Skip to main content

Fall Camping in California: What to Know and Where to Go

Fall Camping in California
Getty Images: Sundry Photography

Fall is the time to plan your camping trip to California.

Many campers wrap up their outdoor adventure just before the fall. Backpacking supplies and tents often go into the garage or attic for another winter as people prep for colder weather. Which is a shame because many people are missing out on the absolute best time to hit the hiking trails at their nearest state park or national forest.

And fall camping is one of the best ways to really experience the wonders of the outdoors as nature paints a beautiful picture with the changing fall foliage.

California is just one such state where a fall getaway to your favorite campsite is even better than the typical summer vacation. You should take advantage and head to your favorite camping spot, even if its just for a weekend this fall. We will also recommend some of the best campgrounds to check out as the seasons change.

Why fall is the best time to camp in California.

Fall Camping California
Getty Images: adamkaz

Aside from the explosion of color one can enjoy in places like Lake Tahoe, Yosemite National Park, or Shasta National Forest, fall is also a great time of year as far as weather is concerned. Places like eastern and southern California may still be warm, but the sweltering heat of the summer has usually cooled down a bit. On the coasts and in northern California the weather is usually brisk light jacket weather at most. It makes for great sleeping weather while tent camping.

And even though fall camping has gotten more popular in recent years, popular tourist destinations like Death Valley National Park are usually not nearly as crowded as they are in the spring and summer months. RV sites that may have been booked all summer in some of the most popular parks may finally be open, and even the beach campgrounds are going to be less crowded once the kids head back to school.

Truly, fall is the perfect time to go for rock climbers to tackle that hard rock formation without feeling as rushed, or for hikers to see some of California's beautiful vistas in the Mojave without a crowd. It is also the best time to kayak a river in peace, or to take a ride down that challenging slope on your mountain bike. We also love this season for stargazing, horseback riding, fishing, and maybe even a little hunting thrown into the mix. Simply put, there are plenty of outdoor activities in the Golden State that pair up well with a camping trip.

As for what to bring, most of your usual summer camping gear works well in the fall in California. Although we recommend bringing some warmer clothing on the off-chance things get cold. We also recommend a warmer sleeping bag, something rated to 20 degrees or less. Just in case. One thing to keep in mind is wildfires are a concern almost year-round these days with California. In some areas they may not allow you to have a fire on the ground, so a specialty fire ring or something like the Ignik 2-in-1 heater stove may be what you use for cooking and heat in areas that may have a burn ban.

We also recommend a good GPS or a something like a SPOT device to stay in touch with the outside world. As things slow down for the fall and winter camping seasons, there may be fewer rangers and law enforcement patrolling to help if you have an emergency, especially when you are deep in the backcountry. Again, think of how quickly wildfires have spread in recent years in California. This is the season when lots of hunters get into trouble in the backcountry every year, even seasoned outdoorsmen and women.

When it comes to the best time to go camping in fall, we would recommend centering your trip around peak fall colors. Remember that the colors are going to peak earlier the higher in elevation you get, and usually the further north you go. That may mean as early as September for some of the more mountainous areas and as late as the last week of October in other lower areas. One of the tricks I use to monitor color change progress is to searching out scenery and weather webcams on the Internet. They will help you pinpoint when it is time to go.

Where is the best camping in California?

Fall Camping California
Getty Images: LL28

This depends on what you are looking for from your camping trip. If you are looking for scenic views of the Pacific Ocean, consider something like Big Sur. The central location gives the area easy access from San Francisco, and San Jose. It is about six hours from Los Angeles, but an extremely scenic drive if you stick to the coasts. Consider checking out Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park which has a combination of tent sites and RV sites.

Fall is a great time to visit Joshua Tree National Park and access is easy from the Bay area. San Diego and Los Angeles residents can enjoy camping in this park since it is open year-round and there are over 500 sites across multiple campgrounds. None of the campgrounds offer electrical hookups, although Black Rock has a dump station, water, and flush toilets. All these sites are above 3,000 feet in elevation and offer fantastic views of the surrounding high desert landscape.

Sequoia National Park is another fantastic place to explore in autumn. Nothing makes you feel small quite like standing at the base of tree more than 30 feet in diameter. If you are looking for a hike-in adventure here, try Dorst Creek campground. RV enthusiasts will enjoy the 158 sites at Sunset Campground. Just know this campground does not have a dump station, but it does have potable water on a seasonal basis and a camp store.

Along those same lines, the Redwoods are equally magnificent any time of the year. There are four developed campgrounds and multiple backcountry options that will take you down beautiful fern-covered trails past waterfalls. We already mentioned how Death Valley normally slows on visitors in the fall. The National Park Service runs nine campgrounds in the park. They have a limited number of hookups in their Furnace Creek Park, which also has water and modern restrooms. All parks have potable water except Emigrant. Some of the pack-in tent sites are completely free to use and are doled out on a first-come, first-served basis.

We already mentioned how Death Valley normally slows on visitors in the fall. The National Park Service runs nine campgrounds in the park. They have a limited number of hookups in their Furnace Creek Park, which also has water and modern restrooms. All parks have potable water except Emigrant. Some of the pack-in tent sites are completely free to use and are doled out on a first-come, first-served basis.

The Sierra Nevada National Forest is home to literally dozens of camping options, many of which are incredibly cheap or even free. This place has lots of dispersed camping areas as well as group camping areas. Any of these grounds are perfect for anyone wanting to enjoy the high desert views.

Products featured on Wide Open Spaces are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels

NEXT: THE AXIS DEER AND HOW THEY'RE IMPACTING PARTS OF THE UNITED STATES

WATCH

Related Videos

Fall Camping in California: What to Know and Where to Go