I’ve been thinking about so many things I want to write, and this is one I almost hesitate about. If I tell you about my favorite spots, they’ll be even harder to get a reservation at! It’s a risk I’ll take for you. I’ll share the love.
A few things these places have in common: they’re almost all either walk-in or hike-in, they’re all State Parks (natch), and they’re all close to the San Francisco Bay Area.
I’ve found that walk-in campgrounds have sites that are more spacious, and less packed together. They also tend to be quieter, since no one is running a generator, revving a car engine, or playing a car stereo in their site. In some cases walk-in sites can also be easier to get a reservation in. Walk-in places have wheelbarrows available to get your stuff to the site. All of these sites will suck mightily if you bring the kitchen sink. If you don’t camp light, bring someone to help with the heavy lifting. Give yourself time to haul stuff and set up before dark. They also have the amenities you’d expect from a regular campground, such as fire pits, picnic tables, and food storage boxes. Many of them have accessible sites, so if you have a mobility challenge contact the park and see what they have.
Since I work for California State Parks I tend to hear the buzz about good places, but in the case of China Camp and Steep Ravine I learned about them long before I started my current career. As with all State Parks, reservations for these sites can be made up to seven months in advance through Reserve America at http://www.reserveamerica.com/.
As for proximity to home, I’d rather spend my time relaxing in camp than driving, so I return to the stellar places nearby again and again. A note about the drives to these sites: I’ve taken my friend Gail to the two with windy, hairy roads, which she hates, and she felt the trips were worth it. Don’t be deterred by the drives, just plan on taking your time.
5. China Camp
China Camp is a walk-in campground in Marin, near the bay. The sites are set in a grove of bay trees, which smell lovely. Sites are spacious and not too close together. Restrooms are relatively new, well kept, and in the unisex one-stall bathroom style recently popular in State Parks. In other words, no waiting for the one working ladies’ toilet to open up while there are two empty men’s ones. Showers are available, but I’m a dirty hippie so I can’t tell you if they’re good or not. I imagine they are. The sites are up a short, steep hill or along a ravine.
There’s a nice, short loop trail out by the bay that’s an easy, level walk from the campground. If you want a longer walk, or don’t mind jumping in the car, you can check out the historic area. China Camp was a Chinese shrimping village on the bay. Sometimes they even have the junk Grace Quan in the water in front. You can also find Grace Quan at Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco sometimes, since she’s seaworthy.
China Camp is easy to get to. It’s near the Marin Civic Center, and there are no windy roads or long rural stretches. If you forget something, or you’re the kind of camper that doesn’t mind running into town for a meal, this is a good choice.
Butano is a hidden gem that I learned about when I was working on the San Mateo Coast. They have car camping sites, but the walk-in is my favorite. It’s more rustic than China Camp. The hiking opportunities in this redwood park are outstanding, as are the opportunities to see neat stuff outside the park.
The walk-in area has about eight campsites along a valley with the parking area at its head. Sites range in distance from the car, with two relatively close. There is one pit toilet for this campground, and there are no showers. See above for why I don’t mind. The redwood trees and duff seem to dampen sound, and it’s always fairly quiet.
I’ve spent five nights here in relative peace. I have to give a caveat: the first time I was here the food storage lockers were useless and we were mugged by aggressive raccoons. They got almost half of our food, and left our site strewn with garbage. Either plan to leave your food in the car or do what I now do, which is take a big box for the food and park it with the picnic bench on top of it at night. Watch your step and avoid the banana slugs.
The drive to get here is lovely, since you either drive up the coast from Santa Cruz or down from Half Moon Bay. Butano is near Pescadero. If windy roads make you uncomfortable, you’ll need to take it slow or go somewhere else.
If you visit here, stop on the way in or out at Duarte’s in Pescadero to eat. Their cream of green chili or artichoke soups are delicious, and I’ve seldom had better pie anywhere. I happen to love their onion rings, too. If you want a day trip, visit nearby Ano Nuevo or Pigeon Point Lighthouse.
For Ano Nuevo: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=523
Pigeon Point: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=533
3. Angel Island
If you haven’t been to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, you must go. Even if you just go for the day, it’s a lovely place. There’s a lot of history packed onto this little island: a Civil War fort, the immigration station, and a former Nike missile site. The views of nature on the island are nice, and on a clear day the views of San Francisco, the east bay, Mount Tam, and the Golden Gate are spectacular.
The sites here are hike-in, and the closest is a mile and a half. I believe they have an accessible site that’s closer, but you’ll want to check with the park. This is a good backpacking trip for beginners, or people like me who aren’t in stellar shape. There’s a lot of elevation gain on the way in, so plan on taking it slowly. You have a choice of turning left from the cove and taking the stairs up, or turning right and taking the road. Sites have water nearby, so no need to haul much in. Last time I was there they had new food storage lockers, which were the nicest I’ve seen. One of the camping areas has a pit toilet that faces the east bay. When I was there it was rather fragrant, and since we had the place to ourselves I had a lovely open door experience and a room with a view. Ahem. The sites are well spaced and many have amazing views. Once the day visitors go home for the night, it gets pretty quiet.
Angel Island is reached by ferry from either Tiburon or San Francisco. It’s a short ride either way, and admission to the island is free after the ferry fee. When you go, check ferry times carefully. Once you’ve missed the boat, well, you’ve missed the boat.
Hiking on the island is great, but there are other neat things to do. There’s a Segway tour of the island, which I recommend. They say there’s a weight limit for the Segways, but they didn’t ask me what I weigh and I didn’t volunteer the information. There’s also a tram tour sometimes, if you’ve done all of the hiking you want just by getting to your site and back. A café with good chowder is available in the cove, and the people are nice. They don’t sell much in the way of camping supplies, though, so make sure you have enough cooking fuel before you leave town (Oops. Learned that the hard way.) Sometimes they have an oyster bar open. Take the time to visit the immigration station or the Fort, if you can, and take a tour.
2. Henry Coe
This is my favorite shoulder season camp. I’ve been here twice in spring and once in fall. The backpacking is spectacular, but if you want to car camp the campground is nice, too. The closest backpacking site is only a mile in with not much elevation change, so it’s a good beginner trip. Be warned: you’ll have to haul your water in. There are watering holes further in to the park, but with the drought they’re iffy and you’ll need a filter. The near site has a picnic table and an accessible chemical toilet.
The drive-in campsites have shade structures, which are nice. There are vault toilets and water taps centrally located. No showers. In April and October you probably won’t need a reservation, which makes this ideal for a spur-of-the-moment trip. In spring everything’s blooming and in fall the colors are great. Hiking can be either strenuous or easy, and there’s a nice visitor center. On one trip when my sweetie and I were both recovering from colds and we had worked hard all day to pack and get there, we were rewarded by a bald eagle flying right over our site.
The drive in is not for the faint of heart. It’s not far from Gilroy, but the road is very windy and one lane in some places. Take it slowly and your patience will be rewarded. This is one of those places where you’ll feel a million miles from civilization.
1. Steep Ravine
This is number one for a good reason. Campsites are on a bluff above the ocean and breathtakingly beautiful. This is the most popular campground in California for a reason. Reservations are hard to come by, but if you get one and get there you’ll be blown away. I’ve spent the day there just sitting and looking at the ocean, and I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.
A note about the parking situation: you can only park one car in the lot. Any other cars with your group need to be parked along highway one. To get to the campground you get a combination to the gate before you go. Go through the gate and down the steep road to the lot. If you have more than one car coming, make sure everyone has the combo and play car tag. Unload, drive up to the highway, ride back with your friend and help them unload. If you blow it you’ll get a ticket. Also, make sure you’ve got a printout of your reservation to go on your dashboard. I’ve forgotten that in the past, and it’s awkward.
Steep Ravine has walk-in campsites and rustic cabins, and I highly recommend both. Get a cabin in winter or a camp site the rest of the year. Sites are situated so that you hardly see one from another. There’s a centrally located pit toilet in the campground, and flush toilets with sinks by the parking lot. No showers.
About the cabins: no plumbing or electricity, and they’re all hard surfaces. Bring everything you’d bring for camping, except a tent. You’ll want to bring old sheets or tablecloths to use as curtains. The windows have clamps above them for putting them up. Don’t worry what the weather’s going to be like outside. Firewood is available at the park, and when you get the wood burning stove going it’ll get too warm inside. The cabins are on a hillside, and some of them are a long way down. Be prepared to haul your stuff down a lot of stairs, especially for cabins 7 and 8. Don’t go by the map on their website, it’s got nothing to do with reality. There’s also an accessible cabin, which is easy to get to and frequently available.
I can’t tell you much about the hiking in the area, although I understand it’s good. I love just sitting and looking at the ocean, so it’s hard to get me moving. Bring binoculars for viewing otters and whales.
Plan on stopping for a meal on your way to or from at the Pelican Inn. It’ll make you feel civilized.
Steep Ravine is a part of Mount Tamalpais State Park: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=561
The Pelly: http://www.pelicaninn.com/food/