Bay Area Bike Camping

Bike + Tent = Instant Vacation

The Bike Hut can help you take a quick, refreshing getaway

The Bay Area is blessed with lots of fabulous places to ride a bike.  It’s also home to several great nearby camping spots.  Have you tried combining the two?


Bicycle camping is a fun, easy, and cheap way to get out of town.  Just one night of bike camping feels like a vacation.  It’s fun solo, with your sweetie, or with a group of friends.  All you need is basic gear – tent, sleeping bag, food, drink.  And on a bike, getting there is half the fun.

At the Bike Hut, you can rent a bicycle with a rack and pannier bags or a bicycle trailer to haul the gear.

When you’re carrying everything you need, you’re a self-sufficient traveler, a rolling personal getaway.  You could literally stop anywhere and be set for the night.  Sure, you could pull over to a hidden spot at the side of a scenic road, but let’s focus on legitimate places to sleep, some of our fine local campgrounds that are easily accessible by bike.

What Do You Take?

Look at it this way: what do you need to spend a night sleeping outside?  Shelter, warmth, food, water, and entertainment.  It’s a pretty simple list.

You can choose to bring fancier gear, extra food options, more toys such as frisbees, fishing poles, or musical instruments…. But how much do you feel like carrying?  For your first trip, keep it simple.  You’ll quickly figure out what you should have left at home, or what would have been nice to bring, and adjust accordingly on your next trip.

To do it super-simple, skip cooking at camp.  Bring cold food (sandwich fixins, hummus, fruit, salad of veggies or beans or couscous or whatever, plenty of snacks and treats), or plan to stop near the campground at a deli or taqueria – get it to go and eat once you’re at the site.

Remember: it’s the bike, not you, carrying this stuff.  Don’t try to tote it in a backpack! That would quickly tire out your shoulders, back, and body in general.  Your bicycle is your mule.

Here’s one sample packing list for an overnighter.

-          tent  (or, if you prefer, a hammock, or a large tarp with ropes and stakes to secure it as a lean-to)

-          sleeping bag

-          sleeping pad, either a foam one or a nicer self-inflating one ala Thermarest brand  (note: some campers do it hobo-style and sleep on corrugated cardboard for a little warmth and padding, which is usually a bit spartan for me)

-          flashlight, or just a good bike headlight

-          map, or knowledge of where you’re going

-          basic bike tools, including patch kit, spare inner tube, and pump, and extra bungee cords

-          water bottles

-          pocketknife, plus fork, spoon, and cup (note: a solo camper doesn’t need a plate – you can eat from the container or pan)

-          if you’re cooking: backpacker-style lightweight camping stove and fuel bottle, cooking pan, matches

-          warm but light clothes for after dark: hat, gloves, silk longjohns, wool shirt – and remember you’ve always got your sleeping bag to wrap up in

-          book or other personal entertainment (harmonica, knitting project, sketchpad, binoculars, camera…)

Of course your list will vary.  But keep it simple.  Less gear means less time packing, less weight, and less stuff to dig through to find what you need.

How Do You Get There?

Once your bike is packed with gear, it might look intimidatingly heavy.  Don’t sweat it – if pedaling a loaded bicycle were really that tough, you wouldn’t see people doing it all the time (and grinning as they go).  When the bike is rolling, you honestly don’t notice the weight that much.  You’ll shift earlier on the uphills, and your natural pace will be a bit slower.  But it’s no big deal.  The loaded bike is the most awkward when you’re going slow or stopped – it can be a bit tippy then, so be alert to that.

Remember you can combine a bicycle with public transit to extend your range or reduce your time pedaling. Ferries can get you from SF to Marin County or the East Bay.  BART allows bikes on all trains, except at commute times.  Caltrain goes down the Peninsula every day with room for at least 32 bikes per train.  Most Bay Area buses have bike racks on the front; you’ll need to remove your panniers and carry them on-board the bus (unfortunately trailers are a no-go).  Links to transit agencies are below.

If you need route guidance, check the official bike maps for San Francisco, Marin County, the East Bay, or wherever you’re going.  Krebs is a small company that makes beautiful, informative regional maps for bikers; they’re available at local bike shops or online.  Google Maps bike directions are getting better all the time, too – click on Get Directions, then the bike icon.  Links to maps are below.

Where Do You Go?

For a first bike camping trip, you can’t beat Angel Island.  You ride to the ferry (SF’s Ferry Building or Pier 41; Sausalito or Tiburon in Marin; Jack London Square in Oakland), take a scenic boat ride across the Bay, then pedal just a few car-free miles on paved trails around the island to your campsite.  The Ridge sites face awesome Golden Gate and SF views but can be a bit breezy.  The Sunrise sites offer East Bay views, less tree cover (read: you’re up with the sunrise), but are on the calmer side of the island wind-wise.  Each site has a food locker, water tap, picnic table, and campfire ring.  Once that last tourist ferry leaves in the afternoon, it feels like you’re on your own private island, which is hard to beat.  Weekends fill up months in advance, so book early.  Weekday nights are much easier to snag.

Be aware that state parks listed below may have reduced facilities or be closed entirely by Summer 2012, due to state budget problems.  Check www.parks.ca.gov for the latest info.

Some state park campgrounds have “hike-bike” sites.  Those sites are open only to people who arrive under their own power, are not reservable, and are shared – meaning other folks might be in the site too – but they’re also cheap, around $5 per person.  And you won’t be turned away, since a hiker or biker cannot simply drive to the next campground.  If the hike-bike site is full, the ranger or camp host will place you somewhere else (like a regular campsite or a picnic area).

