Weekend Camping Trips in Southern California

We take you from ocean to desert to mountains, with weekend-worthy camping trips. This once humble activity used to mean roughing it—but not anymore.

VENTURA RANCH
You’ll find comfy digs at this KOA.

When you drive into this campground, nestled in the foothills between Santa Paula and Ojai, you feel like you’ve arrived at summer camp or a down-home rustic resort. But this KOA (short for Kampgrounds of America, a system of 486 franchised campgrounds) location offers glamping—tricked‑out teepees or safari tents, which have become popular options for campers looking to rough it in more deluxe style. Ventura Ranch offers teepees for every budget, from basic to boutique. Stay in posh tents that sleep four with a queen bed and futon couch. Or opt for a fully furnished cabin with air conditioning, a kitchen, flat-screen TV, and large deck with a gas barbecue grill. Traditional campsites and glampsites share a woodsy setting along a creek. Tent sites are spacious, as are RV sites, some of which have patios and patio furniture.

PLAY  Ventura Ranch offers the usual KOA amenities, such as a large swimming pool and playground, plus a jumping pillow, a climbing wall, and an 800-foot zip line. Join in the fun of a free Saturday night Bigfoot Adventure Walk.

EAT A 15-minute drive takes you to the far edge of Ojai and to Boccali’s Pizza and Pasta. This family-owned spot uses local farm-to-table ingredients for hand-tossed pizzas, pasta dishes, and other Italian fare. Boccali’s also serves mammoth meatballs, a famed strawberry shortcake, fresh-squeezed orange juice and lemonade, and its own line of wine. Eat indoors or in a lovely oak-shaded seating area with a magnificent mountain backdrop. Tlaquepaque Restaurant in Santa Paula is an old-school Mexican spot in the historic Main Street area. Known for its authenticity, it offers handmade tortillas, goat stew, and Mexican Coca-Cola.

WILDERNESS EXPERIENCE Waterfalls, wading pools, and swimming holes are some of the attractions of tranquil Santa Paula Canyon. Santa Paula Canyon Trail (6 miles round trip with 800-foot elevation gain) winds along a riverbed through the canyon to perfect-for-a-picnic Big Cone Camp, and to a 25-foot waterfall and a deep pool that locals call “The Punchbowl.” From Ventura Ranch, head a mile or so west on Highway 150 (toward Ojai) to the trailhead located at the entrance to St. Thomas Aquinas College.


MONTAÑA DE ORO STATE PARK
Discover this midstate, oceanfront spot that’s laid back, great for viewing wildlife—and just plain gorgeous.

Photograph by Rich Reid

In spring, the bluff-top fields here are festooned with mustard and poppies, which is how the park got its “Mountain of Gold” moniker. The park and its campground are gems of the California State Park system and positioned equidistant from Southern California and the Bay Area; it’s a favorite getaway for those in the know. Best suited to tent camping and small rigs, the 44 sites occupy a bluff above a small creek. In addition, four delightful walk-in camps, south of the main campground, are perched on a hill and offer great Pacific vistas.

Book well in advance because both drive-in and walk-in sites fill up quickly. Wildlife abounds. Squirrels and raccoons are everywhere, and if you hear strange growls or hisses in the night, it’s probably the resident bobcats.

The park has great inland trails, too. For gorgeous Central Coast panoramas, hike 4.5 miles round trip with 1,300-foot gain to the top of Valencia Peak or 6 miles round trip with 1,000-foot gain to the summit of Hazard Peak. Or opt for the 5-mile round-trip jaunt along Coon Creek, a year-round stream that winds through the Irish Hills along a lush canyon lined by ancient Bishop pines.

FOR HIKERS From camp, walk down to photogenic Spooner’s Cove to discover a pebbly beach, picnic tables, tide pools, and sea caves. At low tide, carefully climb up the striking rock formations at water’s edge.

Photograph by Seth Smigelski

Thrilling! South of the cove, a wide path leads to dramatic bluffs. Look for harbor seals venturing ashore, otters diving for food beyond the surf line, and many bird species: black oyster-catchers, pelicans, cormorants. North of Spooner’s Cove, paths lead for miles along a magnificent coastline of reefs, ravines, and dunes extending all the way to Morro Bay. Trails meander atop the cliffs and take you into pocket beaches and rocky coves. If it’s low tide, you can hike for long stretches along the beach. Kids of all ages love sliding down the dunes.

EAT Find refreshment in the drowsy bayside town of Los Osos, four miles from the campground. Drop by Carlock’s Bakery for tasty doughnuts, pastries, and delicious ham-and-cheese croissants. Enjoy a meal and local craft brew at the dog-friendly Baywood Ale House. Local favorite Sylvester’s Burgers serves big juicy patties and garlic fries.


Photo courtesy Riverside County Regional Park and Open-Space District

IDYLLWILD COUNTY PARK
Experience camping at 5,300 feet, within walking distance of an artsy town.

With its towering pines and incense cedar, great boulders and lively creeks, Idyllwild County Park offers a family-friendly introduction to the pleasures of the San Jacinto Mountains. The park’s well-tended campground has 88 woodsy sites, each with a fire ring and picnic table. Most have privacy and plenty of shade, and all can be used for tent camping. It’s an easy walk to restrooms and showers. Park rangers patrol the camp in a cart loaded with firewood for purchase. Watch for rabbits and squirrels scurrying about, and enjoy the soothing sound of the wind in the pines. A major perk is free and easy access via footpath to Idyllwild Nature Center. Exhibits present the natural and cultural history of the mountains, and the center hosts environmental programs and guided hikes.

Photo by Jenny Kirchner

FOR HIKERS A few miles of trails meander through the county park and climb to spots with far-reaching vistas of the stony ramparts of the San Jacinto range. You’ll travel through a mixed forest of oaks, pines, and cedar trees, punctuated with impressive boulders. For splendid views of Strawberry Valley, take a hike to the top of Suicide Rock (6.6 miles round trip with 1,900-foot gain), which is popular with rock climbers and more welcoming than its name suggests. Begin your hike to the prominent white granite outcrop from Deer Springs Trailhead, located across Highway 243 from Idyllwild County Park.

IN TOWN Idyllwild offers a cool respite from the summer heat of Riverside County’s exurbs and desert communities. From Idyllwild Park, a half-mile walk takes you to a grocery store, shopping, and dining. In the center of town, Lumber Mill Bar and Grill is a popular casual spot with 20 burger offerings, including the No Way Jose topped with pepper jack, grilled onions, bacon, avocado, and 1,000 island dressing. Fratello’s Ristorante & Pizzeria offers traditional Italian fare and wood-fired pizza. The Jazz in the Pines Festival has top-flight jazz, blues, and R&B acts every August.


ANGELES CREST CREAMERY
This Angeles National Forest retreat comes with a wildlife bonus.

Photograph by Gloria Putnam

These days, GOAT is an acronym for Greatest Of All Time. But up here, the term still refers to a gregarious, four-legged creature with horns and a beard. And you’ll find plenty of them at Angeles Crest Creamery, a camping spot with a little extra kick—a herd of goats that supplies fresh dairy treats and activities you thought you could only get down on the farm. This is a working goat ranch, and owner Gloria Putnam welcomes guests to hike and camp alongside her herd of Nubians, good‑sized animals with large pendulous ears. Campers can try their hand at milking them or even take a cheesemaking class.

 

REST You can drive right up to Camp 1, in the shade of cottonwoods near a little lake. It’s an easy 10-minute walk (don’t be surprised if the goats accompany you) to Campsites 2 and 3, nestled in the piñon pines. Bring your own tents and gear. You can also overnight in the Creamery’s 16-foot Airstream Bambi, perched on a hillside above the goat barn, for $199 per night (booked separately, on airbnb.com).

SPECIAL EATS Make prior arrangements to get ranch meals delivered to your tent on weekends. Seasonal offerings from the goat-centric menu include goat milk, Greek yogurt with granola and berries, fresh chèvre (goat cheese), and kid meat (goat is the world’s most widely eaten meat). Putnam makes use of native plants—sprinkling pickled yucca flowers on a salad and adding piñon pine syrup to sweeten the morning coffee.

NEARBY  Nowhere in Southern California is the presence of the San Andreas Fault more obvious than in Devil’s Punchbowl Natural Area, a Los Angeles County Park in Pearblossom. Millions of years of geologic development have tilted the dun-colored rocks every which way, and they have been weathered by wind and rain. Hike Punchbowl Trail (7.5 miles round trip with 600-foot elevation gain) through a madly landscaped rock garden to Devil’s Chair for superb views of the seemingly infinite sandscape of the Mojave. For a more heavenly retreat, stop at St. Andrew’s Abbey, which offers books, gifts, and world-famous ceramics made by the resident Benedictine monks.


NIPTON’S ECO-LODGE TENTED CABINS
Here on the northern edge of the Mojave National Preserve, the silence and the sky are vast.

Photograph by Seth Smigelski

Compared to internationally famous Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks, Mojave National Preserve is little known and lightly populated. Sleeping under the stars takes on a whole new meaning at Nipton (population 6), the town at the preserve’s doorstep where the night sky looks almost crowded with constellations. Each of the four Eco-Lodge tented cabins is outfitted with two double beds, a wood stove, a table, electric lights, and chairs. You can cool off by turning on the overhead fan and swamp cooler, but the best way to get cross-ventilation—and great views across the Ivanpah Valley—is to open the large picture‑window flaps. The bathroom with hot showers is in a separate building nearby, and there are picnic areas and barbecue grills.

Photograph by Mindy Benham

EAT Cook your own meals or head over to Nana’s RailRoad Café, located next to the Nipton Trading Post. Burgers are your best bet here. Start your morning with blueberry pancakes and breakfast burritos. Shoot a game of pool and eat inside, or dine outside at picnic tables under a canopy.

WILDERNESS EXPERIENCE At 1.6 million acres, Mojave National Preserve is the third- largest unit of the National Park System in the contiguous U.S. It includes a dozen mountain ranges and has the world’s biggest Joshua tree forest. Your first stop should be the Kelso Depot Visitor Center, which offers park information, interpretive exhibits, an art gallery, bookstore-gift shop, and picnic area at the restored 1924 Spanish Revival-style train station. The most popular hike is at Kelso Dunes. Some of the tallest in the country, the dunes make an unusual, low, rumbling sound—likened to a low-flying airplane or Tibetan gong—when sand slides down their steep slopes. Another must-see is Hole-in-the-Wall. Squeeze between sculpted volcanic rock walls and descend into a narrow canyon with the assistance of metal rings. The trailhead for this memorable hike is at Hole-in-the-Wall Campground, which has 35 basic campsites and is a bargain at $12 per night, available first-come, first-served.

NEARBY Baker is the best and last point along Interstate 15 to get gas, groceries, and a bite to eat before entering Mojave National Preserve. The Mad Greek offers a vast menu of Mediterranean fare as well as its signature strawberry milkshake. Across the street looms the world’s tallest thermometer: 134 feet high, not coincidentally measuring up to 134 degrees, reportedly the highest temperature in the northern hemisphere (a record from 1913 in Death Valley that some weather wonks question).

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