Sorry, We're Full 

Techniques for how to score a Northern California campsite.

Say you want to get away? Looking for some peace and quiet, the warm crackle of a campfire, a starry night sky? Yeah, you and everybody else. The Bay Area is home to an abundance of quality camping and a heck of a lot of folks looking to take advantage of it. During the high season, Bay Area campgrounds are impacted to the point of absurdity — stress-inducing, nail-biting, can't-find-a-reservation absurdity: a fine way to kick off a weekend in the great outdoors. But as the informed and proactive know, things can be better.

First, an appraisal of the problem. Consider the Steep Ravine Environmental Campsites in Mount Tamalpais State Park. This small campground offers seven walk-in tent sites and ten primitive cabins with a wood stove, picnic table, and flat wood surface for sleeping. The whole lot is perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean at "one of the most remarkable spots on the California coast," writes Tom Stienstra in his California Camping guide. He rates it among his top ten scenic destinations in the state. Sound like something you'd be interested in? That's too bad, because the cabins are already booked solid through September 30. A few midweek slots are open in November, if you don't mind the cold. The tent sites aren't quite as out of reach — unless, of course, you're hoping for a Friday or Saturday night this summer.

The California State Park system releases family camping sites like these seven months in advance, in one-month blocks. So for a weekend stay in a Steep Ravine cabin next September — a good time to go, to avoid the fog — you'll need to book early in the morning, say 8 a.m. sharp, on March 1. Don't forget.

This is an extreme example. But even in our own backyard, at the various campgrounds administered by the East Bay Regional Parks system, weekend reservations demand a concerted approach. Two parks offer traditional family car camping: Anthony Chabot Regional Park in Oakland, with 75 sites; and Del Valle Regional Park in Livermore, with 150, which nevertheless fill up first thanks to swimming and boating opportunities in the reservoir. Sites can be reserved exactly twelve weeks in advance, and at both parks the Memorial Day and Independence Day weekends book up almost immediately on the morning they become available.

This is partially due to a trick some campers employ to get at holiday weekends early, says reservations supervisor Tiffany Margulici. The twelve-week rule applies to the first day of your stay, so by beginning on a weekday and reserving consecutive nights through the weekend you can extend your reach. No matter how it happens, both campgrounds max out every weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day. On lower-demand weekends a week or two's notice is sometimes sufficient to get in, especially if cancellations arise. Better hope they do, as Del Valle weekends are nearly booked through mid-July. Making matters worse, popular state park campgrounds at Mount Diablo, Big Basin, and Samuel P. Taylor are in equally high demand.

Reserving months in advance is impractical for many families and working adults, but there are other ways to beat the system — or rather, work around it. For starters, keep in mind that numbers and calendar dates aren't the only variables in play. Psychology is a factor too: "When we have a sunny day, we get more calls in our call centers," Margulici notes. So during a cold or foggy stretch in the summer, book your site for a couple weeks down the road. Unless you're looking at a holiday, it's likely something will still be available.

Another thing many Bay Area campers don't know: there are four car camping sites at Sunol Regional Park. Because of their low profile, they remain available longer than those at Chabot and Del Valle. Sunol also harbors the East Bay Regional Parks system's cache of backpacking sites: fourteen spots with water access, a bench or two, and not much else, located a few miles from the parking lot. Campers need only hike in and out with gear, food, and shelter on their backs — nothing an adventurous kid or healthy adult couldn't handle. Antioch's Black Diamond Mines and Brentwood's Round Valley Regional Preserve also offer a backpacking site apiece, though they're used primarily by scouts and youth groups.

Few prospective campers consider group sites, but they are widely available within the East Bay Regional Parks system and throughout the Bay Area. In most cases all they require is a decent-sized group (no fewer than twelve within East Bay parks), a security deposit, and a higher reservation fee. Get a few families or groups of friends together and you're set.

If you'd rather stick to car camping, the most foolproof method for avoiding crowds and reservation headaches is to book Sunday through Thursday. Or go at less-popular times of the year, such as early spring and late fall. For true seekers of solitude, camping in East Bay Regional Parks is available year-round. Alternately, a number of great campgrounds dot the Sonoma coast, and the farther north you travel the fewer people you'll find.

Once you've decided to drive that far, you may opt to find your way to a National Forest such as Sequoia or Plumas for "dispersed" camping — meaning you can set up shop just about anywhere you please. The Western Sierra foothills also offer a number of beautiful and less-crowded campgrounds, notes Jane Huber, author of 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: San Francisco and founder of BAHiker.com. She cautions against traveling south, however, as coastal sites between San Francisco and Los Angeles are very popular during summer. As a final resort, try a commercial campground. Many exist throughout the Bay Area, and they tend to offer more availability than publicly managed campgrounds, though often at the expense of scenery.

When you're ready to check availability and (fingers crossed) make a reservation, try to do it online. East Bay Regional Parks, California State Parks, and many other agencies book through ReserveAmerica.com. The site is updated in real time, including cancellations, and provides useful calendars as well as maps for many campgrounds. It also eliminates the wait time you'd encounter when calling at a busy time. If the place you want is booked, it's easy to browse for another. Other fine resources for locating campgrounds include the aforementioned California Camping guide and the Bay Area Open Space Council at OpenSpaceCouncil.org.

Successful Bay Area camping will always require a modicum of resourcefulness, especially as the economy slows and more families vacation close to home. Sometimes it seems escaping the rat race is a hustle of its own. But the rewards can be great, and when done smartly, the costs minuscule. According to Margulici, the East Bay Regional Parks District has more group and hike-in campsites on the way, and eventually more car camping too. That said, it's no excuse to wait; we've already got what we need, and more than you'll find just about anywhere else.

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