Camping has exploded in popularity in recent years, in part because it's a great way to vacation without spending a lot of money. Camping, of course, also provides one of the best ways to get away from it all — and get in touch with nature. According to a Camping Foundation survey last year, 42.5 million Americans went camping in 2011, a 26.1 percent increase over 2007.
But all those people heading to the Great Outdoors is also making it much tougher to score a prime camping spot in summer. In fact, if you haven't made reservations by now, especially for summer weekend getaways, it's probably too late to spend time in some of the more sought-after camping sites in California. Popular state parks get booked up six months in advance.
But don't despair; there are still some great last-minute camping sites that are definitely worth visiting:
Andrew Molera State Park
Highway 1, Big Sur, Calif.
836-649-2836 or ParksCA.gov
Big Sur is perhaps the most beautiful spot on the West Coast, and Andrew Molera State Park, at the north end of Big Sur, is spectacular. The campground also doesn't take reservations — it's first come, first served. Yes, that means it's a bit of a gamble to pack up your vehicle and drive three hours south in hopes of landing a camping spot on a Friday afternoon. But if the park is full by the time you arrive, there are some private campgrounds nearby that often have spots available. You'll also have a better shot at Andrew Molera Sunday through Thursday. It's a tent-only, walk-in campground, so don't over-pack. Sites are $25 a night.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek, Calif.
831-338-8860 or ParksCA.gov
Giant waterfalls, mammoth redwoods, picturesque campsites — what's not to like about Big Basin? Plus, it's only about 75 minutes from the East Bay in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Too good to be true? Well, for summer weekends, yes, it is too late now to book a good spot. But not for weekdays — if you act now. The reason is that Big Basin is big; it's got more than 140 camping sites, which means it takes a while to completely sell out each summer. Sites are $35 a night.
Richardson Grove State Park
Highway 101, Garberville, Calif.
707-247-3318 or ParksCA.gov
Situated along the Eel River in an old-growth redwood forest in Southern Humboldt County, Richardson Grove is definitely worth the four-hour drive from the East Bay. There are four campgrounds in the park, but we recommend Oak Flat — it's only open in summer and it's right on the Eel, which is great for swimming and rafting. Weekends will be tough to book at this late date, but you can still likely reserve a weekday spot. Sites are $45 a night.
Lake Siskiyou Resort & Camp
4239 W. A. Barr Rd., Mt. Shasta City, Calif.
530-926-2610 or email@example.com
If you've got kids and you like camping, then you're gonna love Lake Siskiyou. Located at the foot of Mount Shasta, this mountain reservoir offers swimming, kayaking, and canoeing (no water skiing or jet skiing). It also has a splash zone that allows older kids to swim out on the lake and then jump off giant slides and huge inflatables. Four hours north of the Bay Area, Lake Siskiyou is a big, privately operated campground, and so you might even find a weekend camping spot if you call right away. Weekday spots are still readily available. Sites are $20 a night.
Salt Springs Rd., Jackson, Calif.
209-295-4251 or FS.USDA.gov/eldorado
Feel like swimming in your drinking water? Here's your chance. This primitive, tent-only campground is right on the pristine Mokelumne River, the primary water source for the East Bay. It's first come, first served, but it's worth the gamble. Sites are free.
On a final note, there are also lots of US Forest Service campgrounds scattered throughout the Sierra that are first come, first served as well. The best resource on camping in the Golden State is California Camping by San Francisco Chronicle outdoors writer Tom Stienstra.