Ask a Central California native if they’ve ever been to Los Padres National Forest and unless they’re an avid outdoor enthusiast, well-acquainted with the lay of the land, you’ll likely be met with a quizzical look. That’s because Los Padres National Forest is such a vast place, that you likely won’t know you’re passing through it, unless you pay close attention to signage.
A large forest in central and southern California, the Los Padres National Forest covers almost 3,000 square miles, or nearly two million acres. Stretching from Ventura to Monterey, and including most of the mountainous land along California’s coast, the forest is diverse and features everything from rivers to beaches and mountains to streams.
A popular recreation spot among locals and tourists, Los Padres National Forest is a vast playground for hiking, backpacking, fishing, swimming, rock climbing, horseback riding, biking, and other outdoor pursuits. With parts of the forest just 15 minutes from Santa Barbara, it’s a great place for a day hike, an after-dinner stroll or some stellar photo ops. However, if you’re looking to spend more time connecting with nature, camping in Los Padres National Forest is an option.
The forest is divided into five ranger districts with over 60 different campgrounds, and each is as stunning as it is unique. Whether you prefer to wake up above the tree line or be lulled to sleep by the sound of rushing water from a nearby river, when camping in Los Padres National Forest, you are bound to find a site that suits your preferences. While most of the campsites in the national forest are geared toward primitive camping, there are some developed campsites, as well.
Seaside sanctuary for surfers and spearfishers
Be lulled to sleep by the sound of the surf, as you cozy up in your tent, shaded by a canopy of Monterey pine and cypress trees. Plaskett Creek Campground is ideal for surfers, spearfishers, and self-proclaimed beach bums camping in Los Padres National Forest. The campground is just across Highway 1 from Sand Dollar Beach, the largest stretch of sandy beach in the Big Sur area. In fact, a short five-minute walk with a board or two in tote, will lead you to the shores of Big Sur’s crystal clear waters.
Booking one of the 40 spots here can be tricky, so be sure to plan far in advance, if you’re looking to score a spot at Plaskett Creek when camping in Los Padres National Forest. Though there are no hookups, potable water, sinks, and flush toilets are available, and each campsite has a picnic table and a campfire ring with grill.
A high mountain escape with sweeping views of the ocean
Reyes Peak Campground is not far from Santa Barbara and boasts panoramic views of the Cuyama Badlands and the Channel Islands. At an elevation of 7,096 feet, it’s the perfect place for rock climbers and photographers to camp in Los Padres National Forest. Though the campground is small (there are only six sites) and there are no hookups, each site does have a picnic table, a fire pit and charcoal barbecue grill. There’s also a pit toilet near the first few campsites.
The campground is surrounded by White Fir trees, Jeffrey Pine, and Sugar Pine, and you’ll notice chaparral species on the outskirts. During spring and summer, you’ll be dazzled by stunning wildflowers, including Scarlet Bulger, Lupine, and False Lupine. Red-tailed Hawk, deer, bear, coyote and the California Condor, call the surrounding area home, so keep your eyes peeled while hiking trails that start at Reyes Peak.
Campsites adjacent to picturesque streams not far from town
If you’re a first-time camper that wants to see what camping is all about, yet not too far off the beaten path, Wheeler Gorge Campground is the spot for you in Los Padres National Forest. Wheeler Gorge Campground has 69 family campsites and six double sites for larger groups. RVs up to 35 feet long can be accommodated. The campsites here are shaded and adjacent to picturesque streams and rocky mountains. A reservation is required for most sites. Each campsite at Wheeler Gorge Campground has a table, barbecue and fire ring. However, there is no potable water, nor dump station.
Across the campground is the Wheeler Gorge Visitor Center with museum-like exhibits, interpretive displays and naturalist programs. There is also the half-mile Wheeler Gorge Natural Trail, a loop trail that follows a tranquil stream through Riparian and Chaparral habitat. The campground is a short drive from the town of Ojai and Ventura, making it the ideal place to camp in Los Padres National Forest, if you want to sleep under the stars and then drive into town for a nice, warm breakfast.
Ideal for stargazers camping in Los Padres National Forest
Chula Vista Campground in Los Padres National Forest is situated in a grove of Jeffrey Pines with several hiking and mountain-biking trails nearby. The campground parking lot and nearby Mount Pinos are some of the best places in Southern California to see the night sky. The campground only has a dozen sites, which adds to the seclusion and intimacy you’ll experience while camping here.
Saline serenity in Los Padres National Forest
Kirk Creek Campground is one of the most popular campgrounds in Los Padres National Forest and securing a spot might require a bit of persistence and ingenuity. But as soon as you enter into the campground, you’ll realize why these campsites are hard to come upon. This picturesque, no-filter-required, campground boasts spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and is only five miles from Sand Dollar Beach. However, be sure you properly store all your food and drink, because gangs of raccoons run rampant at Kirk Creek, and they are not shy.
Escape the crowds without sacrificing the views
Camping in Los Padres National Forest during peak seasons can be difficult to find a spot. But at Nacimiento Campground, you can find remote campsites near Monterey and Big Sur, without sacrificing the epic views of the ocean. There are several campsites perched on the cliff, which provide spectacular scenes of the rocky shores below. This quiet campground is isolated and nestled amid groves of Oak Trees, with a small creek nearby. Just be sure to pack everything you need because the nearest gas, food and supplies are about 16 miles away, in Pacific Valley.
When you camp in Los Padres National Forest, you’ll find a campsite that’s as unique as you are. Whether you prefer a remote campsite, where you can unplug and unwind, or something down by the coastline in the midst of all the action, camping in Los Padres National Forest certainly won’t disappoint.