Scenic Southern California Campgrounds with Swimming

There is no place like Southern California, where sun-swept beaches and inland coastal forests abound. However, the area is also known for its scorching temperatures—especially in the late summer months. These campgrounds will keep you cool as you enjoy the outdoors: with swimming options ranging from Sierra lakes and hot springs to Malibu beaches and swimming holes, there’s an aquatic adventure out there for everyone.

A stream flows over rocks, forming mini waterfalls and pools on its way to Bass Lake
The north area of Bass Lake has many streams and swimming holes to explore. Photo © Dill11/Flickr, licensed CC BY.

Spring Cove Campground (on Bass Lake in Sierra National Forest)

Region: Sequoia and Kings Canyon
Scenic Rating: 8/10
Swimming: lake

This is one of several camps set beside Bass Lake, a long, narrow reservoir in the Sierra foothill country. Most of the lake is bordered by wonderfully sandy shores, which makes for good swimming and sunbathing. Expect hot weather in the summer. Boats must be registered at the Bass Lake observation tower after launching. The elevation is 3,400 feet. Another nearby option, just slightly north of Spring Cove, is Wishon Point (scenic rating 9/10), the smallest (and many say prettiest) of the camps at Bass Lake.

Note: Since publication, the landscape around Bass Lake has changed dramatically due to tree thinning, and thus there may be little shade at the campgrounds. Check here for more information as available.

A creek runs through boulders and green trees, a mountain and blue sky in the background
Wonderful scenery abounds and makes for an unforgettable hotspring experience. Photo © Vlad Butsky/Wikimedia, licensed CC BY.

Mono Hot Springs (on the San Joaquin River in Sierra National Forest)

Region: Sequoia and Kings Canyon
Scenic Rating: 8/10
Swimming: river, hot springs, lakes

This campground in the Sierra sits at 7,400 feet elevation along the San Joaquin River, directly adjacent to the Mono Hot Springs Resort. The hot springs are typically 104°F, with public pools (everybody wears swimming suits) just above the river on one side and the private resort (rock cabins available) with its private baths on the other. A small convenience store and excellent restaurant are available at the lodge.

Many find the hot springs perfect, but don’t worry if they’re too hot for your liking; the best swimming lake in the Sierra Nevada, Doris Lake, is a 15-minute walk past the lodge. Doris is clear, clean, and not too cold since it too is fed by hot springs. There are walls on one side for fun jumps into deep water. Tule Lake is another spring-fed option that is great for swimming, about a 3/4-mile easy hike past Doris Lake. The one downer: the drive in to the campground is long, slow, and hellacious, with many blind corners in narrow sections. Reservations are recommended, and they also have cabins.

A section of the river as it flows through Sequoia National Forest
A magical slice of the Kern River. Photo © Christine Warner Hawks/Flickr, licensed CC BY.

Camp Three (on the North Fork of the Kern River in Sequoia National Forest)

Region: Sequoia and Kings Canyon
Scenic Rating: 9/10
Swimming: river

This is the second in a series of camps along the North Fork Kern River north of Isabella Lake (in this case, five miles north). There is a nice swimming hole in the river, but be careful of currents which can be dangerous at times. If this spot isn’t for you, Hospital Flat is just two miles upriver and Headquarters is just one mile downriver. The camp elevation is 2,800 feet. Note: No glass of any kind is allowed in this campground.

Lopez Lake Recreation Area (near Arroyo Grande)

Region: Santa Barbara and Vicinity
Scenic Rating: 7/10
Swimming: lake, there is also a nearby water park

Lopez Lake, set amid oak woodlands southeast of San Luis Obispo, has truly gotten it right: there are specially marked areas set aside exclusively for waterskiing, personal watercraft, and sailboarding, and the rest of the lake is designated for fishing and low-speed boating. There are also full facilities for swimming, with a big beach area and two giant water slides, and a children’s wading pool—making this the perfect spot for camping with kids.

Another bonus is the scenic boat tours available on Saturdays, which get plenty of takers. A 25-mile trail system provides opportunities for biking, hiking, and horseback riding. The lake is just about perfect for just about everyone, and with good bass fishing to boot, it’s become very popular, especially on spring weekends when the bite is on. Other species include trout, bluegill, crappie, and catfish. The lake is shaped something like a horseshoe, has 940 surface acres with 22 miles of shoreline when full, and gets excellent weather most of the year. During the summer, there are ranger-led hikes and campfire shows available. Many campsites overlook the lake or are nestled among oaks. All boats must be certified mussel-free before launching.

Shoreline with gentle waves at sunset
A slice of life at El Capitán Beach. Photo © NOAA/Flickr, licensed CC BY.

El Capitán State Beach (near Santa Barbara)

Region: Santa Barbara and Vicinity
Scenic Rating: 10/10
Swimming: ocean

This is one in a series of beautiful state beaches along the Santa Barbara coast. El Capitán has a sandy beach and rocky tidepools. The water is warm, the swimming excellent. A stairway descends from the bluffs to the beach—a beautiful setting—and sycamores and oaks line El Capitán Creek. A paved, two-mile bicycle trail is routed to Refugio State Beach, a great family trip. This is a perfect layover for Coast Highway vacationers, and reservations are usually required to ensure a spot. Refugio State Beach (scenic rating 9/10) to the north is another option, or Gaviota State Park (scenic rating 10/10, though there is a train that runs next to the camp) which includes a 0.5-mile trail to hot springs.

