Last minute camping in the Bay Area: Where to go

Editor’s note: In advance of the Labor Day weekend, Berkeleyside is republishing this story that first appeared on May 24.

California’s several hundred parks feature some of the most beautiful wilderness in the country, all within a few hours drive of Berkeley. But reserving a campground can be unduly challenging. 

The state and national parks reservations websites are so popular that you often have to make reservations six months in advance, or more for holiday weekends or popular destinations. And you’re competing with the San Francisco coders, who crawl the sites to notify them of cancellations and book open spots. 

But if you are willing to be a little more adventurous, there are still many places you can get outside without too much advance planning in under four hours from Berkeley.

When everything is booked, spending the night outside means relying on one of three systems:

  • first-come, first-served campsites,
  • dispersed camping in places like national forests, or
  • backpacking in areas that don’t require a reservation. 

If you get a first-come, first-served campsite, you will get all of the amenities of a typical campground in state parks, and national forests or parks, but you have to get lucky or come early. Have a back-up plan in case you don’t get a site.

If you’re a planner, you can reserve campgrounds or backcountry permits through regional, state and national park websites. If a campground is full, you may still be able to snag a reservation if someone cancels, which people tend to do in the morning and evening.

The most reliable, last-minute option is dispersed camping, either in the state’s 20 national forests or on land operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM land). Dispersed camping is camping without a campsite — you won’t get any amenities (bring your trowel!), but you will get solitude and, often, easy access to hiking trails or other natural features like swimming holes.

Dispersed camping is allowed anywhere on BLM land, unless explicitly stated otherwise, while national forests often have maps dictating which roads are allowed to camp near. The sites are located off the side of the road and, if possible, it’s recommended that you choose a site that has already been used for camping. Deciding where to go can be tricky, so we recommend calling a ranger to talk through possible options.

BLM also maintains campsites that include amenities like bathrooms and picnic tables, but the campgrounds are sometimes hard to find and hiking trails tend to be less developed. This can be a good option when you’re looking to hang out with a group outside.

The final option for the more adventurous weekender is backpacking. At many, less popular parks, it’s still possible to find solitude in the wilderness without booking backcountry permits at 7 a.m. six months in advance. 

One more tip: Most places require a permit if you want to build a campfire. These permits are easy to get online — check the website for the park you want to visit for more information on how to get a campfire permit. 

We called around to get the details on some likely backpacking, dispersed camping and first-come, first-served spots that are under four hours from the Bay Area by car:

A paved trail winds around green shrubbery as the rolling hills and blue sky with clouds stretches out in every direction
Wildcat Canyon is accessible via a paved trail that starts at Inspiration Point in Tilden Regional Park. Credit: Ally Markovich

Why go: Within an hour’s drive of Berkeley, the East Bay Regional Park District offers 14 parks with camping and backpacking options. You’ll find panoramic views of the Bay, trails surrounding peaceful reservoirs and new ways to experience familiar destinations.

Last-minute camping: Local parks tend to draw smaller crowds for camping and backpacking, though they often fill on holiday weekends. See which sites are available by searching parks at ReserveAmerica. If the site you want is booked, you can sign up to receive an email notification when a spot opens up. Backpacking and group and family camping reservations must be made over the phone at least two days (48 hours) in advance.

Our tip: The Sunol Wilderness backpack camp, about a three-mile hike in from the visitor center trailhead, has seven private sites set high in the rolling hills. Or, for a non-traditional backpacking trip, consider reserving a backpacking site at Sibley Volanic Regional Park and hiking into the hills from your home in Berkeley.

Call for details: 888-327-2757, option 2

A rocky pile on the right gives way to a vast view of the Bay and some green hills next to it.
A view from Mt. Tamalpais State Park of the San Francisco Bay. Credit: Zac Farber

Why go: Mt. Tamalpais offers the best of Bay Area nature — redwood groves, winding trails and stunning views of the Pacific. Most people visit for day hiking, but staying overnight is a more immersive way to experience the park.

Last-minute camping: There are two first-come, first-served tent-only campgrounds with 14 sites at Pantoll Campground and 15 at Bootjack Campground. Come between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. to secure a spot, and the sooner, the better — the campgrounds tend to fill up on Fridays and Saturdays between 11:30 a.m. and noon. Campgrounds have bathrooms and running water, but no showers.

Our tip: Take the Matt Davis to Dipsea to Steep Ravine trail for a seven-mile loop with redwoods and ocean views, or hike down into Muir Woods.

Call for details: 415-388-2070

Castle Rock State Park. Credit: Michael Nowels

Why go: Forests open up to stunning views on the highest ridgeline of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Castle Rock State Park features miles of trails popular for families and sandstone rock formations that draw climbers and boulderers.

Last-minute camping: Only five of the 20 sites at Castle Rock Trail Camp are reserved for first-come first-served camping. The primitive campsite is 2.5 miles from the parking lot, and you have to hike in your water. This is one of San Francisco and San Jose’s most popular getaways. Come early to get a parking spot, let alone a campsite.

Our tip: Ascend a steep slope to the top of Goat Rock for one of the area’s best views. And you might spot some kid rock climbers scaling the easy sandstone terrain — this climbing area is popular for families.

Call for details: 408-867-2952

Henry Coe State Park is a reliable, last-minute backpacking destination. Credit: Victoria Sung

Why go: With space for over 60 backpacking parties, Henry Coe State Park is one of the best bets for last-minute campers around the Bay Area with options ranging from 1.5 miles to 50 miles. The 23,000-acre park is as breathtaking as it is vast, with multiple creeks and a range of wildlife and vegetation. 

