Camping is growing in popularity. According to National Park Service data, every kind of camping (tent, backcountry, RV, campsites operated by concessionaires) got a boost in the past few years with overnight stays hitting 11.1 million in 2017, up almost 10 percent from the year before.
Of course, seasoned campers -- aware of the key dates to reserve sites -- had their Labor Day weekend booked in March, but for those not totally in-the-know who still want to enjoy the outdoors this summer, there is hope. Here are some first-come first-served sites around the Bay, meaning all you have to do is show up. Just remember when you do: please respect the land. (Editor's Note: This article has been updated to be accurate in 2018.)
If you want to camp at this reservoir, which boasts 50 miles of shoreline with countless inlets to explore, there are several options. The Army Corps of Engineers has 15 different campgrounds with 115 sites that are accessible by trail or boat -- most of them need to be reserved, but one campsite per campground is always left open for walk-ins. Family sites cost $20 and group sites (which can accommodate up to 50 people) cost $80 per evening. Even if these are booked, however, the rangers want to work with you. If nearby Liberty Glen has open spots, something can generally be arranged at the campground kiosk. The sites cost $25 per evening. An independently-operating campground at the Lake Sonoma Marina also offers 16 sites and accepts walk-ins. Sites at the Marina cost $20 per evening plus $10 per car for two nights. Activities at Lake Sonoma include hiking, fishing, water skiing, boating and pig hunting.
Willow Creek Environmental Campground
Hate having to drive back home after a day out on the Russian River? Thankfully there is a solution: since two years ago, Willow Creek Environmental Campground has had 11 first-come, first-served primitive campsites available to make your river adventure include a weekend stay in the beautiful outdoors. Located in the Sonoma Coast State Park near Jenner, these sites have picnic tables, fire rings and pit toilets. While most of the sites are located off a gravel road, three are more secluded and have a path to the river. There is no running water, but trash and recycling cans are on site, meaning you won't have to pack your waste. In addition to swimming, fishing and hiking, a drive to the beach and lots of opportunities for wine tasting are close by. No dogs are allowed and fees are $35 a night.
Mount Tamalpais State Park
There are two different walk-in campgrounds available on Mount Tamalpais: Pantoll, which has 16 sites, and Bootjack, that has 15. The sites are close to each other, but it you're using them as intended -- meaning, for crashing after a long day out -- then they have everything you need. Amenities include running water, toilets, fire rings and picnic tables. Those who've ventured up the mountain know there's no shortage of activities to take part in (geocaching, biking) and trails to wander (Matt Davis, Old Mine). To find out more about guided hikes, call the ranger station or pick up a copy of Barry Spitz' Mount Tamalpais Trails and have at it on your own. Of course, Mount Tam features way more than just outdoor activities. Guests have plenty of curiosities to explore or may want to align their trip with a Mountain Play to experience theater with an unforgettable view.
Andrew Molera State Park
UPDATE: Due to flooding, this camp is closed until further notice. River camping? Beach camping? Or camping in the forest? At Andrew Molera State Park, you can have it all and it's all within walking distance. Conveniently located where the Big Sur River meets the Pacific Ocean, 24 walk-in sites are available here with activities that include boating, hiking, kayaking, horseback riding and surfing. Every campsite comes equipped with a fire pit, half-grill and picnic table, and to make a picnic truly complete, you can find the Big Sur Bakery five miles away. There is also running water and bathrooms, but no showers. Considering the features and amenities, sites fill up quickly so if you can cut out of work Friday and get there early in the morning, the better your chances of nabbing a spot. Sites cost $25 a night and accommodate up to four people.
For those looking for ways to reserve campsites ahead of time, there's Recreation.gov and Reserve America, as well as a ton of private campsites to choose from that still have availability. Founded by Corte Madera-native Alyssa Ravasio, Hipcamp offers campsites at all National, State, Regional and Army Corps of Engineer sites and also grants users access to private land, nature preserves and more. Some of the spots near the Bay Area that you can book this summer include WildTender Ranch near Pescadero, or the Soul Food Farm in Vacaville.