Family Campgrounds & Hikes on the Central California Coast
Fancy a place to pitch your tent and walk over to the ocean with the kids? Will you also want beautiful nature, not too many RVs, running water, picnic tables and bathrooms? And while we’re at it and there is so much to schlep, how about not a big hike to the spot – not to much to ask, right? Relax, I’ve got you covered with four spots to check all the requirements and I’ll even throw in a couple nice trails.
Now you’d think with 840 miles of coastline, California would be an easy list but it’s more complicated than that. Since I mostly know Northern and Central California, I decided to focus on what I know best and Central Coast won over Northern for simple reasons. It’s a tad warmer than the North Coast, fog is not as bad and if you want to escape inland, the sun shines pretty close and you can go wine tasting. Note that this ain’t a “beach campgrounds” list because it wouldn’t be fair to campers – you never know what kind of weather you’re going to get, even on the Central Coast.
From north to south, here goes.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
In Big Sur just an hour south of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Pfeiffer Big Sur is a popular family campground. I picked it because I knew we’d be arriving late from the Bay Area on a Friday night and there’s a lodge on the grounds. Lodge = food you don’t have to cook, so I figured it would be a good choice. Tucked away in the redwoods, Pfeiffer Big Sur is a fantastic base to tour the Big Sur coast and the fact that the Big Sur River winds through it makes it all the more kid-friendly. Needless to say, my girls really liked that but they had to be careful with poison oak as it’s everywhere.
If you like hot showers, they got that too but you’ll need to buy 5-minute tokens. A wildlife note before you go: don’t leave any food at your campsite. The squirrels are fiercely creative to snatch leftover food. Also, Pfeiffer Big Sur is the only place where my girls saw a bobcat. It was on the trail and didn’t linger when my girls showed up. It was quite exciting.
- 150 campsites
- Website: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=570
- Hike: The Valley View trail takes you from the Lodge to the Pfeiffer Falls in three gentle miles out and back. It’s not the Niagara Falls but falls are fun for kids.
- Make sure you save some time to play by the river. It’s the big plus of this campground.
Limekiln Beach State Park
Much smaller than Pfeiffer Big Sur, Limekiln Beach State Park features a very unusual beach. Nestled under a very tall arched bridge, it’s more rocky than sandy but the waves put on a great show when you sit on the bench by the bridge piles. My girls enjoyed playing in the multiple streams created in the sand by Limekiln Creek as it flows into the ocean. The big draw of Limekiln State Park is some of the nicest short trails for families I’ve ever seen. I haven’t camped there yet but I’ve hiked two of the trails with my girls so my observations are based on walking through the campground with an eagle eye.
Basically the campground is divided into beach, creek and forest. Some of the forest campsites are on slopes and the creek sites seem to be the largest. The beach sites are very close together and I would avoid them if I wanted some privacy. The best option is to get a creek site and walk 5 minutes to the beach to watch the sunset on the ocean – bliss. All campsites come with the usual – fire pits and picnic tables – and the campground offers hot showers and flush toilets. Honestly for such a small campground it’s kind of unexpected. Note that you’ll need to be self-sufficient food-wise because Limekiln isn’t close to any grocery store or restaurant. It’s a sort of mini-adventure!
- 24 campsites
- Website: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=577
- Hike: if your kids are adventurous, like to get their feet wet and balance on rocks in the middle of the creek, try the Waterfall Trail. For younger hikers, the Limekiln Trail is a dryer alternative with a nice wide trail under redwood trees.
- Waterproof sandals are ideal for creek crossings or just creek splashing.
Morro Bay State Park
Now we’re talking one big family campground. Morro Bay is a choice spots for groups or big families. With five shower/restroom buildings spread out throughout the campground, it’s got everything the casual camper would want – pretty scenery, proximity to the quaint fishing village of Morro Bay, a few minutes walk to the Museum of Natural History, bay and small beach nearby, and an amphitheater. Because of all the pluses, you’ll have to relax your privacy standards. Our site was very close to the neighbors’ but we still had space to pitch two tents and had grassy space for the kids to roam around. Even though we showed up on a New Year’s Eve without reservations, we still scored a spot and the weather was gloriously sunny. We didn’t have wood and bought some at the ranger station. The down side – tons of RVs. It felt more like an RV parking lot than a lot of Cal state park campgrounds I’ve been to. But oh well, location, location.
As far as activities, there’s plenty to do for families. If the winds aren’t too strong, you can rent kayaks and explore the bay. Our kids loved the Museum of Natural History so much that we had a very hard time convincing them to go out and enjoy the sun. When we did, we took them to see the Rock – bloody windy out there, to eat an ice cream at the funky ice cream/candy parlor that has an awesome cookie jar collection, to eat salt taffy by the Rock, and we hiked at the Elfin Forest. If you fancy fish and chips by the harbor, my piano teacher grew up in San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay’s where she would come with her family.
- 134 campsites
- Website: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=594
- Hike: Los Osos Elfin Forest, a super fun trail with boardwalks over sand dunes, dwarf trees and viewing platforms on the bay.
Montana de Oro State Park
Ah, Montana de Oro – the underdog of the Morro Bay area. For Bay Area folks it will be the farthest on the list but for a change of scenery, it’s one of the best. Located far, far at the end of a dead-end road, Montana de Oro is an ocean lover’s paradise. The sheltered sandy beach across from the campground – Spooners’ Cove – is a treat for families, as are the tidepools a mile or so beyond the cliffs. For awesome views when it’s not completely fogged in or freezing cold, Oats Peak is a great hike. When we camped on Labor Day weekend, the hills were a tapestry of colorful wildflowers. Just splendid.
As far as amenities, Montana de Oro lacks a bit. Yes all campsites comes with picnic tables and fire pits, and there will be toilets and water spigots next to your campsite. The lack of trees means that the campsites are quite sunny during the day and when the night falls, the surrounding hills turn lovely golden hues. Our sites were all flat and the kids had fun kicking balls. At night it does get damp and cold so make sure you bring layers.
- 50 campsites
- Website: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=592
- Hike: Oats Peak if you feel very fit, the Bluff trail for gorgeous views and access to the tidepools.
- Don’t forget your sand toys!