This guide is part of KCET's California Coastal Trail project, which looks at the state's massive undertaking to build a trail over 1,000 miles in length along its whole coastline.
San Diego's beaches are an embarrassment of riches: wide stretches of golden sand, endless sunshine, rugged bluffs, and cool green seas. Add those characteristics to huge, nearby population centers, and you can see why it might be a good idea to plan early. Even so, there are numerous options for finding a small slice of this lovely coast to call your own -- if only for a night or two.
For this guide, we've tried to feature only campgrounds with the best coastal sights, sounds, and smells. Many of those places are state-owned because the parks system boasts so much of California's best seaside real estate.
Not surprisingly, the beaches are among the busiest parks in the state. Reservations can be made up to seven months in advance through ReserveAmerica.com. Book as soon as possible because many sites get snagged the day they become available. Cancellations can also free up previously booked sites, so watch for that. Thanks to CampsitePhotos.com, images of just about every individual site are available online, letting you choose a spot in the shade of a sycamore with just the right view.
Unless otherwise stated below, sites permit both tents and RVs or trailers. Some companies deliver RVs directly to campgrounds, making it possible to enjoy a road hotel without the need to pilot one on the highway; rental information can be found on most state park websites.
Silver Strand State Beach
Sorry tent campers, only those in RVs can soak up the best of beach and bay here, four-and-a-half miles south of the city of Coronado. Silver Strand is a 7-mile long tombolo that connects Coronado Island to Imperial Beach. That means that this narrow spit divides the warmer, calmer water of San Diego Bay from the Pacific Ocean. The park is set along two-and-a-half miles of ocean beach and one half-mile of bay.
Given the two bodies of water, you'd be hard pressed to find a coastal area with a wider array of way ways to enjoy sand and salt water. Hiking and biking trails offer yet more options. Tunnels connect the beach to the bay side, where only foot and bike traffic are allowed. There are 135 overnight RV sites and 1,000 RV parking spaces for day use. Dogs must be on leash and are only allowed in day use and camping areas, not on the beach or the bay.
San Elijo State Beach
This campground 40 miles north of San Diego is another close-quartered affair sandwiched between bluff and highway. Unlike some other nearby beach campgrounds though, it has plenty of unobstructed beach views, sufficient vegetation and adequate breathing room. And thanks to the location on this dreamy stretch of coast, any faults are entirely forgivable. There's something unusually enchanting -- even for Southern California -- about the tableau of palm trees, stately bluffs, gleaming sun and sea. Solitude may be short supply with the endless parade of cyclists, runners, surfers, and beachgoers. But some quietude, romance, and fun can be had by those who follow an old local tradition: moonlight strolls on the beach. Not that beach camping ever gets boring, but you may find that the coffee shops, restaurants and laid back vibes of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Solana Beach, and Encinitas are a welcome distraction. While at the campground, you have at your disposal fire rings, picnic tables, showers, and from April to October, a campstore. There are 172 campsites; 22 have full RV hookups.
South Carlsbad State Beach
Privacy and seclusion aren't necessarily on the menu at this popular spot three miles south of Carlsbad. Like its brother in Encinitas, the campground at San Elijo State Beach, the accommodations here consist of a strip sandwiched between the bluffs and the highway. Campsites and cars are scrunched together with little in the way of vegetation or breathing room. But, especially for those who snag a site on the beach side, you can't beat the view. A low chain link fence is all that separates the campground from the endless blue of sea and sky.
A set of stairs plunks campers directly onto the sand. The quick commute is convenient if carrying umbrellas, surfboards, or children -- a common sight considering Legoland California is a pacifier's toss away. Parents just might note that lifeguard towers are not staffed during the winter. Beachgoers can wander about a mile-and-a-half south before reaching a jetty at Batiquitos Lagoon, or as far north as their hearts desire. Twelve RV sites with hookups add to more than 200 sites at this full-service campground. From March to October, a camp store offers last minute essentials from boogie boards to wood for the fire rings. Heated token showers are at your disposal, as is Wi-Fi within 150 feet of the office.
San Onofre Bluffs Campground at San Onofre State Beach
San Onofre State Beach is a world of contradictions. The park sees well over 2 million visits yearly and could hardly be closer to the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and the 5 Freeway. Yet, somehow it is possible to feel as if you're alone on an untouched coastline. This sensation is most abundant at the Bluffs campground, which lies far south of the beach's most trafficked areas. The bluffs buffet the beach from the freeway and the power plant does nothing to disrupt the tranquility of time spent here. Most park visitors tromp to the stretch of beach near the famous Trestles surf breaks to the north, or to a popular day use area just north of the power plant. Both of those spots are well worth a visit, whether to pilgrimage to the world famous waves at Uppers and Lowers, two of the epic surf breaks, or just to kick back.
The bluffs campground, however, is south of the plant, happily on its own. As with many of the beach campgrounds in San Diego County, the beach, not the campground itself, is the draw. The campground is a glorified parking lot just on top of the bluff, albeit stretched over a span of three-and-a-half miles, giving some space to overnight residents. From spring to fall, campers can lay claim to 334 sites and may enjoy fire pits and picnic tables. There are no showers. Unfortunately, the bluffs and brush sometimes obstruct a view of the ocean. Six quarter-mile long trails make for an easy jaunt to the sand.
Two important things should be noted. Here's the first: Though this campground might not sound idyllic, it's the best option in San Onofre State Beach, a park whose popularity is well deserved. The park has one other place to spend the night. The San Mateo campground, about a mile from the beach, acts as a spillover for the park's millions of visitors. While power lines mar the area somewhat, the campground does have some charm. However, its ambiance is less consistent with the beach than the semi-blighted upland area it sits in.
Here's the second point: San Clemente State Beach, just over the county line in Orange County also has a true beachside, bluff-top campground. Campers can easily use it as a basecamp for the San Onofre State Beach, and to much more pleasing effect than San Mateo Campground. It's in our upcoming list of beach campgrounds in Orange County.