Scout Backpacking Around the SF Bay Area

I’ve written a series of articles about backpacking trips that work for Scouts ages 10 to 14. Some have a “split hike” possibility where older, stronger Scouts can take a different route to the same campsite.

See you on the trail!

Backpacking sunol 3

Backpacking: Pioneer Outpost at Cutter Scout Reservation

The Hike

Not especially well-marked if you want to make it a loop, but easy to follow on a fire road if you make it an out-and-back. This campsite is a couple of miles from the main part of Cutter, past the COPE course, down into a small valley. When you hit a decent-sized meadow on the downhill side of the road, you’re there.

If you know a Scouter who’s taken the High Adventure Training (HAT) course at Cutter, they have probably hiked the whole loop. GPS tracks are available, if you ask nicely.

Why Go Here?

Who knew there was a backcountry campsite at Cutter? It won’t be booked up by tourists from the midwest, that’s for sure. Give it a try.

There are a couple of small campsite just off of Butano Fire Road, McKie and the ESAR Outpost. I’d choose McKie, which is on top of a ridge and has nice views, but it only has room for a few tents. The Pioneer outpost is a meadow big enough for a few patrols.

Reservations and Planning

The backcountry campsites are $6 per person per night.

The water source is South Fork Butano Creek, a bit up the road towards the main camp area from the campsite. You’ll be carrying water back to the campsite and purifying it.

Cutter Scout Reservation was damaged in the 2020 CZU Complex wildfires. It may be a while before the camp is rebuilt and can reopen.

Links and Resources

Fees and reservation form: Cutter fee schedule

Backpacking: Castle Rock State Park

Backpacking castle rock

The Hike

This is a loop, with the trail camp 2.5 miles from the parking lot. One side of the loop is a dramatic trail along the side of the ridge. with views out to the ocean on good days. Our Scouts call it the Cliff Trail, but its official name is the Saratoga Gap Trail. The other half of the loop goes through a woods along the top of the ridge, the Ridge Trail. The elevation gain/loss for the full loop is about 1200 feet.

Why Go Here?

The hike is lovely. You’ll see lots of day hikers. With 25 camp sites, it rarely fills up. This is also one of the few trail camps where a campfire is allowed, only in rainy season, of course.

You will hear a few loud motorcycles on Skyline Boulevard, and the nearby gun range is active until 4 or 5 PM. Also, watch out for poison oak, it is very common near the trail camp.

Reservations and Planning

Parking is $10 and you need exact change. Bring it, because the ranger kiosk is usually not staffed. The parking lot fills up, so plan to start your hike early.

Campsites are $15 per night with an $8 processing fee. For two sites and a group of 13 or more, there is a flat fee of $25.

Reservations can be made 60 days in advance, online.

15 of the 20 campsites are available by reservation only as part of the Santa Cruz Mountains Backcountry Trail Camp System. Five campsites are available first come, first served. This is a change from before, when all sites were first come, first served. See the reservations page below for details.

Links and Resources

Backpacking: Manzanita Ridge at Henry Coe State Park

Backpacking manzanita ridge

The Hike

Three miles, with elevation gain loss of +/- 500 to 600 feet depending on which group camp you stay at and which route you take.

The first part of the hike has three options. The ranch road follows the crest of the ridge, so it has more views and a bit more climbing. The Springs Trail is on the sunny south side of the ridge, going mostly through meadow. The Forest Trail is on the shady north side of the ridge. The Forest Trail also has a nature booklet and is great for doing some tree and plant identification.

I like to go out on the ridge-top ranch road and return on the Forest Trail.
There are ten group camp sites stretched out along about a half mile of trail. Personally, I like site 10, at the end. It has a big meadow to run around in and some trees for protected camping spaces. it also has a nice view to the west. Site 5 is on top of a knoll and is also a a nice spot. Several of them are nice, really.

Why Go Here?

In all the times I’ve camped here, there has never been anyone in another group camp site. Maybe a group at the horse camp, but I think that was only during the day. The sites have plenty of room, picnic tables, and quiet nights.

