Domestic Travel

The Beauty of Camping in the Middle of Nowhere

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With months of shelter-in-place orders in many states and international travel nearly off-limits for Americans, this summer’s seen a surge of interest in getting to the great outdoors. Add that to the normal mix of folks who were already planned to go explore our country’s blessed natural wonders, and we’ve got a problem: no camping reservations available.

Even during normal times, this is often true for popular spots such as Yosemite and Crater Lake national parks. But the competition for great/good/any campsite has really amplified this summer, especially for weekend trips.

How to get camping reservations

So what’s a camper got to do?

If you’re going camping — reservations be damned — here are your options. Some take persistence, some require more outdoorsy skills, and some just need you to have an open mind.

Follow this guide, and you’ll get to have your trip. And maybe even experience a new type of camping.

cheers with camping mugs
When you just have to get those camping mugs out…

Check Recreation.gov — again

Yes, of course I know about Recreation.gov, you say. (This is the main site for finding federally-managed campgrounds.) It’s very likely you started here during your campground search.

But just because you checked last month doesn’t mean there haven’t been cancellations or changes since. Plus, some campgrounds will hold a small number of campsites and not release them for reservations until much closer to the date.

Regularly checking can yield results. My partner and I were able to get camping reservations inside Lassen Volcanic National Park just 10 days ahead of our trip.

We did have to piece together two campsite reservations to make it work though, so take that as a pro-tip. Look for “partially available” campsites and see if you can book different campsites at the same campground.

True, you may have to take down and set up your tent again, but hopefully, it won’t take too long. (We have a two-person backpacking tent, so we can literally take out the stakes, pick it up, and walk it over to the next campsite if we don’t feel like breaking it down first.)

Try your state’s camping website

Some states also have their own version of Recreation.gov. In California, for example, it’s Reserve California.

Let what is available determine your route. It’s a great way to explore hidden gems in your own state!

Go with Hipcamp

Hipcamp is known as the Airbnb of camping. It’s basically camping on private land.

Hipcamp sign in front of campground

The type of campgrounds really varies. We’ve stayed on bison ranches, in olive groves, and more. Some are true campgrounds with fire pits, water spigots, and other amenities, while others are just providing you with space on their land and a bathroom of some sort.

If you’re new to Hipcamp, you can use our referral code for $10 off your first reservation.

Search Airbnb

Still a no-go? Search Airbnb instead.

Yep, Airbnb actually has campsites these days. I had no idea and was pleasantly surprised. We actually snatched this spot for an upcoming Yosemite trip.

How? Type in a location, open the filtering tool, and check the “Campsite” or “Camper/RV” option under Unique Stays.

Current Airbnb offer: $35 off your first stay.

Try boondocking

I love this word, I really do. To me, boondocking is summer camps, jumping into lakes, trying to finish your ice cream cone before it melts.

What does it actually mean?

Basically, boondocking means pulling over your car or RV and staying the night there. There may be no bathrooms nor running water nor any other amenities, but it’s a good option when there are no camping reservations to be found.

The legality of boondocking depends on where you park. While there are networks of free, privately owned boondocking spots, your best bet is to find public lands managed by the aptly-named Bureau of Land Management. BLM lands, save for designated campgrounds, are open for boondocking.

Another option? Wallydocking. It’s the term given to boondocking in Walmart parking lots. (Please check with the local ordinances though as apparently not every city and not every Walmart allows this.)

Get a wilderness permit

I will be the first to admit that I am not confident enough in my own abilities yet to get a wilderness permit and do a backcountry camping trip on my own.

Most of this is due to the fact that I’m not great at recognizing poisonous plants. Once, during a wilderness survival training class, I built my shelter in the middle of a pile of poisonous plants. (Why the instructor decided not to say anything until after shelter completion, I do not know.)

If you are less aloof in that sense, having a wilderness permit offers countless options of campsites. Just make sure to understand the rules of each permit. They often have stipulations on exactly where you can and cannot set up camp.

plants in Pinnacles

Got other ways of finding campsites? Share them with me in the comments!

Why we camped in the middle of nowhere

Like many other San Franciscans, we’ve been stuck in our 1-bedroom apartment for months now. So we were thrilled when we somehow snatched those campsites inside Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Two days before our trip, we were notified that the Hog Fire nearby meant our reservations were canceled.

And that’s how we ended up in Bradley, CA, a couple of weekends ago.

We’d already taken days off and gotten all our camping food, so we were not going to just stay home. We scoured all of the options above and found a Hipcamp site in the middle of nowhere.

This tiny census-designated place near the southern limits of Monterey County has a population of 93 — I’m fairly sure there are more cows than people. Our campground was in an oak grove that’s part of a giant cattle ranch. Close your eyes for a second (if you’re not the one driving), and you’d miss it.

And we absolutely loved it.

Look at these dusk views.

jolon campground dusk

It was so nice to see the stars (and Comet Neowise) at night, hear all different types of birds, and chill out by the fire pit.

Besides the gorgeous surroundings, this particular Hipcamp spot was also well-situated to allow us a weekend of very varied explorations. While it was in the middle of nowhere, it was also about an hour to so many things.

If we had gone to a regular campsite inside or near a specific spot, it’s unlikely that we would’ve had so many different experiences in the span of a long weekend.

And that’s the beauty of camping in the middle of nowhere when there are no camping reservations available exactly where you want.

Day 1: Lake Nacimiento

We got down to southern Monterey County around 2:30 p.m. and went straight to Lake Nacimiento.

This dragon-shaped lake is technically in San Luis Obispo County, the next county over. In pre-COVID days, there is a full-service marina, multiple campgrounds and lodges, and a general store for all your needs.

During COVID days, services are limited, but the lake is still wide open for your enjoyment (after a $10-15 fee, depending on whether you go during low or high season).

Having lived by an ocean most of my life, I’ve never actually done a real lake vacation. Picnicking lakeside and floating on the lake with a beer in hand, I felt like I sort of got that experience. This lake “beach” doesn’t have great sand though, so I’d recommend getting camping chairs like this one.

beer floatie lake

Of course, the 18-mile-long lake offers plenty of more active options. If you have a jet ski or a boat for some wakeboarding or tubing, wanna be friends?

Day 2: Pinnacles National Park

My partner and I aren’t great at inactive vacations, so after a lazy afternoon at Lake Nacimiento, we wanted to break a sweat.

While there were no camping reservations available at Pinnacles National Park when we looked, our Hipcamp campsite was just an hour’s drive away.

One of our nation’s newest national parks, Pinnacles is full of curious rock formations as well as talus caves. The park has a number of different trails of varying difficulty, and you can mix and match to your preference. We did a 10-mile hike that had some steep and difficult terrain (hey, glutes!) — but also amazing views like this.

Pinnacles National Park

As you hike around the park, you have a good chance of seeing deer, bats, prairie falcons, and even the massive California condor.

One important thing to note about Pinnacles no matter which hike you decide to do: it’s hot!

I first visited Pinnacles years ago during a Labor Day trip with friends, and the heat was dry and miserable. Surprisingly, our mid-July visit was more bearable. Perhaps we got lucky, but even so, we each consumed ~1 gallon of water each during our 4.5-hour hike.

tl;dr – Bring a lot of water with you. Sunscreen and a hat are also recommended.

Pinnacles National Park trail
Sunny with a minimal chance of shade.

Day 3: Los Padres National Forest

Having had enough of the dry heat, we decided to go for some coastal breeze the following day.

If you are familiar with central California, you know that between the arid central valleys and the cinematic Pacific coast are a whole lot of forest. In our case, the Los Padres National Forest. We drove through it for about an hour to land near Limekiln State Park on the Big Sur coast.

Quick warning: Los Padres National Forest is absolutely gorgeous, but the drive is exhausting. Lots of curves and tight turns on narrow roads on a cliff. Meep. If this is not for you (my partner drove, but I wouldn’t have), you can still visit the coast by going down via Monterey or up through San Simeon. Longer drives, but much easier.

Okay, back to the coast.

We’d picked Limekiln State Park as our destination for the day, but with COVID capacity limits, the park was full by the time we arrived around 11:30 a.m.

