Travel

Where to Go Camping This Summer Within 2.5 Hours of Los Angeles

Beaches, mountains, and deserts ideal for spending a few nights under the stars.

Summer 2020 has basically been canceled. Those bustling pool parties, urban weekend getaways, and busy beach bars of years past have become a recipe for the spread of COVID-19—which, unfortunately, is currently sky-rocketing in LA. 

So, how do you ensure this summer season doesn’t totally suck? Take advantage of the lighter traffic and pack up the SUV for a socially-distanced camping trip.

Within two-and-a-half hours, you can reach a diverse array of sites. From mind-boggling desert scapes to cool beaches and forested lakes, here are ten great places open to campers around Los Angeles right now.

Malibu Creek State Park
Malibu Creek State Park | Elijah Hiett / Unsplash

Mountains

Malibu Creek State Park
Agoura Hills
Set amongst the multimillion dollar homes and ranches of Malibu, this 4,000-acre state park boasts 15 miles of trails with a creek, rock pool, lake, chaparrals, and lots of shady oak and sycamore groves. It’s so idyllic and untouched, it’s been the setting for many films including Planet of the Apes and M*A*S*H. It’s a popular place to hike uphill for beautiful vistas or cool off in its famous volcanic swimming hole. The campground offers quintessential Santa Monica Mountains scenery. During the fire season, wood fires are not permitted—only charcoal—so keep that in mind if toasting marshmallows is part of your camping goal. Rates start at $45 for a standard site. 

Hoegees Trail Camp
Sierra Madre
Many of the more popular campgrounds in Angeles National Forest are still closed. So, if you want to spend the night in the sprawling wilderness, you’re going to have to hike your way there. Hoegees Trail Camp is a relatively easy 2.2-mile trek from the Chantry Flat Picnic area down the Winter Creek Trail that winds past a creek, under a canopy of pines and oak trees. Each of the 15 campsites come with a table, fire ring and wood-burning stove, but note there is no toilet or garbage disposal so you'll have to haul out your trash.

Marion Mountain Campground
Idyllwild
Set in an alpine forest, 6,400 feet from sea level, this campsite in San Bernardino National Forest feels like it’s in a whole other state. Just over two dozen campsites are scattered underneath fragrant pine, cedar and oak trees, many of which boast jaw-dropping views of the sunsets and surrounding peaks. The site is a great place to kick back and read a book, but it also offers lots of things to do like hiking the popular Marion Mountain Trail, mountain biking, and rock climbing. Oh, it’s located just seven miles north of artsy Idyllwild, in case you need to stock up on food, wood, or crystals. Rates start at $10 per night.

Mountain Oak Campground
Valyermo
Combining water, trees and wide mountain views, Mountain Oak Campground offers a little of everything in the Angeles National Forest’s Big Pines Recreation Area. It’s right near Jackson Lake, a peaceful body of water surrounded by grass and sand beach, where visitors swim, canoe, and fish for trout, bass, and bluegill when the weather's warm. It boasts flushable toilets and a store that sells firewood. The seasonal site is covered with tall oaks and pine trees 6,400-feet above sea level. Sites start at $23 with some accepting reservations. Others are first come, first serve.

Los Prietos Campground
Santa Barbara
Don’t be surprised if deer or wild turkeys scurry past your roomy site at Los Prietos Campground in the Los Padres National Forest. The oak-covered grounds sit right at the edge of the Santa Ynez Valley and are known for being home to lots of wildlife. Though, this year, you’re probably not going to take advantage of the nearby restaurants, there are plenty close to the campsite alongside wineries where you can stock up for the weekend. This popular campground offers easy access to the Santa Ynez River and most of the sites are available on the reservation system. Rates start at $30 per night.

Beaches 

Carpinteria State Beach
Carpinteria
Ventura County’s Carpinteria State Beach is one of the few—maybe only—campgrounds that’s accessible by public transportation. Hop on the Amtrak Coast Starlight’s train, five of which leave from Union Station everyday, two hours later you’ll arrive at the platform of Carpinteria train station right in the quaint little town, just about a block from the campground. Reopened on June 22, this campground boasts all the amenities cityfolk like including flushable toilets, fire rings, a nearby brewery, and a dump station for RVs or Airstreams. Standard campsites start at $45; “Hike and bike” sites cost just $10 a night on a first come, first serve basis with a two-day limit.

San Onofre State Beach
San Clemente
Every SoCal surfer has heard of Trestles, the famous surf spot in San Onofre State Beach. So if you’re looking to catch some waves—or attempt to—on your weekend camping trip, this is your spot. In normal times, San Mateo Campground would be filling up with summer campers right about now, but it’s still closed due to its popularity. For those who don’t mind staying a bit farther down the coast, the primitive sites at Bluff Campground are taking online reservations starting at $40. 

Gaviota State Park
Goleta
Just 30 miles west of Santa Barbara, right off Highway 101, this state park is a popular spot for swimming and surf fishing. There’s a pier on the west end of the sandy beach that’s used by divers and snorkelers and a trailhead that starts off by the parking area heads upland toward Gaviota Peak and offers killer views of the coast and Channel Islands. Gaviota Creek trickles through the marsh right behind the campground, so anticipate ducks, herons, and other animals. The park’s 39 campsites can be reserved, starting at $45 per night. Hike-in primitive sites are first come, first serve. 

Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park | Christoph Schulz

Deserts

Joshua Tree National Park
Twentynine Palms
It’s not just its namesake Joshua trees that make this landscape beautiful enough to land national park status: it’s the architectural boulders, colorful wildflowers, star-filled skies, impressive wildlife, and a whole lot more. Most of the sites are first come, first serve including Hidden Valley, a rock climbers’ paradise dotted with gnarly trees and giant rocks that offer protection from wind. Make sure to fill up with plenty of water before you go—there’s limited water inside the park. 

Saddleback Butte State Park
Lancaster
Set 3,651 feet above the Antelope Valley, on the western edge of the Mojave desert, this state park boasts some features that are similar to Joshua Tree NP—without the hordes. It has Joshua Tree woodlands, mountain-lined panoramas and great high desert wildlife including the super deadly Mojave Green rattlesnake (watch where you walk!). Its 37 campsites come with a table, grill, and fire ring, and many provide a roof-covered area to protect from the relentless sun as well as easy access to potable water faucets and bathrooms with flushable toilets. The sites are first come, first serve and cost $20.

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Sara Ventiera is a contributor for Thrillist.