Modern technology has done a lot to change our ideas about camping. It's pretty easy today to leave home without leaving behind the creature comforts that we rely on. To those who long for something more traditional, Portola Redwoods State Park is a perfect getaway. The absence of any cell service is one of the reasons why visitors love this park.
So if you're ready to unplug as well, head to Portola Redwoods State Park. It is deep within the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco. Ancient Coast Redwoods have been protected throughout the park and even the largest tree in Portola is only a short hike from the campground. If you have more time, the Tiptoe Falls or the Peters Creek Grove hikes offer enough to fill your day. There are 18 miles of trails exploring 2,800 acres in the park, and there is also access to nearby Pescadero Creek (County) Park, with another 8,000 acres of tranquil forest.
The road to the park is exciting, to say the least. Page Mill Road begins near Stanford University and I-280. The road switchbacks slowly all the way to Portola for about 20 miles and provides spectacular views both to the coast and back at the bay if you're blessed with clear skies. All kinds of vehicles make it up the road, but nearly everyone is surprised at how long it takes to get there. Give yourself plenty of time and come with a full tank of gas, food, and water.
The weather is variable and can range from hot and dry to sopping coastal fog. Trails can be wet and muddy, and downed trees are common on the trails, especially in spring. Many visitors report frustration with mosquitoes and hornets so repellent and protective clothing is a good idea. If you're tent or car camping, make sure you're ready for rain and cooler temps. If you're RV camping, there are six rustic sites available for RVs up to 24 feet long.
Portola Redwoods State Park is completely submerged in unsoiled nature, and if you're looking to get off-grid for your next RV vacation, this scenic park could be perfect for you. The park is only 30 miles east from San Jose and 50 miles from San Francisco, making it possible to leave the big city lights behind in a matter of hours. Major route I-280 sits to the east of the park, while the famously picturesque Highway 1 is to the west.
The access road to the park has constant windy turns and steep ledges for a whole hour of driving. Don't head in with a trailer unless you're sure you have space, and come prepared because there are no stores or gas stations nearby. The last few miles are the steepest section, so please go slow and watch out for bikes. Inside the park, the road is well maintained with nice gradual curves and parking for extra vehicles and just enough turn-around space for tour buses. The campground is very shaded, so don't expect too much from your solar chargers.
There are 55 campsites, but only six of those are large enough for a small trailer or motorhome. Be sure to reserve ahead of time. This is dry camping at the end of a very long and narrow road, so come prepared to be self-sufficient. Generators are allowed from 10 AM to 8 PM, but please respect that many people visit the woods especially for the peace and quiet. The only services in the park are a weekend Visitor Center, bathrooms, water, and coin-op showers (sometimes closed during severe drought). There is no dump station, and the campground is closed November through March.
If you're camping with a group, Portola Redwoods State Park is equipped with four tent-only group campsites. One of the campsites can accommodate up to 25 people, while the rest can sleep up to 50. These sites are primitive and are only equipped with food lockers, picnic tables, and fire rings. Restrooms and coin-operated showers can be found nearby. Reservations are required for group camping and can be made up to six months in advance.
Portola Redwoods State Park and a few neighboring parks offer the chance for backcountry hiking and camping, so if you're looking to get out of the RV for a night or two, lace up the hiking boots and grab your tent out of the rig. Portola's Slate Creek Trail Camp is equipped with six backcountry sites that can each accommodate a maximum of six people. Campfires are not allowed, and campers must bring their own water along. Trail camping is not for the faint of heart, and if you're a first-timer, you can always join a naturalist-led backpacking trip during the summer months. Trail camps are only available by reservation, which you can make up to six months in advance.
After the long trek up to the park, you'll probably be ready to stretch your legs. Park the campervan and follow the signs on the south end of the campground to depart for Tiptoe Falls -- a pleasant and fairly level 2.5-mile loop trail with access to a couple of small (six to ten foot) waterfalls on a tributary of Pescadero Creek. Note that the park uses temporary footbridges on this path in the camping season. This may mean rock-hopping, climbing across downed trees or simply wet feet in the offseason when the bridges are absent. The falls are best seen when the water is moving, but that may mean you'll have to work for it. Don't forget your camera.
When winter gives way to warmer temperatures in April and May, the park explodes with life underfoot. There are hundreds of species of plants, mushrooms, wildflowers, and insects that are unique to the Santa Cruz Mountains ecosystem. Flowers like the Leopard Lily, a show themselves, attract a host of colorful butterflies and hummingbirds to their sweet nectar. Though collecting is not allowed, you're sure to see many types of mushrooms during the wet season. Be careful while you are exploring the undergrowth because poison oak is common in the area.
If you still haven't gotten your fill of giant trees after hiking through Portola, Big Basin Redwoods State Park is only an hour away to the south. Big Basin has 183 sites in three campgrounds and the buzz of visitors to go with it. They are here to enjoy California's oldest state park and the tallest tree in the Bay Area, at 329 feet tall. In the off-season, both of these parks are quiet, but in summer many RVers are thankful they're camping in the less-frequented Portola Redwoods State Park.
If the weather during your RV vacation is less than pleasant, the Visitor Center proves to be a great place to get out of the rain. But it's more than just a storm shelter. The visitor center is decked out with comfy lounging areas (there's even a fireplace to cozy up to), educational displays, and wildlife exhibits. You could spend hours meandering through the building and learning more about the Portola Redwoods. There's also a gift store where you can purchase a souvenir to remember your stay.
If you're looking to get your young campers out of the motorhome and interested in nature, you're in luck. Every weekend in June the Visitor Center at Portola Redwoods State Park hosts a Jr. Ranger program for kids ages three to six. The focus is on animals and how they fit into the diverse ecosystem of the redwoods. There are group activities, a scavenger hunt, and simple arts and crafts. Call the park to check dates and program specifics for the year. The group meets at the Visitor Center, and the program usually lasts around 30 minutes. If you miss the group, don't worry, the wildlife are easy to spot on any hike in the park. Salamanders, newts, banana slugs, and crawfish are thriving everywhere you look.
Even though Portola Redwoods State Park does not offer any equestrian camping options, you can still bring your horses along on your RV vacation to the park. Horses are allowed on the trails at the nearby Pescadero Creek Park, and the Jack Brook Horse Camp has reservable overnight campgrounds for equestrians and their horses. As long as weather and trail conditions permit, there are 26 miles of trails to explore in the county park, and the Old Haul Road, which connects the two parks, is also open to horses.
This ten-mile roundtrip ride through Pescadero Creek Park and Memorial County Park is a popular beginner-level dirt road ride. Access is gained through the service road by the campground amphitheater. It's a gradual ride that is nicely shaded in summer by large second-growth trees, making it feel like you're zipping through a tunnel. Expect relatively little traffic except for a few other bikes and horses in the summer. Dogs are not allowed on any of the trails in Portola Redwoods State Park.
Those looking to rough for a night or two in exchange for adventure can set out on one of the park's backcountry trails. The trail network expands across thousands of acres of redwood forest in Portola Redwoods, Big Basin Redwoods, Castle Rock, and Butano State Parks. The trails will lead you from high mountain peaks all the way down to the Pacific, and you'll be able to see a variety of different landscapes, geology, and flora and fauna along the way. You can take to the backcountry trails on your own, or join a naturalist-led guided backcountry hike; just stop in the visitor center for details and make sure you are well prepared before setting out.