The hardest (and easiest) California state park campgrounds to book right now

Even before the pandemic, demand for state park camping exceeded supply. But this year, with travel actively discouraged by the California Department of Public Health and the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, finding bookings in the most sought-after parks is more difficult than ever.

A recent site search at one of my favorite campsites, New Brighton State Beach near the Capitola, south of Santa Cruz, returned almost no two-day booking from now until September. Even six months of planning was not enough to secure a site.

It made me wonder if my favorite campsites are in high demand and, if so, if there could be lesser known, less crowded alternatives that I would like just as much. So I arrived at California State Parks with a request. I wanted to know which campsites have made the most bookings and which had the highest availability for the last full week of available data, as of March 21st.

Because it is still early in the camping season, with hot spring weather at lower altitudes but snow and cold in the mountains, it is not surprising that most of the heavy campsites would be closer to shore. Still, it was impressive that all the hardest to get camping were seaside spots between San Diego and Santa Cruz.

Wonderful sunset with ocean, decommissioned San Onofre nuclear power plant and sandstone and limestone rocks.

Heather Broccard-Bell / Getty Images / iStockphoto

These 10 most popular campsites include many of my personal favorites:

Two are located along a highly developed section of the Southern California Coast between the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton and Dana Point, the 33,000-strong town marking the unofficial beginning of the Orange County suburbs. These include San Onofre Beach, perched high on a promontory overlooking a highly photogenic beach with dotted lifeguard huts, and San Clemente State Beach, which offers RV and tent camping and easy access to the city trail only for pedestrians.

The list of most popular parks for spring camping includes three more – Leo Carrillo Campground, Sycamore Canyon Point Mugu and Thornhill Broome campgrounds, and Malibu Creek Campground – in and around the ultra-elegant Malibu, where a general two-star hotel can cost over $ 200 per night.

Going to the coast, the rest of the reservation for state-owned state parks is all south of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria State Beach and San Luis Obispo County.

A classic image of the ever popular San Onofre State Beach, California.

A classic image of the ever popular San Onofre State Beach, California.

Courtesy of California State Parks, 2019

In SLO, there are four imposing, hugely popular campsites on the Central Coast: The Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area, an off-road dune complex popular with dune buggies, neighboring Pismo State Beach, Morro Bay State Park and , of course, Hirst San Symeon. The latter is usually the camp-camp for visitors to Hearst Castle, but the castle, which is also operated by the state park system, remains closed due to the pandemic.

This leaves New Brighton as the only Northern California state park among the 108 in the system (although not all are open and booked) in the top 10 bookings. This week, with temperatures reaching the 1980s in the area, this means that the Bay Areans have many options both close to home and further away.

There is, for example, Colonel Allensworth State Historical Park, named after the former slave and highest-ranking officer of his day, who founded an African American city in Tulare County in 1908.

Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, north of Bakersfield, California.

Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, north of Bakersfield, California.

Courtesy of California State Parks, 2019

If you want to be by the water, both Lake Oroville and Lake Folsom are surrounded by wildflowers at this time of year and you have many locations open.

In early spring, when wildflowers are in full swing and temperatures are still tolerable, Anza-Borrego is full of 1of3

In early spring, when the wildflowers are in full swing and the temperatures are still tolerable, Anza-Borrego is full of “Super Bloom” looking for visitors.

Courtesy of California State Parks, 2019

Lake Oroville SRA circa 2010.2of3

Lake Oroville SRA circa 2010.

Brian Baer3of3

For beach lovers who can not find a place in any of the Central Coast camps, El Capitán State Beach, just north of Santa Barbara, has been operating as a top priority in recent months, but opens its reservations today. April 1, at Attention: To get one of these sites, you will want to hurry.

Redwood lovers have many options for camping under tall trees, but the surest bet is also the farthest: Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is a World Heritage Site with 10,000 acres of old redwood and the last great free river California Stream, the Smith River.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

Courtesy of California State Parks, 2019

Meanwhile, wildflowers and lazy campers may want to take a trip to Campo Paso Picacho and the cabins of Cuyamaca Rancho, northeast of San Diego, where there are colorful meadows and eight-person cabins for rent for 75 $.

As we delve deeper into the California camping season, some campsites – those around Lake Tahoe, which are now closed until May and June – will become almost impossible to hold. Meanwhile, desert campsites in places like Anza-Borrego are probably much easier to get stuck in due to the scorching summer temperatures.

But by checking often and having a little flexibility in your time, even the most popular campsites can sometimes book at the last minute. With so many people booking camping months in advance, some are likely to cancel. At the time of the report, a quick search of several of the state’s most popular campsites, including beach beauties such as New Brighton and Pismo Beach, had sites available for just a few days from now. They go fast, but with about 13,000 state park campsites in the state, perseverance – and a willingness to give in to lesser-known parks – pays off.

And, if all else fails, you can always try your luck with an upgrade.

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