Latino Outdoors' Program Coordinator Veronica Miranda shares her favorite redwood spots to camp and explore near the SF Bay Area
I’m an avid camper, but this year I had a first: camping at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The weather was perfect, and mushroom season was just beginning. I have been learning to identify mushrooms, and the dense forested areas in Henry Cowell make a perfect habitat for fungus.
The San Francisco Bay Area is home to many beautiful parks and campgrounds; in addition to Henry Cowell, some of my personal favorites include Portola Redwoods and Samuel P. Taylor State Parks. Among tall coast redwoods, there are family-friendly campsites in these three stunning parks. Here are some of my best tips for experienced and beginner campers alike.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is in the beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains, home to the Ohlone, Amah Mutsun, and Zayante people who have lived in relationship with these lands for thousands of years. The campground is separate from the main entrance and is accessible via Graham Hill Road. It offers a roughly 2.5-mile trail to the main part of the park via Eagle Creek Trail. There are 113 sites (including ADA-accessible and bike-in sites) split into two loops; both loops are fairly shaded under pine and oak trees, with enough space in the canopy to give way to stargazing views at night. Each site offers a fire pit, picnic table, and a bear-resistant container.
Henry Cowell offers activities such as birding, fishing (catch and release only in the San Lorenzo River from November through February), hiking, swimming, and light strolls underneath an old-growth redwood forest. Keep an eye out for mushrooms and banana slugs, which can be found in dense areas around logs and under vegetation. Reservations in advance are highly recommended.
- Redwood Grove Loop Trail: An ADA-accessible 0.8-mile loop through an old-growth redwood forest and offers a self-guided tour.
- Observation Deck: A landscape view of the Santa Cruz Mountains will greet you, and on a clear day you can see Monterey Bay. This trail can be done via two different tails: a 1-mile out-and-back or a 5-mile loop to the highest part of the park.
- Check out Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz. The park offers a picnic area, tide pools, and from October to February, monarch butterflies migrate to the park to avoid the winter’s cold.
- Roaring Camp Railroad offers family-friendly steam train rides up to Bear Mountain. It’s adjacent to the park, and you’ll ride under redwood groves along the way.
Portola Redwoods State Park
Nestled in the hills of San Mateo County is Portola Redwoods State Park, on the traditional lands of the Muwekma, Quiroste, and Ohlone peoples. The park offers 53 campsites (including ADA-accessible and bike-in sites), as well as two group campsites that can accommodate 25 and 50 people. There are six backpacker sites via a 3-mile out-and-back trail.
As of September 2021, the campground was closed for the season, and reservations typically open up around December. Backpacker sites are available until early November (weather permitting), and day-use areas are open year-round.
Portola Redwoods has a picnic area, a seasonal swimming hole, and many hiking trails. The park is also home to lots of wildlife like banana slugs, bobcats, black-tailed deer, gray foxes, and marbled murrelets. Coho salmon and steelhead trout can be seen spawning in late summer through the fall.
- Sequoia Nature Trail: Less than a mile, a self-guided tour ends among amazing coast redwoods. There is a seasonal bridge to cross Pescadero Creek (otherwise, you may be able to cross by carefully stepping on large rocks).
- Dog Trail: Leashed dogs are allowed. Less than 2 miles, this trail takes you along Peters Creek and through a redwood forest.
- Pescadero State Beach: A great beach for kids to play on and amazing sunsets.
- Swanton Berry Farm: Grab a slice of strawberry shortcake or one of the many jellies offered. A seasonal farm stand is also available.
Samuel P. Taylor State Park
Samuel P. Taylor State Park is in the small town of Lagunitas. On the traditional lands of the Coast Miwok, this park offers a campground, old-growth redwood forest, birding, hiking trails, a seasonal swimming hole, and bike paths. The campground has 58 sites (including ADA-accessible and bike-in sites) and also offers cabins and group sites. Sites are available year-round.
- Pioneer Trail: A 2.7-mile trail through an old-growth redwood forest.
- Devil’s Gulch: A 2.3-mile out-and-back trail that ends at a seasonal waterfall. There’s a massive redwood tree along the trail.
- Point Reyes National Seashore: Observe tule elks in meadows or visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse to look for whales.
A few essential items for camping
Remember to include the following as you pack for camping:
- Insect repellent (mosquitoes are attracted to dense forests)
- Sunscreen (some hiking trails are exposed, and it’s important to protect your skin)
- Hiking shoes (ones with good tread)
- Water bottle or hiking reservoir (always stay hydrated to avoid dehydration—a good rule is ½ to 1 liter of water per hour for moderate hiking)
- A hat or sunglasses
- Trail map. Most maps are offered digitally now; download them on your phone because you may not have a signal in many parks. Paper maps are usually located at park entrances or visitor centers.
- First aid kit