Camp Spots by Swimming Holes


Splash Camps

Break out the Jiffy Pop and marshmallows—camping season is here! From an easy car-camp to a short hike-in to a multiday adventure, here are three great places to pitch your tent. Swimming holes included.

San Mateo Memorial Park

Under the Redwoods

For a crème de la crème car-camping experience, head to Memorial Park, an area that doesn't show up on many maps. Tucked deep in the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountain foothills along Pescadero Creek, this park has campsites with ample privacy and lots of space. Pull into one of the vacant sites in Sequoia Flat, toward the back of the campground; try to snag one of the "honeymoon suites," sites C20-C22, right along the creek. During the day you can walk along a path by the creek to a beach big enough for lounging and a cool water hole suitable for wading. Venture a little farther and you'll be able to stake out your own private swimming hole. Day hikers can head out onto Mount Ellen Trail and the Pomponio Loop Trail. Saturday nights, one of the naturalists leads a campfire program. The general store just reopened for the summer and has all your camping supplies— except beer; you can pick that up at the Loma Mar store just down the road. Don't forget the 'smores.

Campsites start at $21. Make a reservation online. Bring quarters for the showers.

Directions: From Interstate 280, exit at Woodside Rd./Hwy. 84 and go west on 84. Cross over Skyline Blvd., staying on 84, and pass through the town of La Honda. Turn left onto Pescadero Rd. and continue on it until you see the park entrance on your left. No dogs.

Willow Creek Camp Russian River

Living La Vida Coastal

Ecosystems collide at Willow Creek on the Sonoma Coast State Beach, where the Russian River empties into the Pacific. The .25-mile hike-in to this secluded campsite keeps away the RVs and crowds. Along a narrow meadow, Willow Creek's 11 environmental tent spots are hidden among the trees lining the river. Bring your Sunday swimming best: Private trails from the sites lead you to the river, so you can swim or fish or lounge at your leisure. Odds are good you'll see some of the estuary's denizens, including blue herons, egrets, osprey, and river otters.

TIP: Rent a kayak across the river in Duncan's Mills and float right by Willow Creek Beach on your way to Penny Island, a bird sanctuary with an abandoned homestead. You'll probably need a full day to make the trip to Penny Island and back at a relaxed pace.

Russian River Outfitters, 25375 Steelhead Blvd., Duncan's Mills. 877-RR-KAYAK. Single kayaks rent for $65 a day and $45 a half-day.

Campsites are $15; reservations not accepted. There are fire rings, pit toilets, and picnic tables, but there's no potable water, so bring your own.

Directions: From Bodega Bay, take Hwy.1 north. Turn right onto Willow Creek Rd., a patchily paved road that is prone to getting washed out in storms. Turn left when you see the Willow Creek Camp sign, and drive past the house and along the dirt road until you reach the camp parking lot. More information.

Big Sur

Splendor in the Sur

Get back, wayyyy back, into Big Sur's remote Ventana Wilderness. Starting from Los Padres Dam and ending at China Camp, you'll hike through lush river canyons, climb high ridges to panoramic vistas, and spend the night at secluded riverside camps. Bring river shoes, a walking stick, and a swimsuit for the dozens of river crossings and swimming holes on this three-day, two-night backpacking adventure. Two special highlights: End your first day in Carmel River Camp, at the confluence of Miller Creek and the Carmel River; this shaded campsite is ideal for kicking back, cooling off your feet in the river, and savoring solitude under the stars. On your last day, the 0.7-mile side trail to Pine Falls pays off with a spectacular 50-foot waterfall that plunges into a deep emerald-green swimming hole. Jump in for an invigorating backcountry rush.

The entire hike is 19 miles. Follow the Pine Valley route taking Carmel River Trail, Church Creek Trail, and Pine Ridge Trail. Before your trip, pick up a map and check trail conditions at Note: River shoes are a big help with the numerous river crossings. Look out for rampant poison oak and stinging nettles.

Directions: This is a point-to-point hike that requires a car shuttle. Park one car at China Camp. To get there, go south on Hwy. 1 from Monterey. Turn left on Carmel Valley Rd. and continue 23 miles to the Tassajara Rd. junction. Turn right onto Tassajara and continue 10.7 slow miles to the China Camp trailhead. Park in the pullout across the street from the campsites. Continue in your second car to the Los Padres Dam Trailhead. To get there, return via Tassajara Rd., going almost all the way back to Carmel Valley Rd. Turn left onto Cachagua Rd. and continue 4.3 miles to Nason Rd. and turn left. Pass the USFS Carmel River Station on your right, and park at the lot on the right beside a locked gate. *Dogs are permitted.

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