Hey, kids, let's jump in the car and go camping this weekend!
Oh, if only it were that simple. But if you ever wanted to sleep under the stars on Mount Tamalpais, this is the summer to do it, while it's still open.
The California Department of Parks and Recreation said last year that it could save $22 million by closing 70 parks by July 1, 2012. These parks' ultimate fate remains unclear, however. Of those 70 targeted statewide, by mid-June a total of 22 had won a reprieve through some sort of temporary operating agreement with an outside agency or partnership, with another 14 such deals pending, according to the Parks Department.
Cross the Bridge
China Camp is one of those parks in limbo, though 26 hike-in sites are available at Black Ranch Campground on Friday and Saturday nights, and some holidays. Others, like Mount Tam, have had reductions in services, including the number of campsites open. There is no group camping in the developed Alice Eastwood area this year, but primitive individual overnighting is available in six campsites and 10 rustic cabins in the Steep Ravine area, two miles south of Stinson Beach. The 16 first-come-first-serve walk-in campsites adjacent to the Pantoll Ranger station are also open — but let's do the numbers: 22 campsites divided by 7.1 million Bay Area residents.
Luckily, there is a reservation system — and a fee structure — for allocating state park campsites. The first-come first-serve sites are handled directly by the park rangers on-site, presumably because they will be the ones dealing with the second-come not-served, usually by early Friday afternoon. Call your favorite park for more information.
For all other sites, start at parks.ca.gov. Pick your park, click on reservations, and you wind up on the ReserveAmerica website, ready to check availability. You might want to do this early, since camping reservations can be made seven months in advance on the first day of the month beginning at 8 a.m. via the website, or by phone at (800) 444-7275. Technically, you can make reservations until two days before your arrival date.
And have your credit card ready. There is an $8 nonrefundable reservation fee for each campsite, plus the camping fee, usually between $15 and $35 per night, with higher seasonal and holiday rates. Cabins, group sites, RV hookups, and horse camps cost more, and all stays are limited to seven days.
See the Ocean
Hop a boat to Angel Island; the park offers a $35 per night environmental backpacking experience that starts with a ferry ride to the middle of the bay. Once you leave the amenities of the dock behind, it's a 2-mile hike or bike to your campsite, so be sure to check in before sunset.
The hike/bike sites in Half Moon Bay and Henry Cowell Redwoods are only $7 per night, and you get what you pay for — first-come, first-served primitive campsites in undisturbed natural settings, no motorized vehicles allowed. Maybe you get a chemical or pit toilet, table, and a central water supply; maybe not. Stays are limited to a maximum of two nights.
There are 50 primitive sites at off-road vehicle park Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area, which include flush toilets and tables. Castle Rock State Park features 23 primitive hike-in sites — without potable water, so be prepared.
The Luxurious Outdoors
At the other end of the roughing-it spectrum, there are the tent cabins in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. They feature raised platforms with mattress pads, a table, a wood stove, a lockable door, a picnic table, fire ring, and room for one traditional tent outside. No set-up required, all for the basic $35 per night fee.
If you're a little light in the camping gear department, the $125 Total Camping Package add-on provides four sleeping bags, a cook stove, pots and pans, cooking utensils, a lantern, a 60-quart cooler, two bundles of wood, and two bags of ice. If you're a camper in name only, the $100 Deluxe Tent Cabins come with beds made up for your arrival, curtains, lantern, bath towels, washcloths, sparkling apple juice, and an amenity basket. The least you can do is keep the basket away from the bears.
Take It Easier
The five extremely rustic but oh-so-charming cabins and seven rooms at the historic West Point Inn (reservations: 646-0702) fall somewhere in between. It's a 2-mile hike from the Pantoll ranger station — don't forget the $8 parking fee — to the inn, which belongs to the Marin Municipal Water District but is operated by a nonprofit. Space can be reserved three months in advance for $35-$50 per person, depending on the date. No pets and no weddings or receptions, although the whole inn can be rented for private parties up to 20 people for $700 or $1,000, depending on the season.
No heat or electricity (although there is wi-fi available around the Pantoll ranger station) and primitive plumbing might not appeal to everyone. But waking up to the views from Mount Tam, especially on a clear day when you can see for miles, is worth it.
If a day hike is enough nature for you, stop to refuel for only $10 at the West Point Inn on a Pancake Sunday — 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 8, Aug. 12, Sept. 9, and Oct. 14 — no reservations required.