Best Beach Camping in California for Surfing

Beach camping in California / Carpenteria
photo by Margot Landen Photography

Where’s the best beach camping in California for surfing? We were asking this very question before we set off on our first longer Pacific Coast Highway surf trip. Tara and I had been planning a round-the-world surf trip for quite some time and thought–what better way to kick off our big trip than to finally have some extra time to explore our own backyard.

It was an epic surf-camping road trip, to say the least! We rented a rad 1979 VW camper bus from Vintage Surfari Wagons and headed out on a Highway 1 road trip north up the coast. We surfed Huntington Beach, Carpenteria, Ventura Point, Emma Wood, Morro Bay and Sand Dollar Beach in Big Sur. Being from Southern California, we had already camped and surfed at many sites in SoCal so we’re very familiar.

Best beach camping in California / Emma Wood

We found not all campsites are created equal. Some have breaks directly out in front with hot showers to warm you up after a cold surf, while others are quite primitive with no amenities at all– some have terrible road noise, and others are nice and quiet so you can rest peacefully with a little privacy.

Through our research and first-hand experience, we’ll shed some light on these campsite essentials so you can have confidence when booking your next trip. We’ve rounded up some great campgrounds for surfing the California coast to help make planning your road trip a whole lot easier.

And check out our in-depth (free) Guide to Surfing California for the top surf spots, surf seasons, where to go, where to stay, surf trip costs, transportation, food, and more…

>> Surfing California / Everything You Need to Know


Beach Camping in California



beach camping in California / Refugio State Park Camping

REFUGIO STATE BEACH is a very popular campsite and for good reason. The grounds are quite nice with all the amenities one can hope for. Just 20 minutes north of Santa Barbara, this little slice of campsite heaven makes for the perfect weekend getaway.

There’s a mellow little right-hand point at the campground beach which is only a few hundred yards from the site. Bring a longboard or a whole lot of extra foam in your small wave equipment as this is a cruise-y roller that needs a solid WSW or WNW to really work.


Best beach camping in California / Carpenteria
photo via Margot Landen Photography

CARPENTERIA STATE BEACH is the closest campsite to the queen of the coast, Rincon. It’s only an 8-minute drive to the world-class right-hand point break, and there are a couple of alright breaks located conveniently within the campgrounds if you’re looking for a quick session or to avoid the crowds.

The campgrounds are located smack dab in the heart of the charming and quaint little beach community of Carpenteria, so there’s plenty to see and do if you want to check out the area.


Best beach camping in California / Emma Wood

EMMA WOOD STATE BEACH offers primitive camping for fully self-contained vehicles only.  Tents are not permitted. The only reason we got in with our vintage VW bus rental is that we rolled up without reservations around sunset and no park rangers were there to check us in so we self-checked.

In the morning, when we confessed our sins of not having a fully self-contained vehicle, they happily accepted our campsite fee and simply told us we could not stay there another night. We sure were glad to have snuck in under the radar though because it’s a very cool campsite.

All the sites are almost directly on the beach and there are a couple of fun breaks within campsite lounging view.


beach camping california
The beach at Leo Carrillo / photo by Jordan Neel

LEO CARRILLO STATE BEACH in Malibu has awesome campsites nestled into a small canyon right across from the beach. Set up camp under some Sycamore trees and then walk to the beach for an afternoon/sunset surf session and/or lounge fest.


Beach camping in California / San Onofre

SAN ONOFRE STATE BEACH is one of the most visited state parks in California so you’ll have to book way in advance. There is a variety of fun surf breaks for all types of board riders up and down this little stretch of So Cal coast.

To the north, you have the rippable more performance waves of Church, Middles, Trestles, and a few others. Directly out front at San Onofre Surf Beach, you’ll find yourself amongst a sea of die-hard longboarders surfing The Point, Old Man’s, and Dogpatch. And to the south, accessible through the campsites on the bluffs you have your pick of peaks scattered across a few miles of coastline with Trails 1 through 6.


