Where should I go camping near Big Sur?
June 12, 2007 4:07 PM   Subscribe

Where can I camp, off the beaten path, on the central coast of California?

I'm planning a camping trip for 10-20 people over the July 20th weekend. We're all based in San Francisco, and the tentative plan is to go up to a spot I know in the Stanislaus National Forest. However, given how dry the weather has been here over the last couple of months, I'm concerned that by that point in the summer, the park's fire danger status will be 'high,' and we won't be able to have a campfire. That's no fun.

In light of that, I'm trying to find an alternate location to use as a backup. I figured that someplace around Big Sur would be suitable, with more moisture and rainfall that might allow for safer open fires. Problem is, I've never been down there, and I haven't been able to find good information on camping there online. What I really want is a recommendation from someone who's done this.

I want to do some proper wilderness camping, in the sense that parking a car and pitching a tent ten feet away, with 50 other campsites within rock-throwing distance, is not what I'm after. My usual spot in the Stanislaus woods requires a short hike of about 1/2 mile from the parking area, and there's never anyone else around it. It's right next to a river. There are no facillities there at all; we dig our own toilet and pack out all our trash. If you have suggestions for a spot along these lines in Big Sur, I'm all ears!

I'd like it to be 1 mile or less of a hike from the nearest road. Directions that involve steps like, "turn left at the old hollow oak tree and drive 1/4 mile until you cross over a creek" would make my heart sing. Immediate proximity to running, swimable water is practically a requirement. The main thing, though, is to be nice and alone for a whole weekend. Thanks hive mind!
posted by autojack to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (23 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Hmmmmm. Maybe I was wrong about the fire situation near Big Sur. I just found this. I'm open to other location suggestions! Anything within about 4 hours of SF : )
posted by autojack at 4:09 PM on June 12, 2007

From personal experiences, I can tell you that along the central coast, virtually anything that's a mile from a road will have people. You might look at Ventana wilderness, or if you want something more subdued, consider the San Rafael Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest (about 5 hours from SF).

Sadly, there isn't usually a ton of water in the side of San Rafael with very short hikes... You might look up information about the Manzana Schoolhouse area (I forget the name of the trailhead) and call the Los Padres rangers' office to find out water conditions.
posted by JMOZ at 4:26 PM on June 12, 2007

The monks & staff at Tassajara have been known to let people camp on their beautiful property. If you can be very quiet, they might even let you eat there or use the baths.

Although if you'd rather not have any contact with anyone - as you suggest you might - I'm sure you could do that too. They have quiet a good-sized parcel of land.

Also, you may want to consider going away from the coast, head up toward Truckee. Take 49 to Sierraville, where a group of quiet hippies have a very pleasant hot springs, and they'll be happy to let you camp out in the big field near the meadow springs. They have hudreds of acres, though, so except for the times you're in the pools, I doubt you'll run into anyone else.

(as you can see, I like springs!)
posted by luriete at 4:27 PM on June 12, 2007

I agree with JMOZ. Mount Tamp might work, but I'd say the further north the better, regarding fire safety.
posted by OrangeDrink at 4:29 PM on June 12, 2007

If I remember right, there's a hot springs on a river about 6 miles in -- would that work? Central Coast, not too far south of Santa Cruz. Let me know if so, and I'll look up the name when I get home. Or someone else on here might know it. I've heard it recommended a lot but haven't been. I do think it's popular enough that you probably wouldn't be alone, though.
posted by salvia at 4:38 PM on June 12, 2007

Oh also, what about the North Coast? You could get to the Lost Coast in about that amount of driving, I think.
posted by salvia at 4:40 PM on June 12, 2007

I'd like it to be 1 mile or less of a hike from the nearest road...The main thing, though, is to be nice and alone

Just caught this part. So my first suggestion is totally out, sorry.

When I think solitude near SF, actually, I think of areas up towards Shasta like the Trinity Alps (good rivers there, too), or somewhere out toward Yosemite. But those all have fire danger and they're all more like 5-6 hours away.

I guess if I had your parameters, I'd start looking at the fire trail roads and camping regulations in the Lost Coast, and maybe also (lower likelihood, but it's closer) Jackson State Forest between Fort Bragg and Willits. I don't know the perfect spot -- maybe someone with more experience on the Lost Coast could suggest somewhere there. On the plus side, there's fairly low fire danger. On the minus side, depending on how close you are to the ocean there's some chance of fog.
posted by salvia at 4:55 PM on June 12, 2007

Maybe up in Mendocino? Navarro state park has always struck me as incredibly beautiful, though I've never camped there, just driven through on the way to the coast.

As to fire danger, I seem to remember most of Northern California being under fire watch last summer, and this summer looks to be worse.
posted by rtha at 5:52 PM on June 12, 2007

The Channel Islands National Park is really, really off the beaten path.
posted by mdonley at 5:54 PM on June 12, 2007

You might try Andrew Molera State Park in Big Sur. It's an official campground, and you will not be alone there on a summer weekend, but the 1/3 mile hike from the parking area does tend to weed out a lot of people. I went there weekend before last and it was maybe half full. They've got marked campsites (24) with toilets and (non-potable) water.

There's a nice stream nearby that lets out onto the beach, and the mouth is waist-deep, fast-moving fresh water that's nice to splash around in. The beach itself is gravel and fairly inviting except for the frigidity of the water. There are often a couple surfers out there, so I'm sure swimming is safe if you're hardy enough, though I've yet to brave it.

