I love camping by the beach, but it can be hard to find places where you can do so legally.
Is camping on the beach legal in California?
Generally speaking, camping on the beach is not allowed in California. You’ll see “no overnight parking” and “no camping” signs at the vast majority of California’s beaches. This is pretty strictly enforced in the more touristy areas.
But there are exceptions!
It’s legal to camp at several gorgeous beaches in California, either with a backcountry permit or by booking into a campground right by the sand. You might have to organize your booking many months in advance to avoid disappointment, but the effort will be worth it!
This article suggests eight stunning places where you can pitch your tent by the golden beaches of California. Most of the sites are on public land, so they aren’t too expensive, either!
8 Beaches in California Where You Can Legally Pitch Your Tent
1. Oceano Dunes
Oceano Dunes is a state-owned recreation area where you can drive right along the beach to choose your camping spot.
It’s also known as Pismo State Beach, and you’ll find it on California’s gorgeous central coast. You can camp in your RV, or you can grab your beach tent and camp in the dunes at one of the primitive beach campgrounds. There are vault and chemical toilets, but that’s all the facilities you can expect!
If you don’t have a 4x4, you should think carefully before driving along the sand, as you can quickly get stuck! You should also be aware that there are some dangerous rip currents in the water here. I’ll explain how to identify and escape from those a little later in the article!
2 Lost Coast Trail
Oceano Dunes gets pretty packed in high season. So if you want to explore one of California’s wilder state parks, you should check out the Lost Coast Trail. The Lost Coast is a popular backpacking route on the isolated north coast of California. And it’s stunning!
People typically split this trail into three days of hiking because it’s pretty hard going. But if you want to camp by black sand beaches and immerse yourself in the true Californian wilderness, this might be the hike for you.
You’ll need to be aware of bears, rattlesnakes, ticks, and dangerous waves. It’s a pretty safe trail if you know what you’re doing, but definitely do plenty of research before attempting the route.
Oh, and you’ll have to get your permit in advance, as no walk-ups are accepted.
3. Santa Rosa Island
Santa Rosa Island is the second-largest island in California and is home to gorgeous birdlife and wild animals. I think the best camping spot is Water Canyon Campground because the canyon will protect you from the wind.
The camping is primitive, but you’ll have water and a pit toilet at hand. People usually stay for a minimum of three days due to the boat schedule, but the island will spoil you with all its amazing hiking routes.
Kayaking, swimming, and diving aren’t a great idea here because the currents are so powerful. Nature lovers will have plenty to do all the same. This island is home to 2,000 plant and animal species, 145 of which are not found anywhere else in the world!
4. Thornhill Broome Beach
You’ll find Thornhill Broome Beach at Port Mugu State Park. While you can’t camp directly on the beach, there is a long camping ground directly behind the sand, so you can still sleep right by the ocean.
This beach isn’t wild or isolated like some of the others I’ve mentioned, but it’s still a nice place to visit with your family. There are some hiking trails in La Jolla Canyon right across the road, and the campsites are larger than most beachside campgrounds, so you won’t be stacked on top of your neighbors.
5. Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes is a stunning natural paradise! It’s also popular with visitors, so you should get your camping permits well in advance and avoid high season if you don’t like crowds.
In addition to simple campgrounds by the beach, you can enjoy backcountry camping in the beautiful hills and valleys.
While you’re there, you can take a 13-mile round hike to see the Alamere Falls thundering over the sea cliffs. Just be aware that some areas are closed to camping at the moment due to recent wildfires.
So check in with the official site before visiting.
6. Refugio State Beach
Refugio State Beach is around 20 miles west of Santa Barbara. You can participate in kayak tours, trail walking, or coastal fishing while you are there. It’s also possible to use a beach wheelchair free of charge.
If you like surfing, this is a great camping spot for you. Also, those who just want to relax can enjoy the shade of the palm trees and check out the harbor seals with their binoculars.
Sixty-three campsites welcome RVs as well as trailers and tents. Just be aware that the campground is closed from December to March due to the rainy season.
7. Crystal Cove State Park
If you didn’t guess from the name, Crystal Cove State Park is a pretty magical place. You can head to Moro Campground, which has a mixture of sites. Some of them are for RVs, and some of them are “low impact,” for tents and converted vans only.
As in many delicate state parks, fires aren’t allowed here. If a crackling campfire is essential to you, this isn’t your best campground.
But if you like scuba diving, exploring glittering tidepools, and sleeping by the golden sand, this is a great shout. Just bear in mind that this is a Marine Protected Area, so you’ll have to enjoy the tidepools with your eyes and leave their inhabitants in peace!
8. Parson’s Landing
The last California beach campground that I’ll recommend for now is on Catalina Island. You have a few options here, but I would personally go for the secluded Parson’s Landing.
You reach it by a seven-mile hike, and there are just eight sites, so you’ll have a quiet and peaceful night by the ocean.
The cool thing is that you can prepay for a locker full of firewood, allowing you to enjoy a campfire on the beach. You’ll find 2.5 gallons of water in that locker, too, so you don’t have to carry so much on the hike up.
Camping on the golden sand far from the noise of daily life will make for a night to remember!
Rip Tide Safety
California has some gnarly currents, so you’ll need to exercise a bit of sensible caution.
A lot of people jump into the calmest-looking part of the ocean, with more powerful waves on either side. They don’t realize that they are entering a rip current, which can be really scary.
If you do get caught in a rip current, don’t try to swim against it. Let it carry you out, and raise your arm for help, or swim sideways (not toward the shore) until you manage to get out of it.
Can you car camp on the beach in California?
Normally, you can’t car camp on the beach in California. If you want to camp on the beach, you need to find an allocated camping ground or get a backcountry permit.
For example, if you head to Oceano Dunes, you can drive right along the beach to your campsite.
Is there a fine for camping in California?
There is no general fine for camping in California, and the situation will vary from place to place.
Penalties aren’t very common due to the large homeless population in California, with many people having no choice but to camp. It’s more likely that you will be woken up by a ranger or police officer and made to leave.
But it always possible that you will get a fine if you camp illegally.
There are so many amazing places to camp by the beach in the state of California. I’ve listed eight of them in this article, but don’t hesitate to do some more research to find the perfect place for you.
You’ll need to get your permits or book your camping site in advance, especially in the high season, or else you’ll likely be disappointed.
You can’t camp on any old beach or parking lot; you’ll need to be at a designated site. This is for your safety, as well as to protect California’s natural beauty. If you do ignore the no camping signs, you’re probably going to get a rude awakening from a police officer before long, so it’s not worth the stress.
I hope you found this article helpful, and I wish you many happy camping adventures on the gorgeous beaches of California.
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Rachel is a freelance adventure writer and founder of Highly Sensitive Nomad. When she isn’t writing, she can be found wild camping in the mountains and swimming in the lakes of Europe.