Peaceful Camping Spots for a Winter Weekend Getaway in Southern California

Get out of town and into nature.

Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park | daveynin/Flickr
Joshua Tree National Park | daveynin/Flickr

While most of the country hunkers down under freezing temperatures, those of us who are lucky enough to live in Southern California are enjoying our relentlessly sunny weather. But as much as we love boozing by the beaches, hitting beer and taco festivals, and dancing on rooftop bars, sometimes we want to get out of town and back to Mother Nature. Winter is perfect for outdoor camping—from beachside surf spots to mountain hideaways and desert stargazing, we’ve got campsites to please nearly everyone. Of course, with so many enchanting places to visit, how do you decide where to spend your weekend or vacation? No worries, we’ve narrowed it down to these 12 great places you shouldn’t miss.

Be mindful that weather and other conditions can change rapidly, so you’ll want to check your park’s webpage before heading out, even if you’ve got a reserved campsite. And as always, follow camping’s golden rule: leave your campsite better than you found it.

San Onofre State Beach
San Onofre State Beach | Justin Meissen/Flickr

Distance from SD: About 60 miles
Distance from LA: About 70 miles
At the northernmost tip of San Diego County is San Onofre State Beach, home to two campgrounds and some of the best surfing in Southern California, with several surf breaks ranging from gentle beginner waves at Old Man’s to one of the premier surf breaks in the United States at Trestles. San Onofre Bluffs offers camping adjacent to the beautiful sandstone bluffs and campsites have a fire pit and picnic table, with cold outdoor showers, chemical toilets nearby, and an RV dump station. It’s open from May 16 through September 30. Further north and a bit inland, San Mateo Campground is open year-round and connects with Trestle Beach via a 1.5 mile nature path. Campsites include a fire pit and picnic table, and some have RV hookups for electricity and water. Hot indoor showers and flush toilets are available. Just east of San Mateo Campground is the San Mateo Creek, flowing towards the Pacific Ocean and adjacent to riparian and wetland habitats where you can see rare and endangered species, including the tidewater goby and arroyo toad.

Cleveland National Forest
Mount Laguna | bonandbon/Shutterstock

Distance from SD: About 55 miles
Distance from LA: About 170 miles
For those who are looking to get in touch with nature but still want access to some necessities, there are several campgrounds to choose from in the Cleveland National Forest on Mt. Laguna. Sites at Boulder Oaks and Cibbets Flat Campgrounds are first-come, first-served, but if you’re more of a planner, you can reserve spots at Burnt Rancheria and Laguna Campgrounds. There are plenty of mountain biking, hiking, and backpacking trails to explore in the area and if you need supplies you can always stop by the Laguna Mountain Lodge. It has a general store selling everything from beer to firewood, plus rooms and cabins if you decide to bail on the camping idea altogether.

Distance from SD: About 57 miles
Distance from LA: About 115 miles
Just a short drive North of SD County is the La Jolla Indian Campground. If you want to get away from the city for the weekend this is a great spot to enjoy some fresh air, build a campfire, roast some s’mores, and go tubing down the San Luis Rey River. Online reservations are required, and outside firewood is prohibited due to the gold spotted oak borer, but there’s a general store near the campgrounds where it can be purchased, along with gas, food, ice and other necessities.

View of San Diego County from Mount Palomar
Mount Palomar | Manuela Durson/Shutterstock

Distance from SD: About 65 miles
Distance from LA: About 120 miles
If you’re into astronomy, you should check out the Observatory Campground on Mt. Palomar. You can explore the surrounding forest by bike or hike during the day and get up close and personal with the cosmos at night. The site is just a two-mile hike from the observatory itself and they have astronomy events at the campground on some weekends during the summer. The observatory isn’t the only reason to visit Mt. Palomar though; you can camp out in several other campgrounds on the mountain while doing a little stargazing on your own.

Crystal Cove beach
Crystal Cove State Park | SunflowerMomma/Shutterstock

Distance from SD: About 86 miles
Distance from LA: About 53 miles
If you want to do some camping near the beach without going all the way to Catalina, Crystal Cove State Park is an option not too far from San Diego right between Laguna Beach and Newport Beach. There are several areas to camp within the park that will not only give you access to both the beach and backcountry hiking trails, but getting to them is a great workout. As with a lot of areas in SoCal, you can’t camp right on the beach here. You’ll park in the El Moro lot and then it’s a three-mile trek to the campgrounds up the hill. You can mountain bike, day hike, or check out the tide pools and lounge on the beach.

