Best Campgrounds in the West

hendy Woods

Hendy Woods State Park: *Best For Families 

In summer, kids spend whole days ankle deep in the Navarro River, which flows placidly over fist-size stones through a redwood grove. If they can be dragged away from the large, looping campground here, the gardens and picnic areas at the Anderson Valley wineries are a short drive, the coast only a bit farther. If cooking for the gang seems a bit much, Libby’s ($; closed Sun–Mon; 707/895-2646), just down the road in Philo, has excellent Mexican food. Stop by the Philo Apple Farm (707/895-2333) for a wander in the orchard and some fresh juice from the honor stand. $35; parks.ca.gov or 707/937-5804. Book it:  reserveamerica.com

Big Basin Redwoods State Park, North of Boulder Creek

Your pick of four waterfalls is the payoff for tackling the roller-coaster trails that fan out under gargantuan old-growth trees in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Consider the easy-to-get-to hike-in sites if you want more space and privacy. $25; 831/338-8860; book at reserveamerica.com

D.L. Bliss State Park, Lake Tahoe

It isn’t easy (or cheap) to claim a spot along Tahoe’s glorious west shore. But here you can swim and sunbathe at Lester Beach, marvel at Balancing Rock, or simply ogle Tahoe’s famously blue waters. Reserve ahead to nab beachside ($35; sites 141–165). From $25; parks.ca.gov or 530/525-7232; book at reserveamerica.com

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Kirk Creek Campground, Los Padres National Forest, Big Sur

Scattered across a bluff, the sites are open to the stars and the sea. Pack dress-up clothes and blow the money you saved on lodging with a prix fixe dinner at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar ($$$$; 831/667-2800). $22; campone.com or 805/434-1996; book at recreation.gov

Russian Gulch State Park, North of Mendocino

On the rugged Northern California coast, this campground offers an up-close look at Mendocino’s natural beauty, like at Devil’s Punch Bowl, where the ocean surges through a huge hole in the headlands. Don’t miss the hike to Russian Gulch Falls. $25; parks.ca.gov or 707/937-5804; book at reserveamerica.com

IMG_9046 by AlwaysJanuary (Randy)

Summit Lake South Campground, Lassen Volcanic National Park

Smack in the middle of the park, this campground lies at the southern edge of the tiny but picturesque Summit Lake. Reserve early to snag site D9 or D10; both have great views and lake access. $16 (plus $10 park entrance fee per vehicle); 530/595-4480; book at recreation.gov

Gerstle Cove Campground, Salt Point State Park, North of Jenner

Camp with an ocean view at Salt Point State Park. Hike along the headlands, explore tidepools, and visit a pygmy forest of stunted pine trees. If the wind is howling, camp across the highway at tree-sheltered Woodside Campground. $25; 707/847-3221; book at reserveamerica.com

Highland Lakes Campground, Stanislaus National Forest, West of Ebbetts Pass

A drive-to campground with backpack-worthy scenery. You’ll be drinking your morning coffee with one lake in front of you and another lake behind. Hit it in late June or early July to catch swaths of wildflowers framing high, craggy peaks. Opens in late Jun; $8; no reservations; 209/795-1381.

Pinnacles National Park, South of Hollister

California’s answer to the Grand Canyon, with enormous rock formations, craggy cliffs, and caves for Indiana Jones–style exploring. Stop in the teensy town of Tres Pinos for wine at the Inn at Tres Pinos ($$$; closed Mon; 831/628-3320). $15 (plus $5 fee per vehicle); www.nps.gov/pinn or 831/389-4485; book at recreation.gov

Woods Lake Campground, Eldorado National Forest, East of Kirkwood

Easy-peasy access to idyllic alpine scenery. Nab a site in the small, quiet, pine-and-granite campground, then stroll over to a gorgeous, fish-filled lake to watch for dive-bombing osprey. Arrive by lunchtime Friday to get a good site. Opens Jul 1; $22; no reservations; 209/295-4251.

Wrights Lake Campground, Eldorado National Forest, Southwest of Lake Tahoe

This is a day-hiker’s fantasyland, with relatively easy access to the southern Desolation Wilderness (permit required), which means you’re on the trail to pristine spots while others are still on the road. Bring a canoe ― the glassy lake is release-your-inner-Hiawatha awesome. Opens Jul 1; $20; 530/644-2349; book at reserveamerica.com

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur

With a priceless perch over the Pacific and only two hike-in campsites, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is more private paradise than crowded campground—which is why the sites are usually booked six months out. From site 1, shaded under Monterey cypress, you can sip your morning joe to the bark of sea lions. $30; no potable water; parks.ca.gov/jpb

Boat-In Camp, Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe’s U-shaped Emerald Bay is one of the lake’s most gorgeous (and popular) stops. But there are only 20 sites at peaceful Boat-In Camp, part of Emerald Bay State Park, where teeming speedboat traffic quiets at glassy dusk and dawn. Here bald-eagle sightings are common, and the stunning, shore-hugging Rubicon Trail is steps from your tent. The waterfront real estate—sites 1, 21, or 22—is especially coveted, so you’ll need to try for a midweek reservation or cancellation. $35, including buoy; early Jul–early Sep; parks.ca.gov

Refugio State Beach, Northwest of Santa Barbara

Campsites sit along a crescent-shaped cove fringed by palm trees, where you can fish, swim, and snorkel. On Fridays during the summer, the park staff offers free sea-kayaking lessons at 9 or 11. From $25 (from $125 for group sites); parks.ca.gov or 805/968-1033; book at reserveamerica.com

Nevada Beach Campground, Zephyr Cove, NV

At 6,225 feet in elevation, the Nevada Beach Campground and Picnic Area is situated on the sandy shore of Lake Tahoe. The campground has 54 camping site and 25 picnic sites nestled among native pine trees, it is a quiet beach location that offers a wide range of recreational activities. Nevada Beach is about ¾ of a mile long and it is wider than any Tahoe beach. In some cases the sand is over 300 yards wide.

LahontanSRA 640x378 Lahontan State Recreation Area

Lahontan Reservoir

69 miles of shoreline, covers 12,000 surface acres when full and features fishing, boating and water skiing, as well as camping, picnicking, boat launches, restrooms with showers and RV dump stations. Horseback riding and wildlife viewing are best in spring. Canoeing from Fort Churchill to the lake makes for a great day trip when conditions allow.

Pyramid Lake, Washoe, NV

The austere desert ying to Lake Tahoe’s majestic alpine yang, Pyramid Lake’s great beauty lies in its unlikelihood. The terminal destination of Tahoe’s only outlet, the Truckee River, blue-green Pyramid sits in striking contrast to the arid brown expanse surrounding it. One of the last remaining vestiges of ancient Lake Lahontan, 195-square-mile Pyramid is the largest lake situated entirely within Nevada.

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