The Last-Minute Guide to Bay Area Camping
(Photo by Thomas Aeschleman on Unsplash)

The Last-Minute Guide to Bay Area Camping


Getting a campsite for the weekend in the Bay Area is a lot more complicated than it once was.

At choice campgrounds like those at Santa Cruz's Sunset State Beach or Tahoe's D.L. Bliss State Park, unless you make reservations months in advance, you're out of luck. What ever happened to spontaneity in the outdoors?

But it's not completely impossible to go camping last minute. Not only are there a handful of excellent parks offering first come, first served sites, some wilderness areas allow dispersed camping, no reservations needed. Here's how to max out your weekend outdoors.

Pro Tips

  1. Head out Friday morning for the best chance of getting a first-come, first-served site.
  2. If you're willing to hike, even just for five to 10 minutes, you're far more likely to find unclaimed walk-in campsites. Yeah, you have to break a light sweat, but walk-in sites are generally a whole lot more private than those in the middle of the campground.
  3. Dispersed camping—camping outside of designated campgrounds—is permitted across the country with no fee or permits in many national forests and in areas governed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). A few are located in and around the Bay Area. Check their websites to find out if, and where, dispersed camping is allowed.
  4. A fully booked campground isn't always technically fully booked. More often than you think, reserved campgrounds end up being available due to last-minute cancellations or no-shows. If you arrive after check-in time the day a “booked” campground should be claimed and find it empty, it’s yours for the taking! Check-in time varies by campground.
  5. Don’t be shy! Camping is all about community, right? If everything is really full, ask around and you’re likely to find someone who’ll let you pitch a tent in their area. Bonus: making new, like-minded friends who are also passionate about the outdoors.

Here are your best bets for where to camp at the last minute.

Mount Tamalpais State Park

There are 30 first come, first served campsites waiting for you every weekend just north of the city. At Mount Tamalpais State Park's Bootjack and Pantoll Campgrounds on the Panoramic Highway, you'll find flush toilets and fire pits located only a 100-yard walk from the car park.

Short Notice Score: 10/10. Classic Marin beauty just 20 miles from SF. Learn more.

Distance from San Francisco: 42 minutes (via US-101)

Tahoe National Forest

(Courtesy of @samalive)

The Tahoe National Forest is a massive outdoor playground studded with the best of the Sierras: granite mountains, alpine lakes, and dense forests. They break the park down into 10 different sections, each containing two or more campgrounds. Check the website to find out which have first come, first served options. Dispersed camping (i.e., backpacking) is also allowed in areas like Grouse Ridge without permits.

Short Notice Score: 10/10. This is the stuff of John Muir's dreams. Learn more.

Distance from San Francisco: 3 hours 30 minutes to 4 hours 45 minutes (via I-80)

Henry Coe State Park

(Photo by Jessica D)

Henry Coe State Park is more than 80,000 acres of prime chaparral and rolling hills. Although it's hot in summer, Henry Coe is nonetheless wild, a great spot for a quick, unplanned getaway. The park's hike-in camping is all first come, first served and they have both designated sites (the closest is one mile from the Coe Ranch entrance) and dispersed camping (which starts a half-mile past the Hunting Hollow and Dowdy Ranch entrances).

Short Notice Score: 7/10. Solitude in Steinbeck country, but hot in summer. Learn more.

Distance from San Francisco: 1 hour 52 minutes (via US-101)

Eldorado National Forest


Camp any time in the Eldorado National Forest, the stunning mountain landscape near Kirkwood Mountain Resort. Like Tahoe National Forest, Eldorado has hidden lakes, rocky mountain trails, and forests a plenty across a wide swath of the Sierra. Although you'll have to drive to find your spot (check their website for the rules on where dispersed camping is allowed), in many places you can park within a few dozen yards of where you pitch your tent. If you're willing to hike a mile or more, the variety (and beauty) rachets up to eleven.

Short Notice Score: 10/10. Dispersed Sierra camping you can drive to. Learn more.

Distance from San Francisco: 3 hours 20 minutes (via I-80)

Navarro River Redwoods State Park

(Courtesy of @bloveimages)

Navarro River Redwoods State Park, where towering forests meet the Mendocino sea, has an entire beach campground open only for last-minute campers. Navarro Beach Campground is primitive—there are no toilets and you have to bring your own water—but what's the lack of a few conveniences when you have the entire Pacific Ocean at your tent's front door?

Short Notice Score: 8/10. Pristine beach camping without amenities. Learn more.

Distance from San Francisco: 2 hours 47 minutes (via US-101)

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