Camping under the stars Camping underneath the stars. Photo © hjaadd/Flickr via Creative Commons

Best California Backcountry Camping

Get the inside scoop from a girl who grew up in California’s national parks.

Where to Camp: Advice from a Local

I’ve been inspired to share my top five backcountry camping sites in California. I’ll be posting a couple sites each week, so be sure to check back often!

And, with two park rangers for parents, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you to follow national and state park regulations and Leave No Trace guidelines to minimize your impact in the backcountry. Happy camping!

Up First: Explore an Untouched SoCal Beach.

1. Del Norte, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park

Step back in time to a California untouched by development on Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands National Park. Tucked away in a shaded oak grove, Del Norte is the only backcountry campground on the island. To reach this remote site, follow the moderately strenuous 3.5-mile trail from Prisoners Harbor. The historic trail winds through canyons and ridges, leading to a vista with panoramic views of the pristine coastline.

In 2002, The Nature Conservancy, the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game launched a collaborative recovery effort to save the native island fox. This species recovery program is praised as one of the swiftest and most successful rescue efforts in U.S. history. The Conservancy is also working to recover bald eagles on the islands.

Boat transportation arrangements are required before making campsite reservations. Make your travel plans now.

Don’t forget to check back every few days for a new California backcountry spot.

Up Next: A Site that takes you high into the Northern California wilderness.

2. Devil’s Punchbowl, Siskiyou Wilderness

Discover a backpacker’s Shangri-La at the Devil’s Punchbowl, nestled among the colossal, craggy peaks of the Siskiyou Mountains. Alpine lakes, old-growth forests and winding creeks carve out a hard-to-reach area still relatively undiscovered by the masses. As you hike to the lake, see if you can identify any of the 15 conifer species along the trail. After a moderately strenuous climb to get to the punchbowl, stake a tent at any of the four backcountry sites. And watch out for unusually large footprints—Bigfoot followers have purportedly caught a glimpse of the hairy giant in this neck of the woods! Start your adventure.

Get the scoop on my favorite NorCal coastal backcountry pick next week.

3. Gold Bluffs Beach, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Pitch your tent between the Pacific Ocean and a forest of redwood trees at Gold Bluffs Beach in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Experience the rugged Pacific coastline and roaming Roosevelt elk. Easy access to a secluded stretch of beach, Fern Canyon—a primeval, Jurassic Park–like wonderland—and 70 miles of hiking and biking trails let you choose your own adventure. Plan your getaway to Gold Bluffs.

Tune in tomorrow for a great beginner backcountry spot.

4. Island Lake, Desolation Wilderness, El Dorado National Forest

Find your bearings as a backpacker with this beginner-friendly hike to Island Lake in the Desolation Wilderness. Clear blue lakes nestled among jagged granite peaks are the definition of high country. Don’t stop there! Explore the lakes and passes higher up the slope—and out of day-hiker range. After your first taste of this rugged alpine terrain, you’ll be itching to go on your next backcountry trip. Click here for permit information.

Find out my final backcountry pick of the series later this week.

5. Buck Lakes, Emigrant Wilderness, Stanislaus National Forest

Explore the shock-blue lakes of Emigrant Wilderness in the Stanislaus National Forest. Starting at the Crabtree trailhead, follow a rocky trail that will lead you past glassy waters, grassy meadows and granite crags to Grouse Lake and Wood Lake. Overnight at Wood Lake, and catch your dinner from the cool, clear waters. Continue on to the Upper and Lower Buck Lakes, which feature a soaring backdrop of granite walls. Options abound to extend your hike or return via a different route to soak up the incredible scenery of the other lakes in the region.

Up next: I’ll give you my top five family-friendly California campsites. Check back soon on the ConserveCA blog!

Written by Conservancy Intern Elise Schultheis, who has grown up in our national parks…literally! With park rangers as parents, Elise has seen the ins and outs of California’s backcountry beauty. 

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