The campgrounds guide for a road trip on the US West Coast !

24 May 2016
Tips campgrounds road trip

The time has finaaaaaaally come, I am going to unveil the list of campgrounds we stayed at during our road trip on the US West coast ! Yay ! I will start by giving you some tips usable for all campgrounds, so you would know what to expect going on your trip, and then give you access to the ones we spent the night at. We honestly had no bad surprises, but some are better than others of course… And usually a bit more expensive as well ! I will leave you with my appreciations and let you make your mind up on your own, is that alright with you ?

» Campground, what’s that ?

For the other version of this article, I was struggling with the French translation of the word “campground” because there is no real equivalent. The term “camping” in French is not really representative as in the US, campgrounds are usually not those huge centers with lots of animations, a big pool and luxury trailers (that is a bit cliché buuuut…) but simply areas on which you can leave you van or your tent. Most of them are located in natural areas, which makes them really enjoyable : we are not talking about concrete parking lots on which RVs are piling up.

For those located in more touristic areas (for example national parks), you can book your spot online before leaving, or while going along your trip. You surely lose some flexibility and freedom, but some of these spots are taken by storm during high season. I am talking especially about Yosemite and Grand Canyon for example, that can be full months in advance ! If you make the reservation beforehand, you will most likely pay online, and a specific spot will be assigned to your booking. If you cannot remember the number when you get on site, they will give it to you at the desk or put it up at the entrance if you come in late. For popular campgrounds, you can also gamble on last-minute cancellations to get a spot, you have to present yourself early at the desk to ask for one. Other campgrounds are usually working with a first come first served basis. Spots are filled up gradually. To book one and pay, you have different situations :

1. There is a desk and you arrive during the day : You simply have to present yourself there to pay according to the length of your stay, think about getting some change.

2. There is no desk and/or you arrive late : In this case, no possibility to pay in person, but it does not exonerate you from paying (even though it is possible to cheat… but hush !). You will find the detailed process at the entrance of the site. Usually, you will have to put the payment in cash in an envelop indicating your plate number, and then slip it in the provided box. Be careful and know that in most campgrounds, someone (a ranger for example) is coming (early) in the morning to check that. By that time, it is possible to play the tourist-arrived-in-the-middle-of-the-night card… but not having any change will not be considered as an excuse, and you will have to pay the person directly.

Americans being very fond of the holiday experience in an van or RV, most campgrounds are looked after and well equipped. It simply means that you have clean and functional sanitation in most of them ! The rest is a bonus ! For example, you will sometimes be able to have an electric terminal and/or a dump station to fill up or clear out your van with water (usually at the exit). You will also probably have a camping table for your meals and/or a fireplace (please follow the given instructions for that).

» Yosemite National Park

For our first stay in Yosemite, we chose the Lower Pines Campground simply because it is located at the heart of the park. We have not enjoyed it very long because we arrived quite late (from Los Angeles) and then left for our daily wanderings early in the morning, but the waking was great. We got up in the middle of a very typical pine forest and with a view over the park’s domes : what a nice memory ! Do not forget to lock up all your food and cosmetics in the bear-proof lockers near the spots.

PRICE : 26$ per vehicle (around 22,50€ to date)

BOOKING : strongly recommended a few months/weeks in advance here

SANITATION : toilets and washstands nearby, possibility to have a shower at Curry Village not far away (5$/pers.)

OTHERS : no electricity, dump station at the Upper Pines entrance, picnic table

We went to Yosemite a second time at the end of the road trip and spent the night in another campground… But impossible to remember the name unfortunately; and I had no more success asking my dear travel buddies. This one was a bit further away from Yosemite Village and its name included the word “Pine”… but like 90% of the campgrounds in this area ! There were fewer spots and the rule was first come first served, we had no trouble finding a spot for the night. It was in the middle of a forest, so thanks to all theses bear stories, we were not really reassured arriving by night, but we woke up with cute little squirrels to have breakfast with in the end.

» Lake Tahoe

Like many nights during the second part of the road trip in California, we had not booked anything for our stage at Lake Tahoe. After being turned down a couple of times, we ended up at the Nevada Beach Campground. We stumbled upon a very nice lady at the front desk and an (almost) empty campground, which allowed us to choose our spot (after a few discussions) in between giant trees and very close to the beach, a small piece of heaven. In the evening, one of the rangers offered us some wood to build a fire, what we did after watching the sun going down over the lake.

