Since moving to the Bay Area I’ve had to get used to having to plan every camping trip well in advance. Trail quotas, reservations, first-come first-serve sites… All of these seem nearly impossible to get at a moments notice for any place within a 4 hour drive of San Francisco, and anything within 2 hours is booked 3 months in advance!
I’ve rolled into Point Reyes at 8am on a Saturday hoping to get one of the day-of permits, and there was a line of people, some having been there since 5am! I tried a no-reservation camp ground near the Russian River only to find it packed with people. One lady said she had been there for 4 days holding a site so that her husband could come on the weekend!
So, when I saw that the primitive sites in Pescadero County Park were available as first-come first-serve, I was skeptical that we would be able to get a spot.
The plan was to do a 28 mile loop through the park over three days, so we headed down early Friday morning. We were on the trail at 8am, starting from the trail head in Sam McDonald Park, and were going about 5 miles to Shaw Flat Trail Camp. The trail meandered through second growth Redwoods and was a mix of single track and fire road, and was well traveled by horses.
With such an early start, we made it to the camp by 10:30am. The camp has 8 sites, and only one was filled giving us our pick! While setting up camp it became very apparent that I should have brought the bug spray. The mosquitos had found us! They weren’t terrible, but after getting used to the lack of bugs in the Bay Area, they were definitely annoying. We started a small, smokey fire to keep the little blood suckers away and had lunch.
Having set up camp with so much day left, we wandered off down the trail. The fire road out of camp lead to Memorial Park in 3 miles. About 1/4 mile from camp the road ran trough a wide stream. There was a small foot bridge built for crossing, and a few small rocky banks to sit on up stream a short ways.
From here we returned to camp and took the Shaw Flat trail the other direction out of camp. This was the trail that we would be returning on from the ridge the following day.
This trail was a single track trail that descended to the same stream we had just came from. Here we sat and skipped rocks for a while before returning to camp to gather some fire wood.
As we strolled back into camp we came up on a family that had just arrived and was picking out a site. They had hauled several wheeled carry-on bags down the fire road reminding me that, while the campground felt remote, we weren’t quite as far removed from the world as I was used to.
It was now about 5pm and we again started a fire to fend off the mosquitoes. Collecting wood was a bit of a chore because the undergrowth around the camp was thick, and the trails had been picked clean for a couple hundred yards in every direction. But we found enough to keep the fire going until dark. After a dinner of cheesy rice and a mug of apple cider it was off to bed.
Saturday – Butano Ridge Loop
The next morning we woke shortly after sunrise. After a quick breakfast, we broke down the camp and headed down the Pomponio trail towards the Tarwater Trail Camp. It was 3 miles to the camp and the trail wound its way through the Redwoods past Honor Camp, a former Boy Scout camp turned medium-security correctional facility. Definitely not a place you want to make a wrong turn.
Once at the Tarwater Camp, we had our pick of the 6 sites. We found one that already had a stack of fire wood in it, and set up. It was immediately apparent that the mosquitos were going to be worse here.
With camp assembled, we made our way towards Butano Ridge to do the 10.5 mile loop from Tarwater to Shaw Flat. We traveled quickly to avoid the mosquitos. Fortunately, about 1/3 of the way up the ridge, we had gotten away from them, though there were a variety of other flying bugs to keep us busy.
The trail climbed about 1,200 ft to a logging road that ran the length of the ridge. Once on the ridge, we followed the road about 2 miles before descending back to Shaw Flat. The trails were nicely maintained, but the trees blocked any view.
Back at camp, the mosquitos had dissipated slightly. Perhaps to go feast on the two other groups that had joined us for the night. With a smokey fire keeping them at bay, we ate a dinner of tuna tortellini and it was off to bed.
Sunday – Tarwater Loop
The mosquitos were barely present in the morning, but we packed up and got on the trail quickly just in case they changed their minds. The trail started off taking us through some of the thickest forest we had seen so far. Circles of second growth Redwoods grew tall around the decaying stumps left behind from when the whole area was logged.
Working our way through the trees we came across the remains of an old shingle mill left behind from the logging days. Not much is left of the mill, other than a few large Redwood beams and an old boiler. One of the long beams was balanced like a teeter-totter so that you can make the whole thing move by standing on one end. Looking at the size of the old stumps, I am amazed that it was even possible to haul those trees to a mill!
The trail widened and began climbing towards the Tarwater trailhead. Along the way we came across a lone old-growth Redwood. Having somehow survived the logging days, it now stood out among its younger neighbors.
From here the trail took us out of the trees for a short while, giving us a view of the fog sitting over the hills to the west.
After dipping back into the trees, we crossed Tarwater Creek. This creek holds true to its name as it is a spot where crude oil naturally leaks out of the ground into the water giving the creek a nice oily sheen and leaving the rocky banks looking like the scene of an off shore oil spill.
The trail climbed its way through more dense Redwoods for several miles before leading us back to the car. This was definitely the prettiest day of trail on this trip, and its nice to know there is at least one place to go for some spur-of-the-moment camping!
See more pictures on Flickr!
did you go to the abandonded jail?
The jail is still open… it took the place of the old Boy Scout camp. There was a sign saying anyone who wanders down that way is subject to search and arrest… That’s a little more excitement than I was looking for on this trip. 😛
Hi Kyle! Thanks for sharing this account of your trip! Are there any other similar 1-2 night trips you’ve found near the bay area that offer the same seclusion and are first-come-first-served? Also, any recommendations for winter overnight trips around here that don’t deal with snow? I picked the wrong time of year to get back into backpacking! 🙂