Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Perfect Family Campgrounds in the Bay Area

Camping starts with a tent big enough for your family. Photo by C.G.

My friend Erika emailed me on January 2nd, 2011: "My son has been asking to go camping. I'd like to reserve a weekend, but I'd like to get some advice from you first -- good places to camp, when and how to reserve. I know a lot of those things book up early, and we might be too late, since it's already the 2nd..." No Erika, it's not too late! Of course I'll email this blog posting to Erika first because otherwise, she might write back that it WAS too late.

Every year, I spend countless hours reviewing campgrounds, checking out new parts of California we'd like to explore and I've narrowed my campground search down to a science. From spring to late autumn, sometimes in the winter, our family camps as a means to discover new places on a budget. So here, I've selected my favorite picks for family camping in the Bay Area.

To enjoy a true nature adventure, I tend to go with at least state park standards (which because of budget cuts, sometimes means fewer amenities) but some county parks are amazingly well preserved and well-worthy of note. For that same reason, I haven't included any private campgrounds though I hear Costanoa is very pretty. KOA's and RV parks are fine by me but they lack the nature component (please prove me wrong if you can).

Today I'm covering San Francisco, the Santa Cruz mountains and the Wine Country. I haven't camped yet in the East Bay but I'm starting this year so I'll probably report back next year. As far as the Sierras, my favorite camping grounds, that's coming soon.

Before dusting off your tent (or investing in a 5-star family tent), you may want to check what I wrote about Camping with Children: the Basics. It will give you a few guidelines on gear and essentials. Ready? Read on.

San Francisco
The following three sites are so close to the city that I've included them in San Francisco. Perfect for first-timers, kids who get carsick quickly, or when you want to camp close to home but not in your backyard.

Rob Hill: this won't be your most memorable camping experience but it's smack in San Francisco, it was remodeled last year and you get to hear the fog signal under the Golden Gate Bridge. If transportation was better, it would almost be MUNI-accessible. Rob Hill is inside the Presidio, surrounded by eucalyptus trees and enjoys typical Presidio weather - meaning, unpredictable. Layer on! The season runs from April 1 to October 31 and you can reserve with a good ol' fax machine. Make this a group camping trip. Each site accomodates up to 30 pops and the campfire circle is beautiful.
Arriving at Angel Island. Photo by Frog Mom

Angel Island: ever heard of ferry camping? Take the ferry, lug your tent and gear to your site (backpack style or with bike trailers, wagons don't do too good on trails), pitch the tent and enjoy a sunset on San Francisco. Yes, Angel Island camping is classy but it comes at a price. The west side is infamously windy and if you forget your sausages, good luck finding a general store after dark! Read this urban camping experience at Angel Island and decide whether it's the thing for you. If you do, reserve yesterday already. Angel Island is easily in the top 5 of California campgrounds (well, I say so).

Kirby Cove: because it's right underneath the Golden Gate bridge, Kirby Cove is popular with San Francisco families. The proximity factor makes it a winner and you can dig your toes in the freezing water by the beach, before cracking up the campfire and s'mores. Camping under a bridge sounds weird, but you're still on national park land and the whole world envies your red bridge view. There. One tiny detail: if you don't like the sound of foghorns or fog, forget it. As one Yelper put it, "fog is manufactured right here."

Santa Cruz Mountains
Some of my favorite places to hang out, if only for the redwoods and morning fog. Within a two-hour drive range, there are campgrounds that are great for kids and easily accessible to everybody. You can basically come back from work on Friday night, enjoy the evening, pack up on Saturday morning, leave at lunch time and sip your afternoon high tea at the campsite. It should be called quick-camping.

