Winter Camping in California

Can’t resist the call of the wild? Does summer seem too far away to wait to hit the great outdoors? Many people only think of camping as a summertime activity, but for many of us we simply can’t wait around half the year before getting back out in open. Luckily California has many amazing places where you can camp during the winter months. Winter camping is usually cheaper and less crowded than camping in the summer and you will also get to experience California in a whole different way.

California has blessed us outdoor lovers with a variety of different landscapes and climates to experience. And while the high sierras are covered in snow, the Mojave Desert and Pacific Coast beckon campers to come and experience their winter beauty. The beach is usually the best place to go to escape the cold inland winters thanks to the moderate temperatures experienced year round. Of course for true adventure seekers there are also opportunities for snow camping in the higher elevations, so why not pair a ski trip with a camping trip? Regardless of where you choose, these places are downright beautiful, yet few people have experienced this beauty in the wintertime. They are calling for you to come visit!

Angel Island – Northern California / San Francisco Bay Area

As a Bay Area resident I am very fond of Angel Island… when it isn’t overflowing with people. It is a quick trip to anyone in the Bay Area of Sacramento regions, and it has absolutely spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay, including the San Francisco Skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge and views of Tiburon and Sausalito. Rain and thick fog are common for Bay Area winters but relative to the rest of Northern California the temperatures are pleasantly moderate. The past five years have seen very dry winters in the Bay thanks to the terrible drought we’ve experience, but this year’s El Nino has already poured rain across the state, so be expecting wet weather if you choose to visit Angel Island this winter. From December through March daytime high temperatures average 56-61 degrees fahrenheit and nighttime lows average 41-45 degrees fahrenheit, so there really isn’t too much difference between night and day. The eastern side of the island is better sheltered from the ocean breezes but the western side gives a front row view of amazing sunsets under the Golden Gate Bridge. East Bay Sites and Sunrise Sites are located on the eastern side of the island near Fort McDowell. Ridge Sites and Kayak Camp are located on the western side of the island near Camp Reynolds. For more information on the campsites check out the brochure and park map from the park’s website. Note that some of the information is outdated but most is still relevant.

Getting to Angel Island is half the fun of the trip. Public ferries run from Tiburon via the Angel Island Ferry and from Pier 41 and the Ferry Building in San Francisco via the Blue and Gold Fleet. Adult tickets cost $15 from Tiburon and $9 from San Francisco. These fares include the park entrance fee as well. Note that during the winter months these ferries only run on weekends, so the earliest you can get to the island is Saturday morning and the latest you can stay is Sunday late afternoon unless you plan to stay the whole week. But there are other options! You can use your own private boat or borrow a friends. Or if you’re like me and don’t own a boat you can charter a private boat or take Tideline Water Taxi. Tideline is a great option, it is pretty expensive but it is still cheaper than chartering a boat and provides the most personalized schedule and service, so you won’t be limited by the ferry schedules.

Big Sur – Central Coast

Big Sur on the California Central Coast is an absolute gem. It epitomizes all the beauty California’s rugged Pacific Coast has to offer. From hundred foot redwoods, backwoods trails and miles of beaches, Big Sur has it all. And thanks to its proximity to the ocean it stays relatively moderate in the winter time, with average high temperatures from December through March ranging from 60-63 degrees fahrenheit and average low temperatures around 43 degrees fahrenheit. As always, in the winter you must be prepared for rain, heavy fog and ocean winds. Big Sur is very busy during the summer months, but during the winter the crowds have dispersed, leaving you with miles of empty trails and beaches to explore.

Perhaps the most amazing part about winter camping in Big Sur is the chance to watch the majestic Gray Whales migrate between Alaska and Baja California. December through early February you can see the whales migrating south, and beginning in February you can see them migrate north with their newborn calves. It is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat.

Big Sur has many campgrounds which can be found here. For those of you looking for a little more warmth and comfort I would suggest one of the campgrounds with cabins, such as Big Sur Campgrounds and Cabins or Riverside Campground. Both of these campgrounds also offer many tent and RV sites in addition to their cabin accommodations. Another recommendation for tent and RV camping is Kirk Creek Campground. Kirk Creek is a beautiful campground located on a huge bluff overlooking the ocean. Due to its open location it is susceptible to strong winds and moisture so prepare yourself for that if you choose to stay there.

Lake Tahoe – Northern California / Sierra Nevada Mountains

For those wanting to truly experience the winter, then snow camping on the shores of Lake Tahoe is right for you. During the summer months Lake Tahoe is one of the most popular camping destinations in the world. During the winter months it is one of the most popular skiing destinations in the world. Basically Lake Tahoe is awesome and everyone wants to go there regardless of what month it is.

Sugar Pine Point State Park on the western shore of Lake Tahoe offers the best of both worlds. The camp is one of the only campgrounds in the region open during the winter months for snow camping, and it conveniently located only minutes from some of the world’s greatest alpine ski resorts. Homewood Resort (8 mins), Squaw Valley Resort and Alpine Meadows (32 mins), Heavenly Mountain Resort (45 mins) and Northstar California Resort (50 mins) are all located within an hour drive of the campground. Sugar Pine campground is also a great choice for any first time snow campers since it isn’t far off the beaten path, so any services are accessible nearby.

Sugar Pine Point State Park also offers some of the best cross country skiing and snowshoeing trails the Lake Tahoe region has to offer, all with easy access from the campground. In fact it was these trails which were used for the biathlon and cross-country skiing events in the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympic Winter Games.

And if you still aren’t up to tent camping in the snow you always have the option to find some amazing local cabins to stay in. Airbnb is your best bet for booking one of these.

Mt. San Jacinto State Park – Southern California / San Jacinto Mountains

Snow camping is also readily accessible in Southern California in the beautiful Mt. San Jacinto State Park. Idyllwild Park offers year round camping. Tent camping and RVs are welcome on a first-come/first-serve basis November through March. The campground is located less than three hours from both Los Angeles and San Diego, making it a great option for those looking for a weekend escape from the city life. Snowshoeing and sledding are very popular activities at the park during the winter months.

There is plenty to do in and around the State Park. Including visiting different parts of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument or hiking a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. You can even spend an afternoon riding the world famous Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which takes you from Chino Canyon near Palm springs up nearly 6,000 feet to the Mountain Station.

Death Valley National Park – Southern California / Mojave Desert

Death Valley is quite amazing. On July 12, 2012 Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park broke a heat record when the low temperature was 103 degrees fahrenheit, tying the world record for highest low temperature in a day. Then on July 10, 2013 Furnace Creek broke another heat record with a high temperature of 134 degrees fahrenheit (!!!), breaking the US record previously set in 1913. Needless to say you won’t be dealing with these hellish temperatures during the winter months, in fact Death Valley is downright pleasant during the winter. Average high temps from December through March range from 67 to 81 degrees fahrenheit with average lows ranging from 38 to 53 degrees fahrenheit.

Since Death Valley is in the middle of the desert it is susceptible to big swings in temperatures, with nighttime lows dropping below freezing. This is where winter desert camping mostly differs from winter beach camping. In the desert the temperatures can swing dramatically from day to night while near the ocean the temperatures remain relatively stable.

Tent and RV camping is available at Furnace Creek RV Park and Fiddler’s Campground for $18/night or at Mesquite Spring for $12 a night. Both campgrounds have RV dump stations and flush toilets. For tent campers you can stay at Emigrant or Wildrose Campgrounds. (note: Wildrose accepts any vehicles under 25 feet, Emigrant is tent camping only)

Joshua Tree National Park – Southern California / Mojave Desert

Another great desert camping destination in Southern California is Joshua Tree National Park. The park is easy to access, located only about 2.5 to 3.5 hrs from Los Angeles (depending on traffic of course). Like Death Valley, Joshua Tree is located in the middle of the desert, so while it can be blistering hot during the summer months, it is very pleasant during the winter. With average high temperatures from January through March ranging from 60-70 degrees fahrenheit and average low temperatures ranging from 35 to 42 degrees fahrenheit. For a list of all the campgrounds in Joshua Tree National Park check out here. For a campground in the northern portion of the park I suggest Jumbo Rocks Campground, which costs $15/night and is first-come/first-serve. There is no water and only pit toilets at Jumbo Rocks Campground so be sure you come prepared. For those looking for a campground in the southern portion of the park I suggest Cottonwood Campground for $20/night, which has a dump station, water and flush toilets.

By now you understand that camping in California is both a summertime and wintertime activity. There are many amazing places to escape to in the winter, even if there is snow on the ground. Take advantage of the cheaper fees, shorter reservation times, and uncrowded campgrounds while you can before winter ends. Camping in California never takes a break for the seasons!

Now it’s time to get out there and experience what winter camping in California has to offer! Stay warm, stay safe and stay camping in California!