If you’re dreaming of falling to sleep with the roar of the surf in your eyes and waking to stunning pacific coast vistas, then hit the road for Carlsbad and Oceanside. These southern California beach towns have much to offer vancampers, from miles of beaches to incredible seafood. Learn the best places to stop along the way, hidden gems to discover, can’t miss attractions, and more. This adventure guide will reveal what you need to know about vancamping in Carlsbad and Oceanside, California. Check out the details below.
About Carlsbad and Oceanside
Carlsbad and Oceanside nestle just a few miles apart on the gorgeous southern California coast. About 35 miles north of San Diego — and a straight shot up the stunning Pacific Coast Highway — Carlsbad is home to almost 115,000 people. Here, you’ll find pristine beaches, waterfront camping, scenic lagoons and cliffside views.
About 5 miles further north lies Oceanside. About 175,000 people call this seaside town home. It’s known for its long pier, stretching out over one of the area’s best surfing and sunbathing beaches. In town, you’ll find year-round shopping, dining and entertainment. Getting to Carlsbad and Oceanside is part of the fun. There are plenty of places to stop and explore along the way.
Where to Stop Along the Journey
One of the best parts about vancamping in southern California? There’s always something to do! The area around Oceanside and Carlsbad is no exception.
Coming from the North
About an hour north of Oceanside is Newport Beach. This upscale coastal city is packed full of shopping and dining. On the drive south, you’ll pass through Laguna Beach; be sure to stop at the Laguna Art Museum and check out the views from gorgeous Crystal Cove State Park. You’ll also want to explore nearby Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Coming from the East
About 100 miles northeast of Oceanside lies Palm Springs; this vibrant desert town is packed with eateries, shopping and golf. Explore the hiking and biking trails near town and ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
Coming from the South
San Diego, about 40 miles south of Oceanside, is packed with attractions, from the San Diego Zoo to Seaworld. Take the scenic (albeit slower) route and drive the Pacific Coast Highway north to Carlsbad. Along the way, you’ll pass through beautiful La Jolla, Torrey Pines State Beach, Del Mar, Solana Beach and the lovely campground at San Elijo State Park.
Carlsbad and Oceanside: Activities for Everyone
Southern California is all about beach life, and Carlsbad and Oceanside are no exception. On a sunny day, there’s nothing better than heading down to the sand and spending a day playing in the waves. Whether you prefer swimming, surfing or fishing, you’ll find it here. When you’ve had enough water fun, the region is criss-crossed with biking and hiking trails. Top it all off with an amazing meal.
Carlsbad State Beach is a great place for boogie boarding. You can pick a cheap board up for under $20 and have a ball riding the waves.
For surfing enthusiasts, head up to Oceanside. The area around the Oceanside Pier is usually packed with surfers. Both the north and south side of the Pier offer good waves. Just up the road, Oceanside Harbor is another favorite local spot, with a stretch of sandy beach surrounded by two jetties.
South of Carlsbad State Beach, Swami’s Beach is known as the Sunset Beach of southern California. This isn’t a beginning surfer’s beach, but it’s still fun to sit and watch the experts ride the waves from the lovely park at the end of the beach.
Biking and Hiking
Oceanside is a designated Bike Friendly Community, and it’s easy to get around town on two wheels. In fact, one of the best ways to explore the city is on a self-guided or group bike tour. Tours operate from the Pier throughout the year.
For more biking, the San Luis Rey Trail runs for 9 miles, much of it along the San Luis River. This easy trail offers flat asphalt surfaces and very little elevation gain.
In Carlsbad, the Aviara Trail System is a perfect choice for walking, hiking and biking. With six miles total, the trails run through a range of terrain, from salt marshes to golf courses. All trails are unpaved and ability levels range from moderate to difficult.
Walkers and birdwatchers alike will love two lagoons near Carlsbad. Batiquitos Lagoon offers flat trails criss-crossing a 526-acre coastal marsh. Buena Vista Lagoon is a 350-acre freshwater lagoon (the only one in the state) and offers boardwalks, trails and lots of birds.
Calling all anglers: Oceanside Pier is a great place to cast your line. It really doesn’t get any easier than this: There’s a bait shop right on the Pier, and you don’t even need a fishing license to fish here. Head to the deeper water at the end of the Pier for bonito, mackerel, halibut and stingrays. In the shallower waters, you can catch guitarfish and croakers.
For more adventure, take a charter out into open water. Deep water fishing charters run out of Oceanside Harbor year round. Choose a three-hour tour or an all-day trip to catch mahi mahi, sea bass, barracuda and sharks.
In Carlsbad, the Hedionda Lagoon offers a relaxing, calm setting to fish. You can also paddleboard, kayak and pontoon boat on the calm waters of the lagoon.
One of the best things about vancamping in Carlsbad and Oceanside is that you’re never too far from amazing restaurants.
Start your day in downtown Oceanside. Just a few blocks from the Pier is Petite Madeline, a French bakery where everything is made from scratch. From pastries to lattes, you can grab your breakfast and people-watch outside in the sidewalk seating area.
