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The Sierra Nevada range rises up from California’s great Central Valley to encompass many of the highest mountain peaks in North America. Yosemite Mariposa County covers a good stretch of this outdoor recreation wonderland, offering quality campgrounds at all levels of Yosemite elevation.

While camping in Yosemite gets rave reviews, seasoned tent-poppers know that camping outside of Yosemite has just as much to offer. Easier to reach for most car-camping travelers, great locations along clear-running rivers and azure lakes, and abundant national forest campsites make camping below the snow a “peak” experience! Yosemite Mariposa is endowed with golden opportunities for some of the Sierra’s best lower-elevation camping. What is also important to note is that the number of camping spaces in Yosemite National Park are very limited. Only a fraction of folks looking to camp in Yosemite NP can win a coveted site. Don’t despair, there are many excellent choices outside the park. Here are some top sites:

Lake McClure / Lake McSwain

At an elevation of 867 feet, sunsplashed Merced River fed Lake McClure and adjacent Lake McSwain are nestled in the oak-studded Sierra foothills on the western edge of Mariposa County. Lake McClure was created in 1926 and named for Wilbur F. McClure, the State of California’s head engineer (fun fact: McClure was also responsible for constructing the John Muir Trail). The dam was rebuilt in 1967, creating a horseshoe-shaped lake featuring 80 miles of shoreline rich in recreational options.

campsite at bagby campground

Enjoy lake-side camping on the shores of Lake McClure or nearby Lake McSwain.

Lake McClure offers four campgrounds — McClure Point, Barrett Cove, Horseshoe Bend and Bagby — each with its own features, amenities and vibe (and all with free hot showers). All are family-friendly, allow pets, and provide great fishing and swimming opportunities. Nearby Exchequer Mountain Bike Park offers 700 acres of technical descents and creative features for riders of all abilities.

Barrett Cove Campground: with 249 camp & RV sites, Barrett Cove is located on Lake McClure’s western shore with splendid stands of shade trees. The largest of the campgrounds, it features multiple boat ramps, a protected swim/play area with an attached pavilion, barbecue pits, café, store and rentable park cabins. Boat rentals are available (fishing, kayaks, houseboats, sport and wave runners).

McClure Point Campground: with 100 camp & RV sites, McClure Point is located on the main body of the lake near Exchequer Dam with excellent water views. It has multiple boat ramps, day-use picnic tables and a protected swim area.

Horseshoe Bend Campground: with 97 camp & RV sites, Horseshoe Bend is located on the north shore of Lake McClure and 4 miles west of the Gold Rush town of Coulterville. It offers a boat ramp, lakefront picnic area with a protected swimming lagoon and pavilion, as well as shore and river access.

Bagby Campground: with 31 camp & RV sites, Bagby is located just below the Wild & Scenic Merced River at the inlet of Lake McClure. It is a more remote, peaceful spot with an additional 10 primitive campsites and a boat ramp (if water levels are high enough). Bagby is one of the best places to enjoy the Merced River as it opens into Lake McClure.

Lake McSwain Camping & Recreation Area: Lake McSwain Campground is located just six miles south of the Exchequer Dam and has every amenity for quality camping. Offering 111 camp & RV sites, the campground features a Marina Cafe & Store, boat ramp, day-use area including fishing dock, playground and picnic shelter, horseshoe pits and a designated swimming area. There are park cabins for rent at Lake McSwain as well as an event pavilion with a deep pit barbecue.

Merced River Canyon Camping

Roll out your tent down by the river in the Merced River Canyon at Campgrounds like McCabe Flat, Railroad Flat, Dirt Flat, or here at Willow Placer Campground.

Just upstream from Lakes McClure and McSwain is the beautiful wild and scenic Merced River and the steep canyon that towers around the clear, cool river. The canyon is a transportation hub for the region as its home to Highway 140, the all-weather highway, which leads to Yosemite’s western entrance.

The canyon itself is full of recreational opportunities like fishing, hiking, swimming, whitewater rafting and kayaking. One of the lesser-known resources in the area is camping. The stretch of river is managed by different agencies including the Sierra and Stanislaus National Forests and, further downstream, the Bureau of Land Management.

Popular landing spots close to the water at elevations ranging from about 1,200 to 1,600 feet include McCabe Flat Campground, which is a two-mile drive on a dirt road (passenger vehicles okay) from the Merced River Visitor Center on Highway 140 and is known for its large, sandy beach. Continue on this same road (which also happens to follow the historic Yosemite Valley Railroad line) another two miles to Willow Placer Campground with 8 walk-in sites. Another mile brings you to the end of the line at Railroad Flat Campground. In addition to swimming, fishing and rafting, Railroad Flat is the starting point for great riverside hiking trails. Dirt Flat Campground, located near El Portal, is a peaceful walk-in camp close the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Merced River.

National Forest Camping

summerdale campground campsite

Enjoy the relative peace and quiet of a national forest campground like this one at Summerdale Campground.

The Sierra National Forest flanks the southern and western edges of Yosemite National Park and Mariposa County, featuring five designated wilderness areas within its expansive boundary. Abundant campgrounds make the Sierra National Forest and neighboring Bureau of Land Management terrain an outdoor lover’s paradise.

Summerdale Campground – Home to 29 total sites, Summerdale is one of the more popular campgrounds in Yosemite Mariposa County. Located just 0.5 miles outside of Yosemite National Park at an elevation of 5,200 feet, in the town of Fish Camp. Sitting at a higher elevation than its counterparts in this article, Summerdale sits snuggled into a grove of pines and the peaceful Big Creek babbles by as it flows to the South Fork of the Merced River. Summerdale is open from June to September due to the higher elevation and the heavy snows that sometimes come to the Fish Camp area.

Dispersed camping – or camping outside of a designated campground – is a great option when visiting Stanislaus National Forest. Just pop up your tent in a corner of the forest! Since there are no fees or facilities, self-reliance is key; bring your own water or treat the water you collect, pack out your trash and know that tables and fire pits will not be provided. Campfire permits are required and available online. For those with an adventurous spirit, dispersed camping offers next-level recreational rewards with a chance to be truly in the woods.

The Joy of Camping

woman standing beside an rv camper

Whether you’re tent camping or enjoying some extended van life, you’ll love camping in Yosemite Mariposa County.

Camping puts you a little closer to the natural realm, and is one of the best ways to enjoy an immersive experience into the great outdoors. Days begin brightly, with the sunrise glowing on the horizon, and end just as magically as constellations come into view across an impossibly dark sky. Senses awaken and sharpen; a spirit of teamwork develops and deepens in the wild. Everything tastes better. You save money. Families looking to forge warm and lasting camping memories will find it’s easier at lower Yosemite elevation, too. They’re called “Happy Campers” for good reason!

Yosemite Mariposa camping comes with the bonus of putting you an easy drive away from the immense glory of Yosemite National Park. After a day of national park discovery (and braving its higher level of visitation), repairing to the quiet of your lower-elevation campsite is a win-win.

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