Stanislaus National Forest in central Californa is one of the 20 oldest national forests in the United States, established in February of 1897. It is nestled between the Yosemite National Park to the south and Eldorado National Forest to the north. It is nearly 900,000 acres of mountainous forest, including around 139,000 acres of old-growth lodgepole pine, jeffrey pine, and white fir. The forest encompasses hundreds of lakes, two designated wilderness areas, and two rivers that incorporate areas of class IV whitewater rapids. Strangely beautiful rock formations were shaped by the violent volcanic reactions that created many of the mountains, including the Column of Giants and the Trail of Gargoyles. There are several threatened or endangered species of plants and animals that survive in this forest such as the western white pine, Paiute cutthroat trout, the Sierra Nevada Yellow-legged Frog, the western goblin fern, and the Olive-sided flycatcher. There are several RV campgrounds located in this stunning wilderness, from large campgrounds with nearly 200 campsites to small, secluded campgrounds with just a handful of sites. We have highlighted just three of those campgrounds here, but there are many more.
The roads that lead into and through the mountainous wilderness of Stanislaus National Forest are mostly paved two-lane roads with several changes in altitude. As these are mountain roads, the roads tend to have numerous curves, but most of them are fairly smooth curves that are easy to navigate even in a big rig or towing a trailer. It is important to stay aware of your surroundings when driving in this forest and to take it slow. Many of the curves, while wide enough to navigate, are difficult to see around and there are several large mammals in the area that may be on the road such as deer, elk, bear, and even mountain lions. There are a fair number of turnouts available for campers to get out of their vehicles and stretch their legs. Most of the campgrounds in the forest have paved roads, but some of the smaller campgrounds may be challenging to steer a big rig through as they have tight curves and loops.
Pinecrest Campground, located in the heart of Stanislaus National Forest, is a large campground that encompasses nearly 200 campsites that are available by reservation. Situated near the shore of the 300-acre Pinecrest Lake, 194 of the campsites at this campground are spacious enough to accommodate RVs and trailers up to 40 feet in length, each with a paved parking pad, campfire ring, and a picnic table. Although there are no electrical, water, or sewer hookups, this is an extremely popular campground with several amenities. Along with fresh, drinkable water, flush toilets with electric lighting, and a dump station, Pinecrest boasts a sandy swimming beach, an amphitheater that plays family freindly movies most nights, and a nearby resort with a restauraunt, shopping, and a full-service marina near the boat launch and accessable fishing pier. Leashed pets are welcome in the campground, but are not allowed in designated swimming areas and must be attended to at all times.
The Clark Fork Campground can be found along the banks of the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus River, in the heart of Stanislaus National Forest, approximately 25 miles west of the town of Pinecrest. This is a developed campground comprised of two loops of campsites with paved parking pads and paved roads, all available on a first-come, first-served basis. None of the campsites are equipped with electrical, water, or sewer hookups, but generators are allowed between 8 AM and 8 PM for up to three hours per day. A fire ring, grill, and picnic table are provided for each campsite and there are several hydrants that provide potable water for the campground. The 28 campsites on the A-loop tend to open earlier in the year and stay open later. There are a few well-maintained vault toilets in the A-loop area, and several flush toilets available for the 60 campsites that are located in the B-loop. There is a sanitary RV dump station near the entrance of Clark Fork Campground.
Baker Campground is situated in the southern portion of Stanislaus National Forest, about a mile north of the Kennedy Meadows Resort. It is typically only open from around April until October and is comprised of 44 rustic but spacious campsites surrounded by mature conifer trees, a few of which are double-sized. Campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, with a checkout time of 11 AM. None of the campsites are equipped with electrical, water, or sewer hookups, but generators are allowed between 8 AM and 8 PM for up to three hours per day. Each of the sites come equipped with a campfire ring, a grill, a picnic table, and bear-proof storage boxes. This is bear country, so it is important to ensure that you store your food in one of these storage boxes or in a hard-sided camper. There are several vault toilets scattered throughout the campground, as well as faucets with potable drinking water.
The hundreds of lakes in Stanislaus National Forest provide a plethora of opportunities for recreational boaters to play in the water. Popular destinations for waterskiers and motorboat aficionados include Beardsley Lake and Cherry Lake. Those looking for a more serene experience may prefer the tranquility of lakes that don’t allow motorized boating, such as the Donnell Reservoir and the Utica/Union Reservoir. Windsurfing at Beardsley Lake, Pinecrest Lake, or Cherry Lake is also a popular activity in this national forest.
There are two fantastic and challenging venues for whitewater rafting in Stanislaus National Forest. Both the North Fork of the Stanislaus River and the Tuolumne River class IV rapids and can be perilous for those who do not have the proper skills and experience to navigate. Unless you have a great deal of experience with whitewater excursions, it may be wise to organize your trip with a commercial whitewater rafting outfitter. While only commercial outfitters are required to get a permit to traverse the North Fork, the Tuolumne River is considered one of the most difficult river runs in California and a free permit must be acquired from the Groveland Ranger Station before making the run.
If you enjoy birding you will want to check and make sure your birding kit is in the campervan before you leave for Stanislaus National Forest. This forest houses a huge variety of avian inhabitants. Mergansers, mallards, and ring-necked ducks are often seen on the lakes and slower moving rivers, while ospreys and bald eagles hunt fish in these areas. Mountain quail, pigeons, and doves are often found roosting in oak trees, and around a dozen species of woodpeckers live here, predominantly northern flickers, red-breasted sapsuckers, and hairy woodpeckers. Small songbirds including chickadees, brown creepers, and pine siskins are often seen flitting through the trees as well.
This national forest encompasses both the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness area and the Emigrant Wilderness. It is not uncommon to see larger mammals such as mule deer, black bears, coyotes, and even mountain lions roaming these areas. Smaller mammals include a plethora of ground squirrels, chipmunks and deer mice, along with a few marmots and pika. Reptiles and amphibians are also plentiful in this forest, including western rattlesnakes, Sierran tree frogs, and even Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs, a globally endangered species.
Due to the volcanic history of the region, there are a number of interesting natural geological structures that can be found in Stanislaus National Forest. The Carson-Iceberg Wilderness area even gets part of its name from the distinctive granite formation called the Iceberg. Other notable geologic wonders in the area include the Trail of the Gargoyles, a collection of strangely shaped, craggy volcanic rock formations, and the Column of the Giants, a section of rare columnar hexagonal basalt rock that was formed over 150,000 years ago.
Fishing enthusiasts who are planning to stay in Stanislaus National Forest will want to ensure that their rod and reel is packed in their trailer. Over 800 miles of rivers and streams feed into hundreds of lakes scattered throughout this national forest. The majority of the sport fish that live here are species of trout, including rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, and brook trout. There are also bass, catfish, and land-locked salmon in many of the lakes. One of the most popular fishing spots is Pinecrest Lake, near the Pinecrest Campground. There is a boat launch near the marina that services the campground, and an accessible fishing pier that has plenty of room for casting, making it a great place for kids to fish.