If you want to camp on the beach in California, you might think it would be easy to find a place to do it. After all, California has 840 miles of coastline on the Pacific Ocean.
The truth is that it's harder than you think. Part of the coast is rocky with steep cliffs and no beaches. Part of it is taken up by big cities. Other parts are protected for environmental reasons. That doesn't leave many places to go.
While I was doing my research for this project, I discovered that adding the word "beach" to a campground name is an all-too-common way to get people's attention, but it can be misleading. In fact, those "beach" campgrounds are sometimes they're so far away from the ocean that you should take a photograph back to your campsite just to remember what a beach looks like.
If I'm going beach camping in California, I want my campsite to be right on the beach or next to it. To me, a place on the cliff above the ocean, across a busy road from the beach or so far away you'd need binoculars to see the sand don't qualify.
To help you find the best places for beach camping in California, I set out to find them all. I put together the lists of beach campgrounds in California below to help you plan your trip. Every place on the lists below meets my strict requirements. In most cases, I went there myself or sent a trusty assistant, just to be sure the place is what it claims to be.
To decide what area or beach might be best for your trip, use this guide to the best places in California for a beach vacation.
California Beach Camping by Area
Southern California Beach Camping: You might expect to find quite a few places for beach camping in sunny Southern California, and you'd be right.
What might surprise you is that some of them are actually in the middle of the busy urban areas.
Ventura County California Beach Camping: Just north of Los Angeles, Ventura County is the place to go if you have visions of setting up your RV parked right next to the ocean. You'll also find some beautiful campgrounds to stay in at the beach.
Santa Barbara California Beach Camping: You'll find a few places to camp near the beach near Santa Barbara, but don't expect to set up your camper and walk into town for dinner. Most of them are quite a few miles away.
Central Coast California Beach Camping: Between Santa Barbara and Big Sur, you'll find the only place in California where you can set up your RV right on the sand - that's in Pismo Beach. You'll also find some beautiful places for beach camping between Morro Bay and Santa Cruz.
Northern California Beach Camping: From Santa Cruz to the Oregon border, you'll only find a few places for camping near the beach, as the coastline grows steeper and rockier - and colder. Some of the state parks near Santa Cruz are excellent.
Free Beach Camping in California
You don't get much for free these days, and California beach camping is no exception. Every single place that offers proper campsites charges a fee, even the most primitive of them.
Sadly, too many people copy and paste from one list to another without doing their research. I've seen mentions of a free beach campground near Orick in northern California, near the freshwater lagoon. In fact, that's a myth. After talking to a State Park Ranger, I confirmed that there are no free campgrounds in the Orick area.
More Places to Stay at the Beach
If you're like a friend of mine who says camping is what people did before God invented hotels, try this selection of California beach hotels, each of them also right on the sand.