The hike along Manzanita Ridge is a guaranteed opportunity for Scouts to do the nature requirements for Second Class and First Class (ten animals and ten plants). I always see a dozen or more wild animals on this loop—wild turkeys, quail (usually by sound), hawks, vultures, owl pellets, meadow dug up by wild pigs, pocket gophers—it’s a long list. Don’t miss the Acorn Woodpecker granary tree where the three trails meet at the south end of the ridge.

The Forest Trail is a nature trail with numbered markers, starting at the south end, but the brochures aren’t always stocked at the start of that trail, so see if the visitor center has a copy.

A split hike option is possible here, with a challenging hike over to Middle Ridge, then down to Poverty Flat and back up to the group camps. This is a great workout for a Philmont shakedown.

Stop by the visitor center at headquarters and ask about water conditions and weather. The water varies from none to not enough, but it is conversation. While you are there, you can buy their nice guides to the plants and animals of the park. You can even buy a patch. We know it is real Scouting when there is a patch.

Reservations and Planning

The Manzanita Point group camps do not have water. Each group can bring one vehicle in to carry water and other things. That vehicle will stay in the campsite. The road is pretty rutted and steep in places. I’ve driven it in a minivan, but some people would not be comfortable doing that.

The have been putting in new vault toilets and some water tanks, so that situation might have improved. Call and ask for details.

The group sites are $75 per night, plus an $8 service fee. Two vehicles are allowed only for transferring equipment to and from the camp site. They cannot park there overnight. If the road is wet, four wheel drive might be a good idea, though I’ve driven it wet in a minivan.

Reservations can be made six months in advance.

Coe is hot and dry in the summer. Winter and spring are the best times to go.

Large areas of Henry Coe State Park were burned in the 2020 SCU Lightning Complex fire, but this portion of the park was not affected.

Links and Resources

Backpacking: Black Mountain Trail Camp at Monte Bello Open Space

Backpacking black mountain

The Hike

About two miles with 600 feet of up and down, just enough up and down to feel like a real hike. The trail goes through open grasslands with nice views along the headwaters of Stevens Creek.

There are a couple of options, taking the trail or the road. They are about the same distance and elevation gain/loss, so let the Scouts choose the route.

Why Go Here?

Lovely hike and a nice, roomy group camp area, what’s not to like? If the fog doesn’t roll in, you’ll see some stars. You can also get a nice view of the Santa Clara Valley. Hike up near the actual summit of Black Mountain (past the radio installation), then take the use trail east, towards the valley. At the edge of the meadow you can stand on some rocks and get a peek at the valley all lit up below. Camping is the only way to get that view, because the park closes at sunset.

There is a split hike option for older, stronger Scouts to take a more difficult route to the same camp site. Drop off the crew at Hidden Villa in Los Altos HIlls. They’ll walk through the farm, then start on the Creek Trail and hike up into Monte Bello Open Space Preserve. This is a 9 mile hike with 2400 feet of climbing, so much more of a challenge.

You can add a second challenging day by continuing from the trail camp up to Skyline Boulevard. Take the Indian Creek Trail down into Stevens Creek Canyon, then the Canyon Trail downstream, then the Grizzly Flat Trail up to Skyline. Arrange to have your ride meet you there. That hike is another 2500 feet of climbing. The two days together are a “half traverse” of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Hike the Skyline to the Sea Trail to complete the traverse.
Backpacking black mountain night

Reservations and Planning

Reserve the group camp with a web request on the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District site. You will need the vehicle descriptions and license plates to register, so plan your rides early. The fee is $2 per camper per night.

For the split hike option, Hidden Villa is closed to the public in July and August. It is probably too hot to do that hike in full summer anyway.

If a storm comes through, the wind seems to be funneled through the group camp meadow. Make sure your tent is staked down.

