California campgrounds offer plenty of fun, views and adventure

June 13, 2012 

Few outdoors activities are more enjoyable and peaceful than camping. Throw another log on the fire and listen to crackling flames pierce the evening silence. Roast marshmallows. Frighten the kids with ghost stories.

Now's the time.

To get you out the door this summer, I've compiled a list of the best campgrounds within easy driving distance of Fresno, plus a few along the coast. There sure are a lot of them -- I counted more than 160 just taking in Yosemite National Park, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, Sierra and Sequoia national forests and local lakes.

What leaps out is the variety. From facilities with plush amenities in world-famous destinations to primitive sites where you're happy to get a carved up picnic table and fire ring, there's a spot for everyone.

Thanks to the mild winter, even high-elevation campgrounds are already open. (One exception, Rancheria at Huntington Lake, is scheduled to open in mid- to late July after being closed more than a year for refurbishments.)

But before you pack up the sleeping bags or fuel up the RV, be sure to review all the rules and regulations for your chosen spot. Find out whether reservations are required, recommended or not needed. Learn whether they have potable water, trash removal and dumping stations. And since few things can ruin a camping trip like an uninvited bear, proper food storage is essential. If there's a bear locker, use it. If not, secure food inside your vehicle.

Now, on to my list of favorite campgrounds, categorized by activity and locale. Some appear more than once.

Best family destinations: Lower and Upper Pines (Yosemite); Lodgepole (Sequoia NP); Mono Hot Springs (Sierra NF); Princess (Sequoia NF); Azalea and Sunset (Kings Canyon NP).

Best lake access: Lupine/Cedar Bluffs, Spring Cove, College, Deer Creek, Lower Billy Creek (Sierra NF); Hume Lake (Sequoia NF); Camp Edison (Shaver Lake).

Best river/creek access: Wawona (Yosemite); Sheep Creek (Kings Canyon NP); Mono Hot Springs, Kirch Flat, Big Sandy, Dinkey Creek (Sierra NF); Potwisha (Sequoia NP).

Best coastal access: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (Big Sur); Montana de Oro State Park (Los Osos); New Brighton and Seacliff State Beaches (near Santa Cruz); McGrath State Beach (Ventura).

Best giant sequoias: Azalea and Sunset (Kings Canyon NP); Nelder Grove and Gigantea (Sierra NF); Redwood Meadow and Belknap (Sequoia NF).

Best nearby hiking: Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite Creek (Yosemite); Cold Springs (Sequoia NP); Sample Meadow and Clover Meadow (Sierra NF).

Best nearby fishing: Dinkey Creek, Portal Forebay, Mono Creek, Vermilion (Sierra NF).

Best nearby water skiing/wakeboarding: North Shore (Millerton Lake); Island Park (Pine Flat Lake); Camp Edison; Dorabelle (Sierra NF).

Best mountain biking: Nelder Grove (Sierra NF); Quaking Aspen (Sequoia NF).

Best waterfalls: Camp 4, Lower Pines (Yosemite); Lodgepole (Sequoia NP).

Best high elevation: Vermilion and Trapper Springs (Sierra NF); Saddlebag Lake (Inyo National Forest).

Best low elevation: Kirch Flat (Sierra NF); Buckeye Flat (Sequoia NP); Trimmer (Pine Flat Lake).

Best free campgrounds: Sample Meadow and Clover Meadow (Sierra NF); Big Meadows and Tenmile (Sequoia NF).

Best places to avoid RVs: Yosemite Creek (Yosemite); Placer (Sierra NF); Buckeye Flat and Atwell Mill (Sequoia NP); Belknap (Sequoia NF).

Most crowded: Lower and Upper Pines (Yosemite); Lupine/Cedar Bluffs and Spring Cove (Sierra NF); Lodgepole and Dorst Creek (Sequoia NP); Hume Lake (Sequoia NF).

Best chance of seeing a bear: Tuolumne Meadows and White Wolf (Yosemite); Dorst Creek (Sequoia NF); Lodgepole (Sequoia NP).

Best walk-in: Marmot Rock (Sierra NF)

You can always find a site at: Sheep Creek and Moraine (Kings Canyon NP).

Most off the beaten path: South Fork (Sequoia NP); West Kaiser and Voyager Rock (Sierra NF).


Campground lowdown

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK

-- Overview: Demand for the park's 13 campgrounds is incredibly high, especially in Yosemite Valley. Six are first-come first-served in the summer, including four along Tioga Road and 50% of Tuolumne Meadows. For the best chance of snagging one, arrive before noon on weekdays or 9 a.m. on weekends.

-- Information: nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/campground.htm

-- Reservations: Available in one-month blocks, up to five months in advance, on the 15th of each month beginning at 7 a.m. at recreation.gov or (877) 444-6777.

SEQUOIA & KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARKS

-- Overview: Sequoia and Kings Canyon have 14 campgrounds between them, including two (Lodgepole and Dorst Creek) on a summer reservation system. The others are all first-come first-served. Campgrounds often fill up on Saturday nights in July and August.

-- Information: nps.gov/seki/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm or (559) 565-3341.

-- Reservations: Accepted up to six months in advance (for Lodgepole and Dorst Creek) at recreation.gov or (877) 444-6777.

SIERRA NATIONAL FOREST

-- Overview: There are 87 developed campgrounds, including 43 that can be reserved. Dispersed camping is allowed except around Bass Lake, Huntington Lake, Dinkey Creek and the Merced River canyon.

-- Information: fs.usda.gov/sierra/ (look for "campground status" under quick links heading) or (559) 297-0706.

-- Reservations: recreation.gov or (877) 444-6777

SEQUOIA NATIONAL FOREST

-- Overview: There are more than 50 developed campgrounds, which also includes the Giant Sequoia National Monument. About half can be reserved. Dispersed camping is also allowed in most areas.

-- Information: fs.fed.us/r5/sequoia/recreation/campgrounds.html or (559) 784-1500.

-- Reservations: recreation.gov or (877) 444-6777

OTHERS

-- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Pine Flat Lake has 94 sites at Island Park and eight at Trimmer. Eastman Lake has 88 sites at Codorniz. Hensley Lake has 55 sites at Hidden View. Lake Kaweah has 80 sites at Horse Creek. Lake Success has 103 sites at Tule. Reservations accepted up to 240 days in advance at recreation.gov or (877) 444-6777.

-- California State Parks: Millerton Lake has 135 sites along its north shore. Reservations are accepted up to seven months in advance at (800) 444-7275 or reserveamerica.com.

-- Camp Edison: Southern California Edison operates 252 campsites at Shaver Lake with electricity, cable TV and limited high-speed Internet. Mail-in or fax reservations only. Details: (559) 841-3134, ext. 6, or sce.com/CommunityandRecreation/CampEdison/

-- Bureau of Land Management (San Joaquin River Gorge): Small campground is first-come, first-served. Details: (559)855-3494.

The reporter can be reached at marekw@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6218.

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