California road trip details
May 13, 2013 10:37 AM   Subscribe

Please help us arrange some details for our California road trip! Questions about places to camp near Santa Barbara, Monterey, Sonoma, the Redwoods, and more.

I'll be traveling with two dear friends (late-twenties, two girls and a guy). We're mostly planning to camp to save money, but if you can suggest REALLY COOL other options we might consider spending more for one night. We'd rather not have to hike in unless there's a truly extraordinary campsite; we have decent equipment and are in pretty good shape, but aren't extraordinarily outdoorsy. Mostly we want to see the beauty of California and build campfires and drink beers and talk in the evenings.

I've seen the related questions on here, but we've got some slightly different requirements. We've already got some days planned out, but the days I'm still trying to arrange look like this:

Day 1: Drive from Sacramento to somewhere in Napa or Sonoma for wine tours. Camp there, or one of us can be designated driver and head up to (broadly speaking) the Mendocino area and camp along the coast. We'd like to do some tidepooling if possible sometime the next day.
• Good campsites in Napa or Sonoma, where we can easily get to vineyards?
• Good campsites along the coast (as close to the cliffs/beaches as possible).

Day 2: Drive up to the Redwoods, and camp there.
• Do we need to go all the way up to Redwoods National Park to get the full Avenue-of-the-Giants effect?
• Good campsites in the area? If we can camp in the proper redwoods that would be ideal.

From there we drive down to the bay area for a few nights, but afterwards:

Day 3: Monterey (aquarium and town).
• Good places to camp near Monterey or Carmel? Someone suggested Limekiln, any opinions?

Day 4: Drive south along the cost, to Morro Bay or farther down to the Santa Barbara area. We'd like to at least get a glimpse of Southern California without descending into the LA madness.
• We're considering the El Capitan Valley tent cabins or the campsites close to the beach; any other suggestions?

Extra questions:
• We would love to actually camp ON the beach at some point (and would go out of our way to do so), but I haven't been able to find any campsites that offer this option. Did I miss something?

Thank you!
posted by you're a kitty! to Travel & Transportation around California (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I have camped at Russian Gulch State Park (just north of Mendocino town) and it's got a beach, tidepools, a blowhole, hiking, and car camping. Reserve soon, though, as I understand it fills up pretty quick (and please note that various services may be limited or absent due to budget things).
posted by rtha at 11:04 AM on May 13, 2013

For Day 1, Wright's Beach Campground at Sonoma Coast State Beach is nice and very close to the beach (though you can't pitch the tent on the sand itself), but can be crowded. The camping at Salt Point is farther from the water and farther from wine country , but the cliffs are more interesting.

For Day 2, Humboldt Redwoods Park is pretty nice, but I haven't camped there. The redwoods up north will be more spectacular, but it would be difficult to get there and then back to Monterey in a day.

For Day 3, I haven't done much camping south of SF, but I will highly recommend stopping and spending some time at the two Pfeiffer parks.
posted by tau_ceti at 11:05 AM on May 13, 2013

We would love to actually camp ON the beach at some point (and would go out of our way to do so), but I haven't been able to find any campsites that offer this option. Did I miss something?

No, that generally doesn't happen. I've camped right on the beach on Catalina, and the Pismo State Beach campground is right behind the dunes, but that's about as close as you'll get (and Pismo is more meant for RVs, so tent camping there provides an odd setup compared to most other places). Catalina's an odd duck because it's not run by any governmental agency.

For camping, you're mostly going to be looking at campgrounds within National Forests and parks and State Parks, although some state parks are just day use. State parks allow booking of campsites ahead of time, and tend to get booked pretty quickly, especially for coastal areas in the Summer. My dad and I spent a sad time trying to find a campground in the redwoods one night 25 years ago when all the campgrounds were full.

Boethe-Napa Valley state park seems to be the only place near Napa outside of purely commercial setups, which are generally geared towards RVs.

There are a bunch of little state parks scattered around Redwood National Park, any of which will offer tall-tree goodness. I've stayed at Patrick's Point, but there's also Del Norte and Jedediah Smith.
posted by LionIndex at 11:14 AM on May 13, 2013

New Brighton State Beach just south of Santa Cruz has camping on a bluff overlooking the beach, but it might be hard to get a spot. It's about a half-hour north of Monterey. (And it's right next to some excellent beer too.)
posted by overleaf at 11:20 AM on May 13, 2013

Actually physically ON the beach? Not that I've seen. But Limekiln and some of the other campsites just south of it can put you within spitting distance of it.
posted by carsonb at 11:24 AM on May 13, 2013

Limekiln is both hell and gone from Monterey and Carmel - it's over an hour drive. It will get you some of the way down to Morro Bay, however. The drive from Carmel to Limekiln is seriously white-knuckle in the dark so if you plan to stay in Monterey until near sundown I wouldn't do it.

If you want to camp in Monterey, there is a campground called Veteran's Park that is one mile from downtown Monterey.

Laguna Seca Recreation Area is about 15 minutes east of Monterey and has tons of campsites available so long as it's not a race day. There's some great views from some of the sites. It's also 15-20 degrees warmer here than on the coast.

I used to work for Monterey's tourism organization and I wrote this article on the top campsites in Monterey a couple of years back (and I actually road-tested it while writing it). If you're in it for the camping experience more than the seeing-downtown-Monterey experience, this will give you a lot of detail.

It's always a good idea to call ahead a day or two in advance and check to make sure the campgrounds are open - it looks like this summer will be a wicked fire season and that can shut down the campgrounds, or access to them.
posted by rednikki at 11:28 AM on May 13, 2013

it looks like this summer will be a wicked fire season and that can shut down the campgrounds, or access to them.

