Lakes always make fine spots for camping. Even if those lakes are artificial. San Luis Reservoir, an artificial lake built along the eastern slopes of Diablo Range in California’s Merced County, is the largest off-stream reservoir in the United States. It’s also one of our favorite camping spots in the state.

A trip to the reservoir not only rewards you with picturesque locations and scenic views, but enough recreational opportunities to make you want to stay for days on end. From camping to bird watching, hiking, and water-based activities like fishing, swimming, and boating, the reservoir and its surrounding area attracts nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts alike.

With all of that on offer and more, it’s little surprise we love camping here. And if you’re thinking about camping at San Luis Reservoir too, then you’re in the right place!

That’s because right here we will share with you our favorite San Luis Reservoir campgrounds and show you what makes them unique, and what’s close by to each.

We will also share with you information on when to visit, what unique things you can do, and the rules around dispersed camping at San Luis Reservoir.

Then lastly we have a free camping game for kids (and fun adults!) that’s perfect for camping in this region. You can find that at the bottom of this article.

So read on to begin your San Luis Reservoir camping adventure!

CONTENTS:

  1. The Best San Luis Reservoir Campgrounds For Fun, Views & Adventure
  2. Dispersed Camping At San Luis Reservoir
  3. The Best Time To Camp At San Luis Reservoir
  4. Free Scavenger Hunt Camping Game
San Luis Reservoir camping

San Luis Reservoir campgrounds

Camping at San Luis Reservoir: A Trip You’ll Never Forget

The Path of the Padres hike, tours along North Rim Drive and Salt Springs Cove, and the six-mile round trip along Lone Oak Bay trail are just a few of the attractions that have allured people to go camping at San Luis Reservoir for years. 

Since much of the land around the reservoir is made up of lakes, trails, and wildlife areas, it won’t come as a surprise that all except one of the campgrounds in the area is situated far away from the busy throngs of city life. But that also means that this region is an exceptional stargazing area too.

All of the campgrounds are open year-round though, and they’re very affordable.

As we love camping at San Luis Reservoir, here’s our five favorite campgrounds in the area.

The Six Best San Luis Reservoir Campgrounds For Fun, Views & Adventure

1. Basalt Campground

Nestled in a wooded hollow beside lush meadow, and situated at a 15-minute drive from Santa Nella village, Basalt Campground resides directly inside the San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area.

This is the only campground located within walking distance of San Luis Reservoir, and it has 79 campsites for tents and RVs up to 30 feet in length. 

This campground is not only popular because its proximity to the reservoir, but it’s also very popular with birdwatchers due to the large flocks of bird species seen here.

Believe it or not, this is one of the few places where you can catch a glimpse of the Yellow-billed Magpie, a bird species that only lives in California!

Amenities and Facilities

The sites are equipped with an asphalt pad for your tent or RV, a picnic table, and a fire ring. All sites have running water and the campground also has hot showers and flush toilets.

Unfortunately, there are no water, sewer, or electric hookups, but there is a dump station on the grounds. 

What’s Close By

Basalt Kiosk: Half a mile away from the campground lies this peaceful park, which is an ideal spot to sunbathe and unwind. Situated directly on the shores of the reservoir, the kiosk provides vast opportunities for bird watching and fishing.

Aurora Tacos: Stop by this taco truck five miles from the campground to get a bite on your way out. Do remember to try their popular tacos, a local favorite. 

The Important Info

Rates: Starting at $28 per night

Address: Basalt Road, Gustine, CA 95322

San Luis Reservoir camping

San Luis Reservoir campgrounds

2. Oasis West RV Park

With 115 campsites, Oasis West RV Park is easily one of the largest campgrounds near San Luis Reservoir. Located seven miles from the reservoir along Gonzaga Road, this park is quiet and spacious, making it an ideal location for a weekend getaway. 

With a clubhouse for gatherings, play areas for children, basketball hoops, and a swimming pool, there is no limit to entertainment opportunities here.

And guess what? The whole area is pet-friendly, allowing you to let your four-legged companions have a bit of fun too.

So if you’re looking for a San Luis Reservoir camping option with fantastic facilities that’s also pet friendly, Oasis West RV Park is hard to beat.

Amenities and Facilities

The park offers full hookups on all sites, with electric hookups of 30/50 amp. There are both pull-through and back-in sites on the grounds, each of which has a picnic table as well.

Campers get complimentary hot showers and are welcome to use the coin-operated laundry facilities on the ground. And that’s on top of all the recreation facilities, including that swimming pool!

What’s Close By

The Kitchen at The Mission: A fine dining experience in a casual setting, this restaurant set four miles from the park is known for its exceptional food, matchless service, and fine ambiance.

