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I'm looking for a camping spot that has the qualities:

  • Very secluded from other people. Ideally, well out of earshot.
  • A relatively short drive (ideally <3 hours) from the California bay area.
  • Has pretty hiking within a short drive.

It is not important that it's a "real" camp site - we don't need a fire pit or bathrooms or a pre-cleared tent area; any public land open to camping would be fine.

I hope this question is on topic for this site! If not, please let me know and I can move it appropriately.

  • I would hope it's on topic; this is a rare resource in the Bay Area! Unfortunately almost everything comes with defined tent sites, reservations, and often picnic tables. Picnic tables, can you believe it?! – requiem Jul 10 '14 at 2:46
  • Does that mean San Francisco? – gerrit Jul 10 '14 at 14:24
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    @gerrit: Yes. Since the OP mentioned this was in California, there is no doubt. Pretty much everywhere in the US, unqualified "bay area" is understood to mean the San Francisco Bay area in California. This is true even where I am in Massachusetts, 3000 miles accross the continent and much closer to the much larger Massachusetts Bay. – Olin Lathrop Jul 10 '14 at 14:56
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    Three hours from the Bay Area gets you to a huge swath of Northern California, including Los Padres National Forest, the western Sierra, and areas as far north as Jackson State Forest. You can almost get to Yosemite Valley and Shasta in that amount of time. This a huge geographical area. – Ben Crowell Jul 10 '14 at 17:53
  • If you do wild camp, please ensure you either are a professional or have a professional in your party that knows all the tricks of the trade to make the camp fire safe. And while we are on this topic, no one has listed places in East Bay. – user11439 Oct 1 '16 at 23:08
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I'll start this as a community wiki and seed it with a few places. While places like Shasta and the Sierra may be within 3 hours drive, this is usually not the case once traffic and speed limits are factored in. Note that nearly all of these sites will require reservations, and may fill up quickly in busy months.

Local definitions:

  • Dispersed Camping: "wild camping"; find your own campsite, water, etc.
  • Primitive Campsites: Designated spots that usually include a water source, pit toilet, and sometimes tables. Unless you reserve a group site you are likely to have other people nearby.

North Bay

Samual P Taylor State Park

Point Reyes National Seashore

Primitive campsites only; may be crowded in good weather but you can also have it to yourself in the shoulder season. Extensive trails for long hikes, excellent mix of terrain and local wildlife.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Four campgrounds scattered around the Marin headlands.

In the Bay

Angel Island State Park

A number of primitive campsites and group sites. Take the ferry to get there if you don't have a boat of your own.

South Bay

Castle Rock State Park

Good for rock climbing. The only overnight options are "primitive campsites".

Henry W. Coe State Park

As the largest State Park in Northern California, Henry Coe is also one of the few places around the SF Bay Area to offer true "dispersed camping".

Big Basin Redwoods State Park

The oldest State Park in California offers an extensive network of trails, a few primitive campsites for those doing the Skyline to the Sea trail, and some car camping sites scattered around the park headquarters.

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About 20 years ago, I had a whole day free between two business engagements in the Bay area. I stumbled upon a apparently little-known state park that if I remember right was south and a little east of the built-up area. I think it was called Henry W. Coe State Park.

It was mostly in the hills east of the valley. I remember being surprised how few people were out there, especially considering the large population that lives nearby in San Jose and the surrounding sprawl. I hiked in a loop for maybe 10 miles, and ran into people at only two spots that had fairly direct access from the main parking area. I don't remember if the place had a campground or if it permitted wild camping, but it might be worth checking out.

Of course a lot of things could have changed in the last 20 years, but I'd definitely try to visit there if I had a spare day in the Bay area again.

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There are many, many state, national, & BLM parks, reserves, forests, wilderness areas, recreation areas, refuges, & conservation areas with a 3 hour drive. I don't know which ones allow wild camping, but seeing how many of them allow backpacking, I would guess quite a few. You may need a permit first. I wish I could tell you exactly which ones may work. If you find some, please post it back here.

Another option, if you a have a large number of people in your group, is called group camping. This is usually an area close to, but separate from, the traditional camping spots. Spots like these are made to handle a large number of people, maybe 15-30, depending on the site. They will have a fire ring, but no set tent spots. You set your tent wherever you want. Often have permanent pit toilets. No showers. And far enough from other that playing music and/or loud talking won't disturb others.

Whatever you do, PLEASE, PLEASE, be careful with campfires. Everything is so dry right now because of the worst drought since '77, that even a hard look may start a fire.

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