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Bay Area Getaway: Samuel P Taylor Camping

I just found this post in my drafts! Not sure why I didn’t publish at the time, but all the info should be still good.

My kids have a week off of school in February. Some people in California call it “Ski Week,” and in the past, we have used it to do just that. But this year everything is different.

For one thing, my daughters, who have been skiing every winter since before kindergarten, decided they don’t like the sport. And even if they’d be willing to join us on the slopes for old times’ sake, they won’t go to a ski resort during the continuing Covid pandemic, which I obviously can’t argue with. (Yes, I went during Covid with their dad and brother and it was fine, but it’s OK that our risk tolerence varies.)

Then there was that annoying thing called money. With a home remodel project entering its fourth month, and many expenses having popped up that we had not thought of in the planning process — LED tape for under the counters costs how much? — we didn’t have the budget to stay in a ski house. In fact, we didn’t really have the budget to stay anywhere indoors.

So, camping it would be. The Bay Area had just re-opened campground reservations after the holiday Covid surge, so we were able to snag three nights at Samuel P. Taylor State Park, in the Orchard Hill Loop campground. I had long wanted to stay at this gorgeous state park that’s just an hour from my house, so I was psyched.

In Marin county not far from Pt. Reyes, Taylor has redwoods, Lagunitas Creek with spawning salmon, and — within a short drive — the ocean.

We rolled up to our site just as the sun was getting low in the sky and found that there was no staff on duty at that time and — sadly — no wood for sale on site. I had rolled past a grocery store in Fairfax and a tiny market in Lagunitas on my way into the park, but even though I had meant to, I just didn’t stop. So when I arrived with my two kids and two dogs (the oldest and my husband stayed home), the first order of business was to scavenge any wood we could from empty camp sites before the cold, dark February night set in.

The kids found a few partially burned sticks and logs in empty sites, which got us through the evening. No wood gathering is allowed in the park.

Our site, #53, was interesting. Our parking spot was on the side of the road, and then the site itself was several steps below. A wooden fence surrounded it. We were shocked by how tiny it was. With the picnic table and bear box, there was only one spot where the tent could fit. However, off to the side and partially separated from us by the wooden fence, was an empty area with an old redwood stump, some brush, and plenty of open space. We weren’t sure if this was officially part of our site or not, but it made a great place to tether the dogs without having them get tangled up in the picnic table. It also lent us some privacy. For this reason, I would recommend this particular site if you bring dogs with you to Taylor. On the other hand, if you are expecting much rain, I would stay across the road, like sites 54, 55 or 56, because these sites are terraced above the road. I could just imagine how much water might pour down from the road into our campsite in a heavy rain.

We made our dinner, observed some very nervy raccoons staring down at us from halfway up a redwood tree, and made s’mores by the fire.

I was a little nervous about camping in the Bay Area in February. This was the week that storms tore across the whole country except California, freezing Texas and dumping over a foot of snow on my parents’ yard in Wisconsin. Although we didn’t have the storm, temps weren’t exactly balmy either. The nights were in the low 40s. To stay warm, I brought an extra sleeping bag for each of us, with the plan that we could zip inside one and drape the other one on top of us (Foreshadowing! This proved to be a lifesaver for me later in the trip.) I also bought a down comforter that I spread on the bottom of the tent under the kids’ sleeping mats.

Each of us uses a mat with some kind of thermal protection as well. In our family, camping gear choice goes pretty much by seniority, so the 11-year-old had the foam rolling mat, the 14-year-old had the inflatible Thermarest which I had bought for myself but found too narrow (I think it’s the Basecamp model) and I used a new extra-wide Klymit sleeping mat from Costco, which technically belongs to my husband.

I had brought along some chemical hand warmers in case we needed extra heat in our sleeping bags, but we didn’t end up using them. Instead, I heated a kettle of hot water in the fire’s hot coals as we sat around it, and right before bed, I poured piping hot water into stainless steel water bottles (not too full of course, to allow for steam), screwed on the caps tightly, and put one inside each sleeping bag with warnings to the kids not to burn themselves. In addition, one of our kids had the warmth of our smaller dog, who shimmied right down into her sleeping bag. Our other dog is a German Shepherd; fortunately she didn’t try to share anyone’s sleeping bag.

When we first crawled into our bags we felt a little chilly, but the water bottle — and the dog — worked beautifully. I found I was most comfortable with my top sleeping bag draped over my whole head and pillow, to create a pocket of warmth around my face. I used a headlight to read my book like that, and it was cozy as heck. I didn’t think I could sleep covered up like that, but it turned out I could. If I needed a little more air, I just made a small opening for my mouth at the side of cave.

In the morning, we woke to find that although we had secured all our food in the bear box, the raccoons had walked all over our picnic table, because their dirty handprints were everywhere. I’ve never been sadder that we ran out of the last of the disinfectant wipes we bought pre-pandemic. I wiped down the tablecloth with a wet rag and hoped for the best.

The campground was not full. Looking at the web site, it seems that for winter, mid-week availability of just one night can be found almost always. A week or two out, getting a site for a few nights during the week should be no problem. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any Friday or Saturday nights available at this particular loop through the end of the summer, and I’m betting the same is true for the other campgrounds in Samuel P. Taylor. So if you can get away on a weekday, that’s your chance.

On our way out of the campground as we headed out to Limantour Beach, we noticed the absolutely dreamy day picnic area near the front gate of the park. The picnic tables and stone grills stand under towering redwoods and the whole grove just feels mossy and like something out of a Tolkien. I’m looking forward to having a picnic here some time.

Dogs in Samuel P. Taylor State Park

Dogs are allowed in the day use area and the campgrounds, as long as they are on leash and confined to a vehicle or tent at night. However, they’re not allowed in the cabins that are also available there, nor are they allowed on the state park trails. However, there is plenty to do with your dogs if you bring them to Taylor. For one thing, they are allowed on the Cross Marin Trail, which goes through the park. We took the trail to Kent Lake on our second day at Taylor.

All in all, I would love to camp in Taylor SP again. Although I prefer a campground with larger sites well spaced out, this place was otherwise pretty nice. Clean bathrooms including several individual rooms. They have hot showers that take tokens, but I didn’t use them. The only time I ever interacted with any rangers, they were very nice. And you can’t beat the location!

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