Camping on the beach is one of the simple joys in life. You get to hear the sounds of the waves crashing against the shore, a cool breeze blowing through your tent, and you can’t beat the view. It can’t get much better than that! California offers some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but is camping on the beach in California illegal?
There are a handful of beaches in California where camping is permitted with a permit or reservation, but most beaches don’t allow camping. Every city in California has its own laws and regulations to regulate beach camping, so you will need to do your research. Just make sure you apply for a permit so you don’t get kicked off the beach.
Every beach has its own laws and regulations surrounding beach camping, so you will need to do your research. I’ll go over a few of best beach camping spots in California, but the laws are constantly changing with the recent increase in illegal encampments.
With that being said, I can almost guarantee you will be able to find a camping friendly beach somewhere if you follow this guide. I’ll warn you now. This is a crazy long post so you might want to check out the table of contents. I break down California beach camping spots by Northern, Central, and Southern California (and then by county).
Can You Camp On The Beach In California?
You should be able to find a place to camp on the beach in California. With 840 miles of coastline there are countless beaches that offer camping permits. I’ll go over the most popular beaches to camp on below, but lets go over a few things you need to consider first.
There are two types of beaches that you can camp on in California. California beaches will either be state run parks or private owner campgrounds. Most state run parks allow tent camping, but there are a handful of exceptions (I’ll go over them below). Whether or not you can tent camp at private campgrounds will be 50/50 depending on the park.
Most of the state run campgrounds can be reserved through ReserveCalifornia, but you usually need to call private campgrounds to make reservations. Just make sure you look at pictures of the park/campground before making reservations.
Some campgrounds will allow you to pitch your tent on the beach, but others will assign a beach adjacent concrete pad. Those sites are designed for RVs so they tend to be stacked one on top of the other. They still offer a beautiful beachside view, but that’s not my idea of camping on the beach.
Is It Legal To Camp On The Beach In California?
It’s illegal to camp on the beach in California without a permit or reserved campsite. There are campgrounds where you can camp along the coast, but you can’t pitch a tent anywhere you like. Camping requires a permit or reservation that needs to be made months in advance.
Camping on the beach without a permit in California will lead to a vagrancy charge. I highly doubt the judge will throw the book at you, but it is possible. Vagrancy charges can result in 6 months imprisonment and/or a $1000 fine.
Don’t be a dummy! Pay the $35 to get a permit at a state run campground. There are 100s of beautiful beaches that you can legally camp at in California. It’s not worth picking up misdemeanor when there are beachfront campgrounds everywhere.
The Best California Camping Beaches
There are so many beautiful beaches along the California coastline that it would be impossible to list them all. Of course it will depend on your preferences (setting, recreational activities, nightlife, etc.), but lets go over a few of my favorite beaches to camp at.
Unfortunately, I can’t list every private campground in the state, but I’ll give you a huge list of state ran campgrounds at the bottom of this post. California has 840 miles of coastline, so lets break down the state into 3 distinct categories to make things easier.
- Northern California: Kirby Cove, Mattole, Patricks Point , Wrights
- Central California: Spooners Cove, Jalama, El Capitan, Andrew Molera
- Southern California: Sycamore Canyon, Crystal Cove Leo, Carillo
The beaches listed above should serve as a starting point. These are just the most popular beaches to camp at in California. There are 100s of amazing beaches across the state so you may be able to find camping closer to home.
I’ll give a master list of State run campgrounds at the bottom of this post. Unfortunately I can’t list all the private campgrounds, because they’re constantly changing ownership.
Northern California Beach Camping
There are 4 big campgrounds to choose from in Northern California. Kirby’s cove is just outside of San Francisco near the Golden Gate Bridge. Mattole beach is a remote beach 100 miles south of the Northern border (West of Redding California). Patricks Point is a rocky cliffside campground west of the Redwood Forests. Wrights Beach allows you to camp right on the sand 20 miles west of Santa Rosa.
1. Kirby Cove (Marin County California)
Kirby Cove beach is located right next to the Golden Gate Bridge just outside of San Francisco. Experience gorgeous views of the San Francisco Bay as you pull into the campground. There are 5 massive 10 person campsites at the foot of the shoreline, but you need to book those well in advance.
Only 2 of the spots are right on the water, but the rest of the sites are only a short walk away. I won’t lie you, it won’t be an easy walk down to the water. The parking area is 200ft above the shoreline, but it’s hard to beat the view from the top. Make sure you book your reservations early, because there aren’t many spots when it’s located right outside San Francisco.
2. Mattole River Beach (Humboldt County California)
Mattole River Beach is a little piece of paradise located in the middle of nowhere. It’s 100 miles south of the Oregon border (west of Redding California) in a remote camping area. Mattole Beach is hard to get to, but that means it’s completely deserted.
