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Car Camping in Orange County (Where, How Much, & Is it Legal)?

As Orange County is one of the most popular places to car camp in the world, I figured I’d write about my experience car camping there. Here’s what I found.

Although car camping on most city streets in Orange County is illegal, you can either reserve a campground, sleep at a rest stop or take part in dispersed camping outside of the city. Cleveland National Forest allows free dispersed camping with permits, while there is also a rest stop 5 miles north of Oceanside. Campgrounds typically require a fee.

Let’s see which other dispersed camping spots there are around Orange County, along with campgrounds.

Where Can You Car Camp in Orange County?

4 Free Camping Spots in Orange County

Dispersed CampingReservation?Cost
San Mateo Canyon WildernessNoFree
Cleveland National ForestNoFree
Crystal Cove State Park (hike-in only)NoFree
Rest Stop 5 miles north of OceansideNoFree

1. San Mateo Canyon Wilderness

Cleveland National Forest

San Mateo Canyon Wilderness is a part of Cleveland National Forest, meaning free camping is allowed with a permit.

San Mateo Canyon Wilderness is a protected area located in the Santa Ana Mountains of Southern California, encompassing over 37,000 acres of wild lands.

Characterized by its rugged canyons, flowing streams, and diverse ecosystems, it provides habitat for various wildlife species and offers visitors numerous recreational opportunities, including hiking, backpacking, star gazing and camping.

2. Cleveland National Forest

Cleveland National Forest sunset

Cleveland National Forest has a few different spots where you can take part in dispersed camping:

  • Descanso (619-445-6235)
  • Palomar (760-788-0250)
  • Trabuco (951-736-1811)

Download the Dispersed Camping Wilderness Permit for the Palomar and Descanso Permit and San Mateo Wilderness Permit

You can stay on these dispersed lands for up to 14 days.

When in Cleveland National Forest, you can choose from mountains, waterfalls, and creeks.

Not to mention, the forest has its own observatory along one of its trails in the Palomar district.

U.S. National Forest says to attend the observatory you need an “Adventure Pass: To purchase a pass for this location visit a Cleveland National Forest office, find a local Adventure Pass vendor, or purchase online at”

3. Crystal Cove State Park (Hike-in)

Crystal Cove State Park beach

Crystal Cove State Park has a paid section along the beach where you can car camp. To obtain a free site here, they are accessible only by foot and require at least a 3-mile hike inland from the parking lot.

While it’s not car camping, I figured I would still add this one to the list as it’s free, in the middle of Orange County, and right along the beach.

Crystal Cove State Park’s rolling surf, sandy beaches, tidepools, gently sloping hills, and deeply wooded canyons and ridges provide a delightful contrast to its urban surroundings.  Located off the busy Pacific Coast Highway between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach, Crystal Cove is one of Orange County’s largest remaining examples of open space and natural seashore.

California State Parks

4. Rest Stop 5 Miles North of Oceanside

While it’s not a campsite, sometimes when we car camp, we become desperate. This rest stop is one of the only rest stops along the ocean in all of Southern California (located very close to Camp Pendleton).

There are 30 or more “campsites” and the maximum vehicle length is unlimited. You may stay up to 8 hours here!

Amenities: Drinking water, pets welcome, restrooms, trash cans.

GPS Coordinates: 33.272471, -117.443862

3 Campgrounds in Orange County

Doheny State BeachRequired$40-$60/night
Moro Campground Crystal Cove State ParkRequiredStarting at $25/night
San Onofre State BeachRequired$35-$45/night

1. Doheny State Beach

Doheny State Park sunset

Doheny State Beach is located in Dana Point, California. The southern end of the state beach has campgrounds, with some of the campsites only steps away from the beach.

The state beach has tide pools and a visitor center with several aquariums. As one of Southern California’s popular beachfront campgrounds, visitors can enjoy a mix of surfing, picnicking, and relaxing by the ocean. The beach’s proximity to Dana Point Harbor also provides opportunities for boating, fishing, and exploring marine life.

Amenities: Toilets, showers, picnic tables, market, trash service, drinking water, firewood.

2. Moro Campground Crystal Cove State Park

One of the most popular campgrounds in Orange County, Moro Campground offers views of the ocean from the campsites.

There are 57 sites that are roped off and have a decent amount of space between each other (covered in beautiful vegetation).

There are trails that run across Crystal Cove State Park in walking distance from the campsite.

Amenities: Showers, picnic tables, drinking water, bathrooms, fires, trash service, etc.

One of the state park’s captivating features is the 3.2 miles of beach, which varies from sandy stretches ideal for sunbathing and picnics to rocky areas where tide pools captivate with their marine life.

3. San Onofre State Beach

San onofre trail

San Onofre State Beach encompasses over 3,000 acres and is known for its scenic beauty, which includes rugged cliffs, sandy beaches, and coastal terraces. The park boasts several popular surf spots, making it a hotspot for surfers from all around the world. Its waves are legendary, particularly at spots like Trestles, which has hosted numerous international surfing competitions.

When it comes to camping, San Onofre offers two main campgrounds: the San Mateo Campground and the San Onofre Bluffs Campground.

The San Mateo Campground lies slightly inland, surrounded by native chaparral and coastal vegetation. It has access to San Mateo Creek, which is a great place for campers to explore. On the other hand, the San Onofre Bluffs Campground is situated right on the coastline, with campsites overlooking the Pacific Ocean, offering campers a chance to fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves.

Both campgrounds provide amenities like restrooms, showers, and picnic tables. Additionally, there are several hiking and biking trails that connect the campgrounds to the beach areas, providing recreational opportunities beyond just surfing and sunbathing.