Camp the Central Coast
By Misty Hall
Some of my earliest, and happiest, memories are from camping trips with my family on the Central Coast. Memories of sunburns and s’mores, of long days and warm nights, making friends with the kids in the next campsite, and roaming. Free-range roaming, sans parents, with a gang of little twerps on bicycles through the campgrounds and surrounding hills. Getting gloriously dirty, trying to catch fish with a pole and bullfrogs with our hands and a flashlight.
When I became an adult, my love for camping continued. There’s just something simple and beautiful about being outside all day, whether it be way up in the mountains, at the lake, or down at the beach. In today’s increasingly internet-dependent world, we all need to spend more time unplugged, just BEING, with the ones we love.
Below are a few of our favorite Central Coast camping spots. Whether you’re a tent camper or a glamper with a fully-loaded RV, you’ll find plenty of options across the Central Coast.
Of course, your best bet is to get out a good old-fashioned roadmap, find the little red dots or brown tent symbols indicating campsites, and go exploring. We’ve found some of our all-time favorite sites that way! We’ve included a few super-secret-spot photos to inspire your sense of adventure.
But to make it easier for you, here are highlights of some amazing campgrounds not too far off the beaten path.
• Lake Casitas After a drought in the first half of the 20th century, the people of the Ojai area decided they needed a drinking water reservoir. And thus, Lake Casitas was born. In its 60-odd years of existence sandwiched between Ojai and Ventura, it has never allowed swimming. But it has become known as one of the best bass fishing spots in the region. It also boasts a large campground, waterpark, disc golfing course, and even a little “airport” to fly remote control airplanes.
Lake Casitas is near and dear to my heart. It’s close to my hometown of Ojai; it’s the place I learned to fresh-water fish, and the place I said my wedding vows. But to even the casual observer, there’s lots of good times to be found here. There are more than 400 campsites to choose from, including tent sites as well as hookup sites. Glamping? Look for the executive hookup sites in A and F campgrounds for level concrete pads, grassy areas, and hookups for water, electricity, and sewer. My favorites, though, are the G and O campgrounds, which are more basic but provide great views of the lake and surrounding hillsides. Scattered in between are plenty of bathrooms, playgrounds, and a couple of shower houses, too. The camp store is centrally located across from the F campground and has everything you forgot to bring (and then some). Don’t feel like cooking? Stop by the Marina Café for amazing views and an even better breakfast and lunch menu.
If you’re visiting during the summer — especially with kids — don’t miss the Casitas Water Adventure. With a giant water playground and lazy river, it’s the perfect spot to cool down and make new friends. There are also adult water-exercise classes in the mornings, and a few evenings, as well. Prefer a drier form of exercise? Get out your discs and hit up the disc golf course, regarded as one of the best (and most challenging) in the state.
Bird watchers, meanwhile, will also rejoice at Lake Casitas, as this reservoir is a habitat for a wide variety of species — including a nesting pair of bald eagles! There’s a dedicated group of local eagle-watchers, at least one of whom is on-hand most days to document the eagles on camera and share their findings with newcomers.
If you’re ready to dip a line in the water, stop by the bait and tackle shop. The guys down there love to offer advice on what’s been biting, where, and on what type of bait. If you’re interested in catching yourself a fish dinner, consider hiring a guide, like Ojai Angler or Rich Tauber.
Helpful hint: Bringing your own boat? You’ll need to plan pretty far ahead; due to fears of spreading the damaging, highly invasive quagga and zebra mussels, all vessels (even kayaks) are subject to a mandatory 35 day quarantine before being allowed to enter the lake.
Get there: From Ventura, take the 101 to the 33 north; turn left on Santa Ana Blvd, then right on Santa Ana Road.For more, and to reserve a site: casitaswater.org
• Want to venture further into the mountains? Keep going up Highway 33 north of Ojai, and you’ll find lots of great options to try, like Wheeler Gorge, Middle Lion, Rose Valley, and more. Wheeler Gorge boasts a creek running through the middle of the campgrounds, with lots of shade; same goes for Middle Lion. Rose Valley sits up above an elevation of 3,400 feet, and is the perfect jumping off point for hikes to the Piedra Blanca, Sespe, and Rose Valley Falls. Just be sure to call the local ranger stations ahead of time to get the inside scoop (like whether you’ll need to bring your own water, or if fire danger levels are high enough to prohibit the use of wood fires).
You can reserve some sites online at recreation.gov.
Santa Barbara County
• Figueroa CampgroundAbove the cute little town of Los Olivos lies Figueroa Mountain. In the springtime, its triangle face turns brilliant orange with California poppies, making it a popular stop-off for tourists. No matter what time of year you go, the drive up Figueroa Mountain Road is stunning. Lace lichen (commonly mistaken for Spanish moss) floats lazily in the breeze as it clings to the oaks arching overhead. The shiny greenish hues of serpentinite rock add interest to the dry grasses. As you climb up the increasingly windy road, incredible views of the ocean appear and disappear around each turn. Soon, you’ll notice manzanita trees, with their distinctive dark red bark contrasting prettily with their sage green leaves.
It is these manzanita trees that make the Figueroa Campground so appealing. They complement the area’s pines and oaks, and add a sense of coziness to the 35 sprawling, well-shaded sites. There are no hook-ups or water available up here on the mountain, but there are picnic tables and fire rings in each site, and bathrooms and trash dumpsters within the campground. My favorite sites are those furthest from the entrance, one of which leads up to a short trail that opens up to beautiful ocean sunset views. You can even see bits and pieces of the Vandenberg Air Force Base from the trail (and even better views can be had a short hike/drive up the road). Hang out in the campground around sunset, and you’ll likely spot some mule deer in search of lace lichen.
Helpful hints: It can get a bit buggy at times, so be sure to bring an all-natural bug repellant, just in case! You might also want to reserve your site a little ahead of time if you’re going during the popular deer hunting season (mid-August to the end of September).
Feeling a little more adventurous? Head about 40 minutes further up Figueroa Mountain Road to Sunset Valley Road, and you’ll find yourself at Davy Brown Campground. Even more rustic than Figueroa, its 13 sites are well-shaded — and most are adjacent to an (almost) year-round creek.
Get there: From the 101, take the 154 east, north of Buellton. Make a left onto Figueroa Mountain Road as you enter the town of Los Olivos.
For more: fs.usda.gov/lpnf
- Jalama Beach County ParkRenowned for its surf, cafe burgers, and remote location, Jalama (“ha-la-ma”) is a must-see. The drive in is about 14 miles on Jalama Road, but like Figueroa Mountain Road, the scenic journey into the campground is part of the fun.
There are fire pits and picnic tables at all of its 107 sites, and 31 of them have hook-ups. There’s water and trash bins, as well as a general store and a little restaurant (trust me: get. the. burger.) While all the sites have great beachy views, you’ll need to do a little planning ahead — or just have great luck — to avoid the sites where you’re situated a little too close to your neighbors (and there are a few). Reserve a beach-adjacent site online up to six months ahead of time. There are also a few cabins available for rent.
Helpful hints: Jalama can have great surf, but the water can also get dangerously rough; be wary! You’ll also want to make a contingency plan for the wind, which is often blowing.
Translation: add more tie-downs to secure your tent and pop-ups (seriously, we’ve seen them take flight more than once), and be ready to roll up your RV’s awning if the gusts get too strong.
Get there: On the 101 north of Gaviota, take Highway 1 north to Jalama Road.
For reservations and more: countyofsb.org/parks/jalama.sbc
San Luis Obispo County
• Lake NacimientoThis spot is all about having fun on the water. Choose a spot along the 165 miles of coastline for a day-camp and use it as a base to ski/wakeboard/canoe/fish/swim/jet ski to your heart’s content. Then, spend your evenings in one of six campgrounds, each with its own character: Quail’s Roost, Oak Knoll, Rocky Canyon, Sandy Point, Eagle’s Ridge, or Pine Knoll. If you’re in an RV, you’ll want to stick with Oak Knoll or Pine Knoll; if you’d like a more remote setting and some excellent views, try the hike-in, tent-only Eagle’s Ridge. If you’d rather do the glamping thing, there are a number of lodges to choose from. But plan ahead if you do; they can fill up quickly in the summer. And, really, same goes for most of the Nacimiento campgrounds; the best sites fill quickly. After all, this is one of the best places on the Central Coast to fish (white bass), boat (try cruising the narrows!), and try your hand at water sports. I learned to ski on “Naci” at age 9; I remember sitting around the campfire in Oak Knoll campground that night, proudly telling the tale of how it only took me two tries to get up.
But let’s back up a little bit and set the tone. Look on a map (or a bumper sticker on the back of a truck) and you might notice the curvy lake looks a bit like a dragon, with its head pointing due east toward San Miguel and the 101. It is in this head region that much of the lake recreation takes place. There’s a marina, a store, and a restaurant, along with bathrooms and shower houses scattered throughout the campgrounds.
Thanks to a good rain year, the lake level has gone up considerably, sitting at about 78 percent as of press time. That means more surface space for making more memories on the water! Helpful hint: if you’re bringing your own boat and it’s recently been in another lake, call ahead to make sure that lake wasn’t a quagga/zebra mussel infested lake; if it was, you’ll be subject to a quarantine for up to 30 days.
Get there: From the 101, take the exit for the Hwy. 46 (exit 231), and take 24th Street, which becomes Nacimiento Lake Drive and follow the signs to the entrance.
For reservations and more: nacimientoresort.com
• Pismo Beach Beach-party time! Where the 101 and Hwy. 1 meet are several campgrounds, from rustic to resort. The most popular and well known is Pismo State Beach North Campground, which has 103 campsites. There are no hook-ups, but there is a dump station (as well as fire rings, picnic tables, and pay showers). Oceano Campground has RV sites with hook-ups as well as tent camping options. There’s also an area just south of the campground where you can actually post up right on the beach in your RV, trailer, or toy hauler. And if you’re going to Pismo, you’re probably hauling toys. This is a great home base for dirtbike and ATV enthusiasts. Pismo Dunes, Ocean Dunes, and other spots are all close by. Don’t have toys, need a lesson, or want to take a tour? There are tons of outfits right on the beach that will rent you a slew of different vehicles and safety equipment, and also make sure you know how to operate them safely.
Photography enthusiasts, too, love this place: between the wheeled adventures and the stunning sunsets, there’s plenty of fun to be had.
Helpful hint: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: PLAN AHEAD. This is a busy place all year, and especially in the summer, so put your reservations in early. Also: Like Jalama, Pismo is known for its tendency to get super windy — so keep that in mind and pack layers! And, of course … safety first.
Get there: From the 101 in Pismo, take exit 190 for Price St., turn left on Ocean View Ave, then head south on Hwy. 1/ Cabrillo Hwy.
For reservations and more: parks.ca.gov/?page_id=595 or reservecalifornia.com.
• A good jumping off point for exploring all the trails and campgrounds of Los Padres National Forest: stop by a visitor’s center or one of the ranger stations, and dig into the website. If you love to explore random campgrounds as much as we do, be smart — do a bit of research first, then call the nearest ranger station to check for changes or updates. That’s what we did to find some of our all-time favorite sites, but don’t ask us for the names; it’s more fun if you discover it for yourself!
For maps and ranger station locations and phone numbers: fs.usda.gov/lpnf.
• Want to go way off the grid? Consider the Channel Islands! You’ll need to hop on a boat (or, if you’re fancy, an airplane) to get there, but you’ll be literally miles from reality out in this National Park island chain. While each one of the islands offers at least one campground, Santa Cruz Island is a good choice. It is the second-closest to the mainland and offers some unbelievable hike-in sites, as well as history to spare (both natural and human-made). Santa Rosa also offers some spectacular sites, too, but requires a little more time on a boat to get there. Remember: all campgrounds on the islands require a hike, and you’ll need to pack in and pack out everything you need. There are also no wood campfires allowed.
For more: call (805) 658-5730, visit nps.gov/chis, or the Channel Islands National Park Visitors Center, at 1901 Spinnaker Dr. in Ventura.