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The Seven Best Camping Beaches in the Bay Area

Kate Van Brocklin | August 5, 2014 | Story Weekend Escapes

1. Endless Redwood Exploring
The spot: Sleep under a canopy of old-growth Redwood trees at Butano State Park on the San Mateo coast. With a natural buffer zone between your tent and your car, each site has a relaxed and secluded feel.

Perks and amenities: With 4,628 acres, the hiking is almost endless. The 5-mile Mill Ox Loop leads through lush fern groves to panoramic views of the Pacific. The route crosses Little Butano Creek and leads up to the Butano Fire Road that has sweeping views of the coast. Loop back by way of the Jackson Flats Trail, which takes you through the shady canyon along a rippling creek.

Best sites: Book sites 23, 27, or 30 for close trail access. Sites 31 and 32 are near the creek.

2. Cliffside Camper
The spot: Sonoma County's Salt Point State Park is nothing short of a coastal paradise, with its kelp-speckled coves and forested hills. Pitch your tent on a bluff overlooking the sea and explore the 20 miles of hiking trails, over six miles of rugged coastline, and a smorgasbord of picnicking, horseback riding, fishing, and even scuba diving.

Perks and amenities: Take the Salt Point Trail across grassy headlands and splash in the tidepools and waterfalls that spill into the coves at Gerstle Cove Marine Reserve. Marine life such as red abalone, sea urchins and shore crabs are completely protected here. If you have a valid fishing license, grab your bait and rod to catch lingcod, cabezon, rockfish, and greenlings from the rocks.

Best sites: For those envisioning crashing waves and a view of the ocean upon unzipping your tent, go for the Gerstle Cove campsites, located right on the bluffs. Sites 18 and 19 are on the highest ground and have the most stellar views.

3. Hike to Rainbow Sand
The spot: Pitch your tent in the grassy meadow, where you'll be near the relatively undeveloped coastal wilderness. With Big Sur at your feet, Andrew Molera State Park offers a walk-in trail camp, paths for both hikers and bikers, and is a short walk away from a 2-mile-long beach. Campsites are first-come, first-served.

Perks and amenities: The stunning 8.4-mile Ridge Bluff Loop is easily accessed from Andrew Molera State Park. This hike weaves along the coast and Santa Lucia Mountain Range, and its picturesque views are legendary. Take Spring Trail to one of Big Sur's most remote beaches, where you can sunbathe stretched across mineral-tinted pink and lavender sand.

Best sites: If you can snag them, campsites 1-4 have more privacy and shade, but all the campsites have such close proximity to the ocean, you can't really go wrong here.

4. Clammer's Dream
The scene: Nestled in the fishing community of Tomales Bay, Lawson's Landing campsite has a quaint marine feel, with the choice to set up camp in a meadow or along the seawall.

Perks and amenities: Opportunities for boating, clamming, wildlife viewing and camping ensure that there's no dull moment at this seaside oasis. Try your hand at crabbing from the pier or boat throughout the bay in search of Dungeness crabs. For fishing, August is one of the best months for fishing for salmon and halibut.

Best site: Located on the seawall, 38 is furthest from the entrance and at the end of a long line of sites, giving you a long stretch of beach all to yourself. The pier and bait shop are nearby and you can be the first to the clam bed tides early in the morning. 

5. Coastline Backpacking
The scene: The wide expanse of Sonoma Coast State Park is a seaside wonderland. The park stretches from Bodega Head to the Russian River—but beware: you can camp so close to the sea you have to watch out for high tides taking your tent along for a ride.

Perks and amenities: Don't miss one of the most spectacular hikes the park has to offer--the jaunt to the ethereal Shell Beach. The 6-mile round-trip hike is well worth the trek, as you'll pass through redwoods, rivers, coastline, and sandy beaches.

Best site: Site 67 at Bodega Dunes is right on the curve of a beautiful stretch of coastline and offers the most panoramic views. 

6. Surf with Whales
The scene: Feel compelled to head south for your camping adventure? Jalama Beach State Park is a five hour drive down the coast, in Santa Barbara County. Of the 109 campsites, most have views overlooking the ocean or beachfront. Beyond the usual picnic table and fire pit, Jalama Beach campground has hot showers, so you can still rough it without the perils of bathing in freezing cold water. 

Perks and amenities: It has perfect conditions for surfing, windsurfing, whale-watching, birdwatching, and fishing. You can watch migrating California Grey whales from September through November.

Best sites: Sites 57-62 at Abalone Point are equally proximal to the ocean (and by proximal we mean practically on the water's edge). 

7. Bikers & Beachcombers
The Scene: Nestled within a grassy coastal valley, Coast Camp at Point Reyes National Seashore has plenty of campsites with easy access to the beach and tide pools. This isn't drive-up camping--you'll park your car and hike or bike in 1.8 miles to the campsites. 

Perks and amenities: Walk just five minutes down the beach trail and you'll hit a secluded stretch of sand. You can hike to Sculpture Beach and check out the marine creatures lurking in the tide pools. The Coast trail leads around acres of rocky headlands, open grasslands, and stunning Pacific coastline. Bikers can ride along the borders of the Philip Burton Wilderness, with more than 140 miles of trails crisscrossing through the woods.

Best sites: The ideal sites at this campground are 1-7, located in a small canyon with the most privacy and better views.

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