Over the course of our 19 nights on the road we camped eight nights in four different campgrounds. I thought a quick review might be of interest to folks--the California coast is beautiful and Highway 1 makes an amazing roadtrip (though not for the carsick-prone!)
OCEANO CAMPGROUND--PISMO BEACH
We drove from South to North and stayed in hotels/motels through more urban Southern California. Our first night camping was in Pismo Beach at Oceano Campground. Some negative Yelp reviews gave us pause but Mr. H had fond memories of annual visits during his childhood so we booked two nights. We were in the tent loop (the RV loop was separate and appeared to be very tightly packed--but they did have a nicer bathroom and apparently a shower).
CONS When we checked in the ranger warned us of a recent theft so we were careful to lock the car but it was a bit unnerving. It also seemed like the park rules were loosely enforced regarding number of people/tents per night (we were there on a Friday/Saturday so midweek might be better). Several sites were packed. It also appeared that some individuals actually lived at the campground and moved sites day to day based on availability. Our site had limited/no shade and limited/no privacy but it was plenty large. The single bathroom for our loop had no showers. Mr. H reports that the mens' had only one toilet (no urinal)--not much for the many campers. Womens' had two stalls.
PROS It's a short walk to a fun beach. Pismo is known for the dunes and OHV (off highway vehicle) riding on the dunes. We rented ATVS from BJs Rentals and were very pleased with the value and experience we had with them. I went running on the beach and it was really pretty (though windy). At the far North end of the beach past the pier there are some amazing white cliffs and I saw a few sea lions being captured/rescued in nets. If you like to collect sand dollars there are a TON. Not sure if it's a pro or a con but you can drive on the beach which was pretty fun. But as a beach-goer (with kids) you have to watch out!
SUMMARY: this was our least favorite camping experience of the trip--we won't be back to the campground though would visit Pismo again.
PFEIFFER BIG SUR STATE PARK
It goes to show you Mr. H awesomely planned this entire trip and I didn't even really know what we were doing until we were doing it but I pictured a campground with "Big Sur" in the name as being on the coast. Yes, this is near the coast but the campground is entirely forested and on the opposite side of the highway from the beach (which would be inaccessible anyway due to cliffs). We camped at Pfeiffer Big Sur with my parents which was really nice. We shared a site and had plenty of room for two tents.
This is really nice, well maintained campground. The sites are roomy and all seemed to have shade etc. Ours backed to the stream/river which was nice (not close enough to be a concern with Oscar but close enough for Biscuit to go goof around with the other girls she met). Umm, location, I guess (as long as you don't expect beach). At the end of the campground there was a very short trail up a bit of river to a fun series of swimming holes that Biscuit loved. We didn't do campground activities but they were offered. The trails are very well maintained and they had a nice shop and lodge stuff.
TONS of poison ivy. Everywhere. It was basically the groundcover for the entire park. BUT none of us got poison ivy (and some of us are quite sensitive) so maybe it isn't very....poisony? The hike I hoped to do (to the beach view) was closed so we did "valley view" and the "waterfall" hike. Both were, honestly, not that great. Sorry, hikes. Good trails just not that much to see at the end. Think of it as a forest walk (with no destination) and you'll enjoy. Also, this was quite an expensive campground (I believe it was $50/night but, again, see Mr. H, planning guru. Me, along for the ride)
Meh? Nice but no huge need to return.
WRIGHTS BEACH (SONOMA COAST STATE PARK)
So there are several campgrounds along the very long/narrow Sonoma Coast State Park. And no internet in this region so we were a bit confused driving to it but eventually we did reach Wrights Beach. It's farther North than we were expecting. We only stayed one night and that was about right though it appeared a few trailers were maybe longer term guests.
It's a nice, friendly seeming campground with very private feeling sites surrounded by bushes up against the cliffs on the beach. Really nice bathrooms. Like, nicest we encountered camping.
We learned upon arrival that the beach is actually quite deadly. Many drownings due to a steep drop off just offshore, sleeper waves and currents. There are warnings EVERYWHERE to STAY AWAY from the water. No wave tag. No walking on wet sand. No going down the burm etc. It was a bit disconcerting. So if you want to play in the water this is a no go. For playing in (dry) sand it was fine (though the sand was quite coarse).
Lovely views, good stopping place on a coast roadtrip but not worth a special trip. And be sure you don't swim!
PATRICKS POINT STATE PARK
Spoiler alert: Patrick's Point was our favorite campground. Too bad it so far away and remote. We stayed three nights in the Abalone campground. We were there with my inlaws who had a separate site (we probably could have fit in one but two was nice given the layout). The campground sites feel wonderfully secluded and carved out of the bushes and trees. The coast trail was right behind our sites so we could step through some shrubs and walk to several vista points.
Cool campsites as described with separate spaces for parking/eating/tents. The hikes along the trail were really fun and convenient. We walked to all the various points of interest including Patricks Point, Wedding Rock, Agate Beach and the one I can't recall the name of at the other end of the park. Agate Beach was the best--a great stream for the kids to play in. A lovely, large beach and fun rock collecting/hunting (though, in hindsight, I'm guessing you aren't supposed to collect rocks at a State Beach? Oops).
We also used the campground as a jumping off point to explore the far North coast and really enjoyed Fern Canyon in Prarie Creek State Park and the historic Samoa Cookhouse for dinner.
It's pretty remote but maybe that's a pro--not too crowded. Really, can't think of any cons--we liked it!
Will definitely visit again.
These "reviews" are based on our family trip in June 2014. Your mileage may vary :)