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.
Orange County has plenty of the golden sand beaches it's famous for. But the county's coves, rocky headlands, and mountains comprise a different experience entirely. Both can be yours, for a night or more.
Like in San Diego County, the OC's beaches are among the busiest parks in California. 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.
We've tried to feature only campgrounds with the best coastal sights, sounds, and smells. In this guide, those places are state-owned because the parks system boasts so much of California's best seaside real estate.
San Clemente State Beach
This blufftop campground is within earshot of Interstate 5, yet far enough and well-landscaped enough to give the impression of being more remote. The layout has a much more open feel than the strip campgrounds to the south and the many trees provide shade and create a pleasant atmosphere. The mile long beach is a quick walk down the bluff and provides access to the city's rail trail. Though the beach here is plenty attractive, this campground also serves as an excellent basecamp for visits to adjacent San Onofre State Beach and its world famous waves at Trestles. From the campground, that area is a very short car trip or about a mile walk down the beach. There are hot showers and a camp store.
Doheny State Beach
This mile-long beach in Dana Point sees a million visitors a year, who catch its rolling waves on longboards, play volleyball, fish, or relax. A much smaller number of people spend the night footsteps from the sand in any of the 121 campsites, located on the south side of the San Juan Creek, away from most of the action to the north.
Crystal Cove State Park
This nearly 3,000-acre park outside Newport Beach is a far cry from the many linear beach parks on the South Coast whose campgrounds could be confused for nice parking lots. Crystal Cove is more of a holistic, preserved chunk of coastal Southern California, complete with a seaside colony of cottages dating back to the '30s. The backcountry wilderness is dotted with primitive campsites and crisscrossed with equestrian, mountain biking, and hiking trails. Oh yeah, it has a beach, too -- more than three miles long, its coves and tide pools border an underwater park that tide-poolers, surfers, swimmers, and snorkelers will find equally enchanting.
Three backcountry campgrounds, each a three-to-four-mile hike from the parking lot, hold more than 30 sites. The beach-adjacent Moro Campground hosts 58 sites not far from Pacific Coast Highway or a snack shack serving burgers and beach fare. Use this trail map to choose from a strenuous nine-mile loop, an easy three-mile jaunt, or other options in between.
Bolsa Chica State Beach
This popular zone in Huntington Beach sees thick crowds, especially in summer. But nights and weekdays can belong to those who drop anchor at 59 RV sites, all with electrical hookups (there is no tent camping here). Bike trails make it easy to access any place along a 10-mile stretch of beach between the Santa Ana River mouth and Seal Beach. With such a big area, it's always possible to find an open patch of sand or an empty wave. During summer nights, crowds of a different type swarm the water's edge: grunion. The fish arrive in droves during high tide to mate and spawn in the sand, making either spectacle or sport for permit-holding fishermen to catch them by hand. Hot showers await campers, who can use park barbecues or their own propane grills.