Camping in California does not have to involve driving for eight hours up into towering mountains, battling carsickness and enduring the complaints of bored kids. Southern California offers many places where tent campers can escape the bustle of the city overnight or for several days and explore the state's landscapes. However, due to the popularity of camping in this state, you should make reservations before setting off on your trip, or you may wind up camping in a motel.
San Diego Area
At San Elijo State Beach, you can hike and camp right on the sand. Sites include bathrooms, picnic areas and hot showers. Camp, hike and mountain bike in Cleveland National Forest in the mountains northeast of San Diego if you prefer a wooded environment; however, beware if you decide to camp in the winter, for it does snow. For those who like it stark, dramatic and hot, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park lies east of San Diego near the Salton Sea. You can choose to stay in one of 12 campgrounds, or make your own campsite anywhere within the park. In springtime, the hiking/biking trails become overwhelmed with wildflowers.
Between San Diego and Los Angeles
At Palomar Mountain State Park, home to the famous observatory, you can camp, hike and mountain bike at an elevation of about 5,000 feet in lush, forested Doane Valley, where you can swim or fish for trout in Doane Pond. Desert lovers can choose instead to camp in Joshua Tree National Park. At an elevation varying between 3,000 and 4,500 feet, this is high desert, so it gets very cold in winter and you may become winded on long walks.
Los Angeles Area
Big Bear Lake offers clean air, plenty of designated swimming areas, scads of hiking/biking trails and excellent fishing. The ski resorts often remain open late into the spring, so early campers can hit the slopes if fishing doesn't appeal. In Angeles National Forest, just north of Los Angeles, you'll find primitive tent camping sites in terrain varying from wooded to arid. The creek beds throughout the park dry up by mid-summer most years, so plan to camp in the spring or early summer if possible, and beware of rattlesnakes.
At McGrath State Beach, you can hike along the beach, do some body surfing or boogie boarding, or catch dinner in the surf while camping right on the sand. In the wooded coastal mountains east of Ventura, Lake Casitas rests near the quaint town of Oak View and is one of Southern California's most popular bass and trout fishing lakes. You can rent a jet ski or a boat, or fish from the shore; go for a swim or hike/mountain-bike along one of the many wooded trails. Farther east through Los Padres National Forest lays Lake Piru, another popular place to swim and fish. The terrain around Piru is considerably more arid and can get quite hot in the summer.
Santa Barbara Area
At Carpinteria State Beach, you can camp on the sand and take a leisure swim or fish in the ocean, or camp in a somewhat wooded loop that offers hiking and biking trails. Northwest of Carpinteria, Lake Cachuma rests in a wooded valley less than a half hour's drive from Solvang, one of Southern California's biggest tourism draws. Water sports are even more popular than at the smaller lakes of Los Padres and anglers regularly haul in trout, small and bigmouth bass, crappie, sunfish and catfish. You can rent jet skis or the more stalwart may prefer to rent a rowboat and power yourself across the lake. Northeast through the mountains, you'll come upon the more arid Frazier Park, with many very primitive tent camping sites, several with only pit toilets and no water, but with access to hundreds of miles of trails.
San Louis Obispo Area
Pismo Beach offers excellent beach recreation and camping, especially between October and February, as the Monarch Butterfly Reserve fills with the delicate and beautiful insects. Closer to Morro Bay, Montana de Oro allows you to camp atop windswept cliffs covered with golden grass and adorned with millions of brilliant wildflowers over crashing surf that continuously carves inlets into the rocky coast. The hiking/biking trails are some of California's most spectacular. If you prefer mountain camping, head north of Morro Bay and stay at Cerro Alto, halfway between Morro Bay and Atascadero, near the top of the mountain separating the towns.