Showing kids the wilderness can be a special experience, as their inquisitive and observant minds often notice things that we take for granted. However, adventuring with younger children also requires a fair bit of stamina. These ten best family campgrounds, personally selected as the top places for camping with kids in California, guarantee never-ending adventure and stimulation—satisfying the first Commandment for Camping with Kids: Take children where there is a guarantee of action.

Family Campgrounds in Northern California

Two elk stand in the tall grass in front of a wooden fence. One has its head in the grass, presumably eating, the other looks off to the side

Elk Bulls in Prairie Creek Redwoods. Photo © Miguel Vieira, licensed CC-BY.

Elk Prairie (in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park)

Scenic Rating: 9/10
Region: Redwood Empire

A small herd of Roosevelt elk wander free in this remarkable 14,000-acre park. Great opportunities for photographs abound, including a group of about five elk often found right along the highway and access roads. Where there are meadows, there are elk; it’s about that simple. An elky here, an elky there, making this one of the best places to see wildlife in California. Remember that these are wild animals, they are huge, and they can be unpredictable; in other words, enjoy them, but don’t harass them or get too close.

This park consists of old-growth coastal redwoods, prairie lands, and 10 miles of scenic, open beach (Gold Bluff Beach). The interior of the park can be reached by 70 miles of hiking, biking, and nature trails, including a trailhead for a great bike ride at the visitors center. There are many additional trailheads and a beautiful tour of giant redwoods along the Drury Scenic Parkway.

Summer interpretive programs with guided walks and junior ranger programs are available through the visitors center. On the James Irvine Trail (trailhead near the visitors center), you can see world-class redwoods, Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and Douglas fir in the span of a few miles. The forest understory is very dense due to moisture from coastal fog. Western azalea and rhododendron blooms, peaking in May and June, are best seen from the Rhododendron Trail. November through May, always bring your rain gear. Summer temperatures range 40-75°F; winter temperatures range 35-55°F.

Lake Siskiyou reflecting snow-capped mount Shasta under beautiful sky after sunset

Mount Shasta reflects in glassy Lake Siskiyou. Photo © Chanya Kaya/iStock.

Lake Siskiyou Resort & Camp (near Mount Shasta)

Scenic Rating: 9/10
Region: Shasta and Trinity

Securing the spot for the top family campsite is this true gem of a lake, a jewel set at the foot of Mount Shasta at 3,181 feet, the prettiest lake on the I-5 corridor in California. The lake level is almost always full (because it was built for recreation, not water storage) and offers a variety of quality recreation options, with great swimming, low-speed boating, and fishing. The campground complexes are huge, yet they are tucked into the forest so visitors don’t get their styles cramped.

The water in this 435-acre lake is clean and fresh. There is an excellent beach and swimming area, the latter protected by a buoy line. In spring, the fishing is good for trout, and then as the water warms, for smallmouth bass. A good boat ramp and boat rentals are available, and a 10-mph speed limit is strictly enforced, keeping the lake pristine and quiet. The City of Mount Shasta holds its Fourth of July fireworks display above the lake. The campgrounds are huge and often fill on weekends and summer holidays.

The perfect summer vacation awaits. Photo © Ken Lund, licensed CC-BY SA.

Historic Camp Richardson Resort (on Lake Tahoe)

Scenic Rating: 7/10
Region: Tahoe and the Northern Sierra

Camp Richardson Resort is within minutes of boating, biking, gambling, and, in the winter, skiing and snowboarding. It’s a take-your-pick deal. It’s a legendary spot, often called “Camp Rich.” With cabins, a restaurant, and live music (often nightly in summer) also on the property, this is a place that offers one big package. The campsites are set in the woods, not on the lake itself, but are within a short walking distance of the lake. From here you can gain access to an excellent bike route that runs for three miles, then loops around by the lake for another three miles, most of it flat and easy, all of it beautiful. You can also make the easy, beautiful ride to Fallen Leaf Lake. A marina for boating, waterskiing lessons (I actually did this!), an ice cream parlor, and year-round recreation make Camp Rich a popular winner. The elevation is 6,300 feet.

Tree and boulder lined shore of Lake Alpine, which is blue and reflects the sky above in its glassy surface

Lake Alpine. Photo © PDTillman., licensed CC-BY.

Lake Alpine Campground (on Lake Alpine in Stanislaus National Forest)

Scenic Rating: 8/10
Region: Tahoe and the Northern Sierra

Lake Alpine is one of the prettiest lakes you can drive to, set at 7,300 feet elevation amid pines and Sierra granite. This is the campground that is in the greatest demand at Lake Alpine, and it is easy to see why. It is very small, a boat ramp is adjacent to the camp, you can get supplies at a small grocery store within walking distance, and during the evening rise you can often see the jumping trout from your campsite. A trailhead out of nearby Silver Valley Camp provides a two-mile hike to pretty Duck Lake and beyond into the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness.

A small and shallow stream weaves its way between large rocks, with trees on either side of the river

Hiking in Eldorado National Forest. Photo © Mark Doliner., licensed CC BY-SA.

Silver Lake West (on Silver Lake in Eldorado National Forest)

Scenic Rating: 9/10
Region: Tahoe and the Northern Sierra

The Highway 88 corridor provides access to three excellent lakes: Lower Bear River Reservoir, Silver Lake, and Caples Lake. Silver Lake is difficult to pass by, with cabin rentals, pretty campsites, decent trout fishing, and excellent hiking. The lake is at 7,200 feet elevation in a classic granite cirque just below the Sierra ridge. This camp is on the west side of Highway 88, across the road from the lake. A great hike starts at the trailhead on the east side of the lake, a two-mile tromp to little Hidden Lake, one of several nice hikes in the area. In addition, horseback riding is available nearby at Plasse’s Resort. Note that bears frequent this campground, so store food properly and avoid scented products.

Rancho Seco Recreation Area (near Sacramento)

Scenic Rating: 6/10
Region: Sacramento and Gold Country
Green meadows, trees, ponds, with the Sierra Mountains behind. Taken at Rancho Seco recreational park.

Sierra Mountains loom in the back of this gorgeous Racho Seco vista. Photo © Eric Sonstroem, licensed CC-BY.

There is a shortage of campgrounds close to Sacramento, so this one about 35 miles from the state capital comes in handy. This public facility has a 160-acre lake surrounded by 400 acres of open space and includes trails for walking and bicycling. The centerpiece of this recreation area is the lake, which is especially popular for fishing and sailboarding. The lake is stocked with rainbow trout, and fishing derbies are held during the winter. Other fish species include bass, bluegill, redear sunfish, crappie, and catfish. Live bait is prohibited and only electric motors are allowed.

A bonus is that the lake level remains constant year-round, and since the lake is fed by the Folsom South Canal, the water is warm in summer. Swimming is popular and there is a large sandy beach with summer lifeguard service. Pedal boats and kayaks can also be rented on weekends in summer. Tent sites are situated along the lake and a seven-mile nature trail loop is also next to the lake. The Amanda Blake Memorial Wildlife Refuge is here, and visitors can observe exotic captive wildlife that has been rescued from circuses and other performing groups. Migratory birds, including bald eagles, winter at the lake. What are those two large towers? They’re remnants of the now-closed Rancho Seco nuclear power-generating station.

Family Campgrounds in Southern California

A paved road with about 6 wood cabins lining it. There is a hill in the background.

The cabins at El Capitan Canyon. Photo © Ayleen Gaspar., licensed CC-BY.

El Capitan Canyon (near Goleta)

Scenic Rating: 8/10
Region: Santa Barbara and Vicinity

El Capitan Canyon is a unique campground where you do not bring your own tent but rather rent permanent safari tents or cabins on-site. The tent cabins are situated on 12-by-14-foot wood platforms, and they come fully furnished with beds and linens. The safari tents are heated and have electricity. The park covers 65 acres in the coastal foothills north of Santa Barbara and offers visitors the best of both worlds: There are 2,200 acres of public land near the camp with backcountry hiking and mountain-biking trails, or for those who prefer the sand and surf, beach access is within walking distance and ocean kayaking and deep-sea fishing trips can be booked at the resort.

In the summer live entertainment is available, including a concert series and the “Blues and Barbecue” event every Saturday night. Dogs are strictly prohibited in a mission to stop the spread of nonnative plants; this in turn has inspired a return of native habitat and the birds and wildlife that rely on it.

Reflective blue lake with a rocky, bouldery island with trees in the middle growing on it. In the foreground there are some docked boats and hills with trees in the background

Boulder Bay is one of the most photogenic areas on Big Bear Lake. Photo © Don Graham., licensed CC-BY SA.

Serrano (on Big Bear Lake in San Bernardino National Forest)

Scenic Rating: 8/10
Region: Los Angeles and Vicinity

This campground opened in the 1990s and became the first National Forest campground to offer state-of-the-art restrooms and hot showers. That is why it costs more to camp here. Regardless, it has since become the most popular campground in the region. Location is also a big plus, as this is one of the few camps at Big Bear within walking distance of the lakeshore. It covers 60 acres, another big plus. Another bonus is a paved trail that is wheelchair-accessible.

Want more? Big Bear is the jewel of Southern California lakes, the Lake Tahoe of the South, with outstanding trout fishing and waterskiing. All water sports are allowed. The lake is stocked with trout and catfish, and it also has large- and smallmouth bass, crappie, bluegill, and sunfish. Swimming is excellent at this lake, with large, sandy beaches around the shoreline. However, the water is cold. A trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail is nearby, and Canada is only 2,200 miles away. The elevation is 6,800 feet.

A chipmunk, which looks like a tiny squirrel, peeks its head and front paws out of an opening in the center of a tree

Spotting wildlife is a fun activity for kids. Look out for the cute chipmunks! Photo © Robyn Gallant, licensed CC BY.

Dorst Creek (on Dorst Creek in Sequoia National Park)

Scenic Rating: 7/10
Region: Sequoia and Kings Canyon

This is one in a series of popular camps in Sequoia National Park and is a favorite with families. The campground is huge, with spacious sites beneath a forest canopy. There is plenty of room to run around and youngsters are apt to make friends with kids from other sites. An easy hike to the Muir Grove of giant sequoias is nearby. The elevation is 6,700 feet.

Bear visits are common. Campers must keep food in a bear-proof food locker or they will get a ticket. Why? Things that go bump in the night swing through Dorst Creek camp all summer long. That’s right; Mr. Bear, along with many friends, makes food raids like a UPS driver on a pickup route. That’s why keeping your food in a bear-proof locker is not only a must, it’s the law.

The shore of June Lake. Photo © m01229, licensed CC-BY SA.

Pine Cliff Resort (at June Lake)

Scenic Rating: 7/10
Region: Yosemite and Mammoth Lakes

You’ll find “kid heaven” at Pine Cliff Resort. This camp is in a pretty setting along the north shore of June Lake (7,600 feet elevation), the feature lake among four in the June Lake Loop. The campsites are nestled in pine trees, designed so each site accommodates different-sized rigs and families, and the campground is about a quarter mile from June Lake. This is the only camp at June Lake Loop that has a swimming beach. The landscape is a pretty one, with the lake set below snowcapped peaks. The bonus is that June Lake gets large numbers of trout plants each summer, making it extremely popular with anglers. Of the lakes in the June Lake Loop, this is the one that has the most of everything—the most beauty, the most fish, the most developed accommodations, and, alas, the most people. This resort has been operated as a family business for more than 50 years.

10 Best Family Campgrounds in California


For the rundown on more outdoor adventures in the Golden State (with kids or without!), pick up a copy of the 20th edition of Moon California Camping today.