The insistent bzzzzzzzz of a mosquito roused me from sleep, but my eyes refused to open in hopes it would just go away. It didn’t. I was so warm and comfy in my tent I didn’t want to move, and then it struck me. I wasn’t in a tent. I was “roughing it” in an $80,000 luxury RV with indoor plumbing, conditioned air, onboard entertainment system and satellite linkup. Welcome to camping in the 21st century.
Camping may have changed a lot over the years, but enthusiasm for this family-friendly harbinger of fair weather has blossomed well beyond the walls of any tent. Northern California is stuffed to the gills with great places to camp from remote and rugged, to packed and plush.
When I was a kid camping meant a flat, clean area near a lake or stream where you could not see anyone else. There was usually a fire pit and it was within reasonable walking distance of an outhouse and a water pump; and you’d better boil the water before drinking it unless you wanted to dance the dreaded “green apple two-step.”
Today campgrounds have evolved to keep up with a changing world. State or Federal parks and larger private campgrounds are more likely to try to be all things to all campers. They typically offer campsites with hookups designed for those battleship-sized campers, as well as more primitive, so-called environmental campsites more suitable for tents. Most have access to lakes or streams for more traditional family activities like swimming and fishing and hiking. Some offer activities for kids, environmental tours guided by park rangers and even open-air stages for evening theatrical performances. In larger campgrounds you can expect daily visits from campground hosts, flush toilets, laundries and hot showers. A modern definition of “wilderness” might be anyplace on the planet that does not provide wifi. And those kids will just have to quit whining about it.
Trying to choose particular NorCal campgrounds to discuss is like trying to pick which grain of sand to discuss on a beach. The following is a small glimpse at just a few popular camping areas from among the hundreds of NorCal options.
There are 121 campsites in this park and they can accommodate everything from tents up to 32-foot RVs. There is easy walking access to both the falls and beach on Lake Britton. There is also a small store where you can pick up everything you forgot to bring and a snack bar. The picnic area gets a lot of attention from some rather well trained Stellers Jays, a large, noisy blue jay with a pointy head. Tear a piece of bread from your sandwich and toss it into the air. If the birds are having a good day your piece of bread will not hit the ground.
The park’s official name honors two pioneer families who also have nearby towns named after them. In an effort to protect the falls in perpetuity, the McArthur family purchased the property and donated it to the state in the 1920s. The second name is for Samuel Burney, the first white settler in the area where the town now is. It’s interesting how Sam’s demise connects to another campground in Lassen Volcanic National Park.
The unadulterated splendor of Lake Siskiyou compares pretty well with just about anywhere. Looking out from the beach, Mount Shasta seems so close that you can touch it (making you realize why the water is so darn clear).
While I could probably write several articles describing every detail of the lake and its backdrop, I mustn’t forget to mention all the great activities available close by. In terms of the actual lake, there are opportunities for motor boating, windsurfing, sun bathing (although don’t forget your sunscreen), fishing, pedal boating, rock climbing, paddle boarding and of course, swimming. The resort offers inexpensive rentals of canoes, life jackets, double and single kayaks and paddleboards, so there’s no need buy or lug expensive equipment out to the resort.
Lake Siskiyou Resort’s large camping area and affordably priced campsites and amenities make it a great place for a weekend getaway or a family vacation. Tent sites are only $20 per night. A full RV hook up is only $29 daily, you can rent small or big cabins for less than $200 a night. The resort also offers spacious three-bedroom mobile homes for rent at $250 per day. Because of its size and the endless list of things to do, Lake Siskiyou should be experienced over the course of a couple days. Camping is a terrific way to properly explore the area.
The campgrounds around Whiskeytown Lake are so close, yet they seem so far away. Oak Bottom has separate areas for both RVs and tent camping; along with a boat launch ramp, swimming beach and store. Brandy Creek specializes in RV camping. Boulder Creek, Brandy Creek, Horse Camp and Peltier Bridge are more primitive campgrounds offering just fire pits and outhouses.
