Get the starry nights, the campfire stories, the cozy sleeping bag, and all the best parts of camping in some of California’s most beautiful settings—but without the hassle of hauling loads of gear into the backcountry. These glamping (short for “glamour camping”) destinations give you the best of both worlds—a back-to-nature break from everyday life, but enough comfort that you won’t wake up with a sore back and covered in mosquito bites. And the settings? The hardest part will be choosing which one to head out for first.
There’s Treebones Resort, for instance, which boasts alternative accommodations perched on wind-swept bluffs overlooking the Pacific. Or, head to an overnight safari trip amidst African wildlife at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, or spend a night under desert stars at the Living Desert near Palm Springs. If you are looking to spend time further north, try a stay under sequoias with five-course meals included at Sequoia High Sierra Camp, or maybe a few nights in one of the eco-friendly tent-cabins of Costanoa Lodge?
For the uber-active, there are the zip-lines and climbing walls offered at KOA Ventura Ranch. For the nostalgic, there’s the all-Airstream hotel AutoCamp, with locations currently in Santa Barbara and Sonoma County, and another opening in 2019 in Yosemite. And finally, the coastline-kissing campground at El Capitan Canyon, where you can choose between cedar cabins and safari tents on wooden platforms.
For most locations, everything, including bedding and meals, are included, though some sites require you to bring your own sleeping bag and pillow.
Cuddle up in a cozy Mongolian-style yurt perched on a Big Sur bluff
Along the spectacular Big Sur coast, you’ll find a unique glamping experience: Treebones Resort, with 16 yurts perched on redwood platforms, each with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. Step inside for some surprisingly swanky touches such as queen-size beds and cushy couches, plus sinks, heaters and electric lights. Outside, deck chairs provide the perfect vantage point for jaw-dropping sunsets.
Other accommodations—truly unique ones—are available as well. Designed by a local artist, Human Nest and Twig Hut are “wood-art” installations that up to two adventurous people can sleep in, making for a Big Sur sojourn unlike any other. And at the other end of the luxury spectrum is the solar-powered 500-square-foot “autonomous tent,“ a cocoon-like structure that includes a private deck, claw-foot shower, king-size bed, gas fireplace, and outdoor fire pit. Traditional bring-your-own-tent campsites with restroom and shower facilities are available as well.
In addition to simply reveling in the peaceful beauty of it all, there’s no shortage of things to do nearby. Book a private guided daylong hike—your guide with drive you between trailheads—and visit Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Limekiln State Park, or enjoy sea kayaking with a local guide in San Simeon Cove, a natural harbor 15 miles to the south. Treebones also sports a full restaurant, a sushi bar, a spa, a heated pool and hot tub (available to all stays) and an outdoor bar with that same ocean view, where you can kick back with a glass of wine or a local beer after a day of hiking, kayaking, or simply hanging out at the resort.
SAN DIEGO ZOO SAFARI PARK ROAR & SNORE
Wake up to giraffes and rhinos just outside your tent
How about an overnight safari trip to see African animals just a half-hour drive north of downtown San Diego in Escondido? On a Roar & Snore Safari at the remarkable San Diego Zoo Safari Park (the sister property of the San Diego Zoo), have a sleepover adventure in one of 46 comfy, safari-style tents that border an expansive grazing area for giraffes, rhinos, gazelles, antelopes, and other exotic animals.
While visiting this expansive park, book a Flightline Safari—strapped securely into a zip-line, you’ll soar as high as 130 feet above the rhinos, giraffes, and other animals below. You can even record the entire experience with a helmet cam to relive your experience at home. Also on offer are exhilarating Balloon Safaris and a Jungle Ropes Safari for kids 7 and up to test their balance and jungle skills on rope bridges, tightropes, and more.
All Roar & Snore Safaris, both adults-only and all-ages, include a ride on the Africa Tram and your choice of walking tours, from laid-back to active. Look for special themes throughout the year, like seasonal kid-favorite Creepy Camp during Halloween (meet spooky, creepy critters and get special treats), or the festive Holly Jolly Jungle safari in late November, just before the start of the holiday season. All overnights include special activities, an after-hours opportunity to look at resident animals, a campfire program, dinner, snack, and a park souvenir. And when you wake up in the early morning? Enjoy an open-air breakfast with views of grazing animals to photograph and observe, long before the park’s doors are open to visitors.
STARRY SAFARI AT THE LIVING DESERT
Camp under desert stars in a remarkable zoo
Bearded dragons, cheetahs, bat-eared fox, Arabian oryxes—these are just a few of the remarkable wild animals that will be in your desert dreams—and outside your tent—when you book an overnight stay at The Living Desert in the Palm Springs region. March through May, guests can enjoy a cracking campfire, exchange ghost stories, and roast s’mores. Then it’s time to curl up inside your private tent (cots are provided but you bring your own sleeping bag and toiletries) and listen for night sounds, like the distant howls of coyotes in the Santa Rosa Mountains. Or just relax outside to gaze at a sky full of stars.