7th Street Ballfields: This community ground set 10 miles away from the park is an ideal spot for local games and organized sports. Drop by on a Friday to attend the flea market. The Spring Fair held here in May is also well worth a visit.

The Important Info

Rates: Starting at $50 per night

Address: 28485 Gonzaga Road, Santa Nella, CA 95322

San Luis Reservoir camping

San Luis Reservoir campgrounds

3. San Luis Creek Campground

Situated on the shores of the O’Neill Forebay, the San Luis Creek Campground has 53 RV sites that can accommodate trailers of up to 30 feet on one side, and there’s also a group campsite one mile away. The group site can accommodate around a hundred people and is a go-to spot for a scout camping trip. 

It’s best to be in a RV if staying here though, as in the evenings the grounds can get windy and cold, making it uncomfortable to be in a tent.

However if staying in a RV, there’s plenty of positives. One of those is the five-mile-long asphalt walking trail that goes around the lake and takes you to park benches that are perfect for relaxing.

This place is also popular for its wildlife. If you are lucky, you may be able to spot a deer or two near your campsite!

Amenities and Facilities

Each RV site has a picnic table, a level pad, and a fire ring as well as water and electric hookups.

There is a dump station on the grounds, but no showers or flush toilets.

The group campsite, on the other hand, has showers, flush toilets, and a sheltered dining area on its grounds. 

What’s Close By

Upper Cottonwood Creek Wildlife Area: This area comprises of thousands of acres of steep oak grassland around 11 miles from the campground. This popular hunting spot contains wild pigs, black-tailed deer, gray foxes, and over 100 species of birds.

Casa De Fruta Market and Resort: Around 25 miles away from the campground is this market and adjoining restaurant that are essential stopping points for anyone driving past. While the dried fruits and candies sold here are favorites of ours, the merry-go-round and other fun activities add to the charm too.

The Important Info

Rates: Starting at $40 per night

Address: 31426 Gonzaga Road, Gustine, CA 95322

San Luis Reservoir camping

San Luis Reservoir campgrounds

4. Medeiros Campground

Eight miles away from the reservoir lies Medeiros Campground, one of the most affordable San Luis Reservoir camping options in the area.

The primitive sites along the shores of O’Neill Forebay are quite windy at times though, and so are not really suitable for tent camping.

As a tip, it’s much more practical to camp here in the off-season when the grounds are a bit cooler and breezy, as that bring a drop in the number of bugs and rattlesnakes usually found around this campground.

Amenities and Facilities

This campground may be cheaper than others, but the facilities are far more basic too.

Apart from the shade structures, picnic tables, and fire pits, there is just one bathroom located on one side of the grounds. 

What’s Close By

Santa Nella village: Less than four miles from this San Luis Reservoir campground lies this small village with a population of over just 1000 people. After a quiet weekend at Medeiros’ primitive campsites, the village can offer all the entertainment and dining options that you need to get back into your busy life.

Pacheco State Park: Around 15 miles from this campground on the other side of the San Luis Reservoir lies this state park with its vast valleys and hiking trails. Dinosaur Lake and Pig Pond are a few of the popular trails you may want to try.

The Important Info

Rates: Starting at $20 per night

Address: Donohugh Road West, Gustine, CA 95322

San Luis Reservoir camping

San Luis Reservoir campgrounds

5. Los Banos Creek Campground

On the shores of the Los Banos Creek Reservoir with waterside and mountain views, and 20 miles away from the San Luis Reservoir, lies the 14 rustic camping sites at Los Banos Creek Campground.

The reservoir is a popular fishing spot in the area, and campers who stay here can find trout, crappie, and bluegill in the waters. With a developed boat ramp and floating dock in the day-use area, the adjoining beach is busy with campers and day-users alike. 

Weekends at the reservoir turn exciting with the Path of the Padre’s hikes. Led by staff members of the San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area, the hike begins at the Los Banos Creek Reservoir boat launch ramp at 8 am in the morning and ends at the same spot at 3 pm.

If you’re looking for a rustic San Luis Reservoir camping option with great fishing opportunities and the potential for fun guided hikes, this is a the place for you!

Amenities and Facilities

The sites have cooking areas and concrete picnic tables, most of them with shade ramadas.

The day-use area has picnic tables and barbeque pits in addition to the boat ramp.

Chemical toilets can be found on the campground too. But unfortunately there is no access to drinking water.

The Important Info

Rates: Starting at $20 per night

Address: 20800 Canyon Road, Los Banos, CA 93635

San Luis Reservoir camping

San Luis Reservoir campgrounds

6. Santa Nella RV Park

Less than 10 miles from San Luis Reservoir, right in the middle of the bustling village of Santa Nella lies the Santa Nella RV Park.

With around a hundred RV sites, all of them pull-through to make your experience all the more comfortable, the park is situated within walking distance from everything you would need on a holiday. 

The facilities here are very good (see below), plus as the RV park is in Santa Nella there’s plenty of things to see and do, including dining options.

So if you’re looking for a San Luis Reservoir camping experience where you still have one foot in civilization, staying in the village RV Park is a great choice.

Amenities and Facilities

The park features full hookups, with electric hookups of 30/50 amp, free wifi, and a coin-operated laundry room.

Each site has a concrete pad for RVs and a 32 channel Dish Network High Definition program featuring ESPN and other channels.

The restrooms and showers are modern and clean, and there is a dog area if you’re bringing your pet along. Basic RV supplies for emergencies are also available on the grounds. 

What’s Close By

Panda Express: Who doesn’t love Chinese food? Located at a 5-minute walking distance from the park, this Chinese restaurant has outdoor seating as well as a drive-thru and is known for its quick service.

Milliken Museum: Set 10 miles from the park, this museum is a treasure trove of history. Here you can see evidence for the development of the Los Banos valley from the times of Native Americans to the changes in technology, business, farm, and community seen here during the past century.

The Important Info

Rates: Starting at $50 per night

Address: 13023 State Hwy 33, Santa Nella, CA 95322

San Luis Reservoir camping

San Luis Reservoir campgrounds

Dispersed Camping Around San Luis Reservoir: Everything You Need to Know

In the state of California, most public land is open to dispersed camping as long as it does not have an adverse effect on natural resources, does not conflict with other authorized uses, and is not in an area with a “no camping” board or ordinance.

There are also many dispersed campsites that already exist and are free to use too. These are not marked but can be recognized by a patch of flat disturbed land that has been used as a campsite before.

The Bureau of Land Management advises visitors to use existing sites so as to avoid disturbing new sites. In the absence of any trash or sewage disposal amenities in these areas, you are not allowed to dispose of any refuse, hazardous materials, or sewage that may pollute the area in any way. 

However, we’ve found that the area surrounding San Luis Reservoir doesn’t seem to have many sites allotted for dispersed camping. This might be due to the fact that most of the developed campgrounds in the area are very affordable, thus keeping campers from having to turn to dispersed camping.

If you do decide to go dispersed camping at San Luis Reservoir, there are certain rules around it.

For example, legally in Bureau of Land Management Areas you can camp for two weeks at a time within a 30 mile radius during a 28-day period. What that means, is that you may camp within a 30 mile radius for two weeks, either all in one block, or spread out across a 28-day period. This is perfect for hikers who will move camp a few miles at a time.

The regulations are slightly different in California state forests. You may camp at one site for a maximum of 14 days, and you may stay in each district for up to 21 days before having to vacate.

Due to wildfire risk, as a rule you shouldn’t make a campfire.

Fire safety and leaving your campsite better than when you arrived are important factors to remember when dispersed camping at San Luis Reservoir.

If you want more information on dispersed camping in California, the rules and information on campfires, then click here!

When’s the Best Time to go Camping at San Luis Reservoir?

All the developed campgrounds around San Luis Reservoir are open year-round, giving you a wide variety of options to choose from for your perfect camping season. 

In the summer, the temperature leans towards the 90s Fahrenheit and brings 337 hours of sunlight per month. So while that’s lots of sunshine to enjoy the outdoors, it can get very hot.

If you happen to be a hiker, spring is the best time for you to visit when the temperatures are a little cooler, the hills turn green and the trails are filled with wildflowers such as California poppies, Tidy tips, and Larkspur. Spring also brings around the much-awaited Merced County Spring Fair. 

In the fall, you have the Northern California Renaissance Faire held at Casa de Fruta to look forward to. The temperatures are also cooler than in summer, so it’s another good time to camp and hike.

It is best to avoid the months of January and February if you are camping in tents, since the temperature can drop to 35-40 Fahrenheit at night. The winter months may also have tule fog blanketing the area. 

San Luis Reservoir Camping: Scavenger Hunt Game!

If you’re looking to keep kids amused while camping at San Luis Reservoir – or you fancy having some fun for yourself – then we’ve created a printable scavenger hunt game!

Grab it (right click on the image and save) and print it out, then tick off what you find and achieve during your camping holiday.

The game encourages players to get out and discover wildlife and nature, as well as make new friends and do fun camping activities. Enjoy!