It’s Not Too Late! Last-Minute Camping Ideas

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Looking for some camping fun but you didn’t get online in March to reserve your campsite? While it’s true places like Yosemite book up months in advance, there are plenty of options you and the kids will love, especially if you’re able to go mid-week. Read on to learn about some of our faves!


Photo: Kate Loweth

Up North
If your idea of a good camping trip includes wine tasting (is that even a question?), then check out these wine country camping options that still have availability. Bothe-Napa Valley State Park is located between the quaint towns of Calistoga and St. Helena and includes both traditional campsite and yurts. Kids will love the on-site pool and creek that flows behind the campsites. Check out their naturalist-led hikes on the weekends to learn about the flora and fauna that inhabits the area. St. Clement Vineyards is nearby and offers kid-friendly wine tasting (yes, that’s right, kid-friendly wine tasting!) in a beautiful setting—they even have a chalk room to keep your littles entertained! Sugarloaf Ridge State Park is another wine country camping option with weekday (lots) and weekend (some) availability through September.

Located along the wooded shore of the San Pablo Bay, China Camp is a local favorite and not even twenty miles from downtown Sausalito. The wooded campsites are “hike-in,” but don’t let that intimidate you—it just means that campers will have to carry their goods from the parking lot to their site, usually no more than an easy five-minute walk. Scenic hiking trails lead down to a mellow beach and a small museum depicting the history of the camp, which was once a Chinese shrimping village. After taking a dip, head over to the homey Quan Bros. snack shop for ice cream or bay shrimp specialities prepared by Frank Quan, a longtime resident and fisherman at China Camp, and his family. The park is now operated by Friends of China Camp, who raised funds and saved it from closure.


Photo: Kate Loweth

Down South
Portola Redwoods State Park in La Honda is a favorite of many Bay Area families. It’s just an hour from the Peninsula and features a great ravine and some nice shade. Though the way down to the ravine is a bit steep in places, the kids will love splashing around in the mostly shallow water. There are fire pits, picnic tables and banana slugs galore. (Heads up: Due to the drought there are currently no showers available at this campground and bathrooms are limited to port-o-potties only.) Kids will love all the fallen trees bridging the ravine as well as the hollowed out tree stumps here and there that make for great hide outs. Though weekends are mostly booked, there are still plenty of weekday options available.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park in Big Sur boasts open meadows, hiking trails, plentiful wildlife and even a grocery store (the Camp Store) helps prevent the toddler tears when you inevitably forget the marshmallows. Like many campgrounds tucked into the trees, it’s best to bring layers as the temperature can be a little cool even in summer months. If you want to snag a spot during the weekday and (ahem) work from home, you can head over to the vicinity of the Camp Store where you’ll find wireless access.

Photo: Camp Campbell YMCA via yelp

Would you like to camp without bringing your tent? Go back to the basics at the family camps offered by Camp Campbell YMCA in Boulder Creek. They have treetop cabins and tent cabins still available for their Labor Day weekend family camp as well as rustic and treetop cabins available for the Thanksgiving weekend family camp. Participate in traditional camping activities from ceramics to orienteering to archery. All of your meals are prepared for you (hooray!) and the nights end with a campfire gathering and flashlight hike.

There are still plenty of weekend spots available (even many tent-only sites available for Labor Day weekend) at Fremont Peak State Park, which is open year round. Views are amazing (from the top of the peak, check out the sea of fog down below on the Monterey Bay), hikes are mostly mild and stargazing is a must. On select evenings (call to check your dates) the park opens their astronomical observatory complete with 30-inch diameter telescope. The walk there is manageable even for little ones and lots of amateur astronomers come up with their own telescopes to share their love for the night sky. While there are no showers or flush toilets at this site, the stars and views more than make up for it.


Photo: Kate Loweth

East Bay
If Tahoe seems like too much of a trek, get your lakeside kicks closer to home. Del Valle Regional Park is centered around a sparkling (and warm!) 5-mile-long lake, and offers swimming, boating, fishing, hiking, horseback riding and camping—just ten miles south of Livermore. The warm weather and kid-friendly beaches, complete with lifeguards, make this a haven for Bay Area families, so the kids are sure to make fast friends. The campground has plenty of weekday availability and even a handful of weekends through September.

For an even closer-to-home commune with nature, there is a fantastic camping located just 20 minutes from downtown Oakland. Chabot Family Campground overlooks Lake Chabot. Hot showers, a naturalist-led campfire program, hiking and proximity to home, make this spot a favorite. Nearby Lake Chabot offers paddle boats and a cafe as well. Plenty of weekday campsites and some weekends as well are available through the rest of the summer. Keep in mind that if you’re looking to escape it all, this might not be your spot, since it’s so close to civilization. That said, it also means you can take a day trip to Berkeley or one of the many museums in Oakland if the kids get restless.


Photo: via grrsh on Flickr creative commons

Insider Tips
Don’t give up if you’re having trouble getting a summer spot—our summer weather will really hit its stride in September, so if you can’t find a weekend at your ideal site, consider a weekend after Labor Day and get more mileage out of the summer. The weather at coastal campgrounds (like Sunset State Beach near Santa Cruz, or Sonoma Coast State Park) is best in the fall anyway.

Find available campsites through Reserve America, where you can plug in your desired dates, your zip code (if you’re looking for something close to home) and the number of nights you want to stay. Reserve America will then return available sites as well as give you the option of finding “next available” dates if you have a specific campground you’ve got your heart set on.

The Hiker-Biker Secret: Want guaranteed, last-minute access into any campsite in California? Then pack up the bike trailer and go for a ride. Any campers who show up on bicycles (or on their own two feet) to any state or federal campsite in the state will be shown to their site and charged just $5 per person, per night, no reservations needed. Now, if the idea of transporting the family on two wheels seems preposterous, check out nearby options like China Camp, where, from the Larkspur ferry landing, a leisurely 2 hour ride will get you to your destination. Those s’mores will never have tasted so good.

What is your favorite kid-friendly camping spot in the Bay Area?

—Kate Loweth, Tara Wright and Erin Feher

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