An ode to the hike and bike campgrounds of California

By Leonie Sherman

Biking among old-growth redwoods at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

Biking among old-growth redwoods at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park (Nate Wyeth / Visit Del Norte County).

Maybe the idea of lining up to pay the federal government to camp on land that we are supposed to own upsets you. Maybe you are searching for a vacation option that doesn’t contribute to climate change. Maybe making a reservation months in advance for a wilderness experience doesn’t land well. Whatever the case, if you love camping, and bikes, if you like your recreation carbon neutral and if spontaneity is how you roll, California has a network of hike and bike campsites begging for your attention.

You won’t find them in our National Parks, those theme parks of glorious natural beauty plagued by crowds and concessions. California’s hike and bike campsites are hidden in plain view, in state recreation areas, state parks and state beaches, from Del Norte County to the Mexican border. Choose your own adventure: from granite crags to iconic beaches, towering redwoods to inviting lakes, the hike and bike sites allow you to explore some of the state’s finest scenery.

A woman sits on the root ball of a giant tree.

The author playing on the root ball of a giant (Tanya Stiller).

If you’ve ever lined up for a campsite in Yosemite Valley or Joshua Tree, you’ve realized that you’re competing with millions of people from all over the country for a limited commodity. You’re more likely to make a new friend in line than get a spot at the campground of your choice. Hike and bike sites require no reservation. You roll up, pay your money and pitch your tent in the open area designated for you and others of your kind. Nobody is ever turned away for lack of space.

And while a night in a tent in Tuolumne Meadows sets you back $30, hike and bike campsites average $7 a night. You still get to enjoy all the perks such as access to the bathroom, picnic benches, trash collection, and potable water. The hike and bike sites are usually set apart from the vehicle traffic so you don’t have to listen to a generator or breathe exhaust fumes. You’ll have plenty of room to set up a tent, but sharing the site with other hikers and bikers contributes to a friendly communal vibe.

Looking down at the Smith River and surrounding forest from up above.

The Smith River is a great place for a dip after a long hike or bike ride (Leonie Sherman).

Hike and bike campsites cost less, don’t require reservations and reduce your carbon footprint. You make new friends and get fit while exploring beautiful places. Why do I often find them empty?

I think it’s fear. On a single track you can control your risk; on a road you feel at the mercy of drivers who may be checking their Tinder accounts. But humans don’t make good decisions when we are afraid. We make good decisions when we are informed. I’ve biked over a thousand miles on California roads from the Oregon border to Santa Barbara County and only been honked at once.

Tried and True Safety Tips

Here are five tips to reduce the risk you face from cars when you set out on your bike to share pavement.

Do Unto Car Drivers as You Would Have Them Do Unto You

I pull over to let cars pass. If they are considerate enough to drive slowly behind me as I navigate a tight turn with no shoulder, the least I can do is return the favor. This requires close attention to vehicular traffic, an excellent habit to cultivate as you begin your love affair with bike camping.

Dress for Success

My spandex clad friends who ride carbon mono fiber $3,000 steeds report a lot of friction with drivers. I ride a modest bike and dress in clothes that allow me to go grocery shopping without attracting a lot of attention. Drivers give me plenty of space. I wear bike shorts under my pants and a fluorescent reflective vest on top of basic hiking apparel. I suspect that helps a lot. And it also reminds me to get off my bike and go for a hike.

Light Up Your Ride

Of course you are going to wear a helmet and have copious reflectors on your bicycle, right? Front and rear lights increase your visibility even during the day. Set them on the flashing mode; the human eye is drawn to movement.

Tricks of the Trade

Have you ever wished you could show a driver how much space they need to give you as they roar past you at 60 mph while you toil up a hill? For $2 you can. Invest in a brightly colored pool noodle — one of those cylindrical foam deals. Strap it to your rack, hanging a foot out on the left side, to give drivers a visual cue about what’s a safe passing distance.

A cyclist bikes with a pool noodle attached to her bike to ensure drivers give her enough space.

Using a pool noodle while bike touring (@the.vanimals).

Talk to the Locals

Don’t assume every narrow two lane country road will be dangerous or every major artery has an adequate bike lane. Contact a local cycling club or bike shop in the area you intend to visit. You’ll get important local beta and meet other velo-lovers.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go

Hike and bike campsites are perfect for a family vacation, an introduction to bike camping or an exploration of California’s state lands. The only question is where to start? And what are you waiting for?

You’ve gathered your companions and packed your panniers and are ready to begin your bike camping adventures. Destination options are as varied as the state’s topography.  Instead of strapping your gear to your car, why not take the bus or train? Despite a lack of investment in infrastructure, we still have decent public transportation in California that can bring you within biking distance of gorgeous uncrowded spots. The following recommendations are intended to whet your appetite!

Sonoma Coast State Park

Seventeen miles of prime coastal real estate are protected in this gem of a park, four miles south of Jenner. Rocky headlands, secluded coves and natural arches are easily accessible from State Highway 1. Restaurants, visitor centers and charming coastal towns are nearby.

How To Get There

Santa Rosa is the closest urban center. From there, Mendocino Transit Authority bus 95 goes to Jenner, an hour bike ride from Bodega Dunes Campground. Each bus has a rack with space for two bikes- the driver may let you bring another one on board.

When To Go

The weather is always mild on the Sonoma Coast. November and December are often clear and crisp; spring brings carpets of colorful wildflowers.

Turquoise waters on the west coast, at Sonoma Coast State Park, Blind Beach.

Sonoma Coast State Park, Blind Beach (Sonoma County Tourism).

Castle Crags State Park

Rugged granite spires rise above an inviting forest in this park bordering wilderness and bisected by the Pacific Crest Trail. Hiking trails take you to the base of the spires. The Sacramento River beckons during hot summer days.

How To Get There

The charming rail town of Dunsmuir is less than an hour bike ride from the campground. You can reserve a spot for a bike on the Amtrak train and avoid the hassle of breaking it down and packing it in a box.

When To Go

PCT thru-hikers often spend a night or two at this campground. If you want to learn people’s trail names and get a feel for life on the trail, aim to visit during June or July. If you want to avoid them, late fall and early winter have cooler temperatures, but more chance of rain.

The Castle Crags are massive spires of granite rising to 6,000 feet.

The 6,000-foot granite spires at Castle Crags are over 170 million years old (Visit Redding).

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

California’s northernmost State Park brings you into a temple of old-growth redwoods along the edge of the state’s longest free flowing (major) river. Hiking trails beckon, and rolling through the cathedral like groves by the emerald river is unforgettable.

How To Get There

Crescent City is the nearest urban center. An hour of biking, some of it along city streets, some of it along  winding Highway 199, brings you to the hike and bike campground.

When To Go

Long days and stable weather make summer an ideal time to soak in this park’s glory, but that’s when everyone else visits. A mild winter or spring makes the shoulder seasons pleasant.