Last-Minute Camping in Northern California

Thomas J. Story
5 great no-reservation campgrounds in Northern California where you have just as good a shot as the next guy at scoring a site this weekend. Plus—in case it’s full—a nearby Plan B

Lassen Volcanic National Park

  • Juniper Lake: Tucked into the southeast corner of the park, this 18-site campground has one drawback: no running water. (So bring your own, or a purifier.) But the pluses are many: a stunning lakeside location; the nearby half-mile hike to Inspiration Point, where you’ll see half of Northern California from the summit. $10; 530/595-4480.
  • Plan B: Warner Valley Campground, in the south-central part of the park, also gorgeous, is near the Devil’s Kitchen geothermal area. $14; or 530/595-4480.

North Coast

  • Pomo Canyon in Sonoma Coast State Park: Up and over a ridge from Goat Rock Beach, a quiet canyon holds 20 redwood-shaded walk-in sites. They’re spread out enough to give you privacy but not so much that it’s a long schlep from the car. A 3-mile hike gets you up to the ridge for big views of the coast and the mouth of the Russian River, then down to the beach. $25; opens Jul 1 (if included in the state budget—call first); 707/875-3483.
  • Plan B: Nearby Willow Creek Campground is a 1/4-mile hike in from Willow Creek Road. $25; call to make sure the state has opened it; 707/875-3483.

Yosemite National Park

  • Yosemite Creek Campground: If you’ve been thinking, Gee, maybe it’d be fun to go camping at Yosemite this summer, conventional wisdom would answer: “Wrong-o! Too late!” But there is an exception. Yosemite Creek—a large campground 5 miles up a bumpy winding road, off Tioga Road en route to Tuolumne Meadows—doesn’t take reservations. Your pine-shaded, creekside site will put you within an hour of Yosemite Valley and a half-hour of Tuolumne Meadows. So there. $10, $20 park entry; opens early Jul.
  • Plan B: The 57 sites at Porcupine Flat Campground, 3 miles farther up Tioga Road toward Tuolumne, are also no-reservation. BYO water. $10, $20 park entry; opens early Jul;

South of Lake Tahoe

  • Union Reservoir in Stanislaus National Forest: Walk-in sites are scattered judiciously in the pines along the edge of a small Sierra lake, miles from the nearest store or gas station. They come with peaceful water views but without frills—frills like, say, tables, flush toilets, or trash cans. Tip: Bring a canoe and paddle your gear out to claim one of the reservoir’s small islands as your own mini kingdom for the weekend. Free; 209/795-1381.
  • Plan B: Try the no-reservation campground at New Spicer Reservoir on the same turnoff from State 4. $22; no phone.

Near Redding

  • Mary Smith at Shasta-Trinity National Forest: Veteran San Francisco Chronicle outdoors writer Tom Stienstra calls this 18-site walk-in campground one of the prettiest in the state. We heartily agree: You have a lake (Lewiston), you have mountains (the Trinity Alps), you have camping perfection. $11; 530/623-1203.
  • Plan B: The 5 choice sites at Cooper Gulch, also on Lewiston Lake. $13; or 530/623-1203.

Next: Last-minute campgrounds in the Southwest

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