A Procrastinator’s Guide to Camping in the Bay Area

Looking for a last-minute campsite within an hour of the Peninsula? Try one of these places.

Matt Dolkas, content marketing manager for the Peninsula Open Space Trust, has a sermon to deliver to all you hiding in your cubicles right now: Get outside. Better yet, go camping.

“Not to get too preachy, but that’s exactly what people need to do,” says Dolkas. “They need to feel the real world. Part of the reason that this place is doing so well is because we have so much open space.”

That said, it’s not so easy to just grab your sleeping bag and French press and go. Finding a spot to throw down a tent and disappear for a few days generally requires some pre-planning in the Bay Area, especially as the end of summer looms. It’s more like a bid for Hamilton tickets, months of online stalking just to nab a site next to the trash cans.

We spent hours, days, weeks calling, checking online for weekend availability at campgrounds within an hour’s drive of Palo Alto and even showing up to a handful of them on the weekend in the middle of summer just to see what we could get. And we learned a lot, discovered some absolutely amazing sites that even after 40 years of camping here somehow eluded us, and felt the burn of a dozen park rangers who upon being asked, “Do you have any last-minute reservations?” glared at us like we were high school freshmen in gym class without shoes.

If you want reservations, like now — right now — there are three spots where you might luck out. (Note: This depends on how many people read this article and start clicking.)

Leonids meteor shower at Joseph D. Grant Park. The campground, in a remote location east of San Jose, is ideal for viewing the night sky. Photo by Vlad Butsky (CC 2.0)

Joseph D. Grant Park

If you haven’t had your fill of astronomy this month, then this is your go-to. Grant Park is 10,000-plus acres in the Diablo foothills at the base of the Bay Area’s tallest peak, Mt. Hamilton (also famous for Lick Observatory). There are 40 reservable family campsites amid grasslands and mature oak trees. On some summer weekends the campground hosts skywatch parties featuring astronomers willing to share their high-powered telescopes. There are also cattle and 51 miles of horse, hiking and biking trails. The best part: It had openings, even just a few days out from several weekends recently.

Reserve it through Santa Clara County’s Parks Department.

Private camping at McCormick Creek, near Memorial Park. Photo on HipCamp.com.

McCormick Creek in Loma Mar

Think of HipCamp as the AirBnB of the camping world, and M.C.C Shelter Cove as one of its prime Peninsula accommodations. This is a private property with 11 reservable sites on its 16 acres abutting Memorial Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The sites shrouded in redwood, oak and bay trees are uber secluded and fairly rustic. “People have a chance to really disconnect from the grid and see or hear true wildlife. It is liberating to be part of it, and deeply satisfying to have that time outside, in real life,” says Mark Liiv, the owner and manager. A caretaker lives on the grounds and provides luxe services like rides up the hill … for your luggage. People must walk 5–10 minutes to the sites. The bonus? This is still rather undiscovered (Memorial Park rangers point last minute walk-ups here). Book through HipCamp, which lists a dozen other privately owned campgrounds in the Bay Area. It’s slightly more expensive to do private, and not every site, at least at McCormick, has a fire ring or a nearby bathroom, though there is a hot outdoor shower and cool timber shelter structures on the land. Note: No four-legged friends or RVs or drinking water.

Reserve it through HipCamp.

Castle Rock State Park offers huge views of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Its 23 first come-first served trail camp sites are accessible via a 2.6-mile hike. CA State Parks photo.

Hike-in sites at Memorial or Castle Rock

You can often find available primitive hike-in sites at Memorial Park. Note: do not attempt this if your M.O. is car camping. These kinds of sites require preparation. You must hike three to six miles. They are reservable but sometimes don’t sell out even in the height of summer. Castle Rock’s 23 first-come, first-served primitive sites require a 2.6-mile hike, but they do have vault toilets, water and fire pits (restricted during fire season). Call the ranger the morning of your adventure to find out whether they are taken. On a recent Saturday in August, Memorial Park still had several hike-in sites open at 3pm. You have to haul in your own drinking water, but there are compostable toilets. No campfires, though.

Reserve Memorial through San Mateo County Parks or contact Castle Rock State Park at 408–867–2952.

Note: The Santa Cruz Mountains has several backpacking sites that likewise don’t sell out on weekends. Check out the Santa Cruz Mountains Backcountry Trail Camps website for the most up-to-date availability and information on how to reserve them.

There are other ways to get a last-minute campsite:

Be single

At the umpteenth hour you might be able to score a Friday but not Saturday night. Park rangers throughout the Bay Area said they’ve seen a rise in campers only securing one night, most electing to camp on Saturday, leaving a lot of Fridays wide open. Campgrounds are much quieter then and you still have all day Saturday to hike and explore. Bonus: you are only an hour’s drive from home.

Go mid-week

Nearly every campsite in the Bay Area clears out mid-week, even in high season. In July and August, Memorial Park, Portola and Little Basin all had multiple sites available Tuesday-Thursday.

Camping at Butano State Park, near Pescadero. It’s worth calling to find out if there’ve been cancellations. CA State Parks photo.

Take a risk

If your ego can take the scolding of park rangers who will say with their eyes “are you insane,” then try grabbing a day-of site. We suggest calling the park ranger stations at Memorial, Portola Redwoods and Butano, which are about a half an hour apart, to check for cancellations. You can’t book the sites, but you can get them on a first-come, first-served basis if you leave pronto. Even so, your site might get pinched. The beauty here is you aren’t too far from another campground. And if you get shut out, call it a day trip and hike instead or grab an olallieberry pie and a fork from Duarte’s in Pescadero.

The Toyon group campground at Huddart Park can be snapped up by families if the timing’s right. San Mateo County Parks photo.

Be first

A number of campgrounds hold some sites on a first-come, first-served basis. If you are willing to get out of the Bay Area and drive a bit, you might hit paydirt. Check out this list for the closest state-run sites that fit this category. Memorial’s group sites and Huddart Park will allow family campers to take group campsites last minute if they don’t sell out. So if you notice them available the night before your trip, you can show up early the next day to snag one. At Huddart you pay $35 per night. This is a viable option in late September, when crowds thin. At Memorial you pay the full $175, but imagine all the serenity. Note that Huddart is only open late spring to mid-October.

Get off the grid

This goes without saying, but we’re a bit congested in the Bay Area, so if you really need to go camping and you’ve struck out at home, try the national forest lands. There are around 19 in California, and several, such as Stanislaus and Humboldt, lie within a two-to-five–hour drive of the Bay Area. You don’t need a permit for just camping, but it’s a good idea to check in at the ranger station. If you want a campfire you most likely need a permit. This is hardcore, primitive camping, so you should have plenty of water, backpacking gear, a map, compass and some previous experience.

For more information, check out the National Forest dispersed camping guidelines.

And don’t despair if you can’t squeeze camping in by the end of summer. The best time to unfurl your sleeping bag in the Bay Area is fall, when the weather warms up and school starts. You’ll find the crowds evaporate and availability begin to open up near the end of September, making last-minute excursions more possible.

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