valley. My favorite is Tuolumne Meadows. Located on the edge of one of the largest high country meadows in the Sierra, the campsites are beneath steep mountains and adjacent to the Tuolumne River. You can start a hike along the river or up to Elizabeth Lake right from the campground. The campgrounds at Bridalveil Creek (near Glacier Point) and Wawona are also good options. You’ll still see a lot of people, but nothing like close to being in the Valley.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (two parks that are managed as a single unit) are just over two hours away from Merced via Highway 180. Just as scenic and less crowded than Yosemite, these parks are an ideal alternative. You can camp near giant sequoias at the Sunset, Azalea, and Dorst Creek Campgrounds, in the deep canyon of the Kings River at Canyon View Campground, in subalpine Mineral King Valley at Cold Springs Campground, or in the foothills along the Kaweah River at Potwisha or Buckeye Flat (best in summer or fall). Lodgepole Campground near Tokopah Falls is another favorite.
High Sierra lakes: Camping along the shore of a natural subalpine lake that is surrounded by trees and mountains is one of the greatest thrills of backpacking. There are also a few drive-in campgrounds that offer this experience. My favorites are Trumbull Lake (on Virginia Lakes Road near Lee Vining) and Woods Lake (on Highway 88). Other campgrounds along Highway 88 at Silver Lake, Caples Lake and Kirkwood Lake are also nice, but don’t feel as remote as Woods Lake. Lower Twin Lake (near Bridgeport) also has a beautiful setting. On Highway 4 near Bear Valley, Lake Alpine is another good but popular choice. You’ll see fewer people if you keep following Highway 4 east and take the 8-mile dirt road to the campground at Highland Lakes.
Big Sur: This is arguably the most beautiful stretch of coastline in California. Big Sur’s steep mountains dive steeply into the ocean, offering few beaches but many inspiring vistas, small waterfalls, redwood groves, scenic drives and steep trails. My favorite campground is at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, but Plaskett, Kirk Creek and Limekiln are also great options. The main concern is to learn how to identify and avoid poison oak. It grows in great profusion at Big Sur.
Monterey Bay: Want to camp at the beach? Sunset, New Brighton and Manresa State Beaches all offer that option in a variety of settings. Sunset’s campsites are protected from the ocean by tall sand dunes, New Brighton’s are on a bluff, and Manresa is a walk-in campground (you carry all your camping gear from the parking area to your campsite). Best of all, the temperate climate of Monterey Bay makes camping possible all year round.
Lake Tahoe: When I first started exploring Lake Tahoe several years ago, I was overwhelmed. You drive the 70 mile loop along the lake and catch some beautiful views, but it can be hard to figure out where to stop and explore. Unlike the national parks, a large part of the land surrounding the lakes is privately owned and access is limited. There can be traffic, especially in the summer. It’s easy to waste a lot of time if you don’t have a plan.
The properties owned by California State Parks on the west shore of the lake offer some of the best access. My favorite campground is at D.L. Bliss State Park. Located within a short walk to the shoreline, the park’s Rubicon Trail follows the shore for several miles and even connects with Emerald Bay State Park. Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park is another good campground with shore access. If you camp at one of these sites, you may not need to drive anywhere. If you do, you can save time by planning short trips to other destinations on the west shore of the lake, such as Emerald Bay and Vikingsholm, Baldwin Beach, or a hike in the Desolation Wilderness.
Summer may still seem a long time away, but these campgrounds are extremely popular and it is a good idea to make reservations right away.
Adam Blauert is a Sun-Star correspondent. He is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the western states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org