When you’re trying to plan a weekend camping trip and half your friends work until 5 p.m. on Friday, you can be sure you’re not getting to Yosemite or Big Sur before nightfall. Nobody likes setting up a tent in the dark, and leaving Saturday morning cuts out valuable outside time. Fortunately, San Francisco happens to be a stone’s throw away from a few dozen parks, beaches, and recreation areas, many of which have campgrounds that can hold their own against most national parks.
All campsites (except Pantoll Campground at Mt. Tamalpais and Rob Hill) on my favorites list can be reserved online here. Also keep in mind that exact mileage will depend on where you’re driving from. Some of the websites governing these campgrounds give confusing or misleading information about exactly where they’re located, so I’ve included a KMZ file for use in Google Earth with the actual locations of each site. (If you don’t have Google Earth, you can download it for free here. Once you download the file, just double click and it'll open in Google Earth.)
If you know of spots not mentioned here, be sure to share your favorites in the comments below.
Distance from SF: 67 miles
Dogs: Campgrounds, paved roads, and picnic areas only.
Don’t forget to pack: A good set of cookware. I’ve never seen campground grills as fancy as the ones here, so be sure to try out some new camping recipes at Big Basin.
Check this out nearby: Castle Rock State Park has some of the best outdoor climbing anywhere on the north coast.
There are seven different site loops within Big Basin Redwoods State Park: Blooms Creek, Sky Meadow (group), Wastahi, Huckleberry, Sequoia (group), Jay (trail and bike), and Sempervirens. They’re all tucked away in dense redwood groves and offer similar setups in terms of shade and space. Some loops have restrictions (groups or hike/bike only), so be sure you know what you’re signing up for when you make a reservation. All of them except Sky Meadow have showers. I’ve never actually met someone who showers while camping, but hey, it’s there if you want it.
Samuel P. Taylor State Park (Taylor Camp)
Distance from SF: 31 miles
Dogs: Campsites, picnic areas, and Cross Marin Trail only.
Don’t forget to pack: Lounge chairs. The campground is so nice, you’re going to want to be comfortable while you’re hanging out here.
Check this out nearby: Lagunitas and Fairfax are cool small towns with lots of cool small town-y spots.
Something about driving on two-lane roads makes Samuel P. Taylor feel further from the city than it is. The scenery changes dramatically as you go from grassy hills with grazing wild turkeys to dense redwoods in only a couple miles.
Camp Taylor has been a popular destination since the 1870s, making it one of the oldest campgrounds in the US. It’s also unique at this particular time since it’s one of the few places you can still see a running stream in California. The historic drought has dried up a lot of other local streams and rivers.
Point Reyes National Seashore (Coast Camp)
Distance from SF: 44 miles + 2-mile hike
Dogs: Not in campgrounds. Some trails and beaches elsewhere in the park do allow them, though.
Don’t forget to pack: A decent backpack. Two miles isn’t a marathon but trying to carry a cooler that far can be a real drag.
Check this out nearby: Elephant seals can be found lounging by the hundreds on the other side of Drakes Bay. The bulls can grow to 16' long and weigh over 5,000 lbs. Seeing them fight over beach territory later in winter is a truly awesome show.
Following the same route along Sir Francis Drake past Samuel P. Taylor State Park, you’ll find Point Reyes. You can also take Highway 1 for a slightly longer route off the major road. Either way you go, it's a nice drive with tons of scenic spots to pull over and check out.
There are four unique hike-in campgrounds in Point Reyes (Sky, Glen, Wildcat, and Coast) in addition to a number of sites accessible only by boat. Coast Camp is the most easily accessible of the four and also happens to be one of only two with beach access. It took me about 40 minutes hiking each way at a leisurely pace. You’ll lose cell reception before you even start walking, so this is definitely the most secluded campground on this list.
Redwood Regional Park (Trail’s End and Fern Dell)
Distance from SF: 20 miles + 0.5–0.8-mile walk/bike
Dogs: Good to go on trails and campgrounds with $2 fee.
Don’t forget to pack: Extra bikes for your friends.
The East Bay is full of awesome outdoorsy spots. From Wildcat Canyon to Lake Chabot, you could go on a different day trip every weekend of the summer and never get bored. There are a handful of campgrounds scattered around the area, but two of them provide a good camping experience while still being convenient.
Both sites are located on the same trail with Trail's End being the farthest. The trail out is wide, flat, and open to bicycles. The campground sites are for groups only so you’ll need to find at least 10 friends to go with you. You can have up to 50 people at Fern Dell and 25 at Trail’s End, so there’s no need to make your Facebook event invite-only.
Mount Diablo State Park (Live Oak and Juniper)
Distance from SF: 43 miles
Dogs: Campgrounds and developed areas only, no trails or fire roads.
