From the brutal beauty of the high desert to stretches of stunning golden sand, towering redwood glades to cosmopolitan cities, there’s nowhere quite like California. The Golden State truly has it all, no matter what you seek… making it the perfect destination to explore in your vancamper.
Whether you love mountain biking, sunbathing, shopping or hiking, you’ll find it in California. With 280 state parks and nine National Parks — more than any other state — you can experience unique ecosystems, explore an old-growth forest, marvel at geothermic wonders and learn about the state’s rich history. Enjoy 10 of our favorite places to experience van life in California below.
REDWOOD NATIONAL and STATE PARK
Where to Van Camp: Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park
Why We Love It: No trip through California would be complete without experiencing the redwoods. These towering trees with their massive trunks have stood watch here for thousands of years. While at Redwood National Park, don’t miss the new boardwalk trail that winds through the Grove of Titans; this elevated walkway is accessible, gives amazing bird’s eye views of the trees and lessens visitors’ impact on the surrounding environment. Jedidiah Smith Campground is situated in a redwood grove along a river, and offers easy access to swimming, hiking and fishing.
Where to Van Camp: Anchor Bay Campground
Why We Love It: If you love fresh seafood, head for Anchor Bay. About 45 miles south of Mendocino (don’t miss the chance to stroll through this picturesque town and admire the Victorian architecture along the way), this stunning stretch of private beach is a hidden gem. It’s also one of the best places to crab, spearfish and dive for abalone in California. Of course, you can just pick up some fresh seafood at a local market and enjoy a BBQ on the beach, too! While you’re here, rent a sea kayak and glide through the calm, protected waters of Anchor Bay.
Where to Van Camp: D. L. Bliss State Park
Why We Love It: Dreaming of clear, turquoise waters and gorgeous mountain views? Head to Lake Tahoe. Set on California’s eastern border, this mountain town is especially popular spring through summer, when campgrounds are open and you can flee the heat. Outdoor enthusiasts can mountain bike and hike the Tahoe Rim Trail, paddleboard on the lake, or float the Truckee River. In town, there are plenty of breweries to slake your thirst after a day spent adventuring outside. Cross the Nevada border into Reno for casino action.
Where to Van Camp: Doran Beach Regional Park
Why We Love It: Located about 20 miles west of Santa Rosa, Boedga Bay offers the best of both worlds: beach time and wine time. Camp surfside at Doran Beach Park, where you can kayak, surf, fish and beach comb to your heart’s content. Birders will love the gentle 1.2-mile Bird Walk Coast Access Trail loop, home to many local and migratory species. Bodega Bay is also in the heart of Sonoma’s wine country, so be sure to take a day or two to explore nearby wineries, known for their pino noir and chardonnay.
Where to Van Camp: Mount Tampalais State Park
Why We Love It: Whether you’re in the mood for shopping, fine dining, people watching, taking in a play, or cheering on your team at a professional sporting event, San Francisco truly has it all. Take the trolley around town, shop at Fisherman’s Wharf, explore art galleries in the Dogpatch, dine in Chinatown, visit museums in Yerba Buena, attend a show at Union Square… the possibilities are endless. Camping at Mount Tampalais State Park, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge and about 15 miles from the city proper, provides amazing views and access to miles of hiking and mountain biking trails.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
Where to Van Camp: Pines Campgrounds
Why We Love It: Yosemite National Park is one of the most visited destinations in California, and for good reason. From towering sequoias to jutting peaks, the scenery here is unmatched. For amazing photo ops drive to Glacier Point, take a short hike to Sentinal Dome, or walk the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls. The park’s popularity means you’ll need to reserve camping spots months in advance in order to secure a spot.
Where to Van Camp: Pfieffer Big Sur State Park
Why We Love It: About 100 miles south of San Jose, Big Sur is beloved for its pristine and wild beauty. Here, you can explore untouched beaches free from development (a true rarity in most of California) and the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains. If you want a challenge, hike the 12-mile Pine Ridge Trail into the Ventana Wilderness. At the 11-mile mark, take a soak in the geothermically active Sykes Hot Springs. During the summer months, Big Sur is incredibly crowded, so consider visiting in the off-season; there’ll be fewer people and the scenery is just as beautiful.
Where to Van Camp: Refugio State Beach
Why We Love It: Wine, history and culture, all packed into a city that still feels like a small town… it can only be Santa Barbara. Here, you can hit the beach for surfing or paddleboarding, and walk or ride your bike along the extensive coastal trail system. Spend an afternoon at one of more than 200 local wineries, or learn about the region’s rich natural history at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Don’t miss the Old Mission Santa Barbara and La Huerta Historical Garden, established in 1786.
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
Where to Van Camp: Hidden Valley Campground
Whe We Love It: If you’re seeking the stark beauty only a desert landscape can offer, head to Joshua Tree National Park. About 40 miles east of Palm Springs (worth a stop to golf and take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway) this national park is home more than 800 archeological sites. The area has been settled for more than 5,000 years, and you can learn about the region’s indigenous inhabitants through the park’s extensive museum collections. Depending on the time of year, you can hike, bird, bike, climb, horseback ride and stargaze at various points within the park. Note that some campgrounds are closed in summer, due to excessive heat and lack of water, so be sure to plan carefully before you head into the desert.
OCEANSIDE AND CARLSBAD
Where to Van Camp: South Carlsbad State Beach
Why We Love It: About 35 miles north of San Diego, Carlsbad and Oceanside are archetypal southern California seaside towns. Camp on the bluffs overlooking the ocean at South Carlsbad State Beach, a well-kept campground with hot showers, a camp store and easy beach access. Nearby attractions include LegoLand and Batiquitos Lagoon. Just a few miles along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway lies Oceanside, a bustling coastal town known for good food, quirky boutiques, great surfing and a bustling boardwalk. Visit on Thursday mornings, when the weekly Oceanside Farmer’s Market takes over the downtown streets.
Whether you’ve got a week, a month, or a year to explore, California has something to offer every type of van lifer. From the massive redwood forests of the north, to the rugged central coast, to the sunny beaches of So-Cal, there’s no limit to what you’ll discover when vancamping in the Golden State. And when you need the van to get you there, Rec Van is here to help you find the perfect camper van for your next adventure.