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8 great campgrounds in California

Camping takes work. By the time you have unpacked, pitched the tent, unrolled sleeping bags, set up chairs and realized you left behind your favorite camp skillet, it’s time to make lunch … or, worse yet, dinner.

Why bother? Because it’s a chance to escape, sample a bit of nature and sleep in a place without four walls. Here are seven California camping spots worth the work — and one that’s entirely effortless.

Eastern Sierra

Campers on the Whitney Portal Trail, in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Inyo National Forest, Calif.
Campers on the Whitney Portal Trail, in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Inyo National Forest, Calif. (Brent Winebrenner / Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image)

Whitney Portal Campground

Inyo National Forest

Welcome to the High Sierra. As you drive the 13 unnerving miles on a winding road up to 8,000 feet, you may think you’re driving all the way to the top of Mt. Whitney.

You’re not. The road ends at the Whitney Portal Campground, which includes a well-stocked store and a fishing pond at the foot of the highest peak in the Lower 48. Pine trees and towering granite walls that turn pink with the setting sun are the calling cards of this campground, a place to set up a hammock and stay awhile.

It’s a base camp for the thousands of hikers and backpackers who try for the 14,500-foot Whitney summit each year. Don’t panic if you get dizzy as you bend over to pitch your tent; it’s all part of the high-altitude experience.

MORE: Tried and tested camping tips for first timers »

The best of the 43 campsites are clustered along Whitney Creek, which provides blissful white noise to drown out a snoring neighbor or late-arriving campers.

Once you get your above-sea-level legs, hike up the Mt. Whitney Trail as far as Lone Pine Lake, a great place to picnic and gawk at the expansive Owens Valley below. (Permits are required to hike to the top of Mt. Whitney between May and October.)

Tip: Indulge in at least one meal at the Whitney Portal Store, where successful summiteers wolf down bigger-than-a-plate pancakes or hamburgers with a side of hand-cut potato fries.

Info: Whitney Portal Campground, 13 miles west of Lone Pine, Calif. The campground is open seasonally, usually Memorial Day until Oct. 30. Reservations are strongly recommended, although you may get lucky if you show up midweek. Cost is $24 a night, plus fees when you book online.

San Jacinto Mountains

Idyllwild Park

Idyllwild, Calif.

This forest park is near artsy Idyllwild and within spitting distance of the San Jacinto Mountains.

The campground has a neighborly feel, is good for families with children and is a short drive/walk to the center of town, where you can grab anything you may have forgotten.

There are 88 sites where you can pitch your tent in soft dirt and set up chairs around the campfire ring in anticipation of a nighttime blaze.

Kids can bring bikes or scooters and ride on the paved campground road (provided they bring helmets).

There are good family hiking options here too, including easy nature walks and a path to the nearby Idyllwild Nature Center, which hosts special events such as one featuring live wolves on Saturday and monarch butterflies Aug. 5 and 6.

MORE: Did my family survive first-time camping? »

If you’re camping Aug. 14 and 15, you can spend your days listening to quartets, quintets and even a gospel choir at Jazz in the Pines at Idyllwild Arts at 52500 Temecula Road. Single-day tickets cost $85.

Tip: When you make a reservation, look for a campsite with shade. Avoid steep sites that require you to back in, unless you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Info: Idyllwild Park, 54000 Riverside County Playground Road, Idyllwild, Calif.; (951) 659-2656. Open seasonally. Cost is $25 a night plus an $8 fee. Reservations are recommended, but you can try just showing up.

Bay Area

View of Golden Gate bridge from Kirby Cove campground beach, with a box on the beach ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG, CM - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD **
View of Golden Gate bridge from Kirby Cove campground beach, with a box on the beach ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG, CM - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD ** (greta6 / Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Kirby Cove Campground

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Kirby Cove Campground is hard to reserve and hard to access. But you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. The bay will be steps from your tent.

Kirby Cove is part of Ft. Baker’s historic Battery Kirby, a concrete gun battery in Sausalito that dates to 1900. The campground has five sites, each big enough for 10 people and three vehicles.

You can reserve three months in advance, and getting there is part of the adventure: You pass through a locked entrance gate and drive a mile down a steep dirt road to access your home away from home.

MORE: How to reserve a campsite »

Sites here are on coarse beach sand. It can often be foggy, windy and cool, which means you must pack warm layers even in the height of summer.

When you tire of Instagramming your cool camping spot, scan the skies for hawks or explore more of the fort on foot. Take earplugs for the foghorn blasts from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Info: Kirby Cove Campground, Conzelman Road, just past Battery Spencer Overlook, Sausalito, Calif. Camping costs $25 per night, plus fees. It’s open April through November. If you get shut out of this small site, try nearby Mt. Tamalpais State Park in Mill Valley.

The desert

The glow of a tent camp light casts on the large boulders shielding the heavy winds on a starry night at the Jumbo Rocks Campground in Joshua Tree National Park.
The glow of a tent camp light casts on the large boulders shielding the heavy winds on a starry night at the Jumbo Rocks Campground in Joshua Tree National Park. (GaryKavanagh / Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Jumbo Rocks Campground

Joshua Tree National Park

Jumbo Rocks kind of says it all at this rustic Joshua Tree National Park campground. This may be the closest you’ll come to being completely off the grid. (Carry plenty of water; there isn’t any.)

Campsites are on sandy spots amid the rocks, which will become your BFFs if big winds kick up. If it sounds intimidating, pile on the creature comforts: maybe a thick air mattress under your sleeping bag, a guitar, a camping espresso maker (you get the idea) and a camera for those pink-purple-orange sunsets.

During the day, hike the easy Skull Rock Nature Trail or head to the boulders to watch climbers of all skill levels attempt the rock faces.

Tip: Expect company. Joshua Tree National Park received a record 2.5 million visitors in 2016.

Info: Jumbo Rocks Campground; Joshua Tree National Park, (760) 367-5500. Enter the park at Twentynine Palms near the Oasis Visitor Center and grab a map to find your way to the campground. Campsites are first come, first served. Best to visit midweek in fall or spring (summer gets triple-digit heat) to make sure you get a spot. Campsites cost $15 per night, plus the $25 park entrance fee that’s good for a week.

Gold Country

Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Arnold, Calif.

This is Big Tree country. The two redwood groves in Calaveras Big Trees State Park have been attracting tourists since the mid-19th century.

Set up at the North Grove Campground, where you’ll find more than 70 sites relatively close to the main entrance off California 4.

Campsites are roomy; you’ll find some along Big Tree Creek (it can be buggy) and others deeper inside the park along an open meadow.

Families with children have a good hiking option with the easy 1½-mile North Grove Loop Trail. You’ll see some of the 100 sequoias in the grove, such as the Empire State Tree with an 18-foot diameter and the Three Graces.

And you can walk on the Big Stump, what’s left of the massive Discovery Tree that was chopped down in 1853.

What you won’t see: The Pioneer Cabin Tree, also known as the Tunnel Tree, which had been hollowed out so tourists could pass through the base. It collapsed in January in a winter storm.

Tip: Avoid noisy sites close to busy California 4.

Info: Calaveras Big Trees State Park, four miles east of Arnold; www.lat.ms/calaverasbigtrees. Campsites cost $35 a night, plus fees. Reservations recommended.

Lake Tahoe

D.L. Bliss and Emerald Bay state parks

South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

Here’s your chance to get up close to Lake Tahoe’s crystal blue waters. The adjacent state parks cover six miles of shoreline on the lake’s western side.

Bring your swimsuit, paddle board, kayak and even scuba gear along with your hiking boots.

More than 250 campsites keep you in a forested area along the lake. (If you want a site near the beach, check the campground map carefully when making reservations.) You can explore submerged old-time wooden barges at an underwater preserve and tour the 1929 Swedish-style Vikingsholm retreat.

The best hike is on the Rubicon Trail, which follows the shore and dips into coves. Take time to check out the Rubicon Point Lighthouse at Bliss State Park for good views of the lake.

Tip: Bears like these parks a lot. Make sure you stow your food and scented items in the bear lockers at each site; you’re not allowed to leave anything in the car.

Info: D.L. Bliss State Park, www.lat.ms/DLBlissSP; Emerald Bay State Park, www.lat.ms/EmeraldBaySP. Parks are 17 miles (Bliss) and 22 miles (Emerald Bay) south of Tahoe City on California 89. Campsites (some are boat-in sites) cost $35 to $45 a night, plus fees. High season is May to September.

Central Coast

Jalama Beach County Park

Lompoc, Calif.

Ask any hard-core beach camper for their favorite Central Coast campground and Jalama Beach County Park probably will be the answer. The name turns up on many top California campground lists because there may be no other spot on the Central Coast that’s as remote.

If you’ve never heard of Jalama Beach, that’s because you’ve never taken the 14½-mile winding road to get to this Santa Barbara County campground.

Campers love this place for the on-the-sand charm with 24/7 ocean views. There’s nothing else here: no distracting traffic, kiddie water parks, upscale hotels, nada.

And that’s the point. Sites here are exposed (best to bring a shade or tarp) and often very windy.

If you run out of food, no worries. You can grab a Jalama Burger or chicken sandwich at the on-site store and restaurant. And what isn’t there? Wi-Fi (it’s spotty) or cellphone reception. Yay!

Tip: Yes, it can be cold. As one camper posted on Yelp: “Definitely bring warm clothes, extra stakes for your tent, fire starters, extra wood, your favorite bourbon, and your kite.”

Info: Jalama Beach County Park, 9999 Jalama Road, Lompoc, Calif.; (805) 568-2460. Campsites cost $25 to $30, plus online fees; some are set aside as first-come, first-served sites.

Southern California

A yurt at El Capitan Canyon.
A yurt at El Capitan Canyon. (Eric Hernandez / El Capitan Canyon)

El Capitán Canyon

Santa Barbara

Hate car camping? This is a place where tent-deniers can cheat and still brag about sleeping under the stars. Leave the sleeping bags and lanterns at home; you won’t need them.

Privately owned El Capitán Canyon sits amid sycamores and oaks and has views of the ocean as well as the Santa Ynez Mountains. It’s directly inland from El Capitán State Beach, which offers the roughing-it kind of camping.

“Camping” in the canyon means staying in safari-style canvas tents and sleeping in a queen-sized bed with pillows. Don’t feel like cooking? Dine at the Canyon Market & Deli, where you’ll find local wines, espresso and robust menus for all three meals.

And there’s more: Swedish and hot rock massages available on-site, fireside Saturday night barbecues with live music, and Friday night wine tastings under the sycamore trees.

Call it “glamping” or call it cheating, it’s a way to have an unforgettable nature experience without the work. Of course, you can bring your own marshmallows to roast, but why bother?

Tip: Don’t miss the hikes and stargazing events.

Info: El Capitán Canyon, 11560 Calle Real, Santa Barbara; (866) 352-2729, www.elcapitancanyon.com. Safari tents cost $145 to $170 a night, with a two-night minimum on weekends and a three-night minimum on holiday and selected summer weekends.

travel@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

1:56 p.m.: This article was updated with an additional photo of El Capitán Canyon.

This article was originally published June 26 at 6:30 a.m.

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