Camping out in the Santa Cruz mountains can be a magical experience. It is here where some city dweller first get a glimpse of the coastal giant trees. Towering above in several Redwood Parks, the hiking & camping are endless. Backpacking, day hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding are all popular activities in this region.
NOTE: There is no off-roading, 4×4, OHV trails in these coastal mountains, so it will be more peaceful. Peace and quiet, remember that?
Since this mountain range is in between the Santa Cruz coastline and THE CITY, San Francisco, and situated right next to the mega-city “Bay Area”, you can always expect a few tourists about and lots of locals out enjoying their backyard (at all times of the year).
Make campground or cabin reservations as far in advance as possible. Summers are the busiest months!
Tent Cabins: Big Basin Cabins can be arranged at Big Basin State Park. Campgrounds can be found at all State Parks and some county parks. Private vacation homes are found nearby; a few small towns on Hwy 9 offer hotel accommodations. On the coastal side of this ‘mountain’ is the small community of Pescadero w/ Butano SP.
California State Park Sierra Hot Spring Camping Resort open all year
South of Lake Tahoe, hidden in a forest meadow near the small town of Markleeville, sits this super scenic, year-round camping resort in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Popular place for senior travelers, RV campers, families, snow skiers, and tourists.
No lodging available, no cabins. Only Campground Camping – Reservations are recommended. This is a popular destination for the Eastern Sierra Tahoe region. May thru September are peak season. During mid-winter a portion of the campsites are closed and the remainder may be on a first come, first serve basis. State Park is located 4 miles west of Markleeville, at the end of Hot Springs Road.
cross country skiing
Piped water, flush toilets, showers, this is luxury camping by State Park standards. Hiking, fishing, stargazing. Quite an ideal spot, especially if you visit during a slow time. Surrounded by mountains that top 10,000′ elevation, expect to see some snow in the winter months.
The hot pool resort is open to the public for day soaking w/ a fee. Wheelchair accessible areas. The pool hours tend to fluctuate with the seasons, so be prepared for anything. Even a snow storm!
Grover Hot Spring Campground
• Elevation: 5800′
• Number of Sites: 75
• Vehicle Access: RV 27′ max
• Campsites Reservation: Yes
• Camp Fee: Yes
• Length of Stay: 10 Days
• Season: Open all year
• Trailheads: Carson River
Tent camping directly on a sandy beach can be found at USAL BEACH – on remote reaches of the rugged Lost Coast, via long dirt roads (not recommended for RV or camper trailers). Numerous small, cheap, forested campgrounds can be found on the Kings Range (dirt) roads. The area is also known as Honeydew or the Emerald Triangle. The “emerald” comes from the color of the main economic staple, cannabis. Heed all warnings. Private Property signs and gates mean that you need to turn arund and look for camping elsewhere. (Before you hear the gun shots.)
The remainder of camp accommodations are State Parks and State Beaches on the Mendo coast, offering developed campgrounds and most are first come, first serve.
There are no campgrounds inside the popular, historic village of Mendocino, CA , but two state parks are within a mile to the north and south side of town: Van Damme Campground & Russian Gulch Campground. Local KOA and a few private RV parks make up the rest of the scenic coastline.
The Western Divide Highway, at 6000 feet elevation, connects the Kern River Valley w/ granite peaks, dome rock, aspen groves & the Giant Sequoia trees! This is one of the southernmost Sequoia groves in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The easy hike is more of a nature trail, wheel chair accessible & approximately 1 mile long. Large Sequoia trees, picnic grounds, near campground.
On busy weekends and holidays the rangers charge a “day use” parking fee, for those wishing to park in the paved parking lots. Avoid this fee by finding additional parking along the highway. Only a few good free parking spots along this busy 3 mile stretch of highway, and don’t forget to park all the way off the pavement.
SOUTHERN SIERRA: Great destination for camping families & sightseers traveling through the Southern Sierra Nevada mountains.
Western Divide Campgrounds
The USDA National Forest Campground across the road from the Trail of One Hundred Giants is called Redwood Meadow Campground. There is also a separate parking lot for the picnic grounds w/ a similar name.
Giant Sequoia National Monument has numerous dirt back roads for free, primitive, car camping. You’ll need a good topo map to find the best ones. Some roads may be muddy, overgrown or extremely rocky, depending on recent weather. Know you vehicles limitations. There is no tow truck service available way back here in the boonies.
