How to camp at the Back Ranch Meadows campsite at China Camp State Park using public transit.
by Elizabeth C. Creely
It’s time to write what I now realize is an annual narrative about camping and the small disasters and triumphs that go with it. Someday this essay will recount what it was like camping in the high desert or at sea level, but for now, it’s going to be about camping in another oak woodlands, this time the one that grows on top of San Pedro Mountain in Marin County. On July 4th, Jay and I took several buses and backpacked one mile to get to the Back Ranch Meadow campground in China Camp State park.
This fact amazes people when we tell them. Admiring glances are thrown our way. “Wow,” a friendly father walking his daughters said to us. “I didn’t know you could do that.”
Well, unless you’re disabled and have mobility issues, you can (and if you are, please know that I have always firmly advocated for transportation options which are various, diverse and supported by my tax dollars.) There’s an array of public transportation options in the nine-county Bay Area: BART, Golden Gate Transit, SAMTRANS, county buses, and city shuttles which can get you out of the city and into counties with camping sites as far north as Mendocino and as far south as Pacific Grove. (The newest entry in this system is the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system, which I am very excited about.)
These systems, which are always in danger of having their funding cut, are also heavily used. The Golden Gate Transit bus we boarded in San Rafael at 1:30 in the afternoon, coming home from our camping trip, was packed full of site-seers, and commuters going to the Golden Gate bridge or to work or to the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco. Public transportation can be weirdly invisible to the general public, which is a bummer. Publicly funded transit systems are critical elements in any sustainability or “livability” scenario. This is the basic assertion of transportation justice, the idea that you shouldn’t have to impoverish yourself getting from point A to point B.
The only thing you have to have is Time, which can be an expensive and scarce resource. But Time is elastic and illusory and tends to open up under pressure. Also: the travel counts as the trip.
You also need curiosity, resolve, and the willingness to is strap on a backpack that contains shelter, bedding, food, water, and clothes. Also, for the love of god, use an actual map: I recommend Ben Pease’s Trails of Northeast Marin County map. After boarding two to three buses, depending on where you live, you can hike exactly one mile into the campsite, which sits in a glen below the northeast face of San Pedro Mountain.
You’ve seen San Pedro mountain, whether you recognized it as such or not. It rises to your right as you drive the 101 north into San Rafael. The main ridge splits into a series of smaller, pincer-like ridges which jut into the San Francisco bay. At Point San Pedro, the coastline makes a sharp turn to the north. This point, together with Pinole Point, located across the bay on the eastern shore, creates the space the San Pablo bay occupies.
Following the frontage road that winds around Point San Pedro heading north will take you past salt marshes, the laboratory of the San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, which conducts research on estuarine health within the wilds of pickleweed and spartina. There are odd little hills perched on the edge of the marsh, would-be islands, which will be actual islands in another 50 years or so, as soon as the sea rises.
Jay and I went camping in July mostly because of corporate perfidy; he was placed on unpaid furlough by PG&E, as were his fellow contract workers. The alternative meant sitting at home on the fourth of July in the Mission District, worrying about our future and enduring one M-80 explosion after another until Christ o’clock in the morning. The challenge for us was that we did not want the expense, or bother, of renting a car.
I rent a car about four to five times a year, which is enough for me. Cars are expensive, they use land which could be used for better purposes, and the emissions they belch are helping to cook the planet. I love getting rides home as much as the next person, believe me, especially when I’m dolled up for the opera, but in general, I’d rather ride my bike, take a bus or light rail train or just walk.
What people should have congratulated us for was getting a campsite anywhere for the 4th of July. (Jay and I suffer from procrastination.) We needed a campsite to be available at the last minute in July and one that was accessible by public transportation. That’s a tall order, I remarked acidly to Jay. Miraculously, we got our wish. China Camp State park had sites available throughout the week of the fourth of July. We booked site #15 for three and 1/2 days and three nights.
Our assumption that we could get there on public transit was well-founded. The Bay Area is unique in California in having undeveloped, natural areas in close proximity to its urban centers. The activism that protected the contado and sought to make it accessible to city dwellers is one of the main reasons Jay and I could depend on public transportation to get to a campsite. Dick Walker wrote about this history in his wonderful book “The County in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area”. Using 511 and our own knowledge of local transit options, we planned our route, using three buses, and one half hour walk. Within four hours, we were at the campsite.
The first bus we took was a MUNI bus, the 27 Bryant. We hopped on at 22nd and Bryant, and rode to 5th and Market, walked to 7th and Market and got on a Golden Gate Transit bus #70. We de-bussed at the San Rafael transit hub, broke for lunch, and then took a Marin County Transit District bus #233 to Vendola Drive, the last stop for this particular bus and one that put us within walking distance of the campsite.
The first ten minutes of the walk was a bit grim. You are forced to walk on a narrow shoulder on North San Pedro Road, which is a street built for cars, not walkers. I felt like an interloper, and reflected on how transformative sidewalks and walking paths really are. They open spaces up. Streets that are engineered for cars close them down. But after 10 minutes of walking up a slight grade, Gallinas Creek and the San Pablo Bay appeared, and the small shabby suburb disappeared behind us. After that, it was a twenty minute walk to the entrance of China Camp State Park and the parking lot of the Back Ranch Meadows Campground entrance.
We got to the site at about 2 p.m., trudging a bit. Our backpacks were heavy, and the day was hot (really hot.) There were problems, the most serious of which was the semi-derelict wooden food lockers at the campsite. We were warned about raccoons, but the real vandal was the incredibly cute California mouse (Peromyscus Californicus). The mice got inside the box, nibbled on this and sampled that, and after breaking into a bag of walnuts, made a cute little nest for themselves and settled down to enjoy life, which they did until Jay came along and flushed them out. (also, mouse feces was everywhere. Yup.) Here’s a link to a video of the mice caught in their moment of flagrante delicto. (I urge you to watch it.)
Poor little guys. It’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the State of California and the California Department of Parks and Recreation for trying to close China Camp back in 2012, which has had a deleterious effect on basic park maintenance. At some point this week, I’m going to send an email to the Friends of China Camp—we’re members— the all-volunteer organization tasked with running the 75-acre park, letting them know that they need to tell people to bring their own storage options.
There were other challenges: a bratty child one campsite down who threw florid temper tantrums several times a day. (Once, she woke up in the middle of the night and screamed mama, mama for five minutes, reenacting the most basic and terrible fairy tale of all: the lost child in the wood crying for her mother).
And the mosquitoes were relentless and we hated them for it and wondered why we hadn’t brought protection. Jay and I counted 22 bites between us. Bring mosquito nets and barriers, and repellent. You’ll be a lot happier. The campsite is protected from wind, which makes lighting your campfire easy and fighting mozzies and midges impossible.
But the consolation was in what we saw in our three days there. There were old-growth manzanita lining the ridges, some of