The City of Angels is heaven for a weekend warrior, with thousands of enticing options for wilderness lovers looking to escape the big city. Most adventurers blast off to far-flung locales like Mammoth Lakes or Yosemite, driving 5-6 hours and losing precious weekend time in the process. But what if you’re sick of the driving grind? Or the Sierras are socked in with late season snow? These are our five favorite camping destinations within a two-hour drive of Los Angeles.
Buckhorn Campground, San Gabriel Mountains
Best for: Forest and mountain lovers
Distance from Los Angeles: 50 miles
Buckhorn is one of those magical, woodsy slices of the San Gabriel Mountains that makes visitors feel like they’ve teleported deep into the Sierra Nevada. Set at an altitude of 6,300 feet, Buckhorn’s a breath of fresh, alpine air that feels lightyears away from Los Angeles’ smog. Open spring to late autumn, this first-come, first-served campground offers 38 car camping sites (three of which are ADA accessible) under a deep green canopy of incense cedars and ponderosa pine trees. Vault toilets and drinking water are available. Go early – sites often fill up on weekends.
This is the perfect place to lounge in a hammock reading your favorite novel, rustle up some grub on the adjoining picnic table, or tell spooky stories around your site’s campfire ring. For adventurous types who want to crush a few miles on the nearby trail system, there are options aplenty. The Pacific Crest Trail cuts right through neighboring Islip Saddle and is the gateway for several high peaks like Mt. Baden Powell. For a more mellow excursion, hikers can check out the 3-mile round trip trek down to Cooper Canyon Falls.
Gaviota State Park, Santa Barbara
Best for: Secluded beach-seekers
Distance from Los Angeles: 127 miles
Sand, surf, solitude. Gaviota State Park near Santa Barbara offers some of the best beach camping in SoCal, without the crowds. Here, visitors can sip their coffee and greet the morning with a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean from the high cliffs just beyond the campground. Each site includes a picnic table and fire ring, with communal bathrooms, showers, and drinking water only a short walk away.
One of the most unique features of the area is the length of wooden railroad trestle that swoops alongside the park, towering over the beach below. A short, steep trail leads downhill from the campground to perfect afternoon picnic spots on the beach. Mountain explorers will want to check out the magnificent view from the summit of Gaviota Peak or the trail to the nearby wind caves. Cap it all off with a long soak in Gaviota Hot Springs.
Serrano Campground, Big Bear
Best for: Lakeside lounging
Distance from Los Angeles: 98 miles
Just steps away from the deep sapphire tarn of Big Bear Lake lies Serrano Campground, a wooded wonderland for campers looking to sleep in the shade of a fragrant pine forest. This 109-site area will make you feel like you’re a million miles away from Los Angeles, but it comes well equipped with many creature comforts. Each campsite has a simple fire ring and picnic table, while the campground itself is stacked with RV hookups, bear boxes, firewood sales, drinking water, showers and flush toilets. It’s roughing it, but not too rough.
The Big Bear Discovery Center is less than a mile away, and the area is fantastic for families and fishermen. It’s outside the bustle of the nearby town, but close enough to cruise over for dinner or groceries. Avid hikers will want to check out the 5.3-mile (round trip) trek up to Bertha Peak on the Cougar Crest Trail for stunning views of the lake and surrounding mountains.
Little Jimmy Trail Camp, San Gabriel Mountains
Best for: Beginner backpackers
Distance from Los Angeles: 54 miles
Little Jimmy is, hands down, the loveliest of the hike-in campgrounds in the San Gabriel Mountains. It’s a beautiful, 2-mile alpine jaunt uphill to get there, but once you get set up, the magic of the forest is yours. Free to use and open to backpackers only, this 7-site trail features bear boxes, pit toilets, fire rings, and vintage backcountry ovens. Nestled under a grove of towering Jeffrey and fragrant ponderosa pine trees, Little Jimmy is a perfect place to relax, hang a hammock and listen to birdsong as you sip your morning coffee. A quick, .25-mile hike leads down to perennial Little Jimmy Spring, which provides delicious drinking water, once filtered.
It’s also a great jumping off point for hikers looking to bag some peaks. Take in the electric orange glow of the sunset atop neighboring Mt. Islip or wake up early to section hike the Pacific Crest Trail and knock out Mt. Hawkins, Throop Peak, and Mt. Baden Powel in one long, challenging day. Kick back tentside in the evening and grill up a backcountry feast as you howl at the moon.
Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park
Best for: Adventurous island hoppers
Distance from Los Angeles: 66 miles + 1 hour ferry
Smell the sharp spray of salt in the air and wake up on a remote bluff, on an island, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. That’s the allure of camping on Santa Cruz in Channel Islands National Park, if you’re lucky enough to nab a reservation. Permits go quickly, and visitors here have two options to choose from: a 3.5-mile (one way) trek from Prisoner’s Harbor up to the backcountry camp or a half mile stroll to a more developed campground called Scorpion Canyon (reopening in summer 2020). Intrepid backcountry campers will need to hike in all their food and water to Del Norte Campground, while those staying the night at Scorpion have access to potable water and pit toilets. Just be sure to book a ferry from Island Packers as soon as you finalize your travel dates; these spots are in high demand.
December – February, visitors can see Gray Whales breaching from the ferry ride in, while February – April brings colorful explosions of wildflowers to the lush, green hillsides. Santa Cruz is the largest of the islands in Channel Islands National Park, making it a hiker’s paradise, free from vehicles and civilization. Book a supplemental kayaking tour from Santa Barbara Adventure Company if you’re looking for an extra adrenaline rush exploring the area’s sea caves.