Pink, orange, and purple sea anemones under the sea at Anacapa Island
Swimming is taken to the next level with the undersea paradise at Anacapa. Photo © Ed Bierman/Flickr, licensed CC BY.

Anacapa Island (in Channel Islands National Park)

Region: Santa Barbara and Vicinity
Scenic Rating: 10/10
Swimming: ocean

This getaway does require a ferry ride, but it is worth it as it ranks sixth for best island retreats. Little Anacapa, long and narrow, is known for its awesome caves, cliffs, and sea lion rookeries that range near huge kelp beds. After landing on the island, you face a 154-step staircase trail that leaves you perched on an ocean bluff. From there, it is a half-mile hike to the camp. Other trails venture past Inspiration Point and Cathedral Cove and provide vast views of the channel. The inshore waters are a marine preserve loaded with marine life and seabirds, and, with the remarkably clear water, this island makes a great destination for snorkeling and sea kayaking. At only 50 minutes, the boat ride here is the shortest one to the Channel Islands.

Wildflower blooms of orange poppies on the hills
There are many beautiful hiking options around Lake Elsinore. Photo © Nick Doty/Flickr, licensed CC BY.

La Laguna Resort (on Lake Elsinore)

Region: Los Angeles and Vicinity
Scenic Rating: 7/10
Swimming: lake

The weather is hot and dry enough in this region to make the water in Lake Elsinore more valuable than gold. Elsinore is a huge, wide lake—the largest natural freshwater lake in Southern California—where water-skiers, personal watercraft riders, and sailboarders can find a slice of heaven. This camp is along the north shore, where there are also several trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. There is a designated area near the campground for swimming and water play; a gently sloping lake bottom is a big plus.

Fishing has improved greatly in recent years and the lake is stocked with trout and striped bass. Other fish species include channel catfish, crappie, and bluegill. Night fishing is available. Anglers have a chance to fish for Whiskers, a very special catfish. It is a hybrid channel catfish that was stocked in 2000. It is a genetic cross between a blue and channel catfish, meaning that Whiskers could grow to more than 100 pounds.

If you like thrill sports, hang gliding and parachuting are also available at the lake and, as you scan across the water, you can often look up and see these daredevils soaring overhead. The recreation area covers 3,300 acres and has 15 miles of shoreline. The elevation is 1,239 feet. While the lake is huge when full, in low-rain years Elsinore’s water level can be subject to extreme and erratic fluctuations. Boaters planning to visit this lake should call first to get the latest on water levels and quality. Those familiar with this area will remember it was once named Lake Elsinore Campground and Recreation Area.

Doheny State Beach at sunset. Shallow waters come onto the sand and palm trees are visible in the distance
Book your spot early; this scene is too good to resist! Photo © Sergei Gussev/Flickr, licensed CC BY.

Doheny State Beach (on Dana Point Harbor)

Region: San Diego and Vicinity
Scenic Rating: 10/10
Swimming: ocean

Doheny Beach is a gorgeous (and one of the most scenic) park with a campground that requires working the reservation system the first morning campsites become available. Some campsites are within steps of the beach, yet this state beach is right in town, at the entrance to Dana Point Harbor. It is a pretty spot with easy access off the highway. A lifeguard service is available in the summer, and campfire and junior ranger programs are also offered. A day-use area has a lawn with picnic spots and volleyball courts. Bonfire rings are set up on the beach. Surfing is popular, but note that it is permitted at the north end of the beach only. San Juan Capistrano is a worth-while side trip, just three miles away.

Green manicured lawn with a footpath and picnic table under a tree on the coast of Chula Bista Bayfront Park
This carefully maintained facility offers gorgeous landscaping and parking. Photo © Port of San Diego/Flickr, licensed CC BY.

Chula Vista RV Resort (in Chula Vista)

Region: San Diego and Vicinity
Scenic Rating: 8/10
Swimming: ocean, pool

Perfect for those who prefer to camp via RV, this RV-only park is about 50 yards from San Diego Bay, a beautiful, calm piece of water where waterskiing is permitted in designated areas. Each site is landscaped to provide some privacy and there is a pool in the middle of the site. The park has its own marina with 552 slips. An excellent swimming beach is available, and conditions in the afternoon for sailboarding are also excellent. Bike paths are nearby.

Tom Stienstra

About the Author

For over 30 years, Tom Stienstra’s full-time job has been to capture and communicate the outdoor experience. This has led him across California – fishing, hiking, camping, boating, biking, and flying – searching for the best of the outdoors and then writing about it.

Tom is the nation’s top-selling author of outdoors guidebooks. His documentary on the Tuolumne River received an Emmy in 2017. He has been inducted into the California Outdoor Hall of Fame and has twice been awarded National Outdoor Writer of the Year, newspaper division, by the Outdoor Writers Association of America. He has also been named California Outdoor Writer of the Year five times. Tom is the outdoors columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle; his articles appear on and in newspapers around the country. He also broadcasts a weekly radio show on KCBS-San Francisco.

Tom lives in Northern California. You can contact him directly via the website

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