Car Camping: Calaveras Big Trees State Park

This past February, I began planning three car camping trips and two backpacking trips for the summer of 2012 – because I thought I would be jobless and on funemployment by June. That didn’t happen…and through the course of planning those five trips for myself and my friends, I discovered that organizing that many camping trips with multiple groups of people is like herding ferral cats.

However, the experience did help me discover Calaveras Big Trees State Park on the edge of the Sierras – it seems to be the closest way to get to the Sierras from the Bay Area. And it’s purrty.

About the park and campground:

1. The Oak Hollow campground is much nicer than the North Grove campground, IMHO. The sites in the lower loop can be pretty spacious (if not gorgeous) and are not as close to each other as the sites in the North Grove section.

Oak Hollow site #105 – notice the matching Campdome 4 tents and the morning sunlight through the trees

2. You can swim in the Stanislaus river where everyone goes fishing, just be careful. If you don’t watch yourself you’ll just float down the river. The campground doesn’t officially condone it, but swimming is pretty feasible when the river is calmish. The rocks around the edges of the river are perfect for passing out in the sun; plus there’s some decent rock jumping around the boulders near the bridge/cascade area.

Loungin all day long. Check out the guy sitting in a chair on the rocks.

Swimmers can also get a natural cold spa treatment if they’re brave enough to scoot across the shallow rapids to the middle of the cascade.

Just make sure to clear the rocks when you jump

3. If you camp here, you must do the North Grove “hike”. It takes you on a gorgeous walk through various giant redwoods, including the most famous one that started the park. The South Grove loop, on the other hand, is a short walk through nothing scenic (my friends and I somehow got lost on this short trail, and ended up walking through the parking lot and up the street to find our car).

When the settlers first “discovered” these big trees back in the day, they chopped down the biggest one and displayed it at fairs. It’s a damn shame.

4. There’s apparently a lot of bears around this park, but don’t worry about them too, too much.

We discovered this one night after dinner when I looked up and saw two shiny eyes staring back at me from the top of one of the fallen trees around our camp site. This is the only campground that I’ve ever seen that uses chains to reinforce the bear lockers. Despite this, we somehow failed to lock our bear locker properly. I straight passed out at bedtime and didn’t hear them pulling the coolers out of the locker during the middle of the night…

Apparently black bears LOVE raisin bread

Besides the bears, there’s a lot of yellow jackets in the campground. I think there must have been a hive by our site because we were bombarded by them every meal! I got stung by one when I was walking around the South Grove loop looking for our car (tape a penny to the wound after cleaning it – it should suck out a little of the venom). I have to say that yellow jackets are the biggest @$$holes of the insect world – they’ll sting you for NO apparent reason.

5. The weather is amazing here during the summer: high 80’s to 90’s during the day, 60’s at night. I’ve never experienced such good car camping weather.

The most glorious camping mornings ever, thanks to this view and my 50 degree sleeping bag

6. If you ever get tired of the park’s activities (there’s also are few short and longish hiking trails in the area that I didn’t get a chance to try), there’s also lot to do a few miles from Calaveras Big Trees SP – mostly in the town of Arnold:

Fishing, swimming and boating at White Pines lake

Slack-rope time – get yours at REI

New Melones Lake. Another great camping/fishing/swimming/boating area

Bouldering at nearby Columbia college

It gets pretty cozy out there at Calaveras Big Trees. If you’re sharing a tent, just make sure that you find someone that knows how to share the space. I think I got 30/70.

The orange sleeping bag was encroaching upon my space on the left.

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8 thoughts on “Car Camping: Calaveras Big Trees State Park

  1. Janet says:

    A fun place. My husband and I just returned from camping down the road from Big Trees called Sandy Flat right next to Camp Wolfeboro–a boy scout camp running throughout the summer. I’ll blog about it soon. On our way back we drove to Big Trees. Back in the day–over 20 years ago–it was free to get into Big Trees. 🙂

  2. bettyjettson says:

    Thank you for documenting this – you saved me a ton of research! We’re going to recreate your trip over Columbus weekend. You think the river is ok for small kids?

    • Glad I could help! This part of the river isn’t too good for small kids because the water can move pretty fast (can’t tell by the photos), but for older kids who can swim well it should be fine (other kids were jumping off the rocks into the river with us).

      I did find a small pool where kids can play (splash around, but not swim) – you can take a short walk to get to it near one of the picnic areas on another part of the river (not by the bridge). The brochure should point out “swimming and picnic areas” – I think the area is called Oak Leaf Spring or Beaver Creek.

      For family swimming, White Pines lake in the town of Arnold is the best – it’s just 3 miles away and very family friendly. Bring floaties and lounge all day! It also has a beach and picnic tables.

      Site #105 isn’t the best for families, but some of the sites in that loop near the bathroom are huge and are good for large groups (mostly the sites on the outer edge of the loops)

  3. Desolation wilderness, Tahoe. My favorite place on earth! That was from my 6 day backpacking trip in mid-August.

  4. Julia Thomas says:

    Great job documenting…family going there this summer because of your blog.

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