If your city kid’s idea of roughing it is a hotel without room service, now might be a good time to take your brood on a much-needed camping trip. There’s something to be said for packing up the family car and venturing into the great outdoors for an unplugged weekend full of s’mores, trail scouting, bird watching, tent pitching and more. Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned pro, these sites have what you need for the most memorable family camping adventure.

photo: Michael McCullough via flickr

Gould Mesa Trail Camp
This one is not for the glamper or the first-time camper, but if you’ve already been on a few overnighters in the great outdoors and are looking for a new challenge, Gould Mesa is a tiny spot that is oh-so-pretty and oh-so-private. The only challenge is that it’s a hike-in campground. So make like Lewis n’ Clark, pack your tent, your food and some firewood on your backs and enjoy the two-mile wooded sojourn along the Arroyo Secco in Altadena. You and your budding campers will make a few easy water crossings before ending up at your destination where you’ll find five campsites, fire rings, picnic tables, bathrooms, and a stream to wade in on warm days. Who says you need wheels?

Insider Tip: Bring plenty of water.

Open: Year-round
Fee: Free
Amenities: Vault toilets, fire rings, and picnic tables
Reservations: Not accepted
Online: fs.usda.gov/recarea/angeles/

photo: Stewart I. via Yelp

Table Mountain
Take those freeways and urban sprawl and trade ’em for a hilly oak and Ponderosa pine forest 7000 feet up. Here at Table Mountain campground in the Angeles Crest National Forest, in Wrightwood, the sites are spacious with a paved road that meanders around the grounds, giving the kiddos plenty of room to explore, either by foot or on wheels.

Or if everyone wants to relax, hang out and gaze across the fabulous views of the mountains and the Mojave Desert from your hammock.

Since this campground rarely fills up, it’s an easy last-minute alternative to X-Box marathons, just 90-minutes from the hustle n’ bustle of the city. Forget the marshmallows? Table Mountain is super-close to amenities in Wrightwood, and there’s even firewood available at the Ranger’s Site.


Open: May 7 to the first week in Nov.
Cost: $20 per night
Amenities: Pit toilets, fire rings, and picnic tables
Online: recreation.gov/camping/table-mountain-angeles

Sycamore Canyon
Nothing ruins a great day at the beach faster than the 2-hour stop-n-go drive home — especially with tired, sandy squabblers in the back seat. So why not skip the drive and stay overnight? Sycamore Canyon campground in Point Magu State Park in Malibu is a shady and comfortable spot with walking access to the beach via a tunnel under the Pacific Coast Highway. After a day of fun in the sun, you simply cross back to the campsite.

It’s an easy hike from the campground up to the ridge for a stunning view of the sunset above the crashing waves and barking sea lions. Top off the day by kicking it around the campfire with the kiddos. And the best part comes the next morning with your breakfast bowl of Cheerios on the beach because you realize you get to do it all over again.

Insider Tip: This is an extremely popular spot in from late spring through early fall, and you will absolutely need reservations, which can be made up to 7 months in advance. Also, be sure to reserve Sycamore Canyon loop sites, not Thornhill, which is directly on the beach, and subject to extreme wind conditions.

Open: Year-round
Cost: $45 per night for 1 vehicle; $10 per additional vehicles.
Amenities: Flush toilets, fire rings, picnic tables, and token-operated showers
Online: reserveamerica.com/camping/point-mugu-sp

photo:  Dan O. via Yelp

Wheeler Gorge
Originally built by the Boy Scouts of America nearly a century ago, Wheeler Gorge has a little bit of everything from hiking trails to swimming holes. The Manzanilla Creek runs through the campground and if you like falling asleep to the sounds of running water and chirping frogs, be sure to snag a site along the creek bed. Other sites are woodsier and surrounded by evergreens, oaks, and sycamores. Most sites are fully or partially shaded so it’s great even in the summer months. And it’s just a quick drive from the town of Ojai, where you can pick up groceries, firewood or anything else you might need.

There’s also a kid-friendly hiking trail where you can spot deer, gray squirrels, and blue-bellied lizards. Keep an eye out at dusk for bats. Don’t forget to bring the bug spray, as hot summer days bring out the gnats.

Insider Tip: There are no showers and no running water at this site, so bring a few extra jugs of your own for the trip. If you run out, it’s a quick drive to town.