There are 14 campsites available located right next to the beach. The sand dunes block the ocean view, but it won’t take more than a minute to get down into the water. If you’re looking for a private beach in Northern California, Mattole River Beach is the place to go.
3. Patrick’s Point Beach (Humboldt County California)
There are three campgrounds in Patrick’s Point State Park with over 100 camp sites. Patrick’s Point is by far one of the pretties beaches I’ve ever been to. It’s located right outside of the Redwood Forests and the Ocean views are straight out of a magazine. You may even get lucky and see whales jumping out of the water.
The only downside to Patrick’s Point is that you won’t be able to camp on the water. You can see the beach from the campground, but it’s located up on a massive cliff so you have awesome panoramic views. It’s a short hike down a desolate meandering path to the beach.
I really love that Patrick’s Point is just a short drive away from the entrance to the Redwood National Forest. You really need to see the Redwoods at some point in your life. Everybody knows they’re huge, but seeing them in person is overwhelming.
4. Wrights Beach (Sonoma County California)
Wrights beach is one of the largest sandy beaches in Northern California. This is by far one of the best campground in California. It’s located west of Redding in a remote area so it’s extremely private with very little foot traffic.
There are 27 campsites located right next to the beach. The 10 best spots are right on the sand so make sure you know how to stake down your tent because it can get windy. You can’t beat the price at $45 per night with a multi million dollar view.
Honorable Mentions In Northern California
Northern California has more beach camping options than I could possibly list. Beachfront campgrounds run from the San Francisco Bay area up the coast to the Oregon border. Camping in northern California can be cool or downright cold so make sure you plan around the weather.
- Bodega Dunes (Sonoma County): Located in the Sonoma Coast State Park this campground offers a chance to camp right next to the sand dunes. The sites are huge and surrounded by coastal cypress trees, but it’s hard to see the water with the sand dunes in the way.
- Manchester Beach KOA (Mendocino County): This campground is right on the Mendocino County Coast. Unfortunately, you can’t see the campground, but it’s only a short mile walk to the water.
- Anchor Bay Campground (Mendocino County): This private 6-acre campground is tucked away next to a beautiful beach on the Mendocino County Coast. The 27 spot campground is right next to the sand so most of the sites have ocean views.
- Doran Campground (Sonoma County): Located on a peninsula between Bodega Bay and the Pacific ocean is a 2-miles stretch of beach. The Doran Campground has beautiful ocean views with 120 campsites that accommodate tents, RVs and trailers (No Hook-ups).
- The Lost Coast (Humboldt/Mendocino County): Head down to The Lost Coast If you’re up for a challenging hike into camp. It’s a 24.6 mile 3-4 day hike with most of it running along the beach. There are few tricky spots where you will need to navigate through rocky terrain and time the tide, but it’s well worth the effort.
Central California Beach Camping
There are 4 popular campgrounds in the Central California Area: Spooners Cove, Jalama, El Capitan, and Andrew Molera. Jalama and El Capitan Beach are easily my favorites since they’re massive campgrounds right on the water. Spooners Cove and Andrew Moldera are smaller more desolate parks if that’s more your style.
1. Spooners Cove Beach (San Luis Obispo County California)
You won’t be able to camp right on the water in Spooner’s Cove, but this is one of my favorite beaches in California. Islay Creek Campground is right across the street within walking distance of the beach. Trails branch out from in all directions from the park and go deep into the Montan de Oro State Park.
Spooners Cove Beach Sits in a hidden cover where Islay Creek empties into the Pacific Ocean. It’s a quiet beach sheltered in the hills with wide open sand and lots of local wildlife to enjoy. Wade through the tide pools or pick seashells up along the shore. Spooners Cove is a hidden gem that you don’t want to miss.
2. Jalama Beach (Santa Barbara County California)
Jalama Beach County Park maintains 107 campsites with all of them overlooking the ocean. The sites that are closest to the water are right on the sand, but even the farthest sites are just a stones throw away. It’s located one hour west of Santa Barbara and it’s one of the most beautiful beaches in the state.
Jalama Beach is a desolate beach where you can swim, fish, whale watch and surf. There’s even a playground for the kids. Known for its windy conditions and rough surf, Jalama Beach is one of the best places to surf in California. It’s not as popular as some of the better known beaches, but your sure to catch a wave in Jalama.
3. El Capitan Beach (Santa Barbara County California)
El Capitan State Beach Campground is by far one of the biggest beachfront campgrounds in California. With 128 campsites right on the water you should be able to find a place to pitch your tent. Hike along the nature trails, surf the points, kiteboard at Leadbetter Beach, or spend the afternoon fishing off the pier. There’s lots of fun activities to keep you busy at El Capitan Beach.
I can only think of one downside to camping at El Capitan Beach. You would think that a park that size would have electrical hookups. That’s not a big deal if you’re camping in a tent, but it’s always nice to have a way to power your camping gear. They do have restrooms with flush toilets and showers available nearby.
4. Andrew Molera Beach (Monterey County California)
Andrew Molera beach is located in the spectacular Big Sur area. The park is relatively underdeveloped compared to other beaches in central California, but the views are out of this world. It’s a mix of tall hillside cliffs and wide white sandy beach.
This wide driftwood-strewn beach isn’t like most of the other beaches in California. It’s filled with wildlife and seems like it hasn’t been touched by man. There are lots of hiking trails along the water and it’s one of the best hikes in Big Sur.
I can only think of one problem with this park and that’s the campground. It’s 1/4 mile hike into the campground (away from the water) with 22 standard tent sites. The campground is situated in a meadow near the Big Sur River. For a hike-in site I was surprised that they offer potable water, and restrooms with flush toilets. Unfortunately there are no showers, but that’s not a big deal on a short weekend camping trip.
Honorable Mentions In Central California
- Pismo State Beach (San Luis Obispo County): Pismo State Beach is one of the few places where camping is permitted right on the beach. They also have a 103 site campground, but I recommend getting a beach permit.
- Morro Strand State Beach (San Luis Obispo County): The campground is a parking lot with a beautiful view. Park right along the beach to experience one of the best ocean views in California.
- Morro Bay State Park (San Luis Obispo County): Morro Bay State Park is a 2,700 acre park surrounded by eucalyptus and cypress trees. The park boasts 100 sites for tents and RVs and the town of Morro Bay is a short drive away. It’s a beautiful park, but the beach isn’t all that impressive if I’m being honest.
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (Monterey County): Located south of San Jose on the Pacific Coast Highway featuring a small waterfall that cascades onto the sandy white beach. There are only 2 sites available at the campground so make sure you book them at least 6 months in advance.
- Refugio State Beach (Santa Barbara County): Located 20 miles away from Santa Barbara, Refugio State Beach is a quite tranquil getaway with 66 campsites right on the sand. Go kayaking, surfing, scuba diving, fishing, and swimming in this hidden gem.
Southern California Beach Camping
There are so many beautiful beaches in Southern California that it would be impossible to list them all. My 3 favorite beaches to camp at are Sycamore Cove Beach, Crystal Cove, and Leo Carillo Beach.
1. Sycamore Cove Beach (Los Angeles County California)
Sycamore Cove Beach is a day-use area located in Point Mugu State Park (Ventura County). The beach in Sycamore Cove is amazing, but the campground is far more impressive. It’s across the street from the beach, but it has an extensive hiking trail network through Point Mugu State Park. This is definitely the park to visit if you like getting out on the trail.
While Sycamore Canyon Campground steals the show, Sycamore Cove Beach boasts relaxing sandy shores and rolling waves that are perfect for swimming, body surfing, and fishing. When it comes to wildlife, this is one of the coolest parks to visit in Southern California. You can find sea lions, harbor seals, dolphins, and migrating gray whales.
2. Crystal Cove Beach (Orange County California)
Crystal Cove is one of California’s largest remaining examples of open space and natural seashore. It features 3.2 miles of sandy beach with 2,400 acres of backcountry wilderness to explore. Explore the gently sloping hills, tidepools, rocky reefs, canyons/ridges, sandy beaches, rolling surf, and offshore underwater area for scuba diving.
The Crystal Cove historic district has 46 rustic cottages that were originally built as a seaside colony in the 1930s. You can stay in 21 cottages for overnight use or camp along the coastline in Moro Campground. There are 60+ spots available, but try to book your reservations early so you can get one of the 10 spots right on the beach.
3. Leo Carillo Beach (Los Angeles County California)
Leo Carillo State Park has 1.5 miles of beach for swimming, surfing, windsurfing , and surf fishing. Explore the tidepools, coastal caves, and reefs for a unique experience you won’t get anywhere else. It’s a family friendly beach in western Malibu (west of Los Angelos) with a daily fee that keeps the large crowds away.
Leo Carillo Beach is one of those places that you need to visit to appreciate the beauty. It’s a hidden gem and one of my favorite beaches in California. The parking lot can be filled, but there won’t be a huge crowd since its a massive park.
Leo Carillo State Park Campground features 130 campsites that can accomodate RVs, trailers, and tents. You won’t be able to camp on the beach, but it’s only a short walk away. The campground has hot showers, flushing toilets, and electrical hookups in a solid chunk of the sites.
Honorable Mentions In Southern California
- Campland On Mission Bay (San Diego County): A private campground on the shores of San Diego’s Mission bay that’s geared for families. This is a luxury campground with all the amenities you could ask for including swimming pools, arcade, cafe, store, wifi, laundry, skatepark, volleyball courts, horseshoes, and a private beach.
- San Elijo State Beach Campground (San Diego County): 170 campsite campground with a long wooden staircase leading down to the beach. It’s a big campground, but it fills up fast so book your reservations early.
- South Carlsbad State Beach (San Diego County): This is another linear blufftop campground with stars leading down to the beach. It’s a well maintained campground and a great place for familes.
- San Onofre State Beach (Orange County): Stay at Bluffs Campground since its overlooking the beach and has six different hiking trails leading down to the wide open beach. San Mateo Campground is also nice, but it’s 1.5 miles away from the water.
- San Clemente State Beach (Orange County): There are two campgrounds at San Clemente beach. One is for tents and the other’s for RVs. Both campgrounds have easy access to a sandy beach.
- Doheny State Beach (Orange County): Mero campground is on the other side of the Pacific Coast Highway. There are 60 campsites with half reserved for tent campers. It’s a short walk to the beach with a restaurant and bar nearby.
- Thornhill Broom Beach (Los Angeles County): Pitch your tent or park your RV right next to the water. The facilities are underdeveloped, but you can’t get closer to the water than this.
- Catalina Island Beach (Los Angeles County): Located 48 miles from Los Angeles, Catelina Island is known for its rugged coastline and rolling hills. It has multiple campgrounds near the beach, but book one of the 8 sites in the secluded Parsons Landing Campground if you want to be right on the water.
A Few Things You Need To Know About Camping On California Beaches
Some counties in California permit beach camping, while others will only allow campers to pitch their tent on a dedicated campsite. It all depends on where you want to go camping. Popular beaches near big cities rarely allow beach camping since it would interfere with the regular visitors.
Tents disrupt the view and nobody wants to navigate around 100s of tents strewn across the beach. I can’t imagine how many people would accidentally trip and fall over guy lines if tents were allowed on a crowded beach.
Most counties have tightened up their rules and regulations over the last decade or so. There are two primary reasons behind the new laws banning beach camping. The illegal encampments popping up along the shoreline is obvious, but that’s not the main problem. Tourists were flooding the beaches instead of paying for expensive hotel rooms or renting at a place like Airbnb or Homeaway.
Why pay $200-$300 per night for a hotel room on the beach when you can get a campsite for $35 down the street? Most people don’t have expensive RVs or trailers, but anybody can afford to camp in a tent on the water. Powerful people were losing a lot of money on unrented rooms and the state lost quite a bit in tax revenue.
Consider Renting A Piece Of Private Land
The vast majority of people choose to camp at either a state run or private campground, but there’s another option. You can also rent a piece of private land on the water. This option is more expensive than state parks, but the prices are reasonable.
Plus it’s the only way you will be able to find a private campsite on the beach. There’s a big difference between camping on a private piece of land and reserving a designated spot. Being a stone throw away from your neighbors isn’t my idea of beachside camping.
You may not have all the amenities of a public campground, but it’s so much nicer than camping on a designated spot. Pull up your truck and setup camp wherever you want. They usually have potable water, picnic tables, and firepits (unless there’s a fire ban).
I use the website Hipcamp.com whenever I’m looking for a campsite. Just bring up the map view and you’ll find plenty of places to camp. RV camping is fairly limited, but there are 30-40 tent sites that you can rent.
Prices really aren’t that bad when you compare them to similar campgrounds on the water. I’m looking during the offseason, but prices range from $35-$65 per night. So you’re paying an extra $20 per night (sometimes less) to have your own private beach.
Don’t Plan On Tent Camping At Popular California Beaches
Popular beaches near big cities rarely allow tent camping (especially on the beach). You might be able to find a private campground 5-10 minutes away, but plan on paying a small fortune. It probably won’t be on the water and you’ll pay at least $150-$200 per night. At that point, you might as well get a hotel room on the water.
There are a handful of private campgrounds that are beach adjacent, but you need to book your spot years in advance. Do you know what your plans are 3 years from now? I have no idea, so I highly doubt it!
There are far too many people fighting for the 30 spots alongside popular tourist destinations. You will need to drive out to a scenic beach in a smaller town if you want any chance of camping on a California beach.
Even then you will need to make reservations or request permits a few months in advance. Everybody wants to camp on the beach and there aren’t that many spots when the prices are so low. Let’s go over a few of the best places to go camping on the beach in California.