Links and Resources

Backpacking: Eagle Spring Camp at Mission Peak

Backpacking eagle spring

The Hike

I recommend starting at Sunol Regional Wilderness Preserve and hiking to Mission Peak from the east side. That trail is longer, 5.5 miles, but not as steep. Also, the overnight parking is much safer because the park is closed overnight.

The hike is nearly all on fire roads. That is a harder surface, but our Scouts like it because they can walk side by side and talk the whole way.

About halfway up, there is hairpin turn with a driveway to a house on the north side of the trail. The interior of that turn has a bunch of old building foundations. This is a convenient spot to stop and have lunch or a serious snack.

It will be clear when you get close to camp, because Mission Peak will be right in front of you. When you hit the tee-junction, turn right, and you’ll be at the camp right away.

The trail rises 2000 feet from Sunol to the top of Mission Peak, but Eagle Spring Camp is about 400 feet below the peak, so you only have to carry your backpack up about 1600 feet of elevation.

Why Go Here?

The campsite has awesome views of the valley across to Mt. Diablo. You can watch the traffic jam on I-680 while you sit and relax. I had that view as my screen background for quite a while.

Mission Peak officially closes at sunset, even though you are likely to see dozens of people on the summit at that time. But they have to walk all the way back down in the dark and you only have to walk back to camp.

To get to the peak, take the trail up the south side. The north side approach is the worst trail in the Bay Area, steep and rutted. The south side is a perfectly normal trail.
Backpacking eagle spring night 1

Reservations and Planning

Normally, I’d say the East Bay hills are too hot in the summer, but I’ve camped here in early July and late September and it was fine. Not sure I’d choose August as a first choice, though.

$5 per night per person plus $8 booking fee. Open all year. To make a reservation, call 1-888-EBPARKS or (888) 327-2757 , press option 2.

The trail from Sunol crosses the Olohne Regional Wilderness, so each hiker 12 years or older will need a wilderness permit. Those are $2 each and can be purchased in-person at Sunol or over the phone. Fee for in-person purchase is $2/person/year; by mail/phone/online $4/person/year for first five permits and $3/person/year for each additional permit after five. You need a paper copy of the permit, so buy them seven days in advance if you aren’t getting them in person.

Links and Resources

Backpacking: Boulder Creek Scout Reservation

Backpacking BCSR

The Hike

Loop trail, 3.5 miles total, about 600 feet of uphill to the campsite and returning.
Camp in a spacious redwood grove. I prefer the Upper Redwood campsite to Lower Redwood or Meadow. Meadows are lumpy and cold. Upper Redwood is just a little nicer.

Why Go Here?

It is a nearby, easy trail, and easy to get reservations. It is a year-round trail, though it could be cold and rainy in the winter.
The redwood grove is a lovely spot with tons of room for patrols to spread out. There are other campsites at the lower end of the redwood grove and in the meadow, but I like the Upper Redwood Camp best. Meadows look nice, but they are lumpy to sleep on.

Reservations and Planning

Reserve the site through Pacific Skyline Council. It is best to avoid camporee weekends when the parking will be over 100% full.
It can be wet and cold there in the winter and you can get plenty of fog drip from the redwoods in the summer, but that is part of being there.

Links and Resources

Backpacking: Berry Creek Falls in Big Basin

Backpacking big basin 2

The Hike

From Big Basin State Park Headquarters, hike the Skyline to the Sea Trail to Berry Creek Falls, then hike up the Berry Creek Falls Trail past Silver Falls and the Golden Cascade, then continue on to Sunset trail camp. The closest water is at Berry Creek, so fill up there before hiking to the camp.

This can be turned in to a two-night trip if you start by camping at the Jay Trail Camp in the Big Basin headquarters area.

An alternate route is start at the Rancho del Oso Nature Center near Waddell Beach and walk upstream to Berry Creek Falls and Sunset Trail Camp. This an out-and-back hike, roughly 7 miles each way, with an easy downhill back to the trailhead. You can even run into the Pacific Ocean at the end! But you’ll miss the old growth redwoods, which are all in the narrower upstream canyon that couldn’t be logged.

