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When I think about camping, backpacking, and hiking, I think about long sunny days filled with clear blue skies, lush green meadows, warm fires, cookouts, and watermelon. In other words, I think about summer. But getting out in the winter means unique activities, unreal landscapes, and unforgettable quiet. And... let's be totally honest, here in Northern California, it's sometimes so hot winter may as well be summer!
This article is filled with advice about camping, backpacking, and hiking in the winter, focusing on a sampling of well-known parks close to San Francisco. Hopefully it will get you itching to try it for yourself. Of course, if you need any gear, we’re happy to help!
Why go: The weather is pretty mild along the coast, without snow. And the views of the mighty Pacific (and that, end of the world feeling you get when there’s nothing but sea in front of you) only improve since there are fewer visitors than summer. If you’re a wildlife enthusiast, there’s are even better reasons to check out the parks. Winter is the time when elephant seals mate and pup. You might see up to 1000 blubbery pups squirming along the beaches of Point Reyes near Chimney Rock or at Piedras Blancas in Big Sur. Winter is also when the gray whales migrate south from Alaska to their breeding grounds in Baja California. Rangers in Point Reyes estimated 60-100 whales passing the lighthouse everyday back in December, and the peak month is actually January, so get out there quick! Finally, in Big Sur, you may see tiny heads of baby sea otters from January through March; they’re a little hard to spot, but it’s a wonderful treat to catch one!
Practical advice: Because there isn’t snow, the equipment you’d need for camping, backpacking, or hiking isn’t fundamentally different than in the summer. Just be sure you have additional layers of clothing (remember, that Point Reyes is generally an incredibly windy place!) and warmer sleeping bags (though additional layers of clothing can compensate easily here).
Why go: Of course, the cross country skiing brings unbeatable views (you are, after all, in a National Park). Then there’s also sledding and snowshoeing (and even ice skating in Yosemite) with far more dedicated terrain and tracks than your typical ski resort. But this article is about camping. In my opinion, camping in the winter isn’t about hiking, it’s about being. It’s all about staying still in the sensation of serenity and solitude in snow (wow, alliteration really hit hard there). It’s difficult to compare to the summer, when there are hordes of people everywhere, and you really have to get to the backcountry to feel remote. In the winter, all the campsites near yours might be empty (I’ve never had to even try to make a reservation), and you might wake up to the sound of only breath.
Practical advice: The weather will be cold, especially at night, and especially if you go where and when it might snow. Definitely check the forecast beforehand and go to the park’s website for current conditions (Yosemite here, Lassen here) for updates on any road closures and the need for snow chains. Bring extra emergency supplies and brush up on what hypothermia & frostbite look like—luck favors the prepared! And don’t forget to drink water and put on sunscreen; when it’s cold we often forget to do these things, but they’re always important.
Don’t forget to explore other places! Most parks, especially National Parks, stay open year round; just be aware of any closures in place by visiting the park’s website first. Of course, local regional parks are also another option.
Thoughts, ideas, questions? Let us know in the comments below! We're Last Minute Gear, the only outdoor gear shop where you can buy, rent, or borrow gear!