It might be easier to count the stars in the nighttime sky above Half Dome than it is to highlight the limitless options for where to camp in California. Even lifetime residents of the Golden State find it hard to exhaust the list. Imagine a five-star restaurant deciding to offer an all-you-can-eat buffet, and you get a sense of the outstanding choices just awaiting your selection.
There's the beach, of course, with 840 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline. Rather head to the mountains? There's the Sierra Nevada range, including Mt. Whitney, the tallest point in the continental United States. Prefer the desert? Try Death Valley or Joshua Tree. Forests? Will sequoia groves and redwood forests work for you?
There aren't many climate zones and features that don't exist in the state; did you know there are glaciers on Mt. Shasta? OK, there's no tropical rain forest, but you can find just about everything else somewhere in California.
Not to mention that California has some of the best camping weather.
Consider this a basic introduction on where to camp in California, a menu for a four-course meal, if you will, that should prove eminently satisfying no matter what your tastes and preferences. The options in each category are listed in order from north to south.
The Appetizer: Camping in the Desert
Desert camping is a little exotic; it's not for everyone and usually best appreciated in small servings. Because of limited water resources, it requires a little extra precaution, but the stark stillness of a sunrise over a barren, empty landscape, and the seemingly complete absence of any other living creature, can make desert camping a surreal experience.
In California, you'll have to stay in the southern part of the state, but that doesn't mean you lack for choices. Start with Death Valley National Park, which can claim the lowest point in North America (282 feet below sea level) and the world's hottest recorded air temperature (134 degrees). The park has nine campgrounds, four of which are open year-round should you wish to experience the blast-furnace fury of the desert in the summer.
Camp at: Furnace Creek
Joshua Tree National Park, east of Palm Springs, is know for the spiky, twisted yucca tree that gave the park its name, and for some excellent rock climbing and bouldering. The park's elevation ranges from 900 feet to nearly 5,000 feet, resulting in a wide variety of plant and animal life. There are nine campgrounds in the park, several of which are first-come, first-served.
Less-widely known, at least to those outside San Diego County, is Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which is home to a dazzling display of wildflowers. With more than 600,000 acres, it's the largest state park in the continental United States. The park has three developed campsites and several primitive sites, the latter of which are free and do not take reservations.
Camp at: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park