When you get fed up with coastal fog and need to feel some sun on your face, book a family getaway to Arroyo Seco, a gem of a campground just three hours south of the Bay Area. Nestled among oak trees on the eastern edge of the Ventana Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest, Arroyo Seco offers opportunities for hiking, river swimming, fishing for bass in a small lake, or just relaxing in the shadow of mountain peaks.
Located east of Greenfield off Highway 101, Arroyo Seco is open year-round and close enough to the Bay Area for a last-minute day trip or an overnight adventure. Through the end of summer, there is some mid-week camping availability, with weekend reservations opening up in September and beyond. There are also some first-come, first-served sites available for summer weekends, but these often fill by noon on Thursdays.
Near the park entrance, a day use area is popular among families who want easy access to shallow water play. More adventurous groups willing to hike a little ways up the gorge will avoid the crowds and be rewarded with spectacular vistas and magical swimming holes. For a great swimming spot, head up the gorge trail, a broad fire road, for less than an hour. When you reach a few garbage cans on the right side of the road, you are at the turnoff to a short walk down to the river. This is a good place to park your jogging strollers so you can help the kids navigate the last part of the trail to the river below. There you’ll find cool, inviting pools and a little waterfall that good swimmers, kiddos powered by floaties, and parents can check out.
While some people have critiques of Arroyo Seco—that it is buggy, dirty and rocky—that is true of camping most anywhere. If you’re willing to get your hands dirty and embrace the camping mentality, Arroyo Seco is a great spot to enjoy sun and fun amid terrain that is different from the familiar coastal redwood locales.
Arroyo Seco offers 40 campsites for tent and RV camping, though no hook-ups are available. For tent campers, the primitive sites are more spacious than those in the main loop. Reserve a primitive site if you value breathing room over flush toilets and showers. That being said, avoid site #38, unless you enjoy camping next to a pit toilet!
Don’t forget: Water shoes for exploring the rocky riverbed, floaties for the kids, insect repellent, water bottles, sun hats and sunscreen—summer and fall daytime temperatures average in the 80s.
Watch out for: Poison oak near the campsites and on trails. Remember, when you see three leaves: if it’s hairy, it’s a berry; if it’s shiny, watch your hiney.
Be sure to: Stay within arm’s reach of the little ones near steep trails and in the river.
Good to know: Firewood is available for purchase on-site, but for any other forgotten items, be sure to stop at a small store a few miles before the park entrance.
Post-camping parking: If you want to hang out after check-out, get a day use parking pass and drive on over to the gorge parking area before the lot fills with day hikers. On a busy summer weekend, the lot gets filled by mid-morning.
Getting there: Heading south on Highway 101, just past Soledad, turn west onto Arroyo Seco Road and continue to the campground at the end of the road.
Cost: $15-40 per night, depending on whether you book a single, double, primitive or modern site; $5 for an extra vehicle. One group site for up to 50 people is $75.
Campground information and reservations: Recreation.gov
What’s your family’s favorite camping spot in the Bay Area? Let us know in the comment section below.
— Tricia Kerr
Photos courtesy of Roy Scribner via Flickr, IvyMike via Flickr, and Rocky Mountain Recreation