Open: Year-round
Cost: Nightly fees range from $23-$46 depending on campsite size
Amenities: Pit toilets, fire rings, and picnic tables.
Online: reserveamerica.com/camping/wheeler-gorge

Mojave National Preserve
There are several magnificent camping options out in the desert. Hole-In-The-Wall campground is a first-come-first-served, developed campground. It’s also the jumping-off point for the Rings Loop Trail through a stunning canyon flanked by pocketed rock walls. And for the more adventurous families, several “roadside campsites”, equipped with fire rings only, can also be found around the preserve, and most are accessible by standard vehicles. Click here or check with a ranger for more information. (Note: “Roadside campgrounds have no toilets – bring a shovel – and you must keep and take your own trash with you since there are no dumpsters.)  But what these spots lack in amenities, they more than make up for in natural beauty.

No matter where you set up camp, the Mojave is a climber’s paradise, sans the crowds of Joshua Tree, but is also home to jaw-dropping vistas and natural wonders like the Lava Tube, which is an actual tube-shaped air pocket formed by lava that you can climb down and explore; and the Kelso Dunes, where kiddos can cartwheel and tumble down pillow-soft sand dunes.

Open: Year-round but best in late spring or early fall. Always check temperatures and wind conditions before arriving.
Fee: $12 for developed campgrounds; free for roadside camping.
Amenities: Picnic tables and pit toilets at developed campgrounds only. Fire rings at all sites.
Reservations: Not accepted
Online: nps.gov/moja/planyourvisit/camping

photo: Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce

Hermit Gulch Camp Ground Catalina Island
The boat ride to Catalina Island is half the fun of this uniquely California camping adventure. Take the Catalina Express from Dana Point or Long Beach. (Side note: If it’s your birthday you ride free!) Don’t worry about all of your camping gear; they’ll gladly stow it for you and help unload it once you reach Catalina. If you don’t feel like toting it, much of it can be rented at the ranger station near the camp for a per night price.

Hermit Gulch is the only Catalina campsite within city limits and you have a choice of tents or cabins with cots so it’s perfect for first timers. A trolley is available to bring your gear and your crew up to camp. And if you need any extra supplies, the same trolley will take you into town and drop you back off at camp.

Keep your eyes peeled because there’s lots of woodland animals to be discovered. You’ll most likely see deer, rabbits and maybe even a fox or two if you’re lucky.

Open: Year-round
Cost: Rates subject to change. Check website for details.
Amenities: Tent cabins, coin operated showers, camping supply rentals, general store, flush toilets, vending machines, picnic tables and BBQ stands.
Online:  visitcatalinaisland.com/camping-and-boating/avalon-camping/hermit-gulch

El Capitan Canyon
If you’re idea of roughing it is a hotel without room service, then pitch tent camping might not be for you. So, if you’d rather wade into the waters of camping gradually, El Capitan Canyon is the place for your brood. Think of it as enjoying the great outdoors while also enjoying all the modern conveniences of home. You can pack your own meals (there’s a Trader Joe’s right outside of camp) or order it from the onsite Canyon Market and Deli. Sleep in cedar cabins in Oak and Sycamore grove-nestled villages by the names of Stone Pine, Peace Tree, Lone Stone, and Shaded Creek.

And who needs a sleeping bag? These lodgings come equipped with willow beds and down-style duvets. At the high-end price range, Safari Cabin Suites are decked out with two-bedrooms, a full kitchen, a gas and stove oven, and a full-size fridge. It’s the Four Seasons of the forest. Each tent, yurt or safari site comes equipped with its own private picnic table and fire pit. It’s so posh you might want to stay an extra night.


Open Season: Year round
Cost: Prices range from $145 (for a Safari Tent in the quiet season) up to $795 (for a deluxe Safari Cabin in the summer) per night.
Amenities: Pretty much everything including flush toilets, restaurant, market, showers, fire pits and much more.
Online: elcapitancanyon.com

photo: Sassy R. via Yelp

Chilao Campground, Manzanita Loop
We love this spot in the Angeles Crest National Forest because of its beautiful views of the mountains and wilderness feel, yet it’s only 26 miles from Glendale, up Highway 2. Your mini-mountaineers will love scampering around on the huge rocks while you relax with a cool one — after setting up the tent of course. Keep in mind that this campground does not take reservations — it’s first come, first served. But if you go for a quick mid-week overnight and you might have the place virtually to yourselves. Open season here varies with the weather, so call 818-899-1900 before packing the car.

Open: Year-round, but check to see which sites are open.
Fee: $12 per night
Amenities: Vault toilets, fire rings, and picnic tables
Reservations: Not accepted
Online and Directions: fs.usda.gov/recarea/angeles/

Where do you go camping with your family? Share your favorite sites with us in the comments below.

—Jennifer Wolfe & Christina Montoya Fiedler


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