The Tuolumne Meadows Lodge isn't the kind of lodge you think of when you think of a lodge. It consists of a main building where there is a small store and an assigned-by-time food service, plus a bunch of platform tent cabins, each with its own stove for heat. (Nights get cold up here, even in the summer!)
The large parking lot is lined on one side with bear boxes where you can store food, if you prefer to bring some cereal for breakfast and sandwich fixings for lunch. (There are not many food options up this way. You have the lodge, plus a grill down the way, but that's about it.)
Free firewood is provided for guests, along with a communal campfire in the evenings. The tents have cot beds and bedding. Towels are also provided. (There are bear boxes by the showers to hold your showering stuff.)
If you can get a cell signal, you are lucky. I'm told that if you walk to the top of the nearby waterfall/river that runs by camp, there sometimes is service there. I was able to make a phone call out, but no data available.
Lots of great hiking around. This place reminded me of summer camp, but a bit more pricey!
Sick of the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds of the Yosemite Valley at peak times? Head to the high country and stay at Tuolumne Meadows Campground. I lucked out and snagged a walk-up spot in early summer, when it was still showing closed for reservations online, but was actually open. Quiet, full of trees, bear boxes at every site, bathrooms with flushing toilets, water, lots of nice hiking trails nearby, and not nearly the crowds of the valley floor.
Borrego Palm Canyon in Anza Borrego Desert State Park is good for those who want to be near town because it's right on the edge of the small desert town of Borrego Springs, where there are restaurants, a couple of small convenience stores and services. (Run out of ice? No problem!)
Some sites here have ramadas for shade, a couple of them dating back to the conservation corps time with built-in fire pits. Each site has a picnic table. There are bathrooms with flushing toilets and showers. The Palm Canyon trailhead is at the end of the campground.
Not much shade if you are tenting, but if you luck out, you could get some endangered bighorn sheep coming through the campground.
Sites are paved and great for RV's. There are also sites good for tenting. (Again, no shade. Summer is brutally hot. Spring and fall are the most pleasant.)
I stayed at Arroyo Salado one year during a super bloom at Anza Borrego Desert State Park. The campground is very, very basic. You pull up and find a spot and camp. There are no designated campsites. And it's free. There are pit toilets, which are clean and don't really smell.
We had the pleasure, as I said, of coming during the super bloom, when all of the sites closer to town were booked. This is in the "badlands" part of the park, leaving Borrego Springs and heading toward Salton City, which happens to be the cheapest place to get gas in these parts.
There's room to pitch a tent. You basically set up camp wherever there is room. We were among blooming desert lilies and had to be careful not to damage any, but plenty of fairly flat sandy soil to pitch a tent. You can bring your own barbecue if you want a fire, but fires must be self contained and you have to pack out what you bring in, so don't leave behind your ashes or coals. Want to be lazy? Grab dinner from one of the restaurants in town.
This part of the park (the badlands) tends to be slightly warmer than other areas of the park. (Because of elevation and topography? I'm not sure why.) This is a dry camp. There is no water, so you have to bring your own. But Borrego Springs is maybe 15-20 minutes away if you need a supply run.
During the blooms and when it's not super hot, it's lovely, but it's ungodly hot in the summer here (110-115 degrees), not cooling much at night. There are off-road roads in this area. We watched a lovely moonrise amid some night-blooming flowers. So time it right and it's lovely.
I stayed in the group camp part of this campground, which was right by a clean pit toilet and a short, slightly uphill walk to the bathrooms that had running water. This is on the outer part of Yosemite National Park, so it's not as crowded as Yosemite Valley. There are hiking trails around. When I was there, there were warnings about a mountain lion being spotted in the campground, so just be aware.
This campground is on the way to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the Inyo National Forest. (While the elevation is high compared to the valley, it can still be quite warm in the summer. And bear in mind that the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest itself doesn't open for the season until the snow melts.) While these are the White Mountains, it's more desert-y chaparral and brush than what you think of with a pine forest.
