Roughing It

Words by Andrea Gemmet

Photos by San Mateo County Parks

Words by Andrea Gemmet

Lazy days spent wandering through the forest, looking for the perfect stick for roasting marshmallows. Hiding in a hollow tree trunk, climbing on logs and tossing rocks into the creek. Singing campfire songs beneath the stars before zipping into a cozy sleeping bag.

For anyone who hasn’t been camping since childhood, or who wants to introduce a new generation to the delights of an overnight in the woods, San Mateo County’s Memorial, Sam MacDonald and Pescadero Creek parks are waiting for you to pitch your tent. These picturesque spots don’t require you to get up before dawn and spend half the day driving to a campground, yet they still feel a world apart from the busy Peninsula. Located about an hour away in Loma Mar and La Honda, you’ll find miles of trails, picnicking facilities and an abundance of weekend activities throughout the summer.

Memorial Park's Pomponio Trail

As the county’s oldest park, Memorial will celebrate its 100th anniversary in July. The natural beauty of the area, along with some persistent lobbying by a school superintendent and a Loma Mar teacher, convinced San Mateo County Supervisors to purchase the land from a logging company. In 1924, they dedicated it to the memory of the 51 San Mateo County residents who lost their lives in World War I.

Since then, Memorial Park has seen generations of families come for hiking, picnicking and camping. Ranger Katherine Wright is one of them. “My grandparents camped there with my dad and his brother,” she recalls. “I grew up in San Mateo, and my parents would take us camping at Memorial Park every summer. It’s a great place. You’d make instant friends with families in neighboring campsites.”

On a sunny day just a few weeks before Memorial Day weekend, Katherine and her fellow county parks staffers are preparing for the summer season. Restrooms and showers have been renovated, picnic tables replaced. Walking along a sun-dappled trail lined with pale blue forget-me-nots blooming beneath towering redwoods, she recalls younger days splashing in Pescadero Creek and imagining fairies hiding in trees. “Having a place within an hour’s drive was awesome—It made it easier, more available for us to go camping, even on a whim,” she smiles.

As a teen, Katherine spent her summers working as a park aide. “I never really considered it as a career, I just thought it would be a cool summer job,” she admits. Uncomfortable with public speaking, she hesitated but ultimately couldn’t pass up the chance to lead the same activities and programs she’d enjoyed as a kid. “Now, I’ve worked in the parks department for 14 years, and I hire and supervise the people who lead those programs,” she marvels.

Katherine recommends Memorial Park, with about 130 drive-up family campsites, as best for first-timers. On summer weekends, day-trippers and campers alike enjoy free programs ranging from campfires and movie nights to arts and crafts activities and interpretive hikes. And as of last fall, there’s a new Huckleberry Flat area for campers with canines. One caveat: “You have to have a dog to camp there,” Katherine says.

Sam MacDonald Brook Trail

Nearby Sam MacDonald Park in La Honda also has a special area for those traveling with larger four-legged friends. Its Jack Brook Horse Camp has three sites with paddocks and tie posts for equestrian groups. What’s more, rangers host special hikes during Black History Month in honor of the park’s namesake and original landowner, a beloved Stanford University employee who died in 1957. Also inside the park is the Sierra Club-run Ollie Mayer Hikers Hut. Located a couple of miles from the main parking lot, it holds up to eight people. Boasting bathrooms, a full kitchen, a wood stove and mattress pads for your sleeping bags, it’s the closest you’ll come to “glamping” at a San Mateo County park, Katherine says.

Another option for those willing to pack in their gear? Adjacent Pescadero Creek Park offers two hike-in camping areas, each about two miles from a trailhead. “It’s more remote, and you don’t have access to potable water,” Katherine points out. “You have to go down to the creek to pump it.” It’s the perfect place for backpacking newbies to take a test run ahead of a longer trip. “The elevation isn’t crazy, like it is if you’re going to Yosemite,” she shares. With over 20 miles of trails, Pescadero Creek Park is also great for long hikes or trail running.

Gone are the days when scoring a campsite meant showing up and getting lucky. Back then, campers might pitch their tent on a Wednesday, then head home until Friday night, just to lock down the site for the weekend. Now, you must make reservations online, and summer spots go quickly, Katherine confides. For the family sites, she suggests making reservations six months in advance. “If you can be flexible with your dates, pick a weeknight. Otherwise, get on the computer at midnight, right when they open up.”

Katherine also has advice for avoiding poison oak and an itchy, trip-ruining rash: stay on the trail. “We do our best to clear our trails of all sorts of vegetation,” she says. If you’ve been exposed and don’t have immediate access to soap and water, rub your hands with dirt to soak up poison oak’s easily spread oils, she advises. And don’t touch yourself anywhere else until you’ve washed up!

As generations of Peninsula residents can attest, there’s nothing quite like the majestic beauty of the forest to remind us that, despite all of our modern comforts, we’re still a part of the wild and wonderful natural world. All it takes is a willingness to unplug, head to a county park and immerse ourselves in the great outdoors.


Towle Camp Nestled in Palo Alto’s Foothills Nature

Costanoa Glamping on the Coastside in Pescadero.

Audrey Edna Cabin Secluded hike-in cabin at Alpine Ranch in Loma Mar.