Wake up to enjoy an exclusive private tour of The Living Desert, a nature preserve of more than 1,000 acres of Sonoran desert that showcases animals of the world’s deserts. The collection of exhibits ranges from a tour of terrains representing and hosting North American and African desert wildlife to the Village WaTuTu, an authentic replica of a northeast African village, to Eagle Canyon, where golden eagles, mountain lions, bobcats, and badgers thrive. Day visitors can feed giraffes, stop by a petting kraal (Afrikaans for enclosed livestock area), ride a camel, or attend one of the twice-daily Wildlife Wonder Shows. Admission is included with overnight stays.
Stroll through the site’s many geographic “immersive” gardens that represent the plants from a specific region, including East Africa, the Mojave, and the Chihuahua region of Mexico. Explore a network of paths that skirt the adjacent Santa Rosa Mountains before returning to check out the Discovery Center with its many exhibits on display.
SEQUOIA HIGH SIERRA CAMP
Sleep in ecologically designed tents complete with Persian rugs at over 8000 feet elevation
Nestled among the giant sequoias of Kings Canyon National Park, roughly a 4-hour drive south of Yosemite Valley, is the remote Sequoia High Sierra Camp, a wilderness site where guests snuggle up in off-the-grid tent-cabins. It’s a 1-mile hike from the nearest parking lot (longer hike-in routes are available), but once you get to the compound of tents (elevation: 8,282 feet), it’s nothing but glamping in truly exceptional California style. Three meals a day are served; dinners are five-course, open-air affairs prepared by a gourmet chef, and guests are served while seated at large communal tables. Canvas tents are outfitted with luxurious rugs and feather duvets and woolen blankets on cozy beds, propane lanterns, and of course, stunning views of the surrounding Sierra Nevada just outside your tent flaps.
After a hot breakfast, hike to mountain meadows, jewel-like alpine lakes, or high summits with commanding views. Maps for several trails are provided, and the trails themselves range from a few miles to more demanding itineraries. You can also explore the country on horseback; pack-trip excursions are available for all skill levels, and can last anywhere from a few hours to several days. On these outings, the High Sierras are your oyster, to fish, swim, or bird-watch (numerous species are native to the area—maybe you’ll spot a Williamson’s Sapsucker). Upon your return to camp, take a hot outdoor shower under a canopy of sequoia branches; the view of blue sky (or starry skies) above is unforgettable.
YOSEMITE HIGH SIERRA CAMPS
Choose from five camps near the alpine magic of Tuolumne Meadows
Here’s a glamping experience like no other—one that requires some work to enjoy, but that’s worth every ounce of effort. The work comes in the form of hiking or horse-packing to one or more of the five High Sierra camps, open June through early September. The most easily reached of the camps, May Lake, is a mile-long hike from Glen Aulin. From there, each camp is roughly 6 to 10 miles apart; all are strung along the 49-mile High Sierra Camp Loop trail. But once you’ve arrived, the scenery—some of Yosemite National Park’s most spectacular high country around Tuolumne Meadows—will make it all worth it. Plus, the fully outfitted cabin tents at each site, complete with a woodburning stove to ward off the chill of the ~9,000-foot elevation air, means you’ll only have to pack in your personal items and toiletries. Showers are available at three of the camps (subject to water availability); all camps have restrooms.
During your stay, enjoy hot dinner and breakfast, served family style with other guests—a great time to swap stories and hiking tips. Sack lunches for trailside picnics can also be ordered in advance. Guided hiking trips are available, lasting from 5 to 7 days, as are 4-to-6 day guided saddle trips, for both adults and children (minimum age for hiking trips is 7; for saddle trips, 10).
These camps have been a popular destination in Yosemite National Park since the first location, at Merced Lake, was established in 1916. Because of the demand, a lottery system is in place to secure reservations. Check out the lottery guidelines for how to submit an entry.
Enjoy eco-adventure and coastal beauty
Mountain bike through towering redwoods, horseback ride across coastal meadows, explore beaches and tide pools, then chill out in a fully outfitted safari-tent “bungalow” (plush bedding, electricity, and Wi-Fi) at the coastal Costanoa Lodge, an eco-adventure lodge in Pescadero. Roughly a 1.5-hour drive south from San Francisco, this peaceful retreat is surrounded by 30,000 acres of state parks from Big Basin to Año Nuevo State Reserve and Butano State Park. The grounds are heaven on earth for nature and wildlife lovers. Drift off to sleep listening to the sound of crashing surf and lonely coyote yelps; in the morning, stroll along the empty beach and spot lounging elephant seals. Appealing extras include an outdoor hot tub with views of coastal hills, and—to completely posh it up—a day spa offering on-site massages and body treatments.
Besides tent cabins, Costanoa has snug cabins with fireplaces, skylights, and a group dry sauna, and traditional lodge rooms. Hiking, kayak tours, guided bird-watching walks, and yoga are popular activities here, and kids can do things like make tie-dye t-shirts and ice cream at Costanoa Kids Camp, which runs from April through August. The campsite includes outdoor grills and picnic tables, or head over to the Cascade Bar & Grill, for locally sourced seafood and produce.
