California’s stunning landscapes make for more than just summer camping trips. Many of the state’s most incredible destinations are best visited during the winter months when crowds recede and temperatures are often manageable. From the desert camping of Joshua Tree and Death Valley to pitching your tent in the snow of Yosemite, there is a winter camping destination for everyone looking for a California adventure.
We’ve put together this list to share our 10 favorite winter camping destinations in California in hopes it can inspire your next trip!
Let’s dive in.
In this Guide
- California Winter Camping Destinations
- Winter Camping Preparation & Must Know
California Winter Camping Destinations
The following are our 10 favorite places for winter camping in California, in no particular order. These include dispersed sites, campgrounds, a few backcountry sites, and even some cabins. Check out the map below to see where each is located:
Camping Option: Developed campgrounds, backcountry
Permits needed: Yes, but only for certain campsites and backcountry.
The iconic Joshua Tree National Park is an obvious winter camping destination if you’re looking to avoid the cold temps found elsewhere in the state. In fact, we really only recommend camping in Joshua Tree during the winter given the scorching summer temperatures. You’ll enjoy incredible stargazing at night and can explore the miles upon miles of hiking trails during the day. Winter temps typically are in the 50s and 60s during the daytime, but be prepared for that to drop to near freezing at night!
There are eight developed campgrounds in Joshua Tree National Park, all of which are open year-round. Of the eight, only three offer first come first served camping, and those are the Belle, Hidden Valley and White Tank campgrounds. You can typically find open sites during the week at those campgrounds, but they do fill most weekends during the winter months.
In terms of the reservable campgrounds, you’ll want to make a reservation as early as possible. The park is busiest in February and March, so they are especially essential during that timeframe. Our favorites for winter camping are the Ryan Campground (small and isolated), Jumbo Rocks (great hiking), and Indian Cove campgrounds, although all of the sites in the park are worth a trip.
You’ll want to check the specific campground to see what amenities are available, but you can generally expect fire pits, pit toilets, and picnic tables at all campgrounds. Keep in mind that not all campgrounds here have a water source, so you may need to be prepared to pack in water. Both the Cottonwood and Blackrock Campgrounds have a dump station, making these a good option for those with an RV.
Not able to secure a reservation and all of the first-come, first served campsites full? There is tons of dispersed camping available just outside the park that makes a great winter camping destination as well.
Backcountry camping is also available in Joshua Tree and makes for a great winter experience for the adventurous. You’ll need to secure a permit in advance and can then camp in one of fifteen designated backcountry zones that divide up the park.
All in all, Joshua Tree is one of the top winter camping destinations in California!
Camping Option: Developed campgrounds, backcountry
Permits needed: Reservation recommended, permits needed for backcountry
If desert camping isn’t your thing and you prefer the grandeur of stunning mountains, frozen streams, and spectacular valleys, then we recommend a winter camping trip to Yosemite National Park. This popular park is typically overrun during the summer months, making trails crowded and campground reservations next to impossible to secure. However, all that changes in the winter when the tourists leave and you’ll have the place to yourself!
There are a few different camping options in Yosemite during the winter months, with four of the park’s developed campgrounds staying open during winter: Camp 4, Upper Pines, Hodgdon Meadow, and Wawona. Of these, we like Camp 4 for its rugged location (it is a walk-in site) and fame as a climbing campground, as well as the Wawona Campground for its proximity to a stunning grove of Sequoia trees. But really, you can’t go wrong with any of the campgrounds.
Keep in mind that Yosemite is instituting a required reservation system for Camp 4, Hodgdon Meadow, and Wawona for much of February.
If you’re experienced and prepared you can also venture further afield into the national park and explore Yosemite’s winter landscape on a backpacking trip. This will almost certainly entail snow camping and the use of snowshoes or cross-country skis, but you’ll get an experience like no other. You’ll need to secure a wilderness permit in advance and also be sure you have a bear canister for your food. Yes, even in winter!
Camping Option: Hike in and boat in campgrounds
Permits needed: Reservation required
For a unique coastal camping option during the winter months consider a trip to Point Reyes National Seashore, located just north of San Francisco. You’ll find milder weather here (no snow!) and a spectacular coastline that is much quieter compared to the busy summer travel season. You’ll want to come prepared for wet conditions, as rain is common from November – March, but there are still plenty of sunny days as well.
The winter camping at Point Reyes is more rustic compared to some other options in this guide, with none of the sites having direct car access. That means you’ll either need to boat-in or hike-in with all of your gear. Before you completely write it off, keep in mind that the Coast (our favorite!) and Sky Campgrounds are only about 1.5 miles from the parking area. However, other such as the Glen and Wildcat Campground require a much longer (4 – 6 miles) hike in.
