Thanks to a mecca of national and state parks and accessible landscape, there’s a glorious nature-inspired getaway near San Diego that is bound to make memories for a lifetime. So if your crew wants to rough it by tent camping or has their hearts set on a weekend glamping adventure, here are our favorite campsites—from beachside camps to private campgrounds with luxe amenities—that’ll bring you closer to mother nature.
photo: Andie Huber
AutoCamp Joshua Tree: Located just 10 minutes outside Joshua Tree National Park, this luxury camping site is exactly what you want from a desert oasis. There are complimentary bikes, a plunge pool, generous lounge areas (both indoors and out), personal fire pits with grate for fireside cooking and s’mores making. And of course what every mid-century enthusiast is here for: iconic Airstream trailers upgraded with modern amenities.
62209 Verbena Rd.
San Elijo State Beach Campground: Our list wouldn’t be complete without including a beautiful beach campsite in San Diego. If your family’s ideal fun includes boogie boarding, surfing or biking, a campsite at San Elijo provides the perfect backdrop. This cliffside campground offers tent and RV sites, each with a picnic table and a fire pit. Some campsites offer breathtaking views of the sunset and the coastline. Parents need not worry about rip currents here. San Elijo is a one of our favorite family beaches with its mellow breaks and shallow water near the shore. Amenities such as showers on site, a camp store and family programming are sure to make you all happy campers.
Insider Tip: As you can imagine, with ocean views and the coast at your doorstep, camping here fills up––so be sure to make reservations soon.
2050 S. Coast Hwy. 101
Campland on the Bay: Is summer all about reuniting lots of friends with all the kids running around together? Campland on the Bay is a campground teeming with fun and excitement for all ages to enjoy. Complete with two swimming pools, a full calendar of scheduled events ranging from bingo and dodge ball to sand castle contests, you won't hear kids saying, "Mom, I'm bored" here. Rent any kind of equipment you can imagine hourly or for the day from the marina: paddle boards, kayaks, surrey bikes and wave runners are just a few choices. There is a skate park, horseshoe pit and even an ice cream shop on site to delight all ages. At night, the festive entertainment continues with live music, dancing and light parades on the weekends. Prices range widely in the summer from $60 per night for tent camping to $401 for a beachfront RV site.
2211 Pacific Beach Dr.
El Capitan: Camping is made easy at El Capitan Canyon. From cedar cabins to adventure yurts to safari tents, families have seemingly unlimited glamping possibilities here. Deer, birds, trees and nature surround your crew at this camp area with plenty to do. Take a 30-minute hike to the beach or a morning walk to feed the llamas and goats. You’ll find a camp store and restaurant full of amenities. Further, truly glamp it up by ordering a bbq kit delivered right to your campsite. Then, fire up the grill and eat up. With a pool and playground for the kids and a spa for parents to enjoy, this outdoor oasis makes your summer vacation plans a cinch. The campground is located about four to four-and-a-half hours just north of Santa Barbara.
11560 Calle Real
Santee Lakes: If you're not the outdoor camping type but you still want the experience, Santee Lakes is your place. With ten cabins that offer the comforts of home only a short drive from the city, Santee Lakes may be the perfect introduction for families who are newbies at the camping experience. You’ll find fully equipped kitchens, air conditioning and even WiFi in all cabins. Floating cabins offer a beautiful deck and your own pedal boat to use whenever you please. There are more than 100 RV camping spots along the lakes to choose from, and the pool and clubhouse will be fast favorites. There are also seven playgrounds for kids including a boulder adventure course, a sprayground ($2 on weekdays and $3 on weekends for a wristband), a tot lot, a mega tower and an inclusive playground for kids with disabilities.
Good to Know: Cabin reservations for weekends go fast, so make yours soon.
9310 Fanita Pkwy.
William Heise County Park: If you're enjoying a day in Julian, why not extend your trip and go camping at William Heise County Park, just a five-minute drive from downtown? You'll find eight miles of beautiful trails for hiking, horseback riding or biking. Set up camp in one of the 14 wilderness cabins that have propane fireplaces, lighting, table and chairs and bunk beds. If you'd rather rough it, there are also 42 tent sites.
Insider Tip: Book a cabin long before your intended stay, as they sell out months in advance. Bring your own bedding/sleeping bags and blankets because mattresses and linens are not included on the wooden bed frames in the cabins.
4945 Heise Park Rd.
The Ranch at Bandy Canyon: Does your family love the idea of camping, but maybe the idea of “roughing” it in the great outdoors doesn’t sound so appealing? The Ranch at Bandy Canyon offers the perfect solution. Located in the heart of San Pasqual Valley, this rustic retreat allows you to enjoy all the comforts of home, yet be completely surrounded by nature. The Ranch offers everything from horseback trail rides to swimming, hiking, biking and more. And with cozy cabins and local wineries right outside your door, what are you waiting for?
Insider Tip: As for meals, since there is no on-site restaurant, you’ll want to bring plenty of snacks, drinks and easy-to-make meals that don’t require a stove. There’s a kitchenette in your cabin, as well as BBQ grills available near the pool for anyone to use. The office can also coordinate dinner delivery from a local restaurant or guide you in the right direction if you’d like to dine out.
16251 Bandy Canyon Rd.
South Carlsbad State Beach Campgrounds: Another gorgeous beachside spot for camping with views of the ocean on the west side, each large site offers a fire pit with a grill grate and a picnic table. There is a campground store where you can pick up just about anything you need: RV supplies, boogie boards, firewood and fishing gear. Our fave part: the stairway that leads straight to the beach! It's one of the top beach campsites in San Diego!
Insider Tip: All wood burning fires are prohibited where established fire rings are not provided. Propane fire pits or butane burners are permitted.
7201 Carlsbad Blvd.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park: Get a VIP tour of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park when you stay overnight. Best part? You get to wake up to grazing gazelles and sleepy rhinos. The Roar and Snore Safari at the Safari Park offers campers an African safari without ever leaving San Diego. The campground overlooks the Park's 50-acre savanna and gets you up close and personal with the free roaming animals. It's the kind of camping that requires cost of admission, but we think it's worth it!
Insider Tip: There's a range of comfy tents: Classic, Vista and Premium to choose from. All sleepovers include camp activities, an after-hours look at the wildlife of the park's animals, guided walks, a campfire program, dinner, an evening snack, breakfast and a park souvenir.
15500 San Pasqual Valley Rd.
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park: Do you love the sound of fresh air, hiking and getting off the beaten path with your family? Just a 45-minute drive from San Diego, Cuyamaca State Park with Green Valley Falls and Paso Picacho Campgrounds offers an easy getaway from the rush of city life. The campgrounds offer about 80 large tent and RV sites, each with a picnic table and a fire ring and water spigot (no hookups available). Several nice, basic cabins with wooden bunk beds and a wood-burning stove offer flexibility to visitors. Restrooms with flush toilets and pay showers are available in the campground. We advise you to bring a shade structure to help keep cool and come well-equipped. There is no store, only firewood and ice is for sale from camp hosts. This is car camping at its best for families with small children. With trailheads nearby, explore the wooded areas that offer lots easy day hikes. Sorry, no dogs or horses on trails. Or head in the car to Lake Cuyamaca which is only a 5-minute drive, or 20 minutes down the road to Julian for some apple pie.
13652 Hwy. 79
Mount Laguna: Only an hour drive east from downtown San Diego, but with a 6,000-ft elevation, you'll feel like you're a world away. If you have little ones who love biking, this is the spot for you. It’s filled with trails for all skill levels, but has plenty for beginner mountain bikers. Be sure to bring your binoculars and camera because the area is a mecca for bird watching and home to many unique butterflies. The area offers lots of different campground options, including spots for tents, RVs and group sites.
Hwy. 8. exit 47
Mount Laguna, CA
Palomar Mountain State Park: One of the few places in Southern California with a Sierra Nevada-like atmosphere, the park is filled with large pine, fir and cedar trees. You can camp, picnic and hone your fishing skills by luring trout out of Doane Pond. Be sure to bring your hiking gear. There are a number of trails that lead to amazing views of both the ocean and the desert. Leave Fido at home; dogs and mountain bikes are not allowed on the trails. Reservations are highly recommended for camping during peak season. Day use fees are $10 per vehicle. Speaking of vehicles, top off your gas tank before getting there since there are no gas stations on the mountain.
Insider Tip: If star gazing is high on your list of desired activities, don't miss a visit to the Palomar Observatory.
19952 State Park Dr.
Palomar Mountain, CA