Here are some pictures: panorama (taken just days ago by my girlfriend and fellow mefite Ambrosia Voyeur), campground, beach.

I've been told there are no campfires allowed on the Lost Coast ever, but this may not be reliable.

I will be watching this thread. salvia, if it's not too much trouble I'd love to hear more about your hot springs spot, even if it doesn't fit the question perfectly. I also want to hear how to find autojack's secret place. No fair asking other's to give theirs away if you won't even spill your own!
posted by contraption at 6:10 PM on June 12, 2007

I grew up around Monterey, and used to camp around the Little Sur river a lot, Fox and Jackson camps, Tassajara, etc., but by far my favorite place around was Arroyo Seco, out near Ventana. There's a long cliff-lined gorge leading up to a waterfull--usually ascendable via boy-scout ropes--and there's a white-sand beach to camp on. Rarely, saw anyone else camping out there, just some occasional nudist day-hikers.

Amazing place, and only a couple miles from parking.

To get to it though, you'll need to do a little swimming. We'd bring an inflatable raft to ford with our packs.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:21 PM on June 12, 2007

(I'd think Arroyo Seco is bone-dry ATM, and that's just not going by the name . . .)
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 7:11 PM on June 12, 2007

Hmmm, contraption, the backpacking book I wanted to consult on that hike is missing. So now I have to track it down and will have to let you know. Oh, but aha! Googling my six vague keywords worked! Here it is: Sykes Hot Springs.
posted by salvia at 7:51 PM on June 12, 2007

Here is a website with trial reports descriptions and info. now for the secret places, willow creek camp and or sycamore flats. email in profile
posted by hortense at 9:34 PM on June 12, 2007

Sykes is a zoo
posted by hortense at 9:34 PM on June 12, 2007

Do your camping in the winter, and just about anywhere isn't busy.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:54 AM on June 13, 2007

Yeah, Sykes was gross even 20 years ago. Teeming with naked old hippies.

Bummer about Arroyo Seco. Even in the late 80's-early 90's drought years there was still plenty of water in its gorge. Sucks.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:43 AM on June 13, 2007

Limekiln has been a favorite of mine for a very long time.
posted by KenFox at 12:49 AM on June 14, 2007

Response by poster: Crap, I forgot to follow up with this thread!

Things I will be checking out:

Lost Coast
Channel Islands
Andrew Molera SP
Hortense's secret places in the Ventana wilderness

The Channel Islands sound bloody brilliant, but their web site is explicit that no fires are allowed, just gas camp stoves. The scenery might convince me to compromise on that point.

The hike-in site in Andrew Molera sounds like a good compromise, maybe having to deal with a few people but at least hopefully no annoying drunks or RV "campers."

Contraption asked for information about my secret spot in the Stanislaus woods, so I'll email that to him/her. If anyone else wants the same, let me know via email! Thanks a lot for all these suggestions, it looks like I'll be ableto find what I want, or something close.
posted by autojack at 3:52 PM on June 14, 2007

Response by poster: Doh! Contraption - no email in your profile. Mine's in mine, shoot me a message and I'll give you the secret details. I don't want to share them with the whole world!
posted by autojack at 3:55 PM on June 14, 2007

Regarding the Channel Islands, I've camped on a few of them, so I have some inputs:

First, Island Packers is the best charter company to get there (unless you have your own boat). They leave out of Ventura harbor, and reservations are recommended for weekends. It's not cheap....

Here's my brief rundown of the islands:
1. Anacapa Island - the most visited island, really only appropriate for day trips. I don't know if they even have a campground.

2. Santa Cruz Island - the most popular one to camp on. The main campground (Scorpion) is usually very crowded. There is a second campground that's usually empty, but it's a 4 mile steep uphill hike, and there's no water so you have to pack your own.

3. Santa Rosa Island - All I can say is WINDY. Beyond what you might imagine possible. Oh, the campground is about a half-mile(?) hike from the harbor, and it tends to be pretty densely packed. Beach camping is theoretically an option, but is a TERRIBLE idea. (that's the voice of experience; email me if you don't believe me.)

4. San Miguel Island - Also windy and very remote; the boat usually only goes once or twice a week, and you need to bring extra provisions because sometimes the water is too rough for them to land.

5. The other islands (Santa Barbara Island, San Nicolas, etc.): Very remote, and not much there. Except for, apparently, mice that carry hantavirus.
posted by JMOZ at 5:40 PM on June 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I should have thought a bit more before posting- if you have any other questions about the Channel Islands, feel free to ask.

Oh, also- the Lost Coast is pretty great (I did a 50 mile trip thee once), but most of the campgrounds are a bit of a hike. It's totally worth it, though.
posted by JMOZ at 5:42 PM on June 14, 2007

We camped at Navarro River Redwoods last weekend, good idea rtha! It was really nice, but I bet in the summer it would be busy. There was only one other party in the whole place though, this being February and cold. The highway was pretty audible from all sites, but it's just a little forest two-laner. Our site was the dead last one, secluded by trees and brush, right next to the river. For a quick getaway to someplace new it was fun. Fire rings, no tables, pit toilets in winter, flush in summer. No potable water.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 2:40 PM on February 23, 2008

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