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.
North of Point Conception, the craggy, rugged Central Coast replaces the sun washed expanses of Southern California. The open skies, the fog, the mountains, the wildlife -- everything seems bigger and more intense here, begging for exploration. There are countless opportunities for that, and quite a few for overnight accommodations in the great outdoors.
Note: 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, 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.
Some of the wildest terrain in this region -- oceanfront sand dunes that could be confused for the Sahara Desert -- belong to off-roaders. There's no pavement here, only endless stretches of sand where ATVs wail under the open sky and 1,000 RVs can park where their hearts desire.
Pismo State Beach
Pismo State Beach has nearly everything visitors could want from the Central Coast, but with vast stretches of predominantly sandy beaches, rather than rugged shores. Surfing, fishing, and bird watching are just the beginning on this 17-mile strip of coast that is home to the world's biggest Monarch butterfly overwintering site. The camping is divided between the North Beach Campground, nearer to the town of Pismo Beach, and Ocean Campground, 1.5 miles to the south.
Montaña de Oro State Park
Like Pismo Beach, Montaña de Oro has it all, beginning with mountains of gold wildflowers, as the name might suggest, and dramatic summits, creeks, rocky coves, and sandy redoubts. Campers can make the place their own for the night -- shared, of course with coyotes and other abundant wildlife -- at the Islay Creek Campground 49 sites, near Spooner Ranch House, and a horse camp in Hazard Canyon.
Morro Bay State Park
The 141 sites here, mostly RV spots, sit on the bay, not the ocean, giving a coastal experience tempered by the marshes and the bay. The campground is adjacent to the Morro Bay Golf Course, part of the state park, which includes the iconic rock formation beloved by photographers and Peregrine falcons, and about 4 miles of sandy, fog-kissed beach.
Morro Strand State Beach
Two miles south of Cayucos, this dune laden beach hides 85 campsites off of Trinidad Street. The campground is true beachfront real estate, shared with a residential neighborhood it fronts.