How to snag a Bay Area campsite this summer

Three-day weekends over the fourth of July (or Memorial, or Labor Day) are the perfect times to get away for some camping in the great outdoors. The good news for Bay Areans: you don’t have to travel far to find a campground in one of the many nearby county, state or national parks, with stunning settings that range from ocean views, redwood stands, to rolling hills and more.

The bad news? Finding an available campsite between May and September is like getting a table at Flour + Water (or Mama’s, or Tartine, or etc.). It seems everyone in the Bay Area has the camping bug of late, which is good in the grand scheme of things, but bad for your holiday plans. For instance, the cabins at Steep Ravine on the coast near Stinson Beach have always sold out within minutes of the online reservation window, and now the nearby campsites are gone just as quickly.

So basically any campgrounds within a reasonable distance (90 minutes or less) require long-term planning of three to six months in advance. You can check availability, and reserve a site by visiting the official park webpage, clicking on reservations, and entering your preferred dates. Some results will show a month calendar with the next open slot, and others have a box to check if you’re flexible on dates, which of course increases your chances.

As far as the this July 4th weekend is concerned, pretty much every nearby campsite is reserved.  Places like Castle Rock or Big Basin Redwoods SPs are accounted for, along with campsites at all the other Peninsula and Southbay parks. Anywhere in Marin, Napa or the Eastbay is also full. It’s that same sinking feeling when you arrive at a restaurant and see a line snaking down the street.

But all is not hopeless. Many of these parks also have campsites that are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, and some parks like Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area only offer such sites. For the most coveted campgrounds though you’ll need to arrive super early and stake out a spot, or even ask around to see if anyone plans on leaving (though knocking on tent doors at 6am is probably not a good idea). And even then there’s no guarantee. The best way to gauge your prospects is to call the park ranger and ask the likelihood for securing a campsite, or if there’s been any cancellations for reserved sites.

The other option of course is to hightail it out of town. Except for well-known parks like Yosemite, Big Sur and around Tahoe, the farther from the city the more likely your chances. Sonoma County (and north) is one possibility, such as along the Russian River, Lake Sonoma, or at the coast. Though that could change quickly.

You can also head east toward the Sierras and Stanislaus National Forest. There are dozens of campgrounds in the park, though many are first-come, first serve. You can check this list of campgrounds to see if any suit your tastes. There are also a number that are not campgrounds that you can find on a map search. Of course, the farther the trip, the more it becomes a Trip, and not a casual getaway. So you’ll have to be okay with long drive times and/or traffic since all those other campers and weekenders are headed out of the city too.

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