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How to Find a Camping Spot in California (When They Always Seem to Be Fully Booked)

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A view of two yellow tents in a forest of tall redwood treats, in low light
Struggling to find a campsite in California? We have tips. (Robert Holmes/Getty)

A version of this story first appeared in the Bay Curious newsletter. Sign up to get Bay Curious in your inbox every month.

If you’ve ever tried to grab a spot at one of the state’s more popular campgrounds, especially campsites near San Francisco, you’ve probably experienced this frustrating moment: You log in at the exact minute reservations are opened and … everything’s already booked.

In fact, it’s such a common experience that many people assume that bots are to blame for snagging all the best campsites.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Bots aren’t actually a problem anymore, says California State Parks information officer Jorge Moreno.

After the state parks moved to a third-party online reservation system called Reserve California in 2017, many campers did complain about bots automatically snapping up spots faster than a human could click a button. But Moreno says that’s why, in 2019, that site’s parent company, Reserve America, added a captcha and verification step to the process.

In 2021, to be sure the new methods were effective, they did an analysis of the reservation IPs and time stamps. “It was determined that automated bots were no longer an issue,” he said. Additionally, any account caught using bots or reselling reservations now earns a ban.

If that’s the case, then why are so many campsites still already full the second they open up for reservations?

“Demand is greater than inventory,” Moreno said. For some of the most popular spots — like the cabins at Steep Ravine in Mount Tamalpais State Park — there might be 100 people logging on for one of eight cabins. “It’s really like a lottery,” he said.

So how can you find a campsite near you? Are there free campgrounds near San Francisco? KQED talked to the experts to learn several tips for booking a camping spot in California.

Jump straight to:

Be ready with all your info — ahead of time

Low-hanging fruit first: Moreno recommends creating an account on the camping reservation website and confirming all your account details are up to date — before you need to reserve your campsite.

You should also have all other information you might need on hand, even your vehicle license plate (some campgrounds require that when you’re finalizing your reservation).

Another part of making sure you have all the info you need? Understanding all the various California camping options out there — which can definitely be confusing — and making sure you have the right one (keep reading for those tips).

Finally, get logged into the reservation site before the time slot opens, so you’re ready to go when the clock strikes.

Understand the different types of California campsites

It’s also key to know that there are many different parks and campgrounds in California, with varying availability and reservation processes.

State parks and national parks are often the most crowded. Local and regional parks are sometimes overlooked, and can have open spots. And the (very rustic) U.S. Forest Service camping spots are often virtually empty if you want a real adventure.

Camping via the National Park Service

Reserve through: Recreation.gov
Reservations open: For GGNRA and Pt. Reyes it’s three months in advance at 7 a.m. (except for a handful of sites in Pt. Reyes National Seashore that are held back until 14 days in advance or for same-day reservations); for the Presidio campground and others it’s six months in advance at 7 a.m.

In the Bay Area, National Parks Service campgrounds include those at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) and Point Reyes National Seashore, as well as the one campsite within San Francisco proper, the Rob Hill campground in the Presidio.

Camping in California State Parks

Reserve through: ReserveCalifornia.com
Reservations open: Typically, six months in advance at 8 a.m.

In the Bay Area, California State Parks camping areas include Mount Tamalpais State Park, Mount Diablo State Park, Portola Redwoods State Park, Henry W. Coe State Park and Angel Island State Park.

Camping in county and local parks

Reserve through: ReserveAmerica.com and individual park websites
Reservations open: Varies

In some cases, there are campgrounds run locally — like the East Bay Regional Park District campgrounds at Lake Del Valle and Anthony Chabot (which open in two six-month blocks in 2024 on Jan. 3 and May 1) or the Santa Clara County campgrounds at Uvas Canyon or Coyote Lake (which open six months in advance).

Camping via the US Forest Service

Reserve through: Recreation.gov, but dispersed camping — i.e., camping not in a campground — is allowed for free across the country on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and in most cases on Forest Service land. Backcountry camping, or thru-camping, however, may require specific permits with the local ranger.
Reservations open: Varies

Forest Service land is found farther away from the Bay Area, in the national forests around Tahoe, the Mendocino National Forest or the wilderness area outside Big Sur. Use the Forest Service map to find possible campgrounds.

Ready to try dispersed camping in one of California’s national forests? It’s one way to nearly guarantee yourself a last-minute campsite. Don’t be intimidated: Dispersed camping just means camping not in a developed campground — so you need to pack-in and pack-out all waste. Here’s how to find free dispersed camping sites and get started.

Camping in private campgrounds

Reserve through: Individual websites and/or sites like Hipcamp
Reservations open: Varies

In popular camping areas near San Francisco — like around the Russian River — there are also private campgrounds. Services like Hipcamp can help narrow those down.

A view of a brown tent in a forest, with a canopy extended from its top.
It pays to know about your different camping options before you try to secure a site. (Twenty47studio/Getty)

Look for last-minute cancellations and day-of walk-up spots

Of course, it’s easiest to find open campsites on weekdays (especially if you work remotely) or on non-holiday weekends. But if you have some flexibility, then you can also utilize last-minute camping options.

Hit the road and cruise for reservation-free spots

This is where we once more must shout out the benefits of dispersed camping and backpacking. If you make a list of possible dispersed and backcountry campsites, then you can hit them up on the road until you find one that’s open — just remember to download an offline map of the area using a service like Google Maps, in case you lose cellphone service.

Want a weekend spot? Try making a booking that starts a few days before

Because reservations can fill up three or six months in advance (depending on the campground), many industrious campers will book a spot starting Wednesday or Thursday that extends through the weekend. This approach allows you to get into the reservation system earlier and book the weekend before it fills up.

However, if you’re trying this, it’s important to know what the deadline is by which you need to arrive at your campsite — so you don’t lose your spot. For example, Moreno said, state parks require you to be there by noon the day after your arrival date — and you need to actually call the park if you’re going to be late. How many days you can book out a campsite also varies by agency.

Be vigilant for cancellations

The flip side of that coin is a surprising number of people don’t actually use their hard-earned reservations. A bill that passed the state Legislature this past fall incentivizes people to cancel their reservations early, opening them up to others. You can then use the reservation websites to look for last-minute cancellations or call the campgrounds to find out whether there are no-shows. (Or, if you’re an adventurous person with flexibility, you can also just show up — and hope someone else doesn’t.)

Don’t want to keep pressing refresh? The site Campnab lets you know if a cancellation opens up. (Yes, this service is something of a bot – but it doesn’t book the reservation for you, rather just tells you when it opens up.) You can also set notification alerts on both the state and national park websites to email you if a spot opens up within your parameters.

Know about day-of spots and walk-in sites

Point Reyes National Seashore, for example, holds back a handful of campsites both to give out two weeks beforehand and a few to hand out each day. These spots open up online at 7 a.m. for camping either in two weeks or for later that day, depending on the site, so you still need to reserve.

As for walk-ins, many popular campgrounds also operate first-come, first-serve sites, which you can typically claim if you get there by noon — but if you want the site for a busy weekend, then you probably need to be there on Friday morning or Thursday evening for long weekends. The farther you’re willing to walk, the more likely you are to find a campsite.

A number of popular walk-in campgrounds are currently still closed from storm damage, but some remaining open options are:


Finally, hit up lesser-known camping spots

Moreno also recommends using the Reserve California recommendation engine to find other state park campgrounds. When you input certain dates, the site will then suggest other parks nearby that have availability. Having a few options on your list can help you book if your Plan A is full — and heading to places that are less well-known will help you find more open campsites.

A couple of Moreno’s favorite hidden gem campsites

Other campgrounds farther afield

Samuel P. Taylor State Park in Marin is an easily reachable, large area, and also has cabins available for rental. And if you really want to try something different, boat-in camping on Tomales Bay is almost always open — but you’ll need to rent a kayak.

Tell us: What else do you need information about?

At KQED News, we know that it can sometimes be hard to track down the answers to navigate life in the Bay Area in 2024. We’ve published clear, practical explainers and guides about COVID, how to cope with intense winter weather and how to exercise your right to protest safely.

So tell us: What do you need to know more about? Tell us, and you could see your question answered online or on social media. What you submit will make our reporting stronger, and help us decide what to cover here on our site, and on KQED Public Radio, too.

A version of this story originally published on June 23, 2023.


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