Best beach camping in California / San Elijo campgrounds

SAN ELIJO STATE BEACH is right off Pacific Coast Highway in the Encinitas area, more specifically, Cardiff-by-the-Sea. Just like San Onofre, the campsites here go fast so you’ll have to book far in advance. There are a number of breaks out in front of these bluffs, so you can have a look and take your pick.

A lower tide is typically better. Longboarders and shortboarders alike are sharing the fun scattered peaks of San Elijo State Beach all year round. You’ll also find yourself right between a couple of iconic Encinitas breaks with Swami’s in view north of the campgrounds and Cardiff Reef to the south.

Check out our Guide to Encinitas for our recommendations on restaurants, surf breaks, and things to do when you’re not surfing.




Best beach camping in California / Plaskett Creek Big Sur

PLASKETT CREEK BIG SUR is a camper’s paradise. The campsites are wildly scenic and spread out (if you want even more space and privacy book a site on the outskirts!). Sand Dollar Beach is a leisurely 5-minute stroll away where you’ll find a long stretch of white sand beach with peaks up and down the shoreline. The water in Big Sur is so pristine and clear, and the coastline so wild and rugged, you’re bound to be awestruck by its beauty.

Best beach camping in California / Plaskett Creek Big Sur

Big Sur is a very majestic place– and fickle too. So don’t get your hopes up expecting to score epic surf. But rest assured if you get skunked, the stunning views and pure beauty of the area will captivate you like nowhere else and make everything seem perfectly right in the world. Sand Dollar beach picks up NW and SW swells so you should be able to find something to surf year-round. NW swells tend to be October – April and SW swells tend to be April – October.

Plaskett Creek is considered primitive camping. The campground has flushing toilets and sinks, but no showers on site so bring a portable solar shower if you want a warm fresh water rinse. Check out our blog post about our trip in Big Sur >>



Best beach camping in California / Morro Bay State Park

MORRO BAY STATE PARK is a quick 5-minute drive to the famous Morro Bay Rock and surf break. Morro Bay is west facing so it picks up NW and SW swells making it another year-round surf break. The primary peak can offer lefts and rights with the lefts being longer and better on most days. If you don’t feel like competing with crowds closest to the rock, take a walk north on the miles and miles of sandy beach and find a peak with fewer people out.

At the end of the day, be sure to watch a breathtaking sunset over the glassy Morro Bay harbor with a drink in hand. Back at your campsite, earplugs can come in handy, as the campsites at Morro Bay SP felt a bit tight without much foliage or anything to muffle sound in between. We felt the wrath of some loud partying neighbors. However, the tall eucalyptus trees throughout the site are beautiful and the campgrounds are well kept.




Best beach camping in California / Anchor Bay Campground
photo via Anchor Bay Campground

ANCHOR BAY CAMPGROUND is a privately owned campground located along Mendocino County’s scenic Highway One. You’ll be surrounded by native redwood trees, ferns, and other coastal flora. The grounds open up to the half-mile-long Anchor Bay Beach. The site is about a 3-hour drive from San Francisco.


Best camping in California / Half Moon Bay State Beach

HALF MOON BAY STATE BEACH is your spot if you’re one with the elements, as you’re bound to get the full NorCal experience of wind, fog, and crisp damp mornings when you stay here. Kelly Ave is one of the best and most consistent surf spots in Half Moon Bay, and you’d be camping on the bluff directly overlooking this beautiful stretch of beach. It’s about an hour south of San Francisco.

So there you have it folks–some excellent campsite options in California where you’re bound to find some fun waves right out front or at least nearby!

