Camping in The Great Park

Looking to go camping under the redwoods? The Great Park of the Santa Cruz Mountains has you covered.

by Hannah Moore

When summer is here, it's time to go camping! Pack up your essentials and head to The Great Park for some quality time under the world's tallest trees: the coast redwoods. The 195-square-mile network of parks, conservation lands and working forest—which together form a functioning redwood ecosystem—is a project of Sempervirens Fund, the group that helped bring about the state parks system. The Great Park stretches from Skyline Boulevard on the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains down to the sea and includes state and county parks in San Mateo County, Silicon Valley and Santa Cruz County.

If you've never spent a night under these huge, ancient trees, you're in for a treat. The primeval feeling of a redwood forest makes for a magical camping experience, and there's usually plenty of shade from the blazing sun in the morning.

Maybe you're on the glamping side of things: air mattresses, moisturizer, wine and camp chairs. That's cool. The Great Park has at least 483 car camping sites where you can indulge your preference for the finer things in life while experiencing the great outdoors.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park: Visit Big Basin for 80 miles of hiking trails and 146 family campsites to choose from. Four group camping sites, tent cabins and horse camping are also available. Big Basin is California’s oldest state park and home to some of the oldest redwoods on Earth. Hot showers are located at the campgrounds and cost 25 per two minutes. The park has a camp store, visitor center and family programs. Fires are only allowed in the metal fire rings or stoves. Bikes are not allowed on trails, but are allowed on the paved roads and fire roads. Big Basin tent and RV camping costs $35 per night. Tent cabins are $85/night. Make your reservation at Big Basin by calling 800.444.7275 or visiting Hipcamp.

Butano State Park: Or camp at a more obscure state park, Butano. This park is filled with diverse habitat including grassland, woodland and wetland in addition to towering second-growth redwoods. Butano State Park has 20 drive-in campsites and 18 walk-in (meaning you'll have to carry your tent, cooler, etc. a few hundred feet) under the redwoods, each complete with picnic table, food locker and fire ring and near bathrooms with flush toilets. Fires are only allowed in the provided fire rings. Bikes allowed on paved roads and fire roads. Camping fees are $35 per night for tent or RV, due upon entrance into Butano, and assume a one-vehicle camping party. Sorry, no showers. To reserve a spot at Butano, call 800.444.7275 or visit

Portola Redwoods State Park: For remote camping in the Santa Cruz Mountains (and your best shot at getting a site at the last minute), go to Portola Redwoods. There are four group campgrounds here—Point and Circle Group Campgrounds, Ravine Group Campground and Hillside Group Campgrounds—and 53 family campsites. Individual tent and RV sites cost $35 per night. Additionally, Huckleberry Campground has four first-come, first-served hike-and-bike sites. The cost is $5 per night (cash or check only). Bikes aren’t allowed on the park’s trails but are permitted on paved roads. Fires are allowed, but must be put out when not being watched. Showers and flush toilets are unavailable due to the drought. Call 800.444.7275 or visit Hipcamp to make a reservation.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park: For camping at a park with a variety of trees including giant sycamores, oaks and a centuries-old Redwood Grove, go to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, where the campground itself is situated in an extremely rare ecosystem known as the Santa Cruz Sandhills. There are 107 campsites among the manzanita and Ponderosa pine trees available for reservation ($35/night tent or RV). Pay showers (25 cents for 2 minutes) and restrooms with flush toilets are available. A Nature Center is located 3 miles away from the campground from a separate entrance on Highway 9. Campfires are allowed only in the fire rings. Henry Cowell has a first-come, first-served hike and bike site ($7/night). Book a campsite through our friends at Hipcamp.

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Memorial County Park: To stay at the only drive-in campground in Pescadero Creek County Park and the oldest park in the San Mateo County park system, consider a camping trip to Memorial County Park. A camp store is located at the entrance of Memorial County Park. Showers are currently unavailable due to the drought, and although there are restrooms with flush toilets on-site, port-a-potties are being used until July 7, 2015 due to construction of a water plant. Campfire programs, nature programs and naturalist programs are offered. Campfire instructions are given upon entry into the park, which is jam-packed with 158 campsites. Tent campsites are $30/night, small RVs (up to 18 feet) are $35/night and large RVs are $40/night. To make a reservation, call 650.363.4021 or go to


Maybe you're the kind who likes to rough it with a backpacking stove, bivvy sack and water purifier. Good on you. Here's where you'll get your ya-yas out. Be prepared for dry camps and aggressive raccoons, and you'll have a fine time.

Big Basin: Jay, Lane, Sunset, Twin Redwoods and Alder Trail Camps are the backpacking camps of Big Basin. They also happen to be part of the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail and five of the 11 backcountry trail camps in the Great Park. Bring your own water (or a water purifier) if headed to any of the trail camps, as none of them (except Jay) provide water. In all cases, campfires at Big Basin backcounty trail camps are not allowed; backpacking stoves are OK.

Jay Trail Camp, the most luxe of them all, is located near Big Basin Headquarters and has potable water, flush toilets, hot showers (25 cents/2 minutes) and food lockers.

Lane Trail Camp is bone-dry and the most rugged of the Big Basin Trail Camps, as it is 3 miles from the nearest water source. It's 5.7 miles north of Headquarters and about 1.5 miles off the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail.

Sunset Trail Camp is about 5.5 miles west of Headquarters, just above the Berry Creek Falls. It has metal food lockers (use them!) and is about 1/3 of a mile from Berry Creek.

Twin Redwoods Camp is about 11 miles from Headquarters (or 2 miles from the Waddell Beach/Rancho del Oso entrance to the park). It sits right next to Waddell Creek.

Alder Camp is a few hundred yards from Twin Redwoods Camp.

There are rarely vacant sites for drop-in campers during summer, so the best bet is to reserve a spot ahead of time. Reservations cost $15 per campsite per night and should be made as soon as possible, as the sites fill up quickly. For reservations and information on these and other backcountry trail camps in the Santa Cruz Mountains, call 831.338.8861.

Butano: Eight hike-in campsites are available at the Butano Trail Camp in Butano State Park, located about 6 miles from the state park entrance, depending on which route you take. Campfires aren’t allowed at this trail camp. Pit toilets and area streams (none next to the camp) for pumping water are available, but bringing water is recommended as the creeks provide less and less water for filtering as the drought continues. Reservations are $15 per night. To make a reservation, call 831.338.8861 Monday through Friday anytime between 9am and 5pm.

Portola Redwoods: For a more rugged camping experience at Portola, stay at the Slate Creek Trail Camp at Portola Redwoods. The area has six campsites and is a 3.5-mile hike from the Portola parking area. Pack your own water or purify water straight from Slate Creek, which is located ¼-mile walk from camp. Fires aren’t allowed at these campsites. Unlike the other trail camps, this one has picnic tables at each site. Reservations are $15 per night. Reserve a spot at the Trail Campground by calling the trail camp reservation number at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, 831.338.8861, Monday through Friday 9am-5pm.

Castle Rock: To visit the Great Park’s only first-come, first-served backcountry trail camp (and the only one open year-round), go to the Castle Rock Trail Camp at Castle Rock State Park. Located 3 miles from the Castle Rock parking lot, it has 20 campsites complete with restrooms, trash receptacles, picnic tables and fire rings, though fires are allowed at Castle Rock Trail Camp only during the wet season (and never in summer). Vaulted toilets and potable water spigots are located nearby. Weekends are busy, but there tend to be open spots early in the week. Camping at Castle Rock Trail Camp costs $15 per campsite per night. For information about camping and fire closure dates, call Castle Rock State Park at 408.867.2952.

Castle Rock's other trail camp, Waterman Gap Trail Camp, has six campsites and potable water. It's 9.5 miles from the Castle Rock parking lot and about 11.5 miles from Jay Trail Camp at Big Basin HQ. No fires allowed.

Pescadero Creek County Park: Trail camping at Pescadero Creek is offered at Shaw Flat and Tarwater Flat on a first-come, first-served basis for backpackers registered with a Memorial Park ranger. Reservations are $10 per night and include one vehicle parked at any of the Pescadero Creek Complex parks and up to four people. Bring your own water (or a filter) as none is available at either of these camps, though both are located near creeks. Campfires aren't allowed. Shaw Flat is a 2.5-mile walk from the park entrance at the border with Memorial Park and Tarwater is a 5-mile walk. Shaw Flat hosts eight campsites while Tarwater has six.

Read The Tallest Redwoods in The Great Park
Read Hike The Great Park: Ocean Summit
Read Ten Amazing Facts About Redwoods

Cropped photo by Kae Yen Wong on Creative Commons


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