Not all camping is created equal.
Photo by Frog Mom

Big Basin Redwoods: the grandmother of California state parks holds a special place in my heart. After a sluggish windy road, you finally reach a majestic grove of redwoods. Stop in awe and thank them for being the inspiration of all California state parks in 1902. Nothing less. Kids will love the self-guided Redwood Trail and ranger programs. If you need to tire them, hike to the Maddock Cabin site or Sempervirens Falls, they're cool. If they're able to hike to Berry Creek Falls, they're not kids anymore. As far as camping, expect an intimate 146 family camp sites and four group sites at Big Basin. The place is huge! But nice. However the big draw is the tent cabins, sort of the Santa Cruz Camp Curry, mesh and metal structures on a raised wooden platforms. No tent to pitch = less hassle.

Butano: I love Butano for the creek where kids can build forts and fairy houses, and for the lush redwood forest. Though there's quite a bit of up-and-down going on when hiking, it's a nice park where campsites are peppered below tall redwoods and it's not so big that you'll feel in a zoo. Due to budget restrictions, this campground is closed until March 30, 2011. More privacy for overwintering newts! 

Memorial Park: a park with as swimming hole in La Honda? and showers and naturalist programs? Sign me up anytime. Memorial Park feature top nature trails along the headwaters of Pescadero Creek that make for great family excursions. Sites are nicely spaced so you won't feel like you're pitching your tent on any of your 156 neighbors. Reserve early, another popular pick.

Roaring Camp's steam engine in the Santa
Cruz mountains. Photo by C.G.
Henry Cowell Redwoods: two gigantic draws for kids here. First, the redwood trail and the creek that runs through the park with shallow swim spots. Second, Roaring Camp! I know this has got nothing to do with nature, but the sheer sight of steam engines puffing up the mountains or down to the Santa Cruz boardwalk gives me the chills. What kid doesn't like trains? Check out their special events, they have fun ones. If you need to look at a map, you can walk from the Henry Cowell Redwoods ranger station to Roaring Camp and vice versa. It's that close. As far as camping, the sites are OK but not outstanding and there's no alcohol allowed. This season, the campground reopens on May 1st, 2011. Read the Frog Mom report.

Mt Madonna: One word to attract them all - yurts! Watch for the invasion of more Mongolian dwellings in the Santas Clara county parks as they're installing more soon. Now that Big Sur's Treebones Resort shares the Bay Area yurt market with Mt Madonna, Mt Madonna has become a prized destination and you'll have to wake up early to live the Central Asian nomad life. Note a minimum of 2 nights for yurts on weekends. The park would still be prized without yurts, mind you. Redwood trees, great views on the mountains from the trails, a herd of white fallow deer on the decline, ruins of a big estate, and a Buddhist monastery that serves vegetarian food nearby - Mt Madonna has a lot going on.

Marin County
I'm always struck by how green Marin is. No wonder they've got most of the dairy ranches over there. And nature like you wouldn't believe. Marin's great. Just cross the bridge, as they say in Sausalito.

Samuel P. Taylor: the only time I camped at Samuel P. Taylor, it rained all night and my tent was badly pitched on a slope. Despite the conditions, I really enjoyed Samuel P. Taylor. With hot showers and beautiful redwoods, the campground is close to paved trails which makes it ideal for kids on bikes. Papermill Creek runs in the lower part of the campground. Though it's pretty cold for complete dips, the trail that runs along the creek is easy ands flat. Speaking of cold, the park is close to the coast and mostly shaded. Expect fresh nights and layer up!

Steep Ravine Cabins: perched on top of rocky bluffs surrounded by crashing waves, the historic and rustic cabins at Steep Ravine are notoriously hard to get. Well, there's only 10 of them so it's understandable. Expect big windows on the Pacific Ocean,  waves rocking you to sleep and the comfort of your hideaway on the coast. Fog will be invited too so gear up.