Why Go Here?

The Berry Creek Falls Loop is the most popular trail in the park, and probably the most popular long trail in the SF Bay Area. You’ll find plenty of reasons to hike it. But backpacking means you can be on the trail when fewer people are there. Maybe you want to hike the loop so that you go to the falls on the morning of the second day, so you’ll be there in the morning before the crowds arrive.
Backpacking big basin 5

Reservations and Planning

Campsites are $15 per night with an $8 processing fee. For two sites and a group of 13 or more, there is a flat fee of $25.

Reservations can be made 60 days in advance, online.

Big Basin State Park was heavily damaged in the 2020 CZU Complex wildfires. It may be a while before the camp is rebuilt and can reopen.

Links and Resources

Backpacking: Black Diamond Mines

The Hike

About three miles from the parking lot with 300 feet of climbing and 150 feet of descent, reversed on the return trip. The destination is the Stewartville Backpack Camp.

Why Go Here?

I haven’t visited this one, but it looks like a nice campsite with a fairly easy hike, plus some interesting historical sites, including a mine tour.

The camp site is a single group site, so you’ll be on your own. Redwood HIkes says:

Stewartville is a single-site trail camp at the edge of a huge, sweeping cow pasture. The vast swath of open, gently sloping grassland, which is a strikingly deep green in spring, is often dotted with cows. It kind of feels like you’re a cowpoke camping on the range.

Reservations and Planning

$5 per night per person plus $8 booking fee. Open all year.
Reserve by calling East Bay Parks at 1-888-327-2757.

Links and Resources

Backpacking: Angel Island State Park

Backpacking angel island 3 adj

The Hike

First, you take the ferry from Tiburon, so there is some driving and coordinating with the ferry schedule. Once you are on the island, your campsite is a mile or so away mostly on paved roads. Hiking all the way around the island is five miles, so you can’t go too far.

You’ll want to hike to the the top of the Island, Mount Livermore, but do that when it isn’t shrouded in fog. I’ve been to the top in the fog and it is amusing, but the views aren’t that great.

Why Go Here?

There is nothing quite like camping on an island. Camping on an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay with a clear view of Oakland, San Francisco, and the Golden Gate is even better. Also check out the light show on the Bay Bridge. It is on the side of the bridge facing Angel Island.

Make some time to visit the immigration station and other historical sites. The Immigration Station is a National Historic Landmark and a great choice of a place to visit for requirement 2a of Citizenship in the Nation merit badge.

Reservations and Planning

Angel Island can be very cold and windy. The best time of year is October, maybe extending into late September and early November. October is the brief break between the cold summer ocean upwelling that brings the fog and the winter storms that bring rain.

Your camp site will either be the West Garrison or North Garrison group sites on the windward side, or the Secret Service Camp in a well-sheltered site on the leeward side. The group camps have better views and the service camp is warmer.

Reserve the service camp (it’s not on the map) by calling the Service Camp Coordinator at the Angel Island Conservancy (Programs « Angel Island Conservancy). Talk to them to arrange a service project and you’ll have the use of the service camp. Don’t try to find it on the map, it isn’t there. I’ve seen the sign for it, but I’m not telling.

Camp sites open up for reservations six months in advance. Be a sniper and reserve them on the morning of the first day they are open.
Do not miss the last ferry! Chartering a boat at the last minute is quite expensive.

Links and Resources

Backpacking: Coast Camp at Point Reyes

Backpacking coast camp 1

The Hike

Two mile easy hike through tall brush. The highest point of the trail is halfway there, about 300 feet higher than the start or end. The last time I was there, I realized I left something in the car, so I just hiked back and got it. That was a year after my knee surgery and I wasn’t in great shape, so yeah, easy hike.

You want to park at the Laguna Trailhead, but that parking lot fills up often. Don’t be surprised if you end up parking a quarter mile away along the road. It is still an easy hike.

You can also start at the Limantour Trailhead, but check the tide tables for your hike in and hike out times, because the beach portion of the trail can be soggy or underwater.

Why Go Here?

The beach! If you make it a two-night campout, there is great day-hiking up and down the coast, plus a challenging hike to the summit of Mount Wittenberg. That summit is part of the Rim of the Bay patch series.

A campfire on the beach is a great way to end the day, but dress warmly because the wind off the Pacific Ocean can be really cold any time of year.

Backpacking coast camp 2

Reservations and Planning

Getting a reservation is the hard part. Plan on being a sniper and making a reservation six months to the day before your planned outing. Log on and make that reservation before your morning coffee is finished brewing. Start checking a few days before to make sure you understand the system and the earliest date.

Based on two visits, campsites 8 and 9 were very windy, and sites 13 and 14 were a bit more sheltered. I would expect sites 1-7 to be less windy. We had Scouts looking for rocks to keep the lid from blowing off of the pot. Of course, they were set up on top of the raccoon box at a convenient height. I set up my stove on the ground in the lee of the raccoon box.

A permit is required for beach fires, get one at the visitor center—Beach Fires Within Point Reyes National Seashore – Point Reyes National Seashore (U.S. National Park Service).

The hardest part of the trip may be driving to Point Reyes on a Friday or Saturday. On Friday, you may need to leave after lunch to avoid the traffic across the Golden Gate Bridge. Plan on having all the cars stop at the visitor center to regroup. You’ll need to pick up your camping, parking, and fire permits there anyway.

Links and Resources

Backpacking: Sunol Regional Wilderness Preserve

Backpacking sunol 1

The Hike

The hike is hard enough that everyone will feel like they’ve accomplished something, and at the end there are nice campsites with a lovely view of the valley.

This can be a “split route” campout, with the older Scouts taking the more challenging McCorkle Trail. Both trails leave from near the same parking lot and both end up a the entrance to the backpack camp area.

The campsites are spread out enough that other campers are out of sight and hearing, unless you meet at the water spigot or latrine.

You will probably be in Eagle’s Eyrie (10 people) or Star’s Rest (30 people). Those sites are at the highest elevation, both with great views.

Trail Details

Most hikers should take the Camp Ohlone Road along Alameda Creek, then the Backpack Road up to the camp area. The Camp Ohlone Road is rolling, slow climb. You’ll see tons of people until you get to the Little Yosemite area, then probably nobody after that.

The backpack camping area is spread up the side of a ridge, with the highest camps (Star’s Rest and Eagle’s Eyrie) 350 feet above the gate to the area. The trail is very steep, with no switchbacks. Expect to take a lot of rest breaks during the last half mile from the gate to your camp.

Everyone will need plenty of energy for this last push to camp. Our glycogen reserves are usually depleted after about two hours of hiking, so you are likely to run out of energy exactly when you need it. Plan a mid-hike stop for everyone to replenish with an energy bar, so Gatorade, or both. This might be at the picnic tables at Little Yosemite or where the trail leaves Alameda Creek to climb out of the canyon. If you haven’t stopped buy then, you might need a 30 minute packs off and snack break at the gate to the camping area.

If the group is feeling good after the hike in, you may want to hike back on the McCorkle Trail. It has about as much climbing as the last stretch to the campsite, but much less steep. This is the easy direction for the McCorkle Trail. It is much harder going to the camp.

Why go here?

At the end of this challenging hike, you’ll be in a campsite away from other people with a great view down the valley. The only time you’ll see another person is going to the water faucet or latrine.

Schedule your campout during a meteor shower and you’ll have a good chance of seeing shooting stars. The camp sites are far enough inland to get less fog and not that close to city lights.

Backpacking sunol 2

Reservations and Planning

$5 per night per person plus $8 booking fee. Open all year.

Check availability at ReserveAmerica Sunol, California – View Available Campsites & Reserve Online | ReserveAmerica, but reserve by calling East Bay Parks at 1-888-327-2757.

Reservations may be made up to four weeks in advance. The latest they can be made is two days before your arrival date.

Links and Resources