Camping California's Wild Coast
The coast is a place of rhythm: tides, lapping waves, the movement of the sun, the incoming and outgoing wind and fog. Camping allows you to really sink into those rhythms. Adventure tends to be on a minor scale, such as spotting an unusual bird, or splashing through mud on a short walk. Two campgrounds, one north and one south of San Francisco, offer very different experiences of the California coast. Butano State Park is nestled in the redwoods south of the city. Manchester State Beach is a windy but breathtakingly beautiful stretch of coast north of San Francisco. Both lie a short distance from drop-dead scenic California Highway One, which makes these campgrounds doubly worthwhile.
Butano State Park
Drive along the windswept coast and turn inland along country roads baked golden in the sun. Turn up the canyon drained by Little Butano Creek and suddenly you are in a redwood rain forestwhat an enchanted spot! Look for pygmy nuthatches, winter wrens, chickadees, banana slugs, and newts under the redwoods, Doug fir, tan oak, maple, and ferns. This is prime camping, and most folks don't even know it's here. According to Native American lore, butano means "a gathering place for friendly visits," and that's the vibe in Butano State Park.
The campground is up the canyon where the forest grows the thickest. Look for sites 22 through 39these are the tent-only walk-in sites. At most, the walk is about 30 yards. The trees are so tall, the forest so still that camping here is like pitching a tent in a cathedral. The pitches are soft and spongy although by fall you get a soft, red grit, so bring a drop cloth to clean your feet on before going in the tent. The huge trees moderate the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter. Live under these trees like a hobbit wrapped in the arms of Ma Naturebetween the nearby rugged coast and these majestic trees you have the best of two distinctly different worlds.
Hike up the Little Butano Creek Loop for a quick look at the park. The trail begins just below the campground. Cross the creek on footbridges and look for trillium, oxalis, and forget-me-not. In the spring, watch out for baby newts. Reach a junction and stay below with the creek. The paths soon come together and climb up through the maples. About a mile out, either cross the creek and return to the campground area via an access road, or go back the way you came.
Another slightly longer hike is the Jackson Flats-Six Bridges Hike. Pick this hike up down below the picnic area by the entrance booth. Head up a ridge through Doug fir, madrone, and poison oak (don't touch). Look for chanterelle mushrooms (don't pick) after a rain. After a mile and a half, look for a cattail marsh on your left before you come into old-growth redwoods a half a mile farther on. This is a good place to turn around. On the way back, one option is to take the Mill Ox Trail on the left and head back to the park roadgo left uphill to the campground.
Drive to the beach. Go left on Cloverdale Road and down Gazos Creek Road to Highway 1. Go across the highway and into the Gazos Creek Access parking lot. This is a pretty little beach below Gazos, Whitehouse, and Cascade Canyons. But, if you want a great beach, get back in your car and head south exactly 1 mile. Park, and walk over the dunes to the ocean. Now, this is a great beach, with a protected cove at the south end, good sandy walking beach, and tidepools at the north end. A local, a professor at U.C. Santa Cruz, showed me this beach and swore me to secrecy. Ha!
A little farther south find Aqo Nuevo State Reserve. This is truly an incredible experience. Aqo Nuevo is about the northern elephant seals who use it as a rookery. Spot the island, and see the abandoned buildings. This used to be a lighthouse facility, and folks who lived there would chase the 2,000-pound elephant seals out of the kitchen garden and sometimes find them sliding down the halls of the house. Now the place has been turned over to the elephant seals.
Breeding season is between December and March, when male elephant seals as big as VW bugs fight mano a mano for the ladies' favors. To see this spectacle, you have to go on a ranger-guided walk. You have to reserve a place in advance as early as October. Phone (415) 879-0227 to reserve a spot. Any other time, just hiking around the Reserve is wonderful. The pond is great for birdwatching waves of different birds come through here. The beach area is pristine and protected (careful of the rips), and the Visitor Center has a fine exhibit in an old barnpart of the Steele Brothers Dairy Farm.
Another good trip is over to Pescadero, which has the only gasoline around these parts. In the store by the pumps is a new Mexican restaurant. I talked to a California firefighter who swore by it. I tasted a homemade tamaleOli!
More traditional Pescadero fare is to pick up fried artichokes from Toni's Greek & American Restaurant, then drive a mile or so up Pescadero Road to the Phipps Ranch picnic tables to tuck into the chokes and drink beer brought from Muzzi's Market in Pescadero. Phipps is a much beloved petting zoo/U-pick farm for good strawberries.
Duartes Bar and Grill in Pescadero is good for an evening meal. And there's a Bank of America right next door. For fish, drive up to nearby Half Moon Bay to the fish market and buy crab or whatever to take back to the campground. For such a sleepy-looking stretch of coast here, there's lots to do. Good bicycle country.
To get there from Half Moon Bay, drive 15 miles south on Highway 1 to Pescadero Road on the left. Go east on Pescadero Road, past the town of Pescadero. Go right on Cloverdale Road. The park entrance is 3 miles on the left.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication