The 8 Best Hike-In Campsites in Northern California

Hear that? That's the sound of no neighbors for miles.

By Diane Rommel

The 8 Best Hike-In Campsites in Northern California
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25 July 2017

Any hiker worth his weight in worsted sock wool will tell you it's about the journey — not the destination.

But what if the destination is a place you can erect a tent, fire up some s'mores and sleep under the stars?

That's an inquiry you need to investigate firsthand.

So we put together a list of our eight favorite hike-in campsites in Northern California. 

Just a word to the wise: the beauty of backpacking is its freedom — so except where a couple specific sites are named, feel free to roam. 

Camp: China Hole
Park: Henry W. Coe State Park
Distance from S.F.: About 85 miles
Why here: Get into the “backpacking zone” at Coe and you’re free to set up camp wherever you like — but if you’re happy to stay on the map (and don’t mind neighbors), set your compass for China Hole, named for its proximity to a superlative swimming hole, with a sand beach and flat boulders seemingly custom-made for stretching out. 

Camp: Clouds Rest
Park: Yosemite National Park
Distance from S.F.: About 200 miles
Why here: Funny thing about Half Dome: You can’t see it from it. Which is why Clouds Rest is so popular: Get to the summit, at 9,930 feet, and you’ll be rewarded with 360-degree views of Half Dome and the surrounding Yosemite splendor. It’s official illegal to camp on the summit; rangers have recommended backing down the trail to established spots. But stories persist.

Camp: Cooskie Creek
Park: King Range National Conservation Area
Distance from S.F.: About 240 miles
Why here: Hit this oceanside campsite on a weekday and you'll understand why it's so popular on weekends — while enjoying the otherwise desolate Pacific coastline by yourself. And bears. (Permit, bear canisters required.) Consider this a key stop on your Lost Coast trip. 

Camp: Snag Lake
Park: Lassen Volcanic National Park
Distance from S.F.: About 240 miles
Why here: This is a pretty Sierra lake, just far enough up the path to defeat most day hikers — plus it's not included on the park's list of lakes where backcountry camping is forbidden. Use it as a setting-off point for a hike up Cinder Cone

Camp: Summit Lake
Park: Trinity Alps in Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Distance from S.F.: About 275 miles
Why here: The Four Lakes Loop is one of the most satisfying in Northern California — and this, perhaps its best base camp. Hike in, stay over, do the Four Lakes, take a million pictures, stay over again, hike out. 

Camp: Jay Trail
Park: Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Distance from S.F.: About 60 miles
Why here: If you're here, you're likely on your way to Waddell Beach, to complete the bucket-list Skyline to the Sea Trail through the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Pacific. Unlike the other camps on this list, Jay has some amenities — including flush toilets and bear boxes. 

Camp: Along the Palisade Creek Trail
Park: Tahoe National Forest
Distance from S.F.: About 160 miles
Why here: This tough, solid, 18-mile out-and-back is best enjoyed as a two-night trip, setting up camp along the American River — unless you'd prefer to do nearly 5,000 feet of elevation gain as a day hike. Sleeping farther along the trail also allows you to avoid the crowds at Long Lake, which is close to the trailhead. 

Camp: Morris Meadows
Park: Trinity Alps in Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Distance from S.F.: About 275 miles
Why here: It's a solid basecamp for exploring nearby Emerald Lake — with a sweet swimming hole all to itself. 

Note: Mileage is based on estimates between FiDi and a park entrance — actual driving distance will vary widely based on route selected, interior park driving, the appeal of various roadside attractions, and other factors. 

Photo credits: China Hole Camp by Bill Couch. Cooskie Creek by Bec. Summit Lake by Michael Lehenbauer. Morris Meadows by David Stillman

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