PRICE : 33$ per vehicle (around 28,50€ to date)

BOOKING : possibility to book here, first come first serve on site (at the front desk)

SANITATION : toilets and washstands nearby

OTHERS : picnic table, possibility to make a campfire, no electricity, no dump station

» Around San Francisco

It was not easy to find a place to stay near San Francisco. The city is rather big and it is not really possible to park anywhere because campervans are not welcome in the city center’s streets (sleeping parked on a hill is not the best idea anyway). We had not made any reservation but still had some addresses in our back pocket… But it was actually a bit hard finding those campgrounds, and it was the guys who gave us a good address : Samuel P. Taylor Campground (in the state park called the same). I can only recommend to get there by day as the place is hidden in this quite dense forest. We definitely had our share of U-turns that night, despite the fact that we had a GPS ! That being said, it makes the campground very quiet and enjoyable, between the trees and the river. We did not even realize it was that big ! Be careful, it is still an hour away from San Francisco but on the way to go to Napa Valley. Also know that there are closer campgrounds (to the city) but those are quite pricy – you are the one deciding how much of your budget you cant to allocate to these expenses.

PRICE : 35$ per vehicle (around 30€ to date)

BOOKING : possibility to book here, we arrived with no reservation but during low season

SANITATION : toilets and washstands nearby, showers working with quarters (mine was ice cold, but apparently it was just a lack of luck…)

OTHERS : no electricity, no dump station, picnic table, possibility to make a campfire

For our second stop, we went to a more confidential site as only a very few vehicles could stay there. This evening, I think there were 2 campervans and a tent to spend the night. But here comes my second (and last !) memory lapse, as I find myself incapable of remembering the name or the exact location of this campground… I have to admit that for this first night in the “new” van, we totally let the guys take charge of everything – as they seem to know the place (or simply did their homework well, we were completely taken in). I think we were in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, taking into account the distance to the city. I found on the map the following campgrounds : Bicentennial Campground, Hawk Camp Campground et Haypress Campground. Regarding the size, this could be it, but I would rather not make any mistake !

PS : We also tried out staying on a WalMart parking lot in Oakland, I do not know if I would go as far as recommending it, but we were not bothered nor driven out, so the overall experience was positive I guess ! Well of course, there was no sanitation nearby so it was simply for the purpose of parking on a flat surface without annoying anyone.

» Sacramento

Like in all big cities, impossible to park close by, and actually city landscapes are not the most exciting to spend the night. That is how we ended up around 30 minutes away from Sacramento, at Folsom Lake Campground. The place does not look much and has nothing extraordinary, but we still stayed for 2 nights. In fact, like numerous campgrounds, the area and spots were spacious, which was surely enjoyable, and that is also were we made our first campfire ! That was amazing to spend a good evening with friends. There is also a lake nearby to walk around, most of the visitors are locals getting up there to spend the weekend.

PRICE : 33$ per vehicle (around 28,50€ to date)

BOOKING : possibility to book here, first come first served on site (at the front desk)

SANITATION : toilets and washstands nearby, showers working with quarters

OTHERS : picnic table, possibility to make a campfire (wood can be bought at the entrance), no electricity

» San Jose

Remembering the name and location of this campground was not an easy task I have to say ! After intense research on search engines and Google Maps, I finally laid hands on it (and I am therefore quite proud at the moment). We were near San Jose to watch the arrival of the 3rd stage of the Tour of California (you might have guessed that this idea was not coming from me…) and went to look for a place to stay the same day. But after getting info on our phones and arguing about co-piloting (staying on the same road is still going straight even though the said road is turning a bit, right ?), we went to Joseph D. Grant County Park Campground ! It was our last night in the van, we took this opportunity to make our last campfire (and almost burn down the surrounding dry hills…). Mid-May, the place was empty and the view we had during breakfast amazing. The ranger who came to collect the money in the morning was super nice, he gave us some goodies and stayed to chat for 5 minutes.