Peltier Bridge is a particular favorite of mine because it is on Clear Creek, a terrific fishing stream. Most of the campsites are shaded at least part of the day, making them an excellent choice when NorCal hits triple digits. The stream not only offers gentle background music, but also natural air conditioning. Since Whiskeytown is a very good place to run into bears, be very careful not to leave food where hungry bruins can get at it.
Another larger campground, Castle Crags offers 76 developed campsites and six environmental spots. This one is popular because it is right off I-5, has 28 miles of hiking trails and easy access to the upper Sacramento River for fishing, swimming and sunbathing. Hiking up the Crags is another hugely popular activity, and even kids can make it.
Between eight different campgrounds in the park, there are almost 500 campsites available for any kind of experience you want to have. Some have flush toilets and others vault toilets. Others have pay showers and laundry facilities close by. The entire park is gorgeous, but more than most other campground offerings, Lassen has elevation.
The campgrounds are found between 5,700 and 6,800 feet, meaning they open later than others in the area. When camping anywhere in the park, be prepared for chilly conditions after the sun goes down. Many campers have been unprepared for 30-degree nighttime weather during the summer.
6. Hat Creek
These are a few of the less fancy campgrounds, but still clean and immensely popular with families who prefer to avoid the mega-camping experience. All six are on the banks of upper Hat Creek making them very popular with anglers. These areas are liberally stocked with trout throughout the fishing season. Bait, lures or flies are OK and there’s a five-fish limit per day. There are also abundant private campgrounds up and down the Hat Creek corridor. The public camps are Big Pine, Bridge, Cove, Dusty, Hat Creek and Rocky.
What’s in a name? Here’s the story behind Hat Creek.
7. Shasta Lake
This is a huge recreational area and a NorCal headliner. There are at least 15 public camps on the lake including Ski Island, the only boat-in campground. Swimming, boating and fishing are the big draws here, not to be eclipsed by a few of the non-traditional activities available, like spelunking.
Everyone knows about Shasta Caverns, and everyone ought to go at least once. But Samwel Cave is less well known, less commercial, and free. To gain access to the cave, stop by Lake Shasta Visitor Information Center in Mountain Gate (530) 275-1589, exit 687 off I-5 about eight miles north of Redding. There is a $10 deposit required when you pick up the key to the gated cave door, but your money is returned when you bring the key back afterward. You can get to the cave either by boat on the McCloud arm of the lake, or by driving to the McCloud Bridge Campground 17 miles off of I-5 on Gilman Road. From the campground drive south on Fenders Ferry Road to the kiosk marking the trail to the cave entrance.
8. South Lake Tahoe
There’s nothing like rising at your Lake Tahoe camp sight to the crisp morning mountain air. The numerous campground and RV Park options in South Lake Tahoe will offer as little or as much as you need. Lake-front, forest sheltered, walk-in or full RV hook-ups, South Lake Tahoe is the perfect camping destination. Campgrounds in the Lake Tahoe area are generally open from mid-May through mid-October.
The uniqueness of a South Lake Tahoe camping excursion is being able to enjoy the nature of the lake along with the amenities of the city nearby. It’s a prime glamping experience.
Patrick’s Point State Park has some of the most beautiful campgrounds and beaches for my money. Wedding Rock offers grand views of the ocean, and Agate Beach and the trail to get there can occasionally provide glimpses of faint, bioluminescent insects if observers are keen and the timing is right.
Camp at Patrick’s Point right off of 101 and stay either deep in the forest or on cliffs overlooking the ocean. As far as seaside camping, Gold Bluffs Beach in Redwood National Park provides about 25 campsites directly on the beach where you can gather around the fire pit with friends and take in awesome ocean vistas.
For an all-around camping experience, set off to Prairie Creek State Park. The campsites run along a large meadow where elk frequently roam, and campers are near most of the best and biggest Redwood grove trails. Adventurer types may want to stay at a different spot each night as they make their ways down Humboldt’s forgotten coast.
Technology has definitely added to the landscape of options available to campers, and you can still rough it if you want to. But if you camp in an $80,000 motor home, just try not to have nightmares about that insistent bzzzzzzzz in the middle of the night. It could be a mosquito, but it could also be a miniature, blood-sucking drone sent to find you… by the IRS. Sleep well.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine