If your city slicker’s idea of roughing it is an hour without electronics, now might be a good time to unplug and take your brood on a much-needed camping trip here in the SoCal area. There’s something to be said for packing up the family car and venturing into the great outdoors for a screen-free weekend full of s’mores, forest hikes, bird watching, tent pitching, and more. Whether you’re on a tight (tent-camping only) budget or willing to splurge on actual walls and flushing toilets, the following camping list for families in Los Angeles has something to fit every nature need. Happy trails!
Gould Mesa Trail Camp—Altadena
If you’re looking for a last minute, no reservation needed sort of adventure that won’t break the bank (‘cuz it’s free), check out 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 forget about driving your car straight to your campsite (and make sure everyone has a comfy pair of hiking shoes). Instead, kick it Lewis n’ Clark style! Pack your tent, food and some firewood on your backs and enjoy the two-mile wooded sojourn along the Arroyo Secco right near Jet Propulsion Labs. You and your budding backpackers will make a few easy water crossings before ending up at your destination where you’ll find five campsites, fire rings, picnic tables, bathrooms (no flushing toilets), and a stream to wade in on warm days.
Insider Tip: Bring plenty of water as this site does not have piped or potable water spigots.
Amenities: Vault toilets, fire rings, and picnic tables
Reservations: Not accepted
Chilao Campground, Manzanita Loop—Los Angeles
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 you might just have the place virtually to yourselves. Open season here varies with the weather, so call 818-899-1900 before packing the car.
Insider tip: There is currently no piped water available at this campground, so you need to bring enough to drink, cook with, clean with and use to extinguish campfires.
Open: Year-round, but call 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/
Mojave National Preserve—Barstow
There are several magnificent camping options out in the desert with even more magnificent desert landscapes to explore. Hole-in-the-Wall and Mid Hills campground are the most popular first-come-first-served developed campground sites. Hole-in-the-Wall is also the jumping-off point for the Rings Loop Trail through a stunning canyon flanked by pocketed rock walls.
For the more venturesome families (with older children in tow), several “roadside campsites,” equipped with fire rings only, can also be found around the preserve and most are accessible by standard vehicles. Check the website or 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 before you turn your nose up, what these spots lack in amenities, they more than make up for in natural untouched beauty. Honestly no matter where you set up camp, the Mojave is a climber’s paradise, sans the crowds of Joshua Tree, and home to jaw-dropping vistas and natural wonders. Check out the Lava Tube, an actual tube-shaped air pocket formed by lava that you can climb down and explore (there are steep stairs so best for more experienced adventurers) and the Kelso Dunes, where the younger set 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, pit toilets and potable water at developed campgrounds only. Fire rings at all sites
Reservations: Not accepted
Table Mountain—San Bernadino
Trade freeway congestion, and blaring car horns for the peace and quiet of a hilly oak and Ponderosa pine forest 7000 feet up above sea level. 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.
Since this campground rarely fills up, it’s an easy last-minute alternative to Mario Kart marathons, just 90-minutes from the hustle n’ bustle of the city. Forget S’more stuff? Table Mountain is super-close to amenities in Wrightwood, and there’s even firewood available at the Ranger’s Site.
Open: May 10 to Nov. 2
Fee: $23 per night for most campsites
Amenities: Vault toilets, fire rings, drinking water spigots, and picnic tables
Originally built by the Boy Scouts of America nearly a century ago, Wheeler Gorge is a beautiful place for families to explore the Los Padres National Forest year round. The Manzanilla Creek runs through the campground and, if you enjoy 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 so you’ll all really feel at one with nature.
Most sites are fully or partially shaded making summer month camping trips incredibly pleasant in the Gorge. There’s also a kid-friendly hiking trail where your small sightseers can spot deer, gray squirrels, blue-bellied lizards, and even the occasional bat at dusk. Don’t forget to bring the bug spray, as hot summer days bring out the gnats.
Insider Tip: There are no showers or 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 to retrieve more.
Fee: Nightly fees range from $25-$50 depending on campsite size
Amenities: Pit toilets, fire rings, and picnic tables.
Swankier Stargazing Campsites
Camp Williams Resort—Azusa
When you see the words “camp” and “resort” in the name, you know this place is going to have more amenities than you can shake a marshmallow stick at. Tucked away in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles, this river-runs-through-it oasis is a slice of tent glamping heaven all without compromising the sought-after natural experience.
Every site here is riverfront so don’t forget your trusty pioneer tools as it’s both encouraged and common to pan for gold around these parts. Also because the owners themselves live on the grounds, you can rest easy that there is 24-hour security just a stone throw away. After a restful night under the stars, rather than wait for the camp stove to fire up, head over to the Camp Williams Café and General Store for hot breakfast and coffee. Camping never tasted so good!
Insider tip: Because of fire danger, charcoal BBQs and wood campfires are not permitted. Propane BBQs and gas stoves, however, are allowed.
Open: Year-round. Call to reserve a site: (626) 910-1126
Fee: $40 per night for tent sites; $50 per night for the Hobbit Cabin rental
Amenities: Café and general store, bathrooms with flushing toilets, private coin-operated showers, picnic tables, water faucets, secure environment
Surfs up! If forests aren’t part of the plan and you all feel a little more at home near the ocean (this is California after all), check out Sycamore Canyon campground in Point Magu State Park. This shady and comfortable spot will really excite your explorers with walking access to the beach via a super cool tunnel under the Pacific Coast Highway! After a day of sun and sand, you simply cross back to the campsite and take a luxurious (coin operated) shower. 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.
Cost: $45 per night which includes 1 vehicle; $10 per additional vehicles
Amenities: Flush toilets, fire rings, picnic tables, and token-operated showers
Hermit Gulch Camp Ground Catalina Island—Avalon
With a heftier price tag than most campgrounds on this list, it’s no wonder the amenities are abundant at this site. For starters, the boat ride to Catalina Island on the Catalina Express is half the fun of this uniquely California camping adventure. Don’t worry about all of your camping gear; the fine ferry folks will gladly stow it for you and help unload it once you reach Catalina.
If you don’t feel like packing for the great outdoors, many of the items you need can be rented at the ranger station near the camp for a per night price. Hermit Gulch is the only Catalina campsite within Avalon city limits and you have a choice of tent sites (BYO tent) or tented cabins with cots so it’s perfect for first-timers who aren’t ready to totally rough it. A trolley is available to bring your gear and your crew up to camp and if you need extra supplies, the same trolley will take you into town and back. Keep your eyes peeled because woodland animals are in abundance here and you’ll most likely see deer, rabbits and maybe even a fox or two if you’re lucky.
Insider tip: Wood fires are not permitted at any site on this campground so make sure to snag a few Duraflame wax logs or bring a bag of charcoal if you’d like to use the BBQs.
Cost: Camping fees are per person/per night and vary depending on the time of year. Check the website for details
Amenities: Tent cabins, coin-operated showers, outdoor kitchen style sinks, camping supply rentals, general store, flush toilets, vending machines, picnic tables, and BBQ stands
El Capitan Canyon—Santa Barbara
If you’re looking for an experience that’s more refined than rough, then pitch tent camping might not be for you. Instead, wade into the waters of camping gradually and take your brood glamping at El Capitan Canyon. Think of it as enjoying the great outdoors while also enjoying all the modern conveniences of a resort vacation. 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 or two.
Open Season: Year-round
Cost: Prices range from $170 (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
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—Jennifer Wolfe, Christina Montoya Fiedler & Jenifer Scott