Outdoor Expert Tom Stienstra Names California’s Top 10 Best Scenic Campgrounds

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The great outdoors is beckoning. Top-selling guidebook author and outdoor expert Tom Stienstra helps travelers discover unforgettable camping sights in beautiful California—just in time for Memorial Day.

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Moon California Camping by Tom Stienstra

Grab a sleeping bag, pack the car, and discover the best camping spots in beautiful California.

With Memorial Day fast approaching, camping season is here. For many vacationers, camping is a fun and budget-friendly way to enjoy nature and escape from everyday routines. This spring, Tom Stienstra—San Francisco Chronicle outdoor columnist and the nation’s top-selling author of Moon California Camping, Moon California Hiking, and Moon Northern California Camping—offers his top 10 unforgettable scenic camping destinations.

So grab a sleeping bag, pack the car, and discover the best camping spots in the Golden State with Stienstra’s list of the top 10 best scenic campgrounds in California:

1. Bridalveil Creek and Equestrian and Group Camp, in Yosemite National Park.

There may be no better view than the one from Glacier Point, looking down into Yosemite Valley. Campers will also enjoy the perfect views of Yosemite Fall, Nevada Fall, Vernal Fall, and several hundred square miles of wilderness backcountry.

2. Emerald Bay State Park and Boat-In, on Lake Tahoe.

One of the most striking and popular state parks on earth, Emerald Bay is a place of rare beauty. The Bay is a designated underwater park featuring Fanette Island, Tahoe’s only island, and Vikingsholm, one of the greatest examples of Scandinavian architecture in North America.

3. Upper Hell Hole Walk-In/Boat-In, in Eldorado National Forest.

When the lake is full, this is a beautiful spot, set on the southern shore at the upper end of Hell Hole Reservoir in remote national forest seen by few people. Getting here requires a boat-in or five-mile walk on a trail along the southern edge of the lake.

4. Donner Memorial State Park, on Donner Lake.

The remarkable beauty of Donner Lake often evokes a deep, heartfelt response. The lake’s gemlike blue waters are great for fishing and water sports. The park also boasts 2.5 miles of scenic hiking trails.

5. Sardine Lakes, in Tahoe National Forest.

This campground is set near Sand Pond and about a mile from Lower Sardine Lake, one of the prettiest settings in California. A great hike is routed along the shore of the lake to a hidden waterfall that feeds the lake, and ambitious hikers can explore beyond and discover Upper Sardine Lake.

6. Santa Rosa Island, in Channel Islands National Park.

A camping trip to Santa Rosa Island, available Friday through Sunday, will be an unforgettable experience even for those who think they’ve seen it all. The island is beautiful in spring, when its grasslands turn emerald green and are sprinkled with wildflowers. There are also lots of great hikes—the best is the Cherry Canyon Trail into the island’s interior.

7. Convict Lake, in Inyo National Forest.

After driving on U.S. 395 to get there, it is always astonishing to clear the rise and see Convict Lake with its sparkling waters set in a mountain bowl beneath a wall of jagged wilderness peaks. Convict Creek and Convict Lake are close and both provide very good fishing, often with a chance of hooking a 10- or 15-pound trout.

8. Manresa Uplands State Beach Walk-In, south of Santa Cruz.

This is a beautiful and extremely popular state park, with the campground set on uplands overlooking the ocean. Many sites have ocean views—others are set back in a secluded grove of pine and cypress trees. There is beach access for fishing, swimming, and surfing.

9. Steep Ravine Environmental Campsites, in Mount Tamalpais State Park.

This is one of the most remarkable spots on the California coast, with primitive cabins set on a bluff on Rocky Point overlooking the ocean. A dramatic setting, this destination offers views of passing ships, fishing boats, lots of marine birds, the occasional whale, and heart-stopping sunsets.

10. Salt Point State Park, near Fort Ross.

Set along a gorgeous piece of Sonoma coast, Salt Point is highlighted by Fisk Mill Cove, inshore kelp beds, outstanding short hikes, and abalone diving. There is an underwater protected reserve for divers as well as two camping destinations—Gerstle Cove Campground and the much larger Woodside Campground.

For more advice on planning a California camping trip, read a Q&A with Tom Stienstra at moon.com or visit Stienstra’s website at tomstienstra.com.

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About Moon Travel Guides & Moon.com
Moon Travel Guides make independent travel and outdoor exploration fun and accessible. With expert writers delivering a mix of honest insight, first-rate strategic advice, and an essential dose of humor, Moon guidebooks ensure that travelers have an uncommon and entirely satisfying travel experience. Moon not only guides, Moon inspires. Based in Berkeley, Calif., Moon is published by Avalon Travel, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Visit Moon at moon.com.

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