California beach camping?
July 21, 2009 11:44 AM   Subscribe

Beach camping in Southern California?

Myself and the girl want to go beach camping in late August. We live in LA but are not necessarily restricted to the Southern Cali area. I have never been beach camping and am looking for insight. My preferences, in order of importance, are as follows:

-Scenic (some of the beaches in Big Sur look beautiful)
-Secluded (the less crowded, the better - we are looking for a peaceful getaway)
-On-beach camping, or as close to right-on-the-beach as possible.

Secret beaches that allow overnight camping would be best, but I understand that may not be realistic. We just want to wake to the waves in relative peace while I work the backpack stove.

So far I have looked at Doheny Beach, as well as South Carlsbad beach here in Southern Cali. The girl is entranced by Pfieffer Beach in Big Sur...but it doesn't appear to offer on-beach camping.

I want suggestions to help point me in the right direction. Can anyone recommend a mind-blowingly gorgeous beach camping experience in California?
posted by jnnla to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Jalama Beach near Santa Barbara might come close, though it doesn't have on-beach camping.
posted by chicainthecity at 12:33 PM on July 21, 2009

Jalama Beach might be right up your street!
posted by Joh at 12:35 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

San Simeon Creek is the closest I've found. It's not on the beach, but it's not far.

Beach camping is no fun anyway. Sand EVERYWHERE.

(If you can get up to NoCal there's camping on Doran Beach at Bodega Bay.)
posted by elsietheeel at 12:42 PM on July 21, 2009

I've lived in Southern California all my life, and I'm pretty sure that doesn't exist. The beaches that are secluded are that way only because they don't allow camping.
posted by booknerd at 12:43 PM on July 21, 2009

Oh, but I've been to San Simeon creek and it's nice! Not very secluded, because there are a lot of campsites in the area, and not right on the beach, but it's usually easier to get a spot there this time of year than it will be at South Carlsbad, San Elijo, or the others.
posted by booknerd at 12:44 PM on July 21, 2009

I love Jalama Beach, but you will be close to other campers and people coming to surf for the day. The beach itself if secluded, so it doesn't get too crowded. There's a little bodega and burger shack there, too. Get there early, as many people make reservations months in advance because space is limited. There are very few first-come-first-served sites.
posted by HotPatatta at 12:59 PM on July 21, 2009

Point Mugu, though they are almost certainly fully booked for August at this point.
posted by anazgnos at 1:08 PM on July 21, 2009

(sorry, that link led to Crystal Cove Cottages, which is probably booked up for years...Point Mugu link here...)
posted by anazgnos at 1:10 PM on July 21, 2009

You can camp on the Channel Islands, though I know from recent sad experience that sites need to be booked well in advance.
posted by contraption at 1:38 PM on July 21, 2009

All of the beach camping spots (on the SoCal mainland) that I know of are State Parks, and the ones I've checked on book up way, way, way in advance, especially summer and for weekends. None of the spots I know of offer actual, putting your tent on the sand, beach camping.

I've done Silver Strand and Pismo Beach, and have driven by San Elijo, Carlsbad and San Onofre enough times to have a good idea about them. Silver strand straddles either side of S.R. 75, with the ocean on one side and San Diego Bay on the other. The campsites are on the bay side. Pismo has a bunch of sites, but is more geared towards RVs and offroaders, and its campground is located behind the dunes from the ocean, about a quarter mile from the beach, but there's no development in between the campground and the beach - just dunes. San Elijo, Carlsbad and San Onofre all sit on bluffs slightly elevated above the ocean, pretty hard by the highway that serves them, and seem pretty compact and congested to someone like me - used to camping in huge spots in the forest or desert.

Your one real hope of salvation may be Catalina, but your setup will be a bit more arduous than for any state park. There are number of campgrounds in between Avalon and Two Harbors that are only accessible by boat, and can be reserved ahead of time (these could quite easily be fully booked by now as well), but you're basically camping right on the beach. At some sites, you don't have a choice. I did a trip where we rented kayaks in Avalon and then paddled the six miles or so to our campground at Goat Harbor, which was actually pretty easy. The boat-in sites offer no amenities other than a picnic table (although Goat Harbor has an outhouse), and the camping is strictly "leave no trace", meaning that you must pack out, on your boat, everything that you brought in, including your solid biological waste from your own body, for which you need to purchase special bags called WAG bags (available at outfitters on the island and camping stores on the mainland).

