Honestly, they’re just embarrassing. As a state, California should be embarrassed by its parks. They’re shit. They’re just too expensive. Yes, people pay the fee, but they pay grudgingly, because there’s no alternative. They’re not nice-expensive, not cleaner than other parks (they seem dirtier), not packed with amenities in some awesome way. Hell, most have pay showers instead of free showers. They’re expensive in the I-think-I’m-getting-ripped-off-but-I-don’t-know-what-else-to-do way. They’re terrible.
In Oregon, campsites are $21 along the coast, some are $19. All of their State Parks have showers (free ones), some even have yurts (starting at $36 per night). The cheap campsites in California are $35 – basically the price of an Oregon yurt, about the price of a KOA private site. The beach-side sites are $50-60. It’s ridiculous.
But the state is broke, so people shrug and pay … and it makes no difference to the budget (the parks department has been hiding money from the public). I hate it. We tried our best to avoid California State Parks on our latest leg. We did a pretty good job. Here’s what you should aim for if you want a cheap, decent campsite in California:
- BLM campsites like Mattole Beach in the Lost Coast. These are cheap and nice (but rare along the coast). $8 for beach-side camping is just amazing. And there’s no car noise like there is at Carlsbad State Beach nor any train noise like there is at Doheny State Beach. No showers either.
- Forest Service campsites. Not always the cheapest, but these are good options just outside of most National Parks because they rarely seem to fill up. They’re quiet and low-key. And for some reason families with loud children seem to avoid them. Families with loud children plan ahead and reserve sites in the State and National Parks (and pay through the nose at State Parks). No showers here either.
- Regional / County Park campsites. Aqua Caliente, one of our favorite places on the trip, is a County Park. In Sonoma, we stayed at a County Park. Jalama Beach is a County Park. They average about $10 cheaper and 2x nicer than California State Parks. You’ll get a shower, it might be free, and you may even get to soak in a hot spring.
The best State Parks of the trip? Oregon’s, probably. Or Arizona’s. Both states have done a phenomenal job. California could learn something from them.