Relax, you're out of the city. Photo by C.G.
 Point Reyes, Coast Camp: right by the beach at the edge of the Point Reyes peninsula, isn't that camp a dream? Coast Camp is a popular campground with sheltered sites, a white sandy beach 5 minutes away, and incredible views. The hitch? Backpacking only. You cannot drive your big car and unload in the parking lot. You'll need to carry everything. Fortunately, the hike is really easy. It's only 2.7 flat miles from the trailhead - even strollers do it! P.S. Coast = fog, let's be clear on that. Read what Frog Mom has to say about Backpacking with Young Children. For a true backpacking experience, Wildcat campground at Point Reyes is 5.6 miles from the Palomarin trailhead but once you're there, it's breathtaking. Dark sandy beach, irridescent waves crashing on the beach under the moon light, and flat sites for comfy nights.

Wine Country
Ah, now we're talking. A tourism opportunity? Fortunately for the kids, there's more than wine in the northern wine valleys. Redwoods, creeks, lakes, mills or observatories are some of the perks of camping in Sonoma or Napa.

Hendy Woods: Anderson Valley, how I enjoy driving up and down this valley where apples still steal the show to grapes - and where the yearly county fair features shepherd dog trials and a real rodeo. So there, I love the ruralness of Anderson Valley and Hendy Woods State park is part of it. I've tried both the rustic cabins and the tent sites and my votes goes to the latter. Rustic cabins are nice and feel like tree houses but awfully noisy when you wrestle with your sleeping bag at night. A short hike will take you to the Navarro River where swimming and wading are popular activities in the summer. Read the Frog Mom reports here and here.

Bothe-Napa Valley: pretty much the only campground of the Napa valley so no need to be picky. Actually Bothe-Napa Valley offers some of the nicest hikes I know in that area and for kids, two major attractions. In the park there is a spring-fed swimming pool - which can become quite crowded on July 4th, I learned that last year. On the other side of the park a few miles down the road, you will find a working historic mill where kids can make their own flour. Read the Frog Mom report.

Hanging out at Bothe-Napa. Photo by Frog Mom
 Sugarloaf Ridge: Sugarloaf Ridge is a true gem. Arranged in two semi-circles around big oval meadows, the campground just lends itself to late afternoon soccer games or morning gazing at the surrounding hills. Sugarloaf Ridge also features small wading spots along the creek, an observatory, a nature hike (whose description has been lost) and a planet hike. If your kids are super-kids, bring them up to the top of Bald Mountain to see the Bay Area from Sonoma. It gets hot during the day so pack plenty of water. I did a spectacular night hike on July 4th to Bald Mountain last year. You can read a bit about night hikes on Frog Mom here.

Spring Lake: in Santa Rosa, Spring Lake is a favorite family hangout because of the swimming lagoon where you can swim  (with the ducks), the lake where you can rent paddleboats and burn off some energy, the paved paths that surround the lake and where you can ride your bike or push your stroller. Largely though, folks like that real pretty and clean, and that it's next to Howarth Park where a killer play area features a Western town, a prehistoric area, a Native village, a Rancho, a climbing wall and a train station. This isn't exactly backcountry, but the kids won't care.

Well, that covers a little and hopefully it's inspiring enough that you stopped reading the posting halfway through to start your reservations. Don't hesitate to shoot me questions or feedback in the comments.

For tips on camping, check my Examiner.com articles:
Don't forget the liquid soap! Photo by Frog Mom


Amy said...

Great ideas! I wanted to suggest another one for summer - It's not open till mid-june. CAMP SHELLY is in South Lake Tahoe but is operated by Livermore Area Rec and Park District so it's mostly bay area people. It's a very social place with lots of kids running around and parents hanging our together.



Lora (Tripping with Kids) said...

This is an awesome list! The ones you mentioned that I have visited are excellent picks. Ones I have not yet visited have just risen on my summer to-do list. Thanks for putting this together!

A Little Yumminess said...

I always wanted someone to put together a list like this! Thanks!

Buffy Kinstle said...

Great list, but I would love to see an update to this list for 2012, based on which parks will be open vs closed due to state budget cuts. I'm looking to book camping but afraid to find out the pickings will be slim and competition fierce...