Foolproof outdoorsmanship in the Bay Area.
July 22, 2013 9:28 PM   Subscribe

Foolproof wilderness excursions (day or overnight) near the Bay Area for two people who are terrible at making arrangements.

Every year I import my younger brother into town and we do stuff together. When I lived in Baltimore, he was indifferent in Baltimore, except Otakon. He hated DC. Now he doesn't want to see San Francisco. What he wants is to get out and do outdoorsy stuff. He wants majestic beauty and mortifying challenges, I'm not sure we can handle it.

The problem is that I am, at best, a reluctant and incompetent camper, and so is he. Moreover, I only moved to the Bay Area a couple of months ago. I have minimal possessions, no camping supplies of any kind, and no car. Also, I started a demanding new job that leaves me with little time or energy to research day trips.

Since my little bro is on summer vacation, I suggested that he take charge of planning. This has resulted in me getting regular emails to the effect of "have you finished planning everything?" And it's probably not the best idea to let him handle the details. I still fondly remember the time when he didn't want to leave Otakon any earlier than 11:00 or return any later than 8:00, even though we had to drive 30 miles each way to get there. Or the time when he thought it was a great idea to take on Mt. Marcy with no supplies or preparation.

So, basically, I want simple, foolproof options for outdoors trips that require a bare minimum of preparation and equipment. I can rent a car and drive to REI. I can hike a little and scramble uphill a little. We can ride bikes, but don't own bikes. Neither of us knows anything about kayaking, canoeing, paragliding, or other wacky things people do outdoors. I don't want to wrangle permits or arrange groups, guides, or instructors, but I'm open to stuff if it doesn't require much arranging.
posted by Nomyte to Travel & Transportation around San Francisco, CA (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Why not just look up a state park that still has available cabins or tent cabins? A lot of them have excursions with rangers etc., or hikes and suggested supplies on their websites. Mt. Lassen (a national park) and other less popular parks are still amazing.
posted by wintersweet at 9:42 PM on July 22, 2013

Response by poster: I can't find a way to narrow down parks by campsite availability, and there's a lot of parks. Fo each one, I'd have to figure out how accessible it is, whether it's a reasonable drive, the magical fairy dust of "will my brother like it," and then look up availability in mid-August. I want to find a way to short-circuit the process, because it's after 10PM and I'm still at work doing stuff other than researching parks. Help me, Metafilter.
posted by Nomyte at 10:12 PM on July 22, 2013

I'd guess something like a KOA is perfect for this. There are few better places to show up with a tent you've just purchased, a borrowed sleeping bag with a broken zipper, a cooler full of raw meat and no stove. Find a campground near the coast so you don't melt and call your planning complete. This sort of trip is the reason they sell pants at the grocery store. Bring lots of wine and assume everything will take twice as long as it should and that it'll get dark before you realize you forgot to bring a headlamp or flashlight.
posted by foodgeek at 10:15 PM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can certainly do Muir Woods without a car; take the Golden Gate Transit bus 92 to the Marin Transit Hub and take the Marin Transit 61 bus from there. Google Maps has good directions. That's a day trip.

There are plenty of companies such as Viator which offer day long or multi-day camping adventures to Yosemite or Lake Tahoe, or whale watching, etc. Search for "Outdoor Activities San Francisco".

There are a variety of deep sea activities; fishing, whale watching, cruising the bay, crusing the bay at night (a very different experience).

If you rent a car, you can go to the local state parks such as Henry Cowell or Big Basin, which are close but feel far away. You can camp or day hike.

Glen Canyon, and even parts of Golden Gate Park, have a tiny bit of natural feel to them although completely surrounded by urbanity.

Finally, there are plenty of walking tours of San Francisco which get you out and about and not trapped inside. Check out SF City Guides for a list of free tours.
posted by blob at 10:22 PM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

China Camp State Park is pretty amazing and has available reservations for at least the next few weeks. It's also super close to San Francisco so if your tent floods in the middle of the night or whatever you can just go home. If you rent bikes, you can bike to the Golden Gate Bridge from there pretty easily (though on fairly heavily trafficked roads).

Easy way out? Groupon activities. Like sailing, or scuba certification, rock climbing? Or how about a kayaking lesson?
posted by charmcityblues at 10:28 PM on July 22, 2013

What is your budget? And for a day trip, how long would you ideally like it to be? Here is a suggestion for a relatively cheap and quick day trip.

Rent a car and drive down the coast to Santa Cruz. He'll get an hour of majestic beauty even before you guys get there. When you arrive you will have a bunch of options.

1. Kayaking. You can rent the kayak and go out yourself or take lessons. I suppose it depends on how "mortifying" you want the challenge to be. Kayaking is not hard, I would say you guys should just go for it. Luckily the water is at its warmest right now in case you fall in.