Last-minute camping: Backpacking permits are issued at a first-come, first-served basis at Coe Ranch and Hunting Hollow entrances. On a holiday weekend, rangers recommend arriving Friday or early Saturday morning for permits.

Our tip: China Hole, a sublime swimming hole more than five miles from the Coe Ranch entrance, is worth the trek. If the Coe Ranch Entrance Visitor Center is closed, bring exact change for parking ($8 parking per night or $6 per night at Hunting Hollow) and permits ($5 per person, per night).

Call for details: 408-779-2728

Cache Creek Wilderness offers rafting and hiking on rolling hills within 2 hours of Berkeley. Credit: Bureau of Land Management

Why go: Located east of Clear Lake and a half hour northeast of wine country, Cache Creek Wilderness offers a steep river canyon formed by the creek for white-water rafting and chaparral-covered rolling hills for hiking and backpacking. The Redbud Trail is among the most popular in the park.

Last-minute camping: Dispersed camping and backpacking is available without a permit throughout the park.

Our tip: The best time to visit is March to May, as temperatures can rise into the 90s and 100s in the summer months. 

Call for details: 707-468-4000 ext. 0 (7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays) (We haven’t gotten through to a ranger and recommend using the Cache Creek page on to plan your trip.)

Why go: Snow Mountain is an alpine wilderness poking out of the coastal range. With 40 miles of trails on national forest land, the area offers secluded hiking opportunities among alpine meadows, woodlands and chaparral. The trails are infrequently trafficked.

Last-minute camping: Backpacking is available without a permit in Snow Mountain Wilderness and there are three dispersed camping sites in the national forest that also do not require a reservation.

Our tip: Try a nine-mile hike to the summit of Snow Mountain as an overnight backpacking trip.

Call for details: 530-934-3316

On Laguna Mountain, rolling hills covered with chaparral give way to expansive views. Credit: Jesse Pluim, BLM

Why go: A picturesque California landscape, Laguna Mountain and nearby Clear Creek features chaparral, oak trees, a waterfall and mountain views. The area is 25 miles (roughly a half hour’s drive) from Pinnacles National Park, where you can still day hike or rock climb if campsites are booked.

Last-minute camping: Campsites are available for free throughout Laguna Mountain and Clear Creek Recreation Areas, which are operated by the Bureau of Land Management, Central Coast District. Try Laguna Mountain Campground or Upper Sweetwater Campground, which include fire pits and picnic tables, a rare luxury. 

Our tip: From Laguna Mountain Campground, hike 1.5 miles to a waterfall (3 miles round trip) and summit Laguna Mountain on a wide trail in 3 miles (about 6 miles round trip). You can stay at a primitive campground partway to the waterfall for a more isolated camping experience. (Also, don’t confuse Laguna Mountain Recreation Area with Laguna Mountain near San Diego.)

Note: Campfire restrictions begin Thursday, May 25. Check the website for more details.

Call for details: 831-582-2200, ext. 0 (9 a.m. – 4 p.m., Mondays-Thursdays)

A view of the Pacific Ocean and foothills from Vicente Flat Trail in Los Padres National Forest. Credit: Ally Markovich

Why go: With expansive views of Big Sur’s rocky coastline, the Monterey Ranger District area of Los Padres National Forest along Route 1 is one of the most beautiful places you can still backpack or do dispersed camping without a reservation. Reopened after years of repair from fire damage, the Pine Ridge Trail features a crowded hot spring called Sykes 11 miles in. Vicente Flat Trail, which begins at Kirk Creek Campground, is usually a good bet for backpacking, but is temporarily closed.

Last-minute camping possibilities: Dispersed camping is available without a reservation at various sites in the national forest, but parking is limited to the side of the road. Andrew Molera State Park also has first-come, first-served campsites.

Our tip: Bring Tecnu and wear long sleeves and pants. The hiking trails are lined with poison oak.

Call for details: 831-385-5434, ext. 0 (weekdays 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.)

Inside the Stanislaus National Forest. Credit: Nico Savidge

Why go: Located in the central Sierra Nevada, Stanislaus National Forest borders Yosemite National Park and features many landscapes similar to the neighboring park but without the large crowds. You’ll find swimming holes, creeks, tree-covered trails, waterfalls, whitewater rafting and more.

Last-minute camping: Dispersed camping is allowed off most of the roads in Stanislaus National Forest. Use the U.S. Forest Service’s online maps to identify where you can camp: The thick dashed lines, marked “Roads Open to All Vehicles,” are open to dispersed camping.

Our tip: Try dispersed camping at Spinning Wheel Campground, located at the end of a forest road in the Groveland (south) area (keep driving past the Spinning Wheel Yosemite Resort). During the day, take a dip at Rainbow Pool, a swimming hole off the beaten path nearby, and hike the Carlon Falls Trail to see a Yosemite waterfall. (Backpacking trails that go into Yosemite Park are currently closed due to road damage.)

Closures: Route 120, one of the main routes through the park, is open in the national forest but currently closed in Yosemite due to storm damage.

Call for details: 209-532-3671 (weekdays 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m.) or 209-962-7825 for the Groveland District

Do you know of a stunning campsite not on our list? Send us a tip or share your spot in the comments.

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