Nearby attractions include u-pick farms, the 19th-century Pigeon Point Lighthouse, the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve (home to blue heron, foxes, and deer) and two renowned Pescadero institutions, the Arcangeli Grocery and Bakery and Duarte’s Tavern, both of which serve up local artichoke-inspired delicacies.
KOA VENTURA RANCH
Glamping plus activities to get the adrenaline pumping
With zip lines, climbing walls, teepees, and deluxe cabins, this isn’t your typical just-off-the-highway group campground. Tucked into the coastal hills of Santa Paula, a little over an hour north of Los Angeles in Heritage Valley, this sprawling, family-friendly destination is part of the nationwide KOA chain. The glampground feature teepees that sleep up to 8 people, as well as tricked-up tent cabins (queen bed, futon, microwave, and mini-fridge). Also available are bring-your-own tent sites (without hookups) that feature picnic tables and fire pits, and are within easy access to the activities area and creek.
Nothing is cramped or close together here—the grounds and facilities are so spread out that some visitors opt to zip around to the activities and pool area on motorbikes or golf carts that are available for rent. Just watch out for peacocks—the beautiful birds make themselves right at home here. In addition to the teepees (which can be furnished with Native American appointments such as fur throws, cowhide rugs and Native American blankets for an extra charge), there are also deluxe and studio cabins with partial kitchens, A/C, coffee makers, and WiFi.
There are attractions here that are a few steps up from usual campsite fare, too—fly through the air on the aforementioned 1,400-foot zip line (tickets required) or the giant jumping pillow before heading out on a hike on family-friendly trails or taking a dip in the swimming pool. Other activities include gem mining, tie-dying, outdoor movie nights, and seasonal events like the Halloween costume competition and haunted hayride, and the “human ball drop” on New Year’s Eve. KOA Ventura Ranch is pet-friendly, but dogs must be leashed.
Bunk up in retro style in a classic Airstream
Sleep in a shiny silver bullet at the Airstream and luxury-tent hotel AutoCamp. Several of the sleek trailers are fully outfitted for you and your family or friends, with a little deck and Adirondack chairs outside, a gadget-filled kitchen, cozy quilts for snuggling, and even shmancy toiletries that will make Mom smile. Each trailer also includes two cruiser bikes—perfect for special time with one of your kids to go explore such attractions in Santa Barbara as Stearns Wharf, the beach, and the bustling Santa Barbara Public Market, where you can pick up designer cupcakes, crusty artisanal bread, and other treats for supper back in your super-cool Airstream.
Santa Barbara is the original, but not the only, AutoCamp in California. You get a similar ambience at the Russian River location in Sonoma County, but the lodging options are expanded, with 10 luxury safari tents in addition to 20 Airstreams. The activities are a little different too: Walk down to the Russian River to swim or canoe, play lawn games, or lounge by a fire pit inside or outside the mid-century-modern-style clubhouse. The 3,000-square-foot building also offers a store to stock up on snacks and local beer and wine.
Opened in 2019, AutoCamp Yosemite is the largest and most remote site, near the historic mountain town of Mariposa. Guests can enjoy many of the same amenities, plus a heated pool, mid-century modern clubhouse, and a pond with a paddleboat and canoe. Yosemite National Park is about 40 miles away and accessible via a daily shuttle.
EL CAPITAN CANYON
Canyon glamping on the central coast just a few minutes from a state beach
With a reputation as one of the most enchanting glamping experiences in the state, El Capitan Canyon—nestled amidst the rolling coastal hills 30 minutes northwest of Santa Barbara—is one of those pinch-me getaways everyone should experience at least once in their life (but we bet you’ll book a return visit before you leave). The leafy compound is so secluded that it’s hard to believe that more than 100 cabins and safari tents occupy the lush hillside landscape, surrounded on three sides by the oceanfront and backcountry of El Capitan State Beach.
Guests choose from basic canvas tents built on wood platforms, fancier cedar cabins with bathrooms and kitchenettes, or an Adventure Yurt with a domed skylight that allows for easy stargazing. All accommodations are situated along a wooded drive that winds its way into the hilly portion of El Capitan State Beach, where wildlife abounds, as well as goats, sheep, and a donkey named Eeyore. But the real draw here is the proximity to the coastline itself, where you can walk, bike, or drive under Highway 101 to access the sandy beach and tide pools. Visitors can even go on a leisurely llama hike to a field that offers sweeping views of the Pacific. Complimentary cruiser bikes are available for guests; friendly staff can also arrange surf lessons, whale watching excursions, kayaking, or wine tasting. There’s also a summer concert series on site, May through September.
Pet owners should be aware that because El Capitan Canyon is designated as a wildlife corridor, in an effort to protect local wildlife, there is a no pets policy throughout the canyon.
Insider tip: Cook your own meals—there’s a store on site for groceries—or consider the market’s selection of gourmet-style prepared meals.
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