Catalina Island
Catalina Island | L.A. Nature Graphics/Shutterstock

Distance from SD: About 86 watery miles
Distance from LA: About 30 watery miles
There is so much more to Catalina than just Avalon. Campsites are available both on the beach and further inland where you can enjoy the beauty of Catalina without dealing with a mob of tourists. Several locations on the island can be booked up to a year in advance, and you should definitely do that before taking the ferry all the way out there. They also have equipment rentals available so that you don’t have to haul all of your camping gear on the ferry if you don’t want to. Again, do this in advance or you might find yourself sleeping with your head in the sand. Your options range from tent cabins to primitive campsites and secluded boat-in camping.

Blooming Desert, near Borrego Springs
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | Anton Foltin/Shutterstock

Distance from SD: About 88 miles
Distance from LA: About 145 miles
The desert is not everyone’s ideal camping destination, but there is so much to see and explore in the massive Anza-Borrego State Park that you’re definitely going to want to stay a few days to check it all out. The park has four actual campgrounds, but if you have no need for picnic tables or flush toilets then there are plenty of free primitive camping spots and they also allow roadside camping if you really want to rough it. While you’re there, be sure to check out the Pictograph Trail to see rock paintings made by the Kumeyaay Indians thousands of years ago. Hellhole Canyon might sound like the last place you’d ever want to be, but the 5.5-mile trail leads you to Maidenhair Falls, a 20-foot waterfall close to Borrego Springs. There are also slot canyons, wind caves, and several other beautiful destinations out in the desert that you don’t want to miss.

Lake Arrowhead
Lake Arrowhead | Frederick James Whitner/Shutterstock

Distance from SD: About 130 miles
Distance from LA: About 80 miles
Camp out near Lake Arrowhead surrounded by the pine trees of the San Bernardino National Forest. While the North Shore and Dogwood Campgrounds are closed, yellow post remote camping is an option in the forest with the right permits. While you’re there, you should head down to the lake to take a dip, water ski, or take a boat out on the water, and take advantage of the list of hiking trails that will lead you all over the forest. Deep Creek Hot Springs/Goat Trail will lead you to (you guessed it) hot springs. You’ll also run into the Pacific Coast Trail which follows the creek along the way.

Distance from SD: About 134 miles
Distance from LA: About 110 miles
If you really want to get away from it all, come out here. The only way to access this campground is by hiking there from the Pacific Coast Trail or the Fish Creek Trail. There are two remote campsites out there that have nothing more than a picnic table and fire ring but plenty of fresh air and peace and quiet. You don’t have to be hiking the entire PCT to camp here, but you might get the chance to meet some interesting hikers who are resting for the night.

tramp camping
Keep Smiling Photography/Shutterstock

Distance from SD: 141 miles to the tram, plus hiking to campsites
Distance from LA: About 110 miles
Hop on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and take a ride 2.5 miles up the mountain in one of the world’s largest rotating tramcars. From the top you can hike to six campgrounds within seven miles of the tram. A permit to camp is only $5, but come prepared since none of these campsites have water available and there are definitely no stores nearby. While you’re there, you can take a hike up to San Jacinto Peak, the second-highest point in SoCal.

Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree | Dennis Silvas/Shutterstock

Distance from SD: 164 miles
Distance from LA: About 140 miles
There are a couple of ways to experience Joshua Tree. One way is to book a room at a hotel in town, then drive through the park to "ooh" and "aah" at the scenery from the comfort of your air-conditioned car. The other way is to camp out in the desert to experience the total darkness of a starry desert night or a glorious J-Tree sunrise first-hand. There are nine campgrounds throughout the park where you can do just that. During the scorching summer months they are mostly first-come, first-served, but in the busier fall-spring season you’re better off making a reservation. If everything fills up, there is always the alternative to pitch your tent on the BLM land outside the park.

Salton Sea State Recreation Center in California
Salton Sea State Recreation Area | melissamn/Shutterstock

Distance from SD: 182 miles
Distance from LA: About 155 miles
To some the Salton Sea is a fascinating place to explore and check out the migratory birds, to others it’s just a creepy place in the middle of nowhere that smells pretty bad. No matter what your opinion is, there are places where you can camp at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area. Several actually. Since it’s a million degrees out there in the summer, their busy season is from November to May. There are RV spots that require a reservation, but visitors are welcome to tent-camp without a reservation any time.

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Mary Beth Abate is a San Diego-based freelance writer by way of Chicago and Los Angeles. Her hobbies include yoga, pickling and fermenting stuff, reading cookbooks and drinking fabulous gin. Keep up with her experiments @MaryBeth_Abate.
Sara Norris is a contributor for Thrillist.