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California Beach Camping 101

Point Equity

Camping on the beach in northern California has long been a favored activity not only for residents of the Golden State, but visitors from everywhere. Even today, with widespread closures, stay-at-home orders, and social distancing, there are still opportunities to get away from it all and enjoy nature in the pristine natural environment of the state's public beaches. With state and national parks, designated wildlife areas and national seashores, private beaches, and municipal facilities, there are a lot of choices for getting out and getting into nature.

Plenty of outdoorsy visitors venture to popular beaches from Santa Cruz all the way north to the Oregon border. Whether it's a quick overnight to "recharge" after a busy week, a lazy long weekend with a special friend, or an extended adventure as you check out the gorgeous scenery along the coastline, northern California camping areas cater to RV-ers, tent campers, boaters, hikers and bikers. 

A few areas allow overnight camping right on the sand, while most have specific areas designated for RV and tent camping. Some are low-impact, walk-in sites only. Finding that "perfect spot" is a matter of personal preference, and it may take you an entire season or even longer to find your favorite. Each one has something special to offer.

Camping in Northern California can be iffy even during the summer, and downright cold and blustery in spring and fall. Only the hardiest of campers would venture to a Norcal coastal campground in the winter, as beautiful as it might be to watch waves crash against the craggy cliffs.

Here are some helpful guidelines if you want to camp on the gorgeous California coast:

Check the Rules Before You Go

Requirements vary location to location, so you’ll want to confirm current rules in force at the moment for any beach or shoreside location you consider. However, even with COVID-19 restrictions, there are sure to be alternatives if your first option is unavailable. 

Visit the comprehensive list of beaches in northern California for photos, descriptions, attractions, and fee information at popular camping spots. Since mid-June 2020, many campsites have reopened, but some are only offering limited use. The site attempts to update accessibility listings as changes are announced, and it's a great resource for seasonal information at any time of year. There are also informative articles about how to be a good steward of the land and the shore (always important).

Check before you go to learn which campgrounds are open and determine any restrictions on group size, masks, and social distancing. In addition, not all beaches and campgrounds allow pets (and even fewer allow them off-leash), so ask before you plan to take Fido for a long walk on the beach!

Favorite Picks Along the Coast

One option might be to spend a night or two at a beach near home and close to the city. Located in San Mateo County, only about an hour from San Francisco, Half Moon Bay is a community worth visiting even if you don't camp out. There are four named beaches in the State Park that stretches for four miles below the city's coastal bluffs. Each has a separate entrance and parking area. The campground at Francis Beach has both RV and tent sites.

While much of the California coastline is rugged and wild, there are numerous secluded sand beaches as well, notably the 11-mile stretch of The Great Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore, and a variety of people-pleasing state beaches along the Sonoma Coast extending north from Bodega Bay.

Although hike-in/bike-in camping is allowed at only four locations within the Point Reyes National Seashore, along with a single boat-in campground in Tomales Bay, numerous car and RV campgrounds exist nearby, and daytime visits to the beach are mesmerizing as well as invigorating! Reservations are required for stays within the park, located about 90 minutes north of San Francisco.

Numerous campgrounds offer direct beach access; many are family and dog-friendly, with additional opportunities for fishing, kayaking, birdwatching, and horseback riding. 

Further up the coast, near Fort Bragg, a distinctive state park with accommodations for both tent campers and RVers is close to a mile-long sand beach. Another attraction here is a lake that's open for fishing and non-motorized boats, as well as a recreational trail and a whale-watching and seal viewing station. MacKerricher State Park also leads to Ten Mile Beach, a must-explore area for dune-lovers and beachcombers.

Make a reservation online for a campsite at any state park facility. It should be noted that in California, no public beach charges a fee for access, but there is no free beach camping in northern California. Some campgrounds require reservations, while others are first-come, first-serve. Know the rules before you make your plans.

While the beaches and nearby attractions vary greatly by location, there is no question about the lure of the coast. Choose to go to a beach for the solitude or for any number of other reasons. Northern California beaches -- because of their great variety -- are sure to tickle your fancy and whet your appetite for more adventure!

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