PRICE : 32$ per vehicle (around 27,50€ to date)

BOOKING : not possible to book in advance, mailbox system + check in the morning

SANITATION : toilets, washstands and hot showers nearby (free)

OTHERS : picnic table, possibility to make a campfire, possibility to have a spot with an electric terminal

» On the Pacific Coast Highway

After another night on a parking lot around Half Moon Bay (we were stopped by the rain for a moment unfortunately), we had written down some campground addresses near Los Osos (Cerro Alto Campground in Morro Bay, Whisper Canyon Campground in Bradley, Plaskett Creek Campground in Big Sur) but had not reached that part of California at the time. The advantage of not having booked all the spots was that we just had to adapt and change our journey a bit. We quickly looked for campgrounds around Monterey, where we were, and found the Mazda Raceway Campground or Campground at Laguna Seca quite by chance. Even though the name could have led us to that information, we were surprised to stumble upon a campground… by a racecar track ! You better find out about the dates of the races to get there on a more quiet day, but the place is quite atypical. Choose a spot on top of a hill to have a nice view when you wake up, it is one of the best breakfast we had ! We actually liked it so much that we went back with the guys a bit later. This time, there were try outs on the track apparently, it was fun to watch and fortunately only lasted a couple of hours in the late afternoon.

PRICE : 32$ per vehicle (around 27,50€ to date)

BOOKING : possibility to book by calling 888-588-2267, mailbox system on site + check in the morning

SANITATION : toilets, washstands and hot showers nearby (free)

OTHERS : picnic table, play area (yes that is important), possibility to have a spot with an electric terminal

Going down a little further, still on the Pacific coast, we stopped near Santa Barbara. If the day before we had to adapt our program, this night was booked at the Los Prietos Campground in the Los Padres National Forest. It “made” us drive till the South part of the Pacific Coast Highway… otherwise we probably would still be in Yosemite at the moment haha As usual, we left the spot quite quickly, this has not left a lasting mark on me but was still nice.

PRIX : 29$ per vehicle (around 25€ to date)

BOOKING : possibility to book here

SANITATION : toilets and washstands nearby

OTHERS : picnic table, possibility to have a spot with an electric terminal

» Death Valley National Park

As soon as we got to Death Valley, we went to the visitor center to get some information about the surroundings and book our spot for the night at the Furnace Creek Campground. For such a touristic place, it is quite cheap (I think prices are going up and down according to the season though) but stay very basic. you will be parked quite close to your neighbors, but it is not that problematic if you are staying for a night. You can have a tour around the place before booking to chose the spot you want. And you have to be smart on this one : there are only a very few plants but those will protect you from the sun, so think about how it is turning along the day to know if you are getting some shadow (and therefore a bit of cool air) !

PRICE : 18$ per vehicle (around 15,50€ to date)

BOOKING : not possible to book in advance, first come first served on site (at the visitor center)

SANITATION : toilets and washstands nearby (showers totally missing, ouch !)

OTHERS : outdoor sinks to do the dishes, dump station at the exit, no picnic table, no electricity

» Parc national du Grand Canyon

After a short abandonment of the campground hunt in Las Vegas because we were staying at a hotel, we had to find a place to stay near Grand Canyon. Fortunately, there are campgrounds on the South Rim, very close to the village and visitor center. We opted for Mather Campground… booking it in advance ! In fact, we got one of the last spots booking a month before our stay, but it was apparently a stroke of luck because it is usually full months ahead. Likewise, the guys got lucky obtaining a spot thanks to a cancellation on the same day. And the big surprise is still the price, because it is really located at the heart of the South Rim and offers lots of services !

PRICE : 18$ per vehicle (around 15,50€ to date)

BOOKING : strongly recommended a few months/weeks in advance here

SANITATION : toilets and washstands nearby, showers working with quarters

OTHERS : picnic table, laundromat, WiFi in the common areas, possibility to make a campfire, dump station, no electricity

» Monument Valley

Following with our touristic visits, we booked a spot at the Goulding’s Campground in Monument Valley. We were afraid to end up in the middle of nowhere with no place to spend the night, but in the end, there were only 2 vans there on the evening… Ours and the guys’ ! Well, the area dedicated to campervans is rather basic as it is only a flat spot covered with red dust. But that being said, the sanitation was really clean and the view we had over sunset and sunrise was breathtaking.

PRICE : 24$ per vehicle (around 20,50€ to date)

BOOKING : possibility to book here, first come first served on site (at the desk)

SANITATION : toilets, washstands and hot showers nearby (free)

OTHERS : WiFi in the common areas, possibility to have a spot with an electric terminal, no picnic table

Of course, you will be able to find campgrounds everywhere and will never be very far from a sport, if you do some research beforehand or during your trip, on your phone or at the visitor centers. Anyway, all of those mentioned above were tested and approved because we never really got any bad experience. Your final choice will then depend on a smart combination between the price you are willing to pay and the level of services you want to get (not going to lie, showers are the best !). Do not hesitate to share your own addresses, in the mentioned places/cities or elsewhere, it can surely be useful to other travelers 🙂

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