Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area (credit: Randy Yagi)
Whether you’re acting impulsively, experiencing a rare “eureka moment” or just like planning on the go, your chances of a last-minute camping reservation at the Bay Area’s most popular campsites may be limited. As luck would have it, there is a multitude of state and local parks, in addition to an enormous National Seashore and National Recreation Area, all offering first-come, first-serve or reservable campsites. While some of the most obvious campsites have been completely booked for months, Bay Area residents and visitors still have other options for both the adventurous and not so adventurous. Although it may not be too late to book an online reservation, the following are five of the best last-minute Bay Area camping sites.
17000 Armstrong Woods Road
Guerneville, CA 95446
Situated within a remote wilderness area just north of the Russian River in Sonoma County, Austin Creek offers 24 campsites and three backcountry sites. While most of the campsites at Bullfrog Pond can be reserved online, nine sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Campsite registration is available at the entrance also shared by Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. Backcountry campers can also obtain mandatory special permits for the three backcountry campsites, all requiring a hike of up to five miles from the trailhead. Like all of the other featured campsites, interested parties can call ahead to check for campsite availability.
18600 W. Corral Hollow Road
Tracy, CA 95376
One of eight state recreational vehicle areas, Carnegie has more than 1,300 acres of motocross and ATV areas and 23 walk-in campsites. The campgrounds feature wooden ramadas, water faucets, fire rings, restrooms and coin-operated shower facilities. Carnegie also has a number of picnic tables on the sprawling property although fire rings can only be used within the campgrounds. Like other camping spots in the Bay Area, the best chance to secure a campsite is on weekdays. Located within the oak-covered hills of the Diablo Range between the East Bay cities of Livermore and Tracy, the property was once the mining town of Carnegie, named after the famous industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and is a California Historical Landmark.
Castle Rock State Park
15000 Skyline Blvd.
Los Gatos, CA 95033
Located along the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Castle Rock State Park has two backpacking trail campsites with one available on a first-come, first-served basis. The Castle Rock Trail Camp has 20 walk-in campsites and are equipped with a table, fire ring, nearby piped drinking water and vault toilets. Because there is no overnight parking at this campsite, motorists have to leave their vehicles in the park’s main lot and hike or bike 2.8 miles to reach the campground. The smaller Waterman Gap Trail Camp is located 9.3 miles from the main parking lot and has six primitive sites and a vault toilet. Advanced reservations are required to camp here. With more than 35 miles of hiking trails, there are several options for hikers of all levels, but more experienced hikers might consider the challenging 31-mile trek from the trailhead to Waddell Creek along the Pacific Coast. The larger, more famous Big Basin State Park, better known for the popular Skyline to the Sea trail, offers family and group camping, tent cabins and backpacking camps but may be difficult to make reservations at the last minute.
Mount Tamalpais State Park
801 Panoramic Highway
Mill Valley, CA 94941
Despite its enormous popularity, Mount Tam is just one of five Bay Area parks with walk-in campsites. Although all campgrounds are open all year, Pantoll Campground and the newly opened Bootjack Campground are available only on a first-come, first-served basis. Both sites feature spectacular views and are equipped with water faucets and flush toilets and each campsite has a table, rock barbecue, food locker and tent space. Both walk-in campsites are located close to the Pantoll Ranger Station, near the intersection of Pan Toll Road and the Panoramic Highway, 6.5 miles from Mill Valley.
Portola Redwoods State Park
1820 Portola State Park Road
La Honda, CA 94020
Practically hidden among coastal redwoods deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Portola Redwoods State Park features family, group and trail campsites. Advance reservations for the season began April 1 and runs through October 31. However through mid-May and Labor Day to November 30, family campsites are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Because it takes about a 90-minute drive from many Bay Area locations, there is a good chance reservations can be booked, particularly if arriving midweek. Portola Redwoods State Park is located 35 miles southwest of San Jose but will take at least an hour to drive in either direction.
Randy Yagi is a freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he was awarded a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com Examiner.com.