Don’t forget to pack: Extra water. In light of the ongoing drought, the park has turned off all faucets and drinking fountains, including campground showers and toilets. Portable toilets have been set up instead.
Check this out nearby: The peak of Mt. Diablo. This may seem obvious but it’s actually 7.5 miles from the park entrance. I’ve been at the top with no one else around except the staff ranger in the visitor center.
It’s said that you can see more of the earth’s surface from the peak of Mt. Diablo than anywhere else aside from Mount Kilimanjaro. This claim has been disputed by scientists, but on a clear day it’s not hard to believe. With a telephoto lens, I’ve photographed mountains on the western edge of Lake Tahoe. Looking to the west, you can see clear over San Francisco, out to the Farallon Islands and beyond. Aside from the epic views, the park is great for soaking up some proper hot weather. Last time I went, it was 65° in the Outer Richmond and 95° on Mt. Diablo.
When you make a reservation, keep in mind that LO stands for Live Oak and JU stands for Juniper. Once you make a general reservation for one of the campgrounds, you’ll pick out the individual site when you get there.
Distance from SF: 7 miles
Dogs: Officially no, but I’ve seen people hiking with them.
Don’t forget to pack: Clothes for every kind of weather. If you thought weather in Golden Gate Park was unpredictable, Kirby Cove will really throw you for a loop. Even if it’s sunny two miles away in the avenues, it can still be foggy down on the water or vice versa.
Check this out nearby: Battery 129 at Hawk Hill. The site of one of the largest (yet never finished) defensive gun batteries on the West Coast, Hawk Hill is now known for its migratory raptor viewing.
Not only is Kirby Cove one of the closest campgrounds to San Francisco, it’s also one of the coolest places you’ll ever camp. The four sites are spread out among a grove of Monterey cypress right behind Battery Kirby and only a couple minutes walk from the beach. Even if you don’t plan on camping, it’s a great spot to hang out for the day. It has an open lawn big enough for a football game, a nice pebbly beach, and a truly unique view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
A few important notes to keep in mind: Kirby Cove is one of the most sought-after campgrounds anywhere around the Bay Area. It often books up months ahead of time so plan accordingly. If you want to visit just for the day, you can reserve the day-use picnic area from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. If you make a reservation for a campsite or the picnic area, you’ll get a code for the locked gate up on Conzelman Rd. Otherwise you’ll have to park at Battery Spencer and walk the mile-long fire road down to Kirby Cove. Battery Spencer is almost always overflowing with tourists, even midweek, so you may have a hard time parking.
Distance from SF: 0 miles!
Don’t forget to pack: Plenty of wood for an epic bonfire.
Check this out nearby: All the cool stuff in the Presidio.
If you ask 10 people where you can go camping in San Francisco, eight of them will probably tell you “nowhere” and one might suggest squatting in Golden Gate Park. Rob Hill is the perfect spot for large groups and/or greenhorn campers who may not be ready for a long trek into the boonies. You can hike part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail right out of the camp or take a quick jaunt down to Baker Beach via the sand ladder on Lincoln Blvd.
Rob Hill is close enough to bus or bike to and secluded enough to enjoy being outdoors. Of the four sites, only two are available for public use. The other two are used for the Camping at the Presidio youth program. The good news is that each public site can accommodate up to 30 people. Each reservation comes with only four vehicle passes, so you might have to strategically invite that guy you know with a 12-passenger van. Reservation instructions can be found here.
Mt. Tamalpais State Park (Pantoll)
Distance from SF: 20 miles
Dogs: Picnic areas and campgrounds only.
Don’t forget to pack: That nice camera and tripod you bought a while ago but never use.
Check this out nearby: Muir Woods. You can get a good look at some beautiful redwoods around Mt. Tam, but the trails and groves around the valley below are the best you’ll see anywhere around here.
As the only campground on the list that’s first come-first served, Pantoll Campground is a double-edged sword. Theoretically, you could head up there on a whim but you’d be running the risk of other people having the same idea a little bit earlier in the day. If you do get your foot in the door, though, it’s a fantastic campground that’s both easy to get to and extremely enjoyable.
Mount Tamalpais is technically closed from sunset to 7 a.m. and Pantoll Campground lies just outside the southern gate. Mount Tam might just be the greatest place to watch the sunset in the entire Bay Area, so this rule is particularly frustrating to anyone trying to enjoy the view above the fog when the light is the best. The rangers are usually pretty lenient toward photographers set up on the turnouts, but be prepared to get kicked out as soon as the orange starts to fade from the sky.
For more information on Labor Day camping, first-come first-served sites, and more, check out the California Parks and Recreation site.