All of the campgrounds in Point Reyes require advance permits/reservations, which can be obtained on Recreation.gov with most sites available three months in advance. There are a few campsites at the Wildcat and Glen Campgrounds that don’t take reservations until between 7 – 14 days, or even day of, reservations. This makes a more spontaneous winter camping getaway possible.
Overall, we love camping at Point Reyes in the winter and experiencing this stunning coastal region during the off months!
Camping Option: Developed, primitive, backcountry
Permits needed: Required for backcountry, reservations need only for some developed.
Heading back to California’s spectacular desert climates, you’ll also find incredible winter camping in Death Valley National Park. As you can imagine, many of the campgrounds here are difficult/impossible to camp at during the incredibly hot summer months, but in the winter you’ll find a completely different climate. The days will be warm and pleasant, with the nights still getting to near freezing – this is the desert after all!
In terms of camping options, you’ll find all of the most popular campgrounds are open and operating. Furnace Creek tends to be the most popular and accepts reservations with the campground often filling to capacity. The larger Sunset campground is a good option if you weren’t able to secure a reservation, as it almost always has sites available.
Want to venture further afield? Then we recommend exploring one of the parks vast backcountry dirt road camping areas. You’ll avoid the crowds and have your desert campsite all to yourself. For this, you’ll need to acquire a wilderness/backcountry use permit and come prepared to be self-sufficient. With a little effort this can be an incredible way to experience Death Valley!
Finally, be sure to consider dispersed camping in and around Death Valley, which offers a no-frill way to experience this stunning natural environment.
Camping Option: Tent & RV Camping
Permits needed: None required, but reservations are recommended
Ah, Big Sur. The legendary coastline that snakes down central California is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is also a great place to camp in the off-season when the multitude of State Parks are much quieter. There are two main State Parks in Big Sur that offer winter camping, listed from north to south: Pfeiffer Big Sur, and Julia Pfeiffer. Andrew Molera, which is another popular camping area on the north end of Big Sur, is unfortunately not open during the winter.
At Pfeiffer Big Sur you’ll find the regions most popular campground, which consists of 189 campsites along the Big Sur River. Reservations can be made up to six months in advance, and you’ll definitely need them as the campground is almost always at full capacity. Yes, even in the winter!
At Julia Pfeiffer State Park you’ll find much more limited camping options with only two hike-in campsites available. Reservations can be made up to six-months in advance – consider yourself lucky if you’re able to snag one!
Additionally, there is some free dispersed camping in and around Big Sur available year round along with several private campgrounds that stay open throughout the winter.
Do keep in mind that recent storms have had huge impacts on Highway 1, so you’ll need to confirm road access to your destination and be prepared for lots to be closed in the off-season!
Camping Option: RV, trailer, and tent camping
Permits needed: Reservation recommended
Just up the coast from Malibu and an easy drive from LA you’ll find Leo Carrillo State Park with its stunning beaches and excellent campground. This is the perfect winter camping destination for those in Southern California who want something close and on the coast. The campground is located across Highway 1 from the beach and enjoys spectacular views.
The campground is large, with 130 sites that are available year-round. Most campsites at Leo Carrillo can accommodate tents, RVs, and trailers, and there is a single hike/bike campsite here as well. There are some sites with electrical hookups as well, so be sure to look for that when reserving your site if that is something you’re interested in.
One of our favorite things about the campground at Leo Carrillo is the mature oak trees that dot the landscape, giving you a bit of privacy and even some share – a rare amenity for beach camping!
Camping Option: Developed & primitive camping, backcountry
Permits needed: Advance reservations required.
For a true remote winter camping experience in California, our top pick is to head to Channel Islands National Park. This chain of five islands is about as remote as you can get, with private ferries shuttling campers and day trippers to these protected islands. During the winter you can expect to have a much quieter experience, although be prepared for high winds and potential for wet weather.
Camping is possible on all five islands, although only two campgrounds have potable water: Water Canyon campground on Santa Rosa Island and Scorpion Campground on Santa Cruz Island. Besides water access, you’ll find all of the campgrounds are rather primitive and consist of picnic tables and pit toilets, with a few of the outer islands having windbreaks to make your stay a bit more comfortable.
Limited backcountry camping is also possible on Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands for those looking for a true wilderness experience. Keep in mind that extra preparation is needed for camping here, as water sources are non-existent and you’ll need to pack in/pack out everything you need.
