While we've been on camping trips in California quite a while ago, we asked Kathryn Smith to write us an article about camping in California. Kathryn and her husband converted a van and took it for three months touring around California. We present their tips on how best to organize your camping tour in California here.
Camping in California: The Best National Parks and National Forests
When you think of California, a few words probably spring to mind: surfing, wellness, winding roads and incredible nature. While these are certainly things you'll find on your US road trip through California, there are a few others you need to be aware of: strict rules, high costs, and long drive times. California is an amazing travel destination, but it's important that you know you need to travel within its borders to have the best trip possible.
If you want to camp in California, in most cases you can't just stop your RV or van and park where you want. Most of the land here is either privately or publicly owned. There are places where you're welcome to park for a small fee or for free (also with great views), but choose your campsite carefully before you arrive. If you're not online, you're likely to end up in dead spots, so it's best to be prepared.
How to find free overland campgrounds for camping in California
Before I share my favorite places to camp and national parks and forests to visit, there are a few apps widely used in the US for finding parking spots for the night. If you're traveling in an RV and need to hook up somewhere, you can't use Overlanding. You will most likely have to pay to park at an RV campground, but if you're traveling in a van or have off-grid parking, these apps will help you find designated and undesignated spots to camp.
There are many more apps out there than these, but through trial and error these 2 easily caught on. Campendium was better in other states, but iOverlander tended to have the greatest variety in California. My 2 favorite apps for finding campsites are:
iOverlander: This app is community-based, so you'll find a wide variety of parking spots, from designated areas to spots that overnight guests don't seem to mind.
Campendium.com: This is a website that works similar to iOverlander. You can filter by "free" on this page.
To make camping easier and more enjoyable for you and your travel companions, I also recommend downloading the GasBuddy app before you set off. This app shows you the gas prices along your route so that you can refuel intelligently.
The best national parks and national forests for camping in California
One important thing to understand before renting an RV or van to travel in the US is the difference between national parks and national forests. Both are federally protected land, but they serve different purposes and have different rules and regulations.
National parks are primarily for wildlife conservation and tourist enjoyment. They're much more strict about where people can and can't go. If you want to camp in a national park, you will probably need to book your spot well in advance as these locations are highly sought after. If you decide to camp here, keep in mind that you will most likely find yourself in a designated area with assigned parking, bathrooms, fire pits, and neighbors next to each other.
National forests, on the other hand, serve a variety of purposes, from wildlife management to forestry. Often you will find National Forests surrounding National Parks. These locations do not have clear entrances and exits and are much more conducive to overland camping. Most of our favorite campsites in the US are in National Forests. These are the places where you can meander down dirt or gravel roads and find the perfect view with no neighbors in sight.
So while you most likely want to spend your day exploring the trails in a national park, I suggest spending your nights in national forests.
Redwood National and State Parks for Camping in California
This area of Northern California, most commonly referred to as "the Redwoods," actually consists of 1 national park and 3 state parks. Home to the tallest trees in the world, this park is different from many others because you don't have to go through a specific entrance or exit. Hwy 101 takes you right through it, with off-roads to choose from depending on what sights you want to see and/or what trails you want to hike.
We were lucky enough to find free campsites just north of the park, just past the Oregon border and back on Hwy 1 after the park road trip south.
Yosemite National Park
No trip to California would be complete without a visit to Yosemite National Park. Famous for El Capitan and Half Dome, this park is filled with great hiking trails, breathtaking views, and wildlife to explore. Use iOverlander to find lots of great free parking spots right outside the park's west entrance.
Sierra National Forest
Sierra National Forest is often overlooked by its far more popular neighbors, Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park. While I can understand if you are on a tight schedule and only want to see the hotspots, the Sierra National Forest is an excellent choice for vanlifers and RVs. Scattered camping is allowed in almost all areas of the forest, so it's easy to stretch out and find a quiet spot to stay for a day or two. Here you will be rewarded with beautiful views of the Sierra Nevada mountains and you can even take a walk on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Inyo National Forest
This is another nearby National Forest that also includes the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Within the confines of Inyo you have access to rivers, mountains and some of the oldest trees in the world. If you come in winter, there are even 2 ski areas. Camping is permitted in designated campgrounds, but there are also many locations in the National Forest that allow for scattered camping.
Death Valley National Park
While this national park certainly doesn't have an inviting name, Death Valley National Park is a stunning place to visit. Located in the Mojave Desert but surrounded by huge mountain ranges, you will most likely be amazed by the colour, diversity and wildlife of this national park. Keep in mind that it gets incredibly hot here in the summer and the rains can be heaviest in the winter. Plan your visit for spring if possible.
Joshua Tree National Park
Located in Southern California, Joshua Tree National Park will have you wondering if you somehow left California and landed on another planet instead. Between the park's namesake, the Joshua Trees, and its oddly shaped boulders, this national park doesn't really look like anywhere else in California. If you can reserve a campsite in advance, I recommend staying inside the park for it. This gives you the best chance of a starry night sky without getting in the way of nearby light pollution.
Originally from the USA, Kat Smith is an avid traveler, nomad and sometimes expat who has lived around the world for the last 10 years. She recently converted a van and went on a XNUMX-month road trip across the US with her husband and dog. She is the founder of A Way Abroad, the ultimate resource for women dreaming of living abroad.
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Text Camping in California: © Copyright Monika Fuchs, TravelWorldOnline and Kat Smith
Photos: © Copyright Kat Smith and Pixabay