2. Surfing. I would say, you guys should take a surf lesson together for this one rather than just renting boards and giving it a go. It's really not very intuitive for most people, unless you are already a really good skateboarder or something like that.

3. Biking. You can rent bikes in SF and a bike rack, or you can rent them down in Santa Cruz too. I recommend Wilder Ranch. You can find more info and other biking options here.

If you want a morning-to-night kind of longer day trip, then I would recommend driving all the way down to Big Sur (it starts just south of Monterey) and hiking there. Point Lobos is a pretty easy hike and not far past Monterey, but it is gorgeous. More info here.
posted by cairdeas at 10:35 PM on July 22, 2013

Response by poster: Budget is totally open. Apart from buying a tent and renting a car, this has no way of getting too expensive. Day trips or overnights for 2-3 days are fine.
posted by Nomyte at 10:42 PM on July 22, 2013

Alite Designs in SF will let you borrow their products for free and is perfect for situations like this. Give them a call. Or see if there are rooms available at the West Point Inn on Mt Tam, then you won't need anything but food and can hike some of the best trails near SF.
posted by bradbane at 11:40 PM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Two suggestions:
Book an outing with the Outdoor Adventure Club. Their schedule is here. In the coming weeks they've mostly got day trips, but they do have a 3-day beginner backpacking trip in Yosemite coming up, $250/per person for nonmembers with an option to rent camping equip. if you don't have your own.

Do a whitewater rafting trip. This is a terrific outdoor thrill ride for someone without a lot of hardcore outdoor skills. Most rafting outfitters offer a range of difficulty levels--it's up to you to decide whether you want to stick to a "beginner" trip (class II-III rapids) that caters to families, or feel confident that you're "stronger than a 5th grader" and want to cater to your brother's love o mortifying challenges with an "adventurous beginner/intermediate" trip (class II-III-IV rapids). It looks like there are even some 2-day trips available on the American River, which is within the weekend-outing radius of SF. Some outfitters offering suitable trips:
All-Outdoor Whitewater Rafting
Whitewater Voyages
American River Recreation

For 2 day trips, check with the outfitter about what camping equipment they do or can provide for a fee. The American River Recreation site notes specifically on their 2-day trips that they can provide additional nights of camping, so it might be an option to book additional "bookend" nights of camping if you don't want to leave god-awful early on day 1 and/or get home god-awful late on day 2.

I've got no experience with any of these companies; I'm just the "Julie the Cruise Director" of my family and so have lots of experience planning outdoor adventure vacations.
posted by drlith at 4:08 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, it occurred to me after I hit send: REI stores offer classes and outings ranging from half-day to multi-day trips, so check their schedule as well.
posted by drlith at 4:13 AM on July 23, 2013

Second the REI stores. There are several in the bay area so you will have multiple events to choose from. Here's the schedule from the Fremont store.
posted by plinth at 5:54 AM on July 23, 2013

Reserve America will let you search a date range for campsites with cabins within a certain distance of a location.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:34 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

If budget is no concern, reserve an ocean-view yurt at Treebones. All you have to bring is a towel and your clothes/toiletries, and there's even a fancy restaurant in the lodge for dinner.

Big Sur is insanely beautiful (the drive along the coast from SF alone makes it worth the trip) and there are really, really nice day hikes in that area that require little more preparation than some decent shoes and a bottle of water.
posted by jesourie at 11:33 AM on July 23, 2013

Response by poster: Treebones looks completely booked up through end of August. :( Exploring other suggested options.
posted by Nomyte at 1:38 PM on July 23, 2013

I'm gonna 2nd drlith's suggestion of white-water rafting. I took a last-minute trip over Memorial Day, and recommend the folks at Mariah Rafting. They have everything you need available for rent, and will provide meals. You just need to call to reserve a spot, get a car, and show up on time at the meeting spot. (Depending on where you're coming from, you might want to arrive the day before. If so, they can accommodate that too.)

If you or your brother want to make a little bit more effort, you can rent/buy backpacking gear from REI and head to Henry Coe State Park. Backpacking campgrounds there are first-come/first-serve. I've shown up late on holiday weekends and still gotten a good spot. Many of the campgrounds are less than 5 miles from the parking lot.

Have fun on your trip! I wouldn't worry too much -- there's plenty to do within driving distance of the bay area. If things get super last-minute, go to Pier39 and rent bikes to ride to Sausalito. It's not the wilderness, but plenty of natural beauty to see.
posted by tinymegalo at 2:10 PM on July 23, 2013

Response by poster: Things didn't end up working out, but we did manage to do a couple day trips in state parks, like a way too long trail loop at Mt. Tam and a very pretty trail at Castle Rock.
posted by Nomyte at 2:56 PM on September 8, 2013

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