Campgrounds have become one of the top vacation destinations this summer, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. This meteoric rise in popularity makes finding a place to camp challenging. Many campgrounds are still closed due to the pandemic, or only partially reopened. The parks that are open are experiencing unprecedented demand, but for anyone who just has to get away opportunities are available. 

The key to a successful camping trip this season is staying flexible. This is not the year to just get in the car and go, nor is it an ideal time for that dream trip to Sequoia or Yosemite—parks that are only partially reopened and already fully booked, but there are camping opportunities closer to home. 

Almost all of the parks we researched recommend or require reservations, even campgrounds that are traditionally first-come-first-served. Midweek travel offers more options. Campers who can only travel on a weekend may be out of luck until autumn.  

Like the big National Parks, many State Park campgrounds remain closed or are only partially reopened, with priority going to existing reservations. However, we were able to find limited availability at Leo Carrillo, Point Mugu and Malibu Creek State Parks, despite the limitations. More campsites were available at Refugio and El Capitan State Beaches, near Santa Barbara. 

For State Park campground reservations, visit www.reservecalifornia.com

Most of the campgrounds in the Angeles National Forest are closed, and the options in the San Gabriel National Forest remain limited. Table Mountain, near Wrightwood, is a good choice. When we checked there were still a few openings in July, and August had not yet filled up. 

The Ojai District of Los Padres National Forest offers several great campgrounds and is an ideal base for exploring the beautiful Ojai Valley and Sespe Wilderness area. Photo: Suzanne Guldimann

Los Padres National Forest sprawls over nearly two million acres along the backbone of Ventura, Santa Barbara and Monterey counties. It’s a vast resource and it offers family friendly campgrounds within easy reach for Topanga residents. 

Wheeler Gorge, just outside of Ojai, is one of our longtime favorites at the southern end of this massive expanse of federal land. It features large, well-shaded campsites, and the scenic and fun north fork of the Matilija River runs right past the campground, offering an enticing water element.

Several of the campgrounds in the Frazier Park area of Los Padres National Forest also have openings. Mt. Pinos Campground is located at 7,800 feet and is popular with stargazers and mountain bikers. There are numerous smaller campgrounds in the vicinity, including Jeffrey pine-shaded and pleasant Campo Alto Campground. All of the campgrounds in this area have toilets, but no potable water or electricity. Campers must be self-sufficient.

The San Bernardino National Forest covers 823,816 acres, and includes Big Bear Lake. The lakeside Serrano Campground is booked solid through August, but there are several good campgrounds in the area that are not by the lake. 

Pineknot—near the base of Snow Summit—still has openings in August, and Hanna Flat Campground even has some late July dates.

Barton Flats is another good choice. It’s not close to Big Bear Lake, but tiny Jenks Lake is nearby, and so are the trailheads to the Santa Ana River Trail and the Rio Monte Trail, which offers spectacular views of the Santa Ana River Valley.

For reservations, additional camping opportunities and information on San Gabriel, Los Padres and San Bernardino National Forests, visit www.recreation.gov

All campgrounds have coronavirus policies in place that prohibit group camping and limit campsite occupancy to immediate family households with no gathering or parties permitted. Masks are required statewide, even in parks and campgrounds. 

It’s a good idea to pack plenty of hand sanitizer and a hand washing station with the camping gear—a bar of soap and a five gallon jug of water works well.

The jury is still out on whether COVID-19 can be spread in human waste. The current advice is to wear a mask when using public restroom facilities.

Don’t forget the fire extinguisher, flashlight, first aid kit, necessary medications, and extra blankets and sweaters. COVID-19 isn’t the only emergency one has to worry about.

If the thought of camping during a pandemic is daunting, there’s always the backyard. Backyard camping is also experiencing a surge in popularity. It may not be the most adventurous destination but it is the closest and the safest, and there are worse things than pitching the tent in the garden or on the porch. 

Mt. Pinos, in Frazier Park, is a popular destination for stargazers. It’s easy to see why. This mountain top retreat’s campgrounds still have some openings, and this area is a relatively easy drive for Topangans looking to get away for a few days. Photo: Ann Dittmer

Add extra pillows and blankets, strings of lights, and electric candles to transform any old tent or even a blanket strung over a laundry line into a glamping experience. Or just turn the lights out and enjoy the view of Topanga’s beautiful dark skies.

All the elements of a good campout are in reach at home, from camp-cooked meals to campfire stories. Hiking trails are as close as Topanga State Park, and the beach is right down the hill.  

Sleeping out of doors, even if it’s in the backyard, can be surprisingly fun and relaxing: listen for owls, fall asleep to the sound of the wind in the trees, and leave stress behind.