What to know about van life in CA

California is one of the most popular states for van lifers (if not the most) and is partly due to the great weather year-round but mainly because there is so much to offer here. From the 840 miles of coastline to the hundreds of parks, a variety of cities, and almost every outdoor recreation to do, California is the mecca for van lifers. Since there is so much to do here, we decided to put together a quick guide to camping in your van while in CA.   

Camping in State Parks

California parks have some of the most popular and beautiful campsites in the entire country. That being said, the busyness makes it extremely difficult to reserve a site on the dates you like. With 300+ CA State Parks and 13,0000 campsites available, all reservations are to be made through the new system, Reserve California. This system works off a 6-month rolling window which allows you to reserve camping and lodging each day for a period of 5-months in advance. They have a variety of sites like hiking/biking specific, group sites, and even overnight horse sites. 

  • Get California Explorer Annual Pass – Day Use Only ($125) 
  • Reserve campsites online – Link 
  • Reminder: A campsite will be held until 12 pm on the day of your arrival 

camper vans in national parksVan Friendly National Parks

There are 9 national parks in California and they are all very different; From the awe-inspiring Yosemite to some of the largest trees of the world in Sequoia, they are all super diverse and there’s something for everyone. Similar to the state parks, there are a variety of campsites, like the developed campgrounds that are accessible for RV’s to a couple of backcountry campsites. All reservations will have to be made through the Reserve California website and you should definitely get an America Beautiful Pass ($80) which is the annual park pass that you can buy online or at any of the parks in person. 

Here is the list of all the California National Parks – 

  1. Channel Islands
  2. Death Valley
  3. Joshua Tree 
  4. Kings Canyon
  5. Lassen Volcanic 
  6. Pinnacles 
  7. Redwood 
  8. Sequoia 
  9. Yosemite 

camper van in joshua treeWhere to Find Private Campsites

You have state and national park campgrounds but you also have independent private campgrounds throughout the state too. These are typically modern campsites that are quieter, more spread out, and have facilities like a pool or lobby. You can expect a higher camping fee but you won’t be getting the crowds. Most people are familiar with KOA, but there are tons of other great privately-owned campgrounds like Ventana in Big Sur or Parsons Landing on Catalina Island. 

Dispersed Camping and BLM Land in CA

With outdoor recreation growing in popularity and the established campsite being booked well in advance, how do you plan for those shorter, more spontaneous trips? The answer is Dispersed Camping within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or the United States Forest Service areas (USFS). All dispersed campgrounds are free, first-come-first-serve and you can stay there for up to 2 weeks long. Some of these areas have facilities such as restrooms, electrical hookups, garbage cans, and potable water, but most of them do not so you shouldn’t rely on these. So if you have a converted van, these areas are perfect because anywhere you can park, you can camp for the night. You won’t be fighting the crowds, paying those expensive fees, or being told to leave after a couple of nights. Luckily, national parks are almost always bordered by national forests and the dispersed campgrounds that populate them. Here are some of the main rules for dispersed camping – 

  • Camp 100 feet away from any water source
  • Camp within 150 feet of a roadway
  • Camp outside of a 1-mile radius of any designated campsite
  • Don’t camp at a site for more than 16 days
  • Camp where others have camped before
  • Pack it in, pack it out

dispersed camping in a vanTop Campervan Campsites in California

As you can see, California is one of the best states to visit with your van and there are plenty of activities to do with a variety of places to stay. We’ve visited most of the places we’ve mentioned but wanted to put a couple of our favorite suggestions that we want to share with you. 

Big Sur Campsites –

What’s not to love about this magical place? With the rugged coastline and Santa Lucia Mountains in the backdrop, this place is teeming with campgrounds all over. Pfeiffer campground has 200+ sites with the Big Sur River running right through it. We also recommend LimeKiln which only has 24 sites and sits right on the coastline with its private beach. 

Anza Borrego State Park –

Looking for some free dispersed camping? This is your place in So Cal because it is the largest state park with over 585,000 acres to explore and the first official, Dark Sky Community.

Inyo National Forest –

Located in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, there are more than 1.5 million acres of wilderness here. Here you’ll be close to many hot springs, lakes, and tons of hiking opportunities.

dispersed camping in a van in Anaza Borrego