Instead, we decided to hit up Kirk Creek Trail nearby. This coastal trail offers stunning views of the Big Sur coast before leading you into redwood groves. It’s also sometimes called the Vicente Flat Camp trail, per the campground that many backpackers head to on this trail.

I mean, how gorgeous is this?

Big Sur Coast

It’s a 5-mile hike to the campground, but since we were just doing a day hike, we didn’t go all the way. Instead, we decided to turn back about 2/3 the way up and cap our round-trip hike to ~7 miles.

Some pointers for the Kirk Creek Trail:

  • The trail has slow inclines and isn’t super hard, but it is very narrow with steep cliffs off to one side, so I would not advise trekking this with kids.
  • If you choose to do this hike, wear pants. There are a lot of bushes and other spiky flora that can have a field day on bare legs.
  • Go to the bathroom before you hit the trail. There aren’t great opportunities for outdoor relief on this narrow path.
view from Kirk Creek Trail

The other reason we decided to turn around instead of going all the way to camp is that we spotted a beach on the map. Namely, Sand Dollar Beach (public, with a $10 parking fee).

This beach is incredibly popular with surfers, so there’s good surf watching if you’re interested in that. It’s also a dog-friendly beach, which was more my type of “people watching.”

While there is obviously sand for you to relax on, it’s not a very deep beach. Instead, a lot of it is beach rocks. So plan accordingly, and bring beach chairs for extra comfort.

Sand Dollar Beach Los Padres National Park

Fun fact: Both Kirk Creek Trail and Sand Dollar Beach are technically part of the Los Padres National Forest. Bet you didn’t know forests could have beaches!

Day 4: Pigeon Point Lighthouse

On the last morning of our four-day weekend, we took it slow as we made breakfast, drank our coffee, and packed up our stuff. Then, we did what made this trip camping in the middle of nowhere perfect: looked on a map and chose a spot.

On our way back to the Bay Area, we stopped by Pigeon Point Lighthouse near the coastal town of Pescadero. Despite having driven this route many times, we’d never been to the lighthouse.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse

This late 19th-century lighthouse is one of the tallest in the U.S. and continues to be in use, albeit with an automated LED beacon instead of the original Fresnel lens.

The grounds are home to a variety of native plants, and while we didn’t see any, whales and seals are among the wildlife that can be spotted from the lighthouse. There are picnic tables where you can enjoy your lunch, as well as trails for some short hikes.

For those who want some toes in the sand time, you can also follow the staircase down to the small alcove at the base of the cliff. For a less crowded experience, go past the lighthouse into the rest of the park and enjoy the Pacific Coast there.

My favorite discovery at the lighthouse? There’s a hostel here! Imagine going to sleep with the sound of waves breaking against the rocks, with this historical light station beaming in the night skies.

Pigeon Point Light Station State Historical Park

While we were a bit miffed when our original plans were disrupted, we could not be happier with what came out of our last-minute pivot. We absolutely loved exploring places around our state that we might not have explicitly planned a trip around.

Camping when there are no camping reservations available? No problem. Just embrace camping wherever you can — whether it is in a national park or in the middle of nowhere.

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4 thoughts on “The Beauty of Camping in the Middle of Nowhere

  1. This post really makes me want to go camping! There’s something about being in the middle of nowhere that sounds really appealing and peaceful. Thanks for the inspiration 🙂

  2. Wow, we had almost the same experience. I had planned a two weeks camping trip (we were supposed to return this Sunday) for Santa Cruz, San Mateo, Marin and Sonoma counties and had to cancel after two days because of the fires. That first week was intense and we returned home bummed. However, I was able to find campsites in Southern California for 4 nights (improvised for the second week). For the original trip, I was able to secure campsites for all days (except Friday and Saturday) a month before the trip. So, it is matter of getting familiar with the different campsite websites. You start to discover with campsites have availability all the time. Campsites managed by the county are good too.

    1. I’m so sad for our state and our earth 🙁
      When I was little, large fires in California were a rarity. Now it’s part of the annual expectations 🙁

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