Sites here are mostly pretty private, with some shade and separation from the brushy vegetation. This is a dry camp, so you have to haul in all of your water. There are pit toilets. It's about a 45-minute to one-hour drive to Big Pine, the closest town for supplies.
To get to Black Rock Campground in Joshua Tree, you have to take a separate road into it from Yucca Valley. So if you are planning on spending a lot of time in the park and don't want to drive back and forth, this probably isn't a good choice for you. There's running water and flushing toilets in the bathroom. Views overlook the valley below, which is nice at night. Not a lot of shade. After all, this is a desert campground, with desert plants. Picnic tables and a fire pit. Flat places to lay a tent. Some trails go off from the campground. We chose to drive into the park. This was a good place to introduce my friend to his first camping experience. We ended up going into town (pretty close) for dinner. (Cheaters, I know!) The other plus about this campground is it's one of few that take reservations in Joshua Tree. So if you don't like knowing whether you have a site or not, you can be certain you'll have one when you arrive here if you make a reservation.
I lucked out and nabbed a site that someone had canceled at the last-minute, so I was able to stay among the majestic redwoods at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. My site was lovely, just a short walk from the bathrooms. In the evening, you could hear kids playing, a nearby group strumming on a guitar — all of the sounds you expect from a camping experience. Then my neighbors put up a giant big screen and proceeded to watch, while blaring the audio, "Finding Nemo" until late at night. After 10pm, I had to hike in the pitch black to find the camp host to get these people to stop. It seriously became my most awful camping experience — not because of the awesome campground, but because of the awful people. When I finally found the camp host (many host spots were empty and the hosts who were there ended up on the far side of the campground, which is very, very large), they opened their door and said "Camp site xx?" and said my camp site number. "We knew you were coming. We saw them setting that up earlier today." So the host drove me back to my site and dropped me near the bathroom so the neighbors would think the host was just cruising around checking on things. (That was nice of the host, really. It had taken a 20 minutes of walking to find him.) The people did finally shut down their movie operation. The next morning, they headed out on the hiking trails with their boom box blaring music.
So I'd definitely stay here again and hope for a better neighbor experience. I also hope the park is able to get more hosts to take on that volunteer role.
When I stayed at San Simeon State Park, the campground loop closer to the road (San Simeon Creek Loop) was full, so I ended up in the more primitive Washburn Loop. I switched spots from my initial camping spot for one along the back. It was by the pit toilets, which actually weren't bad. It had a nice fire pit and my site overlooked the mountains to the east. I could get to hiking trails from my site, which was nice. Campsites are with short grass. No showers. (I believe there are showers in the developed loop closer to the ocean.) Still, this was pretty quiet, despite the lack of privacy.
After a wildfire forced the closure of Highway 395, I ended up at Lower Lee Vining Campground for a night. Pleasant campground with clean pit toilets and a river toward the back side. Pay and put the envelope in the box. I got in late, but had lovely neighbors who invited me to sit by their campfire. They came up every year for the past couple of decades and said since the installation of bear boxes (which everyone uses), they had not seen any bears in camp. (The infamous "Yosemite bears" used to come down into camp apparently.) Cheap, nice, quiet and shady. I'd stay here again.
During busy seasons, you need to get here early in the morning to find people leaving so you can nab their spot. We came here on a Thursday, not realizing it was spring break. No spaces in the entire park. So we stayed the night at a hotel in town and came back early the next morning.
Pros: Flat sites, fire pit, picnic table, easy access to hiking trails, pit toilets decent, pretty area.
Cons: Neighbors packed their site with too many people and put their tents in our site so they would have more room to party on theirs. They then stayed up until the wee hours of the morning being noisy as they got drunk and high. No camp host to stop this. No cell reception to be able to call a ranger. They really need to add a camp host here during peak seasons. Also, usually the weather is great, but watch out for wind storms that bring giant dust clouds. They kick up here in the desert now and then. (Usually the weather forecast will have a warning.) We got here the morning after a wind storm and people's tents were flattened and broken and many retreated to their cars. (We were glad we weren't able to find a site the night before!)