Little Grass Valley Recreation Area
Plumas National Forest
Tucked way up in the Northern Sierra Nevada mountains, at the top edge of the California Gold Country, is this popular recreational lake in the forest above the busy Sacramento Valley.
Up on the mountain at 5000 feet above sea level, via La Porte Road (Plumas #120), a Sierra Nevada THRU-ROAD – one which closes for winter snow. The lake destination may be open, but the campgrounds are closed up seasonally. (NOV-APRIL)
Little Grass Valley Reservoir
Elevation 5,100′ Surface Area 1,433 acres Shoreline 16 miles Capacity 93,101 acre-feet
With over 300+ camp sites available in 10 different campgrounds, Little Grass Valley has room for everyone. Reservations are recommended in summer months, although some camps are on a first-come basis.
TRAVEL NOTE: The nearest town isn’t much of a “town” at all – so driving to get “anywhere w/ tourist services” from here is quite a chore. Gasoline is minimal, if any. Plan to bring everything you will need for your vacation stay, cuz driving to Quincy, or down the hill to O-ville will take more than an hour (one way). Go prepared.
Indian Flats Campground is located on a dirt road off Hwy 79, near Warner Springs CA. Boulder ridges & manzanita surround this oak filled secluded canyon. Small seasonal creek & waterfall is a short walk from campsite.
Maps Mountains / Desert Topo / San Diego Area Maps
GIANT SEQUOIA: in between Sequoia & Kings Canyon, inside Sequoia NF
This chunk of National Forest land is perfectly located in between 2 very popular National Parks – Kings Canyon and Sequoia. This primary paved road leads to some great camping, a perfect option for NOT camping inside the crowed National Parks.
Turn east off of Sequoia ‘Generals Highway’ 198, on to the well signed Big Meadow Rd. There is primitive camping all over this area & a few developed campgrounds along this route. Motorhomes be warned: the road narrows to one lane with no “turn outs” or U turn spots for the last 10 miles (on a steep cliff w/ large overhanging rocks)
In the first few miles, the dispersed camp sites on the right side have great views & some situated on fairly flat granite slabs, perfect for astronomer campers or adventurous RVs. To the left side of the road is more primitive style campsites in wooded areas. The whole area is also a very popular cross country ski & snowmobiling spot for winter recreation. Hunters also like these camps during hunting season (in September).
There is a developed Horse Camp on the left side of the road for equestrian campers. This camp is located across from the biggest meadow and may be the first place you notice on this drive.
Buck Rock Campground (7600′ elevation, 5 spots) & Big Meadows Campground (7600′ elevation, 25 spots) are both family style camps, perfect for those who want picnic tables, plus bathroom nearby. Sorry no flush toilets out here, only pit toilets.
Buck Rock Fire Lookout Tower @ 8500′ elevation – is located to the north on Forest Rd # 14S02. It’s a great spot for some impressive views – if you aren’t afraid of heights. To reach the tower you must climb several flights of steel steps. This place is worth a stop if planning a sightseeing day.
Big Meadows Guard Station @ 7500′ elevation (also known as Big Meadows Cabin), is located next to the BIG MEADOW and is available for rent on a weekend basis from the NFS. Hiking Jennie Lakes Wilderness and fly fishing Big Meadows Creek are favorite activities to be enjoyed.
Big Meadows Road is long & narrow – 12+ miles. RVs are not recommended beyond the Big Meadow Campground, as the road is one lane in some spots & it skirts a cliff edge. The views are incredible the farther you go & many creeks feed the region.
The narrow, long paved road eventually forks off into several smaller dirt roads back near Horse Corral Meadow. Way back here, the dirt roads lead out to trail heads for backpacking, horse packing or day hiking in Jennie Lakes & Monarch Wilderness. Backcountry access to either Sequoia or Kings Canyon National Park! Have a good map if you plan to venture out this far. Pay attention & don’t get lost.
GPS would be helpful in this area. Some of the smaller of the dirt roads are not even on the NFS maps. Make sure to GPS way-point your favorite camp site, so you can find in next time…. in the dark.
