One of Los Angeles’ most underrated features is its access to the backcountry. Within an hour of downtown, campers can find at their disposal no fewer than three mountain ranges and some of the finest stretches of beach in North America. Likewise, Southern California campgrounds are your gateway to this unheralded outdoor playground, where the fire crackles alongside the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean, under the boughs of old-growth Jeffrey pine, and airborne embers rise to the starlit, sunset sky.
Near Trestles Beach, San Clemente State Beach Campground is the perfect place for surfers to pitch a tent near one of the world’s premier surfing destinations. The campground boasts showers, easy access to nearby San Clemente, and because it is positioned atop the sandstone bluffs at the foot of the Santa Anas, beautiful views over the Pacific.
Right next to Malibu Creek State Park, Malibu Creek State Park Campground provides easy access to the park and its 8,000 acres of wilderness, opened to the public in 1976 after 20th Century Fox Studios sold the land.
Close to Pasadena, Henninger Campground has 30 first-come, first-served sites 3 miles up Mount Wilson. The campground is run by the L.A. County Fire Department and features a visitor information center and a tree nursery.
The singular Angeles Crest Highway has several camping options to choose from for automotive forays into the San Gabriels. Less than an hour from Los Angeles, Chilao Campground has camping options year round at Little Pines Loop, and along with Manzanita Loop has sweeping views of the surround. Past the nearby Chilao Visitor Center and Newcomb’s Ranch, Buckhorn Campground's spacious and sought-after campsites are nestled amid old-growth pine. Hiking options along the Angeles Crest are myriad at both.
Tucked into Snowslide Canyon, the Crystal Lake Recreation Area Campground has a sprawling 171 sites near Crystal Lake and hiking to nearby summits of Mount Islip and Smith Mountain. Although well-traveled, it also boasts hot meals and a store for supplies.
Table Mountain Campground is the best base of operations for adventures on the backside of the San Gabriels, offering spacious sites on a mountaintop that once operated as a ski resort.
Also on the backside of the San Gabriels, the Devil’s Punchbowl is a fascinating cross section of Southern California geology, where the San Andreas Fault divides the North American and Pacific plates into stark contrasts. Campsites here are rudimentary, but the remoteness and stark scenery more than compensate for minimalist amenities. Camp at South Fork, Sycamore Flat, or Big Rock—and for the love of all things holy, watch out for Sasquatch.
Angelenos heading to Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardinos should make Serrano Campground their first stop. With 80 tent sites, it is Big Bear’s largest campground, and it offers showers and large campsites.
Near the wilderness at San Gorgonio Mountain, Wildhorse Family Equestrian Campground is a fantastic option for horseback riders. The campground offers horse stalls, and campers must have a horse to camp here, which greatly limits traffic.
Boondocking in the San Bernardinos doesn’t get any better, or any rougher, than at Lookout Point. Dispersed campers won’t have access to amenities, but what you give up on the one hand, you gain on the other: Far from the bright lights of the big city, the sky lights up on its own, and there are just three sites, so you’ll have the stars to yourself.
No doubt the sea and the surf get most of the aquatic attention in Southern California, but Corona Lake is an angling hotspot in the Santa Ana Mountains to set up camp and drop a line. Come ready to pay for the privilege. Camping is free, but there’s a $75 fishing fee to cover.
The Chino Hills provide a critical corridor for the passage of wildlife, and its campground provides access to all of its 31-mile range. Numerous trails start at the campground, and many of them are multiple use.
Camp on Catalina Island? Why not! Stay a couple nights at Hermit Gulch. With coin-operated showers, golf cart rentals, and the shops and restaurants and legendary mists of Avalon, it’s a far cry from the rough-and-tumble mountains out east, but hiking trails are hiking trails, and Catalina certainly has those.