One of the best things about living in Los Angeles is being able to escape to the mountains, desert or beach without having to drive for hours. And with all that’s been going on, mini-getaways to the outdoors are an ideal way to relax, unwind and recharge while exploring some fascinating terrain that only feels worlds away from home. Fortunately, there are a wealth of campsites near the city that make it easy to leave the hustle and bustle of everyday life behind — even if it’s just for a weekend. We’ve rounded up a handful of destinations to consider for your next great adventure.
Into the Wild
The Angeles National Forest is the backyard playground to residents across the greater Los Angeles area, offering year-round opportunities for a number of recreational activities. Pitch your tent at one of the nearly 40 campgrounds throughout the forest and explore environments of oak thickets, chaparral, high-desert landscapes, pine woods, rivers, lakes and streams. We recommend the Crystal Lake Campground, a serene site surrounded by dense forest that’s close to numerous hiking trails and its namesake Crystal Lake, the only natural lake in the San Gabriel Mountains. There’s also a nearby café that sells food, firewood and other necessities if you decide to pack light.
Located in the middle of the Santa Monica Mountains, Malibu Creek State Park has more than 60 campsites for RVs and tents and is the ideal home base to traverse the 8,000-acre recreation area. The park features 15 miles of streamside trails through sycamore woodlands, including the popular hike to the Rock Pools. The park also has a historic Hollywood past: Before it was acquired by the state in 1974, it belonged to Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan and 20th Century Fox. The studio shot dozens of movies in what was known as Fox Ranch, including the original Planet of the Apes (one of the film’s locations is now a rock-climbing/bouldering wall). The park was also the filming location for the M*A*S*H film and subsequent TV show (remnants of the set can be found along lower canyon sections of Malibu Creek).
Another worthwhile spot is an hour north of Calabasas. The Wheeler Gorge Campground is a gem for a quiet respite in the Los Padres National Forest, and it’s just 20 minutes from Ojai. Matilija Creek runs through the campground, adding to the peaceful vibe, and nearby trails lead to the epic Rose Valley Falls, the tallest waterfall in the forest.
For an idyllic escape, set up camp at the Idyllwild or Stone Creek campgrounds to explore the high-country wilderness of Mount San Jacinto State Park. Despite being a stone’s throw from rustic downtown Idyllwild, these developed campgrounds feel secluded from civilization, and are ideal basecamps for day-long treks (there are nearly 50 miles of trails, including 28 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail) exploring the wonders of the San Jacinto Mountains, which abounds with granite peaks, subalpine forests and fern-bordered mountain meadows. If you want to take in sweeping views of the park and its surrounding area from above, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway located at the Mountain Station offers a 10-minute ride along Chino Canyon.
By the Seashore
Beach camping offers the best of both worlds: access to the ocean and backcountry wilderness. Crystal Cove State Park in Orange County is the perfect beach getaway that’s not too far away, with no shortage of water activities; you can swim, surf, fish, scuba dive or take part in interpretive programs like tidepool walks. Or go inland and hike, bike or horseback ride along trails that lead to panoramic views of the coast. The Moro Campground, located on a bluff top, offers expansive views of the Pacific. The park also features a Historic District that has an enclave of 46 vintage rustic coastal cottages originally built as a seaside colony in the ’30s and ’40s that are available for rental.
Another nearby option is Point Mugu State Park in the Santa Monica Mountains. Thornhill Broome and Sycamore Canyon campgrounds sit just off the beach. The park has 5 miles of shoreline, with rocky bluffs, sand dunes, rugged hills and uplands, two major river canyons and wide grassy valleys, as well as more than 70 miles of hiking trails that lead to the Boney Mountain State Wilderness Area. Lucky campers who visit during late winter and spring may catch a glimpse of migrating whales passing the beach.
When it comes to desert camping, Joshua Tree National Park is likely the first destination to spring to mind for many people. That’s because the rugged landscape is both fascinating and otherworldly, filled with spiky, spindly Joshua trees, miles of cactus-filled flats, wildflowers and big granite boulders. And on clear nights, the sky comes alive with stars. The park’s a haven for hikers and climbers, as there are over 100 miles of hiking trails and more than 8,000 climbing routes. While the park boasts 500 campsites across multiple campgrounds, it’s recommended that you reserve your spot months in advance — Joshua Tree welcomed the 10th greatest number of visitors of any park in the U.S. in 2020, and its popularity is growing rapidly.
An hour away from Joshua Tree is the largest state park in California, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which blossomed into popularity in recent years following wildflower “super blooms.” But there’s much more to explore here than the flowers. Drop camp at one of the more than 170 campsites across four developed campgrounds (or opt for primitive or dispersed camping) and check out The Slot, a short yet exciting trail through a narrow siltstone canyon; the Palm Canyon Oasis, a trail that ends at a shaded spring-fed oasis; and the hundreds of large scrap-metal sculptures of prehistoric animals and other creatures by Ricardo Breceda.
For a closer desert escape, Red Rock Canyon State Park is an impressive option, with colorful desert cliffs, buttes, cactuses, wildflowers and more that can be explored via miles of meandering trails. What’s more, the 50 primitive sites at the Ricardo Campground are positioned near breathtaking rock formations.
Know before you go! Be sure to check park websites or call park offices for information on reservations, day passes and permits, possible closures, parking, pet rules, road conditions and more.