Some of these camps above may have been damaged in recent wildfires, so it’s best to inquire before you make the drive. Call rangers to verify or have a backup alternative (plan B). See more campsites @ Santa Barbara Beach Camping
Los Padres Forest Headquarters Goleta CA
The Mt Pinos Recreation Area is located on the border of Southern and Central California, inside Los Padres National Forest. After passing Frazier Park, the winding, paved, mountain road starts atop Cuddy Valley and is approximately 12 miles from Interstate 5 @ Tejon Pass. The 8831′ peak is the tallest in Kern County and is a popular spot for both summer and winter recreation: cross country skiing, snow shoeing, backpacking, hiking, mountain biking. The snow gates often close during heavy snow.
Mount Pinos Road starts atop Cuddy Valley Rd, at the “Y” – where it intersects with Mil Potrero Highway, which heads out to Pine Mountain Club, California. One mile up the Mount Pinos route, you will find McGill trailhead on the right side (it is popular w/ mountain bikers) and then the first snow gate at Burbank Rd. Another 4 miles up hill, you come to the only set of dirt roads accessible on this range. A left turn will take you winding thru pine forest to the valley below. 4×4 is not required, but a National Forest map is very handy. Unfortunately all the private properties at the bottom have locked gates & no thru access to Cuddy Valley is allowed, but it is an awesome drive to just go exploring in the woods.
Back on the main route, shortly after the dirt roads is McGill Campground on the right side & another snow gate. In another mile and a half you will reach Mt Pinos Campground on the left side; the entrance is easy to miss. From here you are less than 2 miles from the end of the main road.
Mountain Bike, Hike, Backpack, Camp, XC Ski, Snow Sled
Darkest Skies for Stargazing in Southern California
The huge paved parking lot is the dead end (2 miles from the peak of Pinos) – very popular with astronomers, mountain bikers, plus the families and snow sledders in winter (if the gates are open). A National Ski Patrol’s Nordic Base, the only building you will see up this way. At 8300′ elevation, the large parking area is perfect overnight spot for amateur astronomers, so be considerate when visiting night. New moon (no moon) weekends APR-OCT are optimal viewing months. In busy summer months you can often find motorhome campers all set up with expensive equipment tracking the heavens all night long. Please be respectful of their hobby & eyes; Turn off headlights when you approach the parking area at night.
ROAD CONDITIONS to Mount Pinos, call the rangers 661-245-3731
Pinos – Peak to Peak Hike
The trailhead for Pinos Summit starts at this parking lot. It is a 2 mile moderate, but steep hike on an old fire road. The neighboring peak to the west is called Mount Abel @ 8286′ elevation (aka Cerro Noroeste). The infamous peak to peak hike along the ridge line from Mt Pinos to Mt Abel is 6.5 miles one way – and very popular in summer months. This hike requires 4-6 hours & a car shuttle should be arranged in advance. The Chumash Wilderness sits between Mount Pinos and the tiny community of Pine Mountain, which can be seen below on many places along the hike.
There are 3 developed campgrounds in the Mount Pinos Recreation Area:
Off road destination, palm canyon in Baja California Norte
East of San Diego
SW of El Centro / Mexicali
Imagine a palm oasis canyon in a remote area of the Baja desert; Cool springs that feed the lush landscape with huge boulders & cliff diving waterfalls. With each campsite featuring it’s very own custom hot springs tub. This place was a paradise 20 years ago, but is now over-developed w/ large groups, parties and camping families. If you can handle the 30+ miles of unimproved dirt roads, this spot is worth a visit mid-week. Winter months are prime time to visit the desert. Temperatures are moderate, days are pleasant & midweek has minimal tourists. Avoid holiday weekends as crowds a can get rowdy and disrupt the peaceful setting. Summer is triple digit heat for months. This canyon is hard to reach and inside a third world country, but well worth the distant journey.
Plenty of great hiking and petroglyph canyons, cool pools and waterfalls, granite boulders, soothing warm waters & gorgeous desert scenery. Summers are usually roasting out here, so plan your vacation accordingly. Palalpas (built for shade) add to the charm & unique look. Each campsite is unique & has a different lay out. Reservations are recommended.
A family run set of campgrounds within a steep palm canyon. Hot Springs are piped to individual pools at each campsite for a maximum of privacy. A cold creek runs through the canyon as well, feeding the palm grove below & waterfalls way up canyon. A desert oasis set upon the slopes of the Sierra Juarez Mountains in Baja.
getting there is a journey –
Recommended high clearance vehicle, sport utility vehicle, or truck. The last 35 miles of the trip is through rough & rugged sandy roads.