Don’t miss Panca, a Peruvian roasted chicken eatery. With plenty of free parking and a casual atmosphere, it’s the perfect place for a lunch or dinner. This family-owed restaurant specializes in rotisserie chicken, but be sure to order the Papa a la Huancaina, a towering appetizer packed with spicy sauce, pulled roasted chicken and silky potatoes.
Just up the street from South Carlsbad State Park Campground, Pelly’s Fish Market and Cafe offers the freshest catches of the day. Eat in or take some back to grill at the van. Don’t skip the chowder; it’s delicious served in a bread bowl. Pelly’s is the perfect way to top off a day at the beach.
If you’ve got kids or grandkids with you, set aside a day to explore LegoLand California Resort. Just off the I5 in Carlsbad, the park is appropriate for all ages. Rides, shows and shopping make for a full day of Lego-themed fun.
Just west of LegoLand lies The Flower Fields. Open spring through fall, this colorful destination boasts 50 acres of, you guessed it, flowers. Visit from March through May when the land is transformed into layers of brilliant jewel-box hues. Here you’ll also find greenhouses, botanical presentations, u-pick blueberries in summer, tractor rides in fall, and much more.
For a glimpse into the region’s rich past, head to Mission San Luis Rey, or the “King of Missions.” Built in the 1700s by Franciscan priests who colonized the area centuries ago, the Mission is a prime example of period architecture and features hand-carved wood, well-preserved painted murals and intricate metalwork.
Where to Stay
If camping by the shore is your forte, you’re in luck: Several campgrounds in the Carlsbad area are located on the water. South Carlsbad State Beach offers more than 220 campsites. Sites on the western side of the campground are situated on a bluff directly overlooking the beach and ocean. The views are fantastic and the sound of the waves will lull you to sleep at night.
Oceanfront sites do cost more, but the splurge is worth it. Hookups are available, along with bathrooms with hot showers. There’s a camp store on site and a Ralph’s supermarket, gas stations and restaurants about a 5-minute drive due east.
Sites can be reserved up to six months in advance (and trust us, you should make reservations as far in advance as possible) through the Reserve California system. Campsites on the ocean side of the campground fill up almost immediately, so get online six months to the day that you want to make a reservation.
A bit further down the cost, San Elijio State Beach also offers oceanfront campsites. The campground is similar to Carlsbad State Beach, with hookups, bathrooms, showers, a camp store, and convenient access to city amenities. Reservations fill up fast, so plan it out in advance.
Most Oceanside parking lots don’t allow overnight parking, but there are a few exceptions. Four lots allow 24-hour parking. Of course, you have to pay, and the tickets may expire at midnight, requiring you to re-up. The overnight lots are located at:
- 1304 North Pacific Street
- 1400 North Pacific Street
- 1450 North Pacific Street (24-hour camping allowed September through May only)
- 1335 Harbor Drive North
Boondocking in this area is a bit harder. Though some report success over-nighting at the two Walmarts in Oceanside (located at 3405 Marron Road and 2100 Vista Way), you’ll want to check each store’s specific policies.
Before hitting the road and heading to the beach, keep these travel tips in mind:
- Campgrounds fill up quickly, so make reservations as far an advance as possible (up to 6 months out)
- The ocean water is warmest in July and August
- Fall and winter can get foggy and cool
- Traffic can be brutal, especially in summer, so give yourself plenty of time to get to your destination
Here’s where to find these don’t miss Carlsbad and Oceanside destinations:
- South Carlsbad State Beach: Carlsbad Blvd and Poinsettia Ln Carlsbad, CA 92011
- Oceanside City Beach: 350 North The Strand Oceanside, CA 92054
Biking and Hiking:
- San Luis Rey Trail: 425 College Blvd Oceanside, CA 92057
- Aviara Trail System: 6600 Hidden Valley Rd Carlsbad, CA 92011
- Batiquitos Lagoon: 7380 Gabbiano Ln, Carlsbad, CA 92011
- Buena Vista Lagoon: 2202 S. Coast Hwy Oceanside, CA 92054
- Petite Madeline: 223 N Coast Hwy, Oceanside, CA 92054
- Panca: 1902 S Coast Hwy, Oceanside, CA 92054
- Pelly’s Fish Market and Cafe: 7110 Avenida Encinas #101, Carlsbad, CA 92011
- South Carlsbad State Beach: 7201 Carlsbad Blvd Carlsbad, CA 92008
- San Elijio State Beach: 2050 S Coast Hwy 101 Cardiff, CA 92007
Start Your Adventure with Rec Van Today!
Carlsbad and Oceanside have much to offer vancampers. Though the weather is undoubtedly best from May through September, the activities don’t stop in fall and winter. Rec Van is here to help you enjoy the beach! We’re your source for buying and selling camper vans and RVs to make your vacation dreams come true.
Check out our amazing selection of adventure vans today and start planning your next trip.