Or your ability to have a campfire.
posted by LionIndex at 11:30 AM on May 13, 2013

I think you can camp on the beach at Carpinteria State park. It's south of Santa Barbara, but well to the north of LA--about 60 miles north, I guess.
posted by feste at 11:52 AM on May 13, 2013

Do we need to go all the way up to Redwoods National Park to get the full Avenue-of-the-Giants effect?

No. Since your following day is in Monterey, suggest you get your Redwood fix to the south at a) Muir Woods, just north of the Golden Gate bridge (but it's way too crowded, not recommended) or b) Big Basin State Park, south of Saratoga, from which you could drive easily to Santa Cruz and then on to Monterey.
posted by Rash at 11:58 AM on May 13, 2013

I think you can camp on the beach at Carpinteria State park.

Close, but not quite on the actual sand beach. One of the campgrounds is just behind the dunes - but this is about as good as you can get, fairly similar to the situation at Pismo. I guess it depends on how you define "on the beach".
posted by LionIndex at 12:04 PM on May 13, 2013

Response by poster: Sorry, I wasn't very clear — between the redwoods and monterey we have a few days of driving and spending time in SF; we're not planning to do it as one long drive down.

Thanks for the great suggestions so far!
posted by you're a kitty! at 12:05 PM on May 13, 2013

1. How close to Napa/Sonoma are we talking? Because Armstrong Redwoods is near Gurneville and about 45 miles away from Sonoma. If you go there then you won't need to go all the way up to Redwoods National Park. There are campsites at Austin Creek SRA which is accessed through the same entrance as Armstrong Redwoods. And Guerneville is cute.

Extra: If you want beach camping then you might want to stay north and try Doran Regional Park or Bodega Dunes. The Dunes are nicer (showers! flush toilets!) but you're not camping directly on the beach, it's a short walk/hike over the dunes to get to the ocean. At Doran the sites are on a beach but it's a flat spit in the bay and... meh.

Honestly I wouldn't do either. The winds are crazy (especially at Doran) and camping in sand sucks because it gets EVERYWHERE and into EVERYTHING.
posted by elsietheeel at 12:07 PM on May 13, 2013

For actual surf-side camping, I've heard of adventurous young people parking overnight along Highway 1 in Big Sur and sleeping on empty beaches there, but the legal implications of that are unknown to me.
posted by Rash at 1:14 PM on May 13, 2013

With your update, I would change the route a bit. Humboldt is far.

Stop 1: Calaveras Big Trees, lots of camping available (drive highways 16 > 49 > 4)
Stop 2: Napa/Sonoma
Stop 3: SF
Stop 4: Monterey
Stop 5: SLO
posted by rhizome at 2:08 PM on May 13, 2013

Also, the drive south from San Francisco to Monterey is most scenic along Highway 1 (until you get past Santa Cruz, anyway), and there are lots of beaches to stop at along the way. Highway 1 south to Morro Bay is also very scenic if you don't get vertigo looking over the cliff edge, but beware of construction delays; they have been working on some pretty spectacular landslide repair for a while.
posted by overleaf at 3:23 PM on May 13, 2013

Response by poster: overleaf — how cliffy is the SF-->Monterey stretch? We do have someone in the car who's vertigo-prone, so unfortunately we should shy away from the craziest of the cliff roads (which I personally kind of love).
posted by you're a kitty! at 3:59 PM on May 13, 2013

Rte 1 in Sonoma and Mendocino is much, much cliffier than SF to Monterey. Take that into consideration!
posted by rtha at 4:11 PM on May 13, 2013

SF-Monterey isn't bad but Monterey-Limekiln is super uber mega cliffy. As in, guard-rail-between-you-and-a-huge-drop cliffy. If you have someone who is vertigo prone they are going to have real issues with the drive to Limekiln. This video will give you some idea:
posted by rednikki at 5:34 PM on May 13, 2013

South of Monterey it gets pretty nuts again, for a pretty long stretch.
posted by LionIndex at 5:37 PM on May 13, 2013

Driving north on 1 puts you on the mountain side, not the cliff side. So if the rest of you want views, drive north and put the vertigo-prone person on the passenger side in the backseat.
posted by elsietheeel at 5:41 PM on May 13, 2013

Camp near the beach in Mendocino at Russian Gulch State Park or Van Damme State Park and then it's a short drive through the redwoods inland on Highway 128 to Hendy Woods State Park which is camping in the redwoods with a river.
posted by zebraantelope at 9:44 PM on May 13, 2013

drive north and put the vertigo-prone person on the passenger side in the backseat.

If they have the slightest tendency to motion sickness, provide a bag. I am not kidding. I'm the driver when we drive south (oceanside) on 1 between, say Gualala and SF, and we usually stop at Fort Ross so everyone can walk around and breathe and try to get rid of that barfy feeling. Hell, I've gotten a little carsick when I drive that stretch.

Speaking of Hendy Woods - Navarro River Redwoods State Park is also really beautiful. I've never camped there, but have driven that road often when we take the Anderson Valley route from SF to that part of the coast.
posted by rtha at 6:12 AM on May 14, 2013

The Santa Barbara area has some incredible state beaches: El Capitan, Refugio, and Gaviota are all nice, and El Cap is certainly my favorite among them.

One caveat is that they sometimes require reservations months in advance.
posted by eak at 10:00 AM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Regarding cliffiness: my son made me get off Highway 1 when we were driving south from Monterey to San Luis Obispo because it made him too nervous, so as others have said, if you have sensitive folks in the car that probably is not going to work for you.
posted by overleaf at 10:13 PM on June 3, 2013

« Older Advice on buying an UPS for my desktop   |   Friend hit by a car; NY law doesn't seem helpful... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.