Samuel P. Taylor State Park is set in a redwood grove in rural western Marin County.  Its campground includes a large hike-bike site with multiple picnic tables and tent spots, plus a water tap and campfire ring.  The redwood setting is glorious.  The local raccoons are notorious, so be alert after dark (and double-check the food lockers — some of them are run-down and not critter-proof).  It’s a lovely ride there – about 30 miles from SF, or 15 from the Larkspur ferry dock.  One big hill along Sir Francis Drake Blvd, otherwise flat with good shoulders.  Check the Marin Bike Map for good back roads through the suburbs. Just before the park is the tiny town of Lagunitas, with a general store and deli.  Once you enter the park, look for the foot/bike bridge over the creek to your right (it’s easy to miss).  The bridge leads to a nice dirt road through the woods, which skips a couple miles of bumpy, shoulderless pavement and leads directly to the campground.

China Camp State Park is also in Marin, on San Pedro Road along the Bay shore east of San Rafael.  It encompasses several distinct ecosystems where the wooded hillside meets the marshy Bay.  The park is home to wonderful flora and fauna, plus that rare creature known as Bike-Legal Single-Track Trails.  The campground is set in a wooded grove at the northwest end of the park, and all the sites are a short walk in, so there’s no cars right next to tents.  The hiker-biker is site is very nice but very small – not much flat ground for tents, and just a single picnic table/food locker, so it’s hard to share.  But there’s running water and a campfire ring.

Half Moon Bay State Beach also has a hiker-biker site.  The campground isn’t fancy – a flat area between Highway 1 and the ocean – but the hike-bike site is relatively large and has a few trees, unlike some of the other sites.  The main draw is perhaps the mighty Pacific.  And since you’re in a town, food and other amenities are nearby.

A great way to ride there includes the so-called Planet of the Apes Road, a trail that’s the remains of old Highway 1 before the Devil’s Slide coastal section (and its new tunnel) were built.  The crumbling road/path has that abandoned-civilization look as it winds gently up the San Pedro Mountain hillside through the open space area.  From Hwy 1 in southern Pacifica, turn left (east) on Linda Mar Dr., then right (south) on Peralta Rd, which dead-ends at the gate of the trailhead.  Follow that dirt road up and over the hill; at the first junction continue left; at the second junction continue forward (or right) and back down to Hwy 1 north of the town of Moss Beach.  Continue south, detouring along parallel side streets as you see them, into Half Moon Bay.  (A mapped version: www.bikely.com/maps/bike-path/Planet-of-the-Apes-Road)

In the East Bay, one option is beautiful Mount Diablo State Park.  The campground is at about 2500 feet elevation (no hike-bike site), so be prepared for major climbing.  Water, fire rings, no alcohol.  Road access from Northgate Road in Walnut Creek, or via the Briones-Mt Diablo fire road trail.  If you’d like scenery closer to sea level, check out Sunol Regional Wilderness, part of the East Bay Regional Parks District.  You can bike up Niles Canyon Rd from Fremont, or the flatter way is to ride south from Dublin/Pleasanton BART.  The park is classic rolling hills and oak trees.  Due to an ongoing construction project, the main family camps are currently closed, but there’s open trail camps further out, some of which are on bike-legal trails.  Most trail camps are BYO water, so be prepared to pack it in or filter creek water (as seasonally available).

Speaking of BYO, if you want a getaway close to San Francisco but don’t mind carrying your own water and forgoing a campfire, check out the Marin Headlands just across the Golden Gate Bridge.  It’s part of the federal Golden Gate National Recreation Area and contains 3 campgrounds.  The camping is free, but you must make a reservation by phone and pick up a permit at the Visitor Center in Rodeo Valley (the southernmost valley, through the one-way tunnel on Bunker Rd.).  The best first trip is to Bicentennial Camp – it’s the closest to SF, and your drinking water and your permit pick-up are on the way at the Visitor Center.  Bicentennial has just three sites, nestled above the Golden Gate on the west side of the Bridge, with a picnic table and food locker for each.  You gaze across the water at the city but feel much further removed from urban life.

So get packing, and get riding!  It’s easy to make time for local overnight bike camping vacation.  Stop by the Bike Hut if you need to rent a gear-ready bicycle with panniers or a bike trailer.

Written by Matt Hoover. Photos by Matt Hoover.

Web Resources

Angel Island State Park – www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=468

Samuel P Taylor State Park – www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=469

China Camp State Park – www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=466

Half Moon Bay State Beach — www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=531

Mt Diablo State Park – www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=517

Sunol Regional Wilderness – www.ebparks.org/parks/sunol

Marin Headlands — www.nps.gov/goga/planyourvisit/outdooractivities.htm

San Francisco Bike Maps – www.sfbike.org/?maps

East Bay Bike Maps – www.ebbc.org/maps

Marin County Bike Maps – www.marinbike.org/Map

Krebs Cycle Maps -www.krebscycleproducts.com

Google Bike Maps – maps.google.com – Get Directions -> Bike icon

East Bay ferries – www.eastbayferry.com

SF ferries – www.goldengateferry.org , www.blueandgoldfleet.com/ferry-services

BART – www.bart.gov

Caltrain – www.caltrain.com

Marin buses – www.goldengatetransit.org

East Bay buses – www.actransit.com

Bay Area trip planning – bicycling.511.org

Post-Car Press – postcarpress.tumblr.com