Further northwest on Catalina, a few coves closer to the west end of the island from Two Harbors, is Parsons Landing, where I think I camped with scouts when I was twelve, over two decades ago, and we slept right on the beach. This might be more accessible than the boat ins, and I think it might have pit or chemical toilets. On the other side of the island is Little Harbor, where you're almost on the beach - the campground is built on a grassy area just behind the sand - and there's water, tables, shade ramadas, chemical toilets, and a very nice ranger when I was there. Around Labor Day, a social organization takes over the whole campground for a horse-riding event, and they bring in trailers full of alcohol and stage stuff - you won't be allowed there then.
posted by LionIndex at 7:34 PM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Forgot to mention - you can't take camp stoves (the limitation may be on type) or fuel on the boats going from the mainland to Catalina per Coast Guard regulations, so you'll either have to be a pretty good liar/willing to risk arrest/fine, or you can rent one like we did at the place we rented our kayak. Some stores in Avalon sell stove fuel. I haven't checked into what's allowed on planes going there, but I can't imagine them allowing something the boats won't.
posted by LionIndex at 7:42 PM on July 21, 2009

Leo Carillo near LA is a very short walk out to the beach. I enjoy camping there because its close (if you are in LA), and there are some cool caves to explore. Probably booked up already, but check.

Big Sur is beautiful, but its more for forest camping, then either hiking to the beach or a short drive, but REALLY worth it. Amazing place. Also probably booked up. Actually I just made reservations at our favorite place there and they only had one spot left on a Tuesday...
posted by AsRuinsAreToRome at 8:28 PM on July 21, 2009

Andrew Molera campground in Big Sur isn't right on the beach (you've gotta walk about 1/4 mile from the campground) but it's one of my favorite places to camp, in no small part because the campground is itself a short hike from the parking lot and this weeds out a lot of people. I've stayed there on weekends in midsummer and have never seen it full.
posted by contraption at 11:23 PM on July 21, 2009

I think Refugio State Beach and McGrath State Beach are both worthy of consideration. You definitely have to balance beach proximity, water temperature and secludedness, and kind of pick two in California, and these two have some good offerings.

McGrath isn't really far from civilization, but the campground is wooded somewhat and feels peacefully removed. The beach is a short walk, and there is a rivermouth and year-round birdwatching at the estuary there. It's also close to cute Ventura Harbor.

I haven't actually camped at Refugio myself, but my parents honeymooned there! Here's what it looks like! Not as secluded as Andrew Molera or the Environmental Sites at Julia Pfeiffer (but you can barely GET to the beach there, FYI. Cliffy. Warning signs about "don't go down there or we'll have to haul you out in a helicopter" abound).

Right. So, these two are good to consider because they're not as crowded as LA county options, but the water is nicer to get in than at points north of Pismo. Semi-secluded for Southern California.

You can also theoretically camp at Ocean Beach outside Lompoc, which is NOTHING if not secluded. There's nothing but beach and distant fences protecting the prison and Vandenberg AFB. But apparently you have to get AFB permission. I've been too chicken to investigate that further. Seems like a great place to wake to the sound of waves... and missiles! Bonus!
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:06 AM on July 22, 2009

I used to help organize orientation trips for my college located outside of LA. Here are the campsites we used for our beach related trips:

El Capitan Beach is located up near Santa Barbara. Its campsites are not directly on the beach, instead they are up on a cliff, and there are paths/wooden stair cases you can take down to very secluded beaches or you can walk back to the main area where there is a lifeguarded beach (but stil not very crowded).

Santa Cruz Island in the channel islands can be reached by ferry but is an incredibly gorgeous island. The campsites are about 1/2 a mile walk form the beach set in between beautiful mountains with tons of trails. The closest beach is fairly small with rocky cliffs to either side (good place for sea kayaking). You can also hike to even more secluded campsite and to beaches that will probably be almost completely empty.
posted by vegetableagony at 7:58 AM on July 31, 2009

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