For more photos and info documenting one of our own road trips surfing and camping along the California coast, check out our blog posts about our Pacific Coast Highway Surf Trip >>


For more California travel inspiration, check out:

Surfing California / Everything You Need to Know

Highway 1 Road Trip / A Surfer’s Guide to the California Coast

Camping in California / 11 Tips Every Camper Should Know

6 Camper Van Rentals for the Ultimate California Coast Road Trip

Pacific Coast Highway Surf Trip / Huntington Beach to Morro Bay

Pacific Coast Highway Surf Trip Part 2 / Big Sur



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This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Angela

    SO happy I found this post! We are going to SF May 22nd-30th and rented a van to travel the coast, we were originally planning to wing it as far as where to stay each night because we wanted to have the freedom in our schedule. However, I am now learning that its illegal to sleep in a car in a lot of spots and I was curious, how much trouble do you think we will run into trying to find last-minute legal spots? Or do we have to book an official spot for each night (effectively planning our whole trip). We plan to go from SF down to Santa Barbara.

    1. Tara

      Hi Angela – Happy to help! I totally understand wanting to keep flexibility in your schedule, but yes, it’s illegal to sleep in your car and I’d say it’s the most strict along the coast. Late May is going to be the start of peak travel season in California, and the most booked campgrounds will be along the coast and at State Parks. You could wing it and not make reservations, but then if campgrounds are full you’ll be running around trying to find something at the last minute which could be stressful and waste time you could otherwise spend doing fun things.

      Availability will vary depending on the destination, but if you want to be sure to have a spot, I’d recommend just making reservations in advance. Or you could also look into availability now to see how much is available, and keeps tabs the next couple of months before your trip to see if the campgrounds you want to stay at are filling up!

      A couple of great related resources are: Camping in California and Highway 1 Road Trip.

      Hope you have a great trip! Cheers

  2. Gail Shingler

    This was a fantastic read! Thanks for doing all the legwork and sharing the info! Excited for Refugio camping and surfing this week! Cheers!

    1. Tara

      Our pleasure, Gail! Wishing you an awesome trip!

  3. Mateo Gazzera

    Hey! Planning a trip to cali in Feb, we are renting a camper van from L.A and we plan to camp in beach parks to surf, but we really don’t want to be tied to any particular itinerary, meaning, we don’t want to plan that much our trip, but to improvise. Do we have to make reservations? or do the campsites have room during the low season like Feb? We would surely do from SoCal up to big sur, We were thinking, starting or in big sur and reaching san Diego or the other way around, so we could get good waves and not so cold temp. What would you recommend,

    btw, love your site, it finished convincing us to make a camper van trip.

    1. Tara

      Hey Mateo – Awesome, thanks for your kind words! February is one of the least busy times of the year for traveling the California coast, so you’ll have the most availability at campgrounds and the most freedom to improvise reservation-wise. There are a couple of tiny campsites in places like Big Sur that might be booked during perhaps weekends, but for the most part, you should be fine to travel around without reservations in February. Wishing you a fantastic trip!

  4. Amy Waeschle

    I’m a Northwest surfer and have done lots of trips up here. My husband grew up in your area and we’ve visited some of the breaks you mention in this post. I love your picks and am inspired to return in our camper van one of these days! We have a TGRV, it’s a Ford with a pop top, fridge, and a nice fold-a-bed downstairs. It sounds big but is quite compact. We love it, especially the fridge. Our kids are still little enough that they think it’s cool, too! If you ever get up North, check out Manzanita and Oswald West State Park, known as Short Sands beach. It’s a lovely beach sheltered from winds and a great place to spend the day. Beachbreaks provide fun rides in almost all conditions, except the super big. There’s a 10 min walk down so bring all the day’s supplies and be sure to plan to kick back between sessions. Thanks for the well-researched story and inspiration! My best, Amy Waeschle, author of Chasing Waves and Going Over the Falls

    1. Tara

      Hi Amy! Thanks for sharing, and your recommendations on beaches up north! We’ve yet to visit the Northwest coast, but we’re planning a trip this winter so hopefully we can do plenty of beach exploring and score some waves. Although I’m going to need a serious wetsuit because my tropical-loving self gets cold pretty quickly haha! Happy travels 🙂 !

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