Camping the Northern California Coast: Van Life Style

Camping. Northern California coast. Does the combination of those two phrases make your heart flutter? Northern California’s rugged coastline is a treasure trove for nature lovers and adventure seekers. With its stunning landscapes, pristine beaches, and abundant wildlife, the region offers an incredible camping experience.

What better way to explore this picturesque coastline than a Northern California road trip in a camper van?

In this article, we’ll talk about the best van life spots to hit up along this dramatic stretch of the Pacific Coast, from campsites to scenic roadways, to the best attractions in this part of the world. We’ll also discuss some considerations to remember when planning your road trip itinerary.

Table of Contents

Best Places to Camp in Northern California

Let’s start with some of the prime camping spots in NorCal. There is no shortage of state parks in this neck of the woods. From the windswept bluffs of Point Reyes National Seashore to Nisene Marks, tucked deep in the redwoods, to metropolises like San Francisco, here are a few of our top choices.

All of these campsites except for Kirk Creek can be booked by visiting the official California State Parks website:

camping in the back of vehicle in California

Sue-Meg (Patrick's Point) State Park

Formerly known as Patrick’s Point, Sue-Meg was restored to its original name in 2021. Since the 1800s, the park had been named for a homesteader accused of violence against native people. Sue-Meg was the name that the Yurok tribe has had for this place for thousands of years, and state park officials were happy to restore it.

Sue-Meg is in Humboldt County, thirty miles north of Eureka, and sits on a spectacular stretch of Northern California coastal bluffs. There are 120 campsites and much to explore for families and individuals, including hiking trails, a re-created Native American village, semi-precious stone hunting, and more.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

This inland spot in the Lassen National Forest offers lakeside camping, volcanoes, meadows, and some truly incredible vistas. It’s a long way from the coastal route (almost at the Nevada border), but if you can spare time to take a detour road trip, it’s very much worth it.

Depending on the time of year, you’ll find skiing and snowboarding here or lakes open to watersports like kayaking, jet skiing, fishing, and swimming. There are an abundance of campgrounds to choose from in Lassen Volcanic National Park, each with its own unique environment, so you can take your pick based on what you like.

lassen volcanic national park california

Van Damme State Park

Van Damme State Park sits right on the Mendocino coast in the Mendocino headlands. It’s a perfect stopping point to explore this quaint coastal community. Mendocino is the closest thing you’ll find to a New England town in California, with its salt box homes and tidy Victorians.

The Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens are worth a visit while you’re here, as are the multitude of incredible farm-to-table restaurants, farmer’s markets, beer festivals, and live music. If you’re flush with cash, spend a night glamping in a teepee at swanky Mendocino Grove

Nisene Marks State Park

This small state park is in Aptos, California, just south of the funky beach town of Santa Cruz. It’s an often overlooked stop along the west coast front, but absolutely worth a visit. Tucked away in the redwoods, it makes a great respite from the busy, tourist-focused beachfront action while still allowing beach proximity.

The forest here was clear-cut during intense logging activity in the late 1800s, but in the last century has begun to heal itself. You can still see the scars that humans have left on the space, a lasting testament to the effect that we have on nature.

Kirk Creek, Los Padres National Forest

This campsite barely qualifies as Northern California as it’s in Big Sur, which is really Central California, but it’s so great I had to include it. Teetering on the edge of coastal bluffs in one of the most spectacular places in the world, it’s a remote and rustic campground offering incredible views of the Pacific Ocean.

This is part of the national parks system rather than California state parks, so reservations must be made through It’s recommended to bring all your own water and firewood to this Redwood National Park, as the camp host doesn’t always have it available.

camping on northern california coast

Scenic Driving Routes for Your Northern California Road Trip

When immersing yourself in the natural beauty of Northern California’s coast, few experiences can rival the joy of a scenic road trip. As you hit the road in your trusty campervan, prepare to be captivated by breathtaking vistas, winding coastal highways, and hidden gems waiting to be discovered around every bend.

Here are some of our favorite scenic drives, in no particular order:

Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1)

Highway One stretches along much of the California coast and is a bucket list drive for many van lifers and camping enthusiasts. It starts in Mendocino County and stretches all the way to Los Angeles. This makes a great route if you plan to extend your Northern California road trip itinerary to include a SoCal excursion.

The route hugs the coast for the most part but does turn inland in several spots to avoid protected areas like the Vandenberg Space Force Base, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Diablo Canyon Power Plant. Part of the road is subject to landslides and closures due to erosion and extreme weather patterns, so be sure to check out road conditions before you set out.

drive-thru chandelier tree

Avenue of the Giants

No Northern California road trip would be complete without a visit to this road. This famous 31-mile drive takes you through some of the oldest and biggest trees on the planet.

If you want that classic shot of your car driving through a tree, this is the place to do it. Eight Auto Tour signs are placed incrementally along the route to indicate interesting stopping points or good places for pictures.

Avenue of the Giants runs through Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The park is free to enter, so there is no cost to drive the road. The Avenue is a bypass from Highway 101.  You can enter either at Phillipsville in the South or Pepperwood in the North.

Golden Gate Recreation Area Scenic Drive

If a visit to San Francisco is on your Northern California road trip itinerary, don’t miss the incredible five-mile drive through Golden Gate Park in the Marin Headlands on the northern side of the San Francisco Bay. The rugged and windy road offers breathtaking views of the bridge, bay, and city beyond.

This is an incredibly popular route that will likely be clogged with tourists. Also, San Francisco is typically foggy, especially in the summer. Personally, we think the image of the Golden Gate Bridge towers protruding from moody fog is iconic, but if you’d prefer to see the bridge on a sunny day, your best bet is to visit San Francisco in the fall.

golden gate bridge with clouds in San Fran california

Bristlecone Pine Drive

The Bristlecone Pines are the oldest non-cloned trees on the planet. They have survived for thousands of years in the harsh landscape of Great Basin National Park. Low temperatures, strong winds, and brutal terrain twist the trees into fascinating shapes as they cling to life in this rugged environment.

One of the trees you’ll see here – the Prometheus tree – has been there since the Stone Age. The Stone Age! That’s Stonehenge, people. And let me tell you, this tree has fared a lot better than any of our human follies.

The Prometheus tree in bristlecone pine

Lake Tahoe Perimeter

Lake Tahoe is a must-see stop if you’re planning to visit Northern California, and even if you don’t spend much time there, a drive around the lake’s perimeter is highly recommended. It’s a 68-mile loop that follows three paved highways: US 50, NV 28, and US 89. The route spans both California and Nevada.

It takes about three hours to drive without stopping – but there are plenty of things to see along the way, plus lots of restaurants and food stops that will slow you down. Plan a full day for it to be on the safe side.

4 Things to Consider When Camping the Coast of Northern California

  1. Book Ahead: Camping in Northern California is incredibly popular. For a good reason – it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. But this means that campsites book up quickly, and planning well ahead of time is wise. Do not think you can just get away with showing up somewhere and finding a spot. You can book state park sites up to 6 months ahead of time, and we strongly recommend that you do so.
  2. Get a State Parks Pass: If you’ll mostly be camping in state parks, it behooves you to purchase an annual pass. It costs $195, lasts 12 months, and will grant you free access to all the state parks for up to 4 people. If the full annual pass is too much for your budget, other options include an annual day pass, a Tahoe regional pass, and an off-road pass.
  3. Prepare for Snow: Some places up in the Sierras can be challenging to traverse when conditions are snowy. Make sure your vehicle is prepared to handle snow and that you have all the requisite equipment: snow tires, chains, shovel, and road salt, at the very least.
  4. No Drones: Drones are not allowed in any state parks.
van camping in northern california

What Will Your Northern California Itinerary Be?

Taking in the coast of Northern California by camper van is a road trip that should be on every nature lover’s bucket list.

Whether you’re looking for secluded beaches, natural hot springs, wine tasting, or visiting National and State parks, a Northern California trip will have it all.

With some planning, your Northern California road trip will be the drive of a lifetime.



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