Advance reservations are required for any of the campgrounds on the islands, but arranging transportation is just as important. Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands have the most reliable ferries from Oxnard and Ventura harbors, with some of the other islands having more seasonal schedules. If you’re lucky enough to have a private boat, you are permitted to land on all five islands year-round.
Overall, the Channel Islands present a wonderful wilderness camping opportunity in a truly unique environment for those looking for a bit of extra adventure!
Camping Option: Basic campsites, primitive cabins
Permits needed: Advance reservations essential
A hidden gem just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco is Mount Tamalpais State Park, which has a small campground and primitive cabins with jaw dropping views of the Pacific. While reservations can be difficult to get, a trip here during the winter months tends to be a bit easier to secure, and the views are just as spectacular!
Mount Tamalpais is nestled adjacent to the very popular Muir Woods are while also enjoying a pristine coastal location with tons of hiking trails and secluded beaches to explore. There is an environmental campground with just seven campsites that is ideal for tent campers looking for an oceanside perch at the Steep Ravine location within the park.
Near the campground you’ll also find seven primitive cabins with stunning views that can be reserved up to six months in advance. The cabins are basic, with no running water or electricity, but a view and setting that is unmatched. These are perfect for the hesitant winter camper that wants something rustic, but more secure than a tent.
Advance bookings are essential for both the cabins and the campsite, as this is an extremely popular area. Bookings can be made up to six months in advance, and you’ll almost certainly need to make your reservation at the earliest possible opportunity in order to have a chance to stay at this magical state park!
Camping Option: Tent camping
Permits needed: Reservations recommended
Heading back to Southern California’s desert landscapes an underrated and often overlooked option for winter camping is visiting Agua Caliente County Park. You won’t find the glitz and glamour of the region’s more popular national parks here, but you will find a beautiful desert climate and a wonderful winter camping destination.
The camping area is open from Labor Day through Memorial Day (inverse summer!) and has a variety of sites to suit all camping setups.
The main attraction at Agua Caliente is the three natural pools that are fed with mineral water. There are both indoor and outdoor pools available, and they are adult only for specific periods of time throughout the week.
You’ll want to make a reservation in advance through the San Diego Country Parks & Rec Department, especially from January through March when the park is most popular.
Overall, Agua Caliente provides a laid back and family friendly camping experience that is best visited during the winter months. Highly recommended!
Camping Option: Hike-to campgrounds
Permits needed: Advance reservations essential
Our final camping destination for the winter months in California is Angel Island State Park, nestled into the San Francisco Bay. This gem of a state park is located on the largest island in the Bay, and gives campers the unique experience of a remote camping trip with easy access to a major city. In fact, the views of San Francisco and the surrounding region from Angel Island are some of our favorite!
There are 10 hike to campsites scattered across the island, most of which require a few miles of hiking to access. The trails aren’t especially difficult, but we would definitely consider Angel Island more of a backpacking destination compared to other options in this guide.
Of all the campsites, our favorite are the Ridge Campsites, which have unparalleled views of San Francisco. You’ll want to reserve your site early, as Angel Island is fully booked throughout the year. As with most State Parks, reservations can be made up to six months in advance.
To get the island you’ll need to hop a ferry from either San Francisco or Tiburon, both of which offer frequent service.
Winter Camping Preparation & Must Know
Winter camping in California can range from hot and sunny to snowy and freezing, so it’s important to be prepared. Depending on where you choose to explore, you might experience more mild desert temperatures or more harsh mountain weather. However, even if you’re camping in the desert, you can expect it to get very chilly at night. Plus, there’s always the chance for rain in the winter months.
Check out some of our top gear picks to make your trip more comfortable:
- Four season tent: If you’re camping in a snowy, cold environment, a four season tent is an absolute must. This version from REI offers a great value.
- High insulation sleeping pad – You’ll typically want a higher R-value (warmer) sleeping pad for winter camping. This is true even for some desert areas that routinely drop below freezing at night. This version from Exped is sure to keep you warm.
- Hand warmers – Sometimes the simplest items have the biggest impact. A few pairs of hand warmers can make all the difference on your winter camping trip.
- Wool socks – Keeping your feet comfortable and toasty is essential for any winter camping trip. We recommend the wool mountaineering socks from Darn Tough.
- Shade canopy – Whether you’re camping in the desert or the mountains, a portable shade structure can provide much needed relief from sun, rain, or snow.
Have a great trip!
We hope we’ve provided all of the information you need to plan a winter camping trip in California, and we know you’ll find the perfect campsite for your upcoming adventure!
Be sure to let us know in the comments below if you have any questions and be sure to tell us about your trip!
Don’t forget to check out some of our other California camping guides below: