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Squeezing the most out of summer sometimes means bleeding into Fall (Autumn to everyone else in the world). In order to crowbar in a few more camping trips before the weather really goes south, it’s a good idea to find a campground close to home. Less travel time required, and if it turns out to be a rain-fest, you can sneak home easily without too much trouble. Luckily, we live close to Portola Redwoods State Park.
And let’s be honest, it’s not like California has been experiencing an over-abundance of rainy or ordinary weather. Portola Redwoods State Park is a special place for Mr M and his family. They’ve been driving down for their annual camping trip since he was about 5-years-old. So he’s got great memories of hiking, running around and making lots of noise with his cousins there. Someone more eloquent than I would come up with a beautifully-phrased sentence about how lovely it is to be included in a tradition that spans years. But I’m not that person, so we’ll move on.
If you’re not yet convinced that Fall camping is a great idea, read on young squires as I attempt to bring you around to my way of thinking, using Portola Redwoods State Park as an excellent example.
PORTOLA REDWOODS STATE PARK
Every time I mention Portola Redwoods State Park to people at work (who live and work fairly close to it), I get a blank stare in return. They either haven’t heard of it, or have no clue where it is. Frankly, they’re living right next to a cool hiking and camping spot and they don’t even know it. So let’s start with its location. The 2,800 acre park is about an hour’s drive east of San Jose city centre, or just 18 miles (of windy roads) south east of Mountain View, on San Francisco’s peninsula. As I mentioned, there’s a windy way to get there and a windier way. They involve navigating cyclists (more on the weekends) as well, so keep your wits about you.
The good news about the drive in, is that you get a view from the top of the ridge before making your way down into a redwood forest that you could totally tell your kids is full of fairies and leprechauns. They’d believe it, that’s how cool this forest is. You’ll pass the visitor’s centre on the way to the camp grounds. Here you’ll be able to talk to park rangers to check in and buy firewood if you’re staying the night, or just get tips on the best places to hike on a day trip. There are 18 miles of trails inside the park, and some carry on outside of its borders.
Right now you’re probably thinking, “but it’s autumn, it’s going to be freezing out there”. You don’t know how wrong you are. Yes, it gets chilly in the mornings and evenings, but that’s par for the course on any camping trip. When was the last time you went to Yosemite National Park in summer and weren’t cold at those times of day? Bring a few extra layers and pull your camp chair a little closer to the fire. Problem solved. Plus, when you’re cold, you’re more likely to want to warm up with delicious treats, like smores for example. I don’t need much more of an excuse to go camping really.
The Leaf Factor
Staring straight up into the canopy of redwoods is amazing at the best of times, but what about during Autumn? Well, lots of redwoods are evergreen, meaning that they don’t change colour according to the seasons. But other trees do, and you’ll get to experience the gamut of reds, oranges and browns. Your dogs and children will probably love rolling around and playing in the leaf litter as well. Just keep them on a leash – the kids especially.
Hikes, Hikes Everywhere
The worst thing about hiking during summer in California, is that it’s bloody hot. It’s self-explanatory really. Hikes get exponentially more uncomfortable as the mercury rises. That’s why spring and autumn are such popular hiking times for Californian Outdoors-people. It’s a little cooler, you’re less likely to have your backpack stuck to your back via your own sweat, and the whole experience is a little more comfortable. Plus, if you’re lucky enough to be near a water source, you can play the Banana Slug game. I’m hopeless at it, but Mr M and his dad started it years ago, probably to keep everyone interested. Whoever spots the Banana Slug first gets to claim it in his/her count for the day. Person with the highest count wins. I think the record is in the hundreds.
Old Tree Trail
One of the easiest trails you can hike in Portola Redwoods State Park, it’s also kid-friendly because it’s short and spectacular. The 1-mile trek takes you through a giant old growth redwood grove, showcasing tress that have stood for 1,200 years. The out-and-back trail also features wild flowers, depending on the time of year you visit. But the real gems are the trees that tower above you and spread out in front of you. Just when you think a tree couldn’t possibly get any bigger, you get to THE old tree. Stretching an elegant 90 metres tall (297 feet), with a 3 metre trunk (12 feet), the old tree is one of the oldest in the grove. Thinking of what that tree has lived through is mind boggling in itself. Take your camera, you’ll need it.
Upper Coyote Ridge Trail
This is the first trail I hiked in the park when I visited on a day trip back in 2015. I made it a kind of loop from the parking area near the visitor’s centre and back. You can choose to just do Coyote Ridge up to Portola State Park Road, and turn back. Or you can continue on to the Summit Trail loop that’ll take you 10 kilometres (6 miles) all up. Be warned that you’re going up and down two ridges so it’s a decent climb. But there are some lovely views along the way and it really is a decent hike.
Slate Creek and Summit Trails
This year we opted for the Slate Creek trail from our campsite, which you can actually use to get to a secondary camp ground that’s only accessible to hikers. But we took a right at the Summit Trail to make it a cosy loop. Well, I say cosy, but it was still a good 10km (6 miles) and we traversed a little creek that I expertly sloshed into on my way through. There’s a bit of up and down to this hike, but it does take you through some beautiful stretches of trail. I was a little disappointed on the Banana Slug count.
Some state parks allow visitors to go geocaching and Portola is one of them. While some only allow for virtual or physical geocaches, Portola allows both. What is geocaching? It’s all about using GPS coordinates to find hidden objects (either physical or virtual). There are quite a few websites that give you coordinates for hidden treasures throughout the park. And some, like this one, offers additional clues that you have to decrypt before you can use them. Sounds like fun to me.
Lots of state and national parks have a Junior Rangers program, aimed at children aged between 7 and 12. They get a logbook and a badge and each time they join a Junior Rangers event, they get stamps (kind of like in scouts or guides). It’s a great way to fill a camping day, if you’ve already been on a hike the day before. Kids get to play games, discover animal tracks, learn about wildlife, geology and ecology. I’ll have to live vicariously through my own child, since I missed out as a kid. Can you tell I’m disappointed?
Eating (My Favourite Pastime)
Half the fun of camping is cooking outdoors! And when we’re out “roughing it”, we’re usually with Mr M’s parents, who do all the prepping and cooking so we just get to laze about and enjoy the fruits of their labour. Make sure you’ve got enough light to cook by, since it can be a bit of a pain to cook by lantern light. My other tip is that Portola is a “crumb clean” park, which means you’ve got to be vigilante and make sure kids don’t just brush crumbs off onto the ground. Birds like Blue Jays and ravens are attracted by the food left behind, and are known predators for the eggs of endangered birds in the forest. So don’t leave food out!
Relaxing in the Sun
There’s not much better on an autumn afternoon, than sitting in the sun in your camp chair with a full stomach after a hike and relaxing. For me that means reading a book, Mr M might be reading or playing video games, and you might even want to take a nap. Best to use lots of sunscreen if that’s the plan. It’s such a lovely way to while away the afternoon hours. I was reading Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal on our last trip and I highly recommend it if you’re looking for something fun with a twist.
Portola Redwoods State Park Details
That’s our fall weekend camping trip in a nutshell. The best part is that this post can be applied to lots of state and national parks across the US this autumn. Don’t be scared off by the bite in the air, there’s still tonnes of fun to be had in camp grounds across the country!
Price: $10 per vehicle, per day. Camping reservations vary, see Reserve California.
Phones: You’ll get exactly zero reception within Portola, and for a while outside of it. So be prepared to use your phone in airplane mode only.
Pets: Dogs are allowed in the campsites, picnic areas and on paved roads. They aren’t allowed on hiking trails or dirt roads. Horses are not allowed on hiking trails, but they are allowed on the Old Haul Service Road.
Wood: You can buy some at the Visitor’s Centre, you’re not allowed to gather it from around your camping site.
Bikes: Aren’t allowed on hiking trails but are allowed on the Old Haul Service Road. Helmets are required for those under 18.
Drones: Are banned.
More information: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=539