My dog and I had all of Foothills Park to ourselves for a night. It was mildly creepy, and totally awesome.

Hikers walk along the gravel road that campers are permitted to drive along to access the Towle Campground near the Orchard Glen parking area. (Photo by Veronica Weber.)

It wasn’t a great day to go camping.

It was the Thursday night of a long week, and my boyfriend had a last-minute work meeting come up. Then a friend I’d invited to join me at the last minute notified me she had a class to attend, while another friend declined for work reasons.

So the roster for the May 6 expedition to overnight at Palo Alto’s Foothills Park would be just me — and my trusty canine companion, Willa.

I arrived at the park around 5 p.m., hours after the check-in time of 2 p.m.

My dog and I took a selfie while on a trail run at Foothills Park in Palo Alto on May 6, 2021. (Photo by Kate Bradshaw)

Unsure of just where the campsites were, I parked at the bottom of the hill at the Orchard Glen parking area and started hiking in toward the Towle Campground. The campsites were a solid half-mile away from the parking area, and upon arriving, I realized that there was abundant parking there, and that I could have just driven in along the gravel path the whole way.

While setting up my tent, I was met by a park ranger who walked me through the rules of the campground and had me sign out a key offering emergency-only exit access from the park.

After getting set up, Willa and I went out to explore the trails, enjoying the gorgeous dusk, where we saw deer, turkeys and other human park visitors.

Back at camp, it became evident that the other party the ranger had told me would be arriving was a no-show. It was just me, alone in this giant park that until pretty recently was off-limits to nonresidents — not the most welcoming of vibes.

Trying not to let my anxious mind get the better of me — though the thought that this would be the perfect setting for “Get Out 2: Rise of the NIMBY Zombies” did still cross it — I cooked my dinner and did some reading. Then, I saw something that really freaked me out: a long row of white lights lined up across the sky. Luckily, there was enough internet signal for me to learn that the lights were just a parade of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, not an imminent alien invasion.

The campsites at the Towle Campground have a locker, water spigot, picnic table, barbecue area and tent area. Two shared campfire areas are also nearby. (Photo by Kate Bradshaw)

After a fitful night’s sleep — Willa kept thinking she belonged inside the sleeping bag too — she repeated her favorite camping routine of pawing at the tent door at 6 a.m. sharp. Not fearing that we might annoy someone by breaking camp so early, I took down the tent and we set off for a trail run along the Los Trancos Trail.

Out on the trails, my anxious mind calmed as I relished the beauty of the open space I had all to myself.

Upon leaving the park, I returned the key at a small box at the entrance kiosk, picked up some coffee and muffins at Konditorei in Portola Valley on my way home and made it back for my 10 a.m. staff meeting.

It was the perfect weeknight microadventure — (a term coined by British adventurer and author Alastair Humphreys to mean an overnight outdoor adventure that is “small and achievable, for normal people with real lives”) — and one I’d highly recommend to anyone looking for some outdoor summer fun.

The entrance to Foothills Park, which until recently, limited access to only residents of Palo Alto, is located at 11799 Page Mill Road in Los Altos Hills. (Embarcadero Media file photo)

How to camp at Foothills Park

Start by making a reservation here.

Reservations for the camping season, which runs May 1 to Oct. 31, have to be made at least a week in advance, and can be made up to a year in advance. They must be made by an adult 21 or older. Reservations for holidays must be made through one of the community centers, such as Lucie Stern (650–463–4900). Same-day reservations are not accepted. Sites are $40 per night.

In keeping with Foothills Park’s dog policy, dogs are only permitted in the park on weekdays, so dogs are not permitted camping on Friday, Saturday or Sunday nights.

A map of the Towle campground at Foothills Park. There are two group sites, six smaller sites and two shared fire pits. Courtesy city of Palo Alto.

Each tent-only campsite has a picnic table, water, fire bucket, charcoal barbecue, food storage locker and pad for tents. Each tent pad holds two four-person tents. The group sites have two pads for up to four four-person tents. There are two campfire circles with benches for use by all campers, but people must bring their own firewood. Fires may also not be permitted depending on fire weather and/or drought conditions.

Campers have to park a half-hour before closing time, and anyone not spending the night at the park is expected to exit the park before closing time.

Portable toilets and zero waste dumpsters (for recycling, compost and landfill) are in the parking lot.

Access more information here.


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Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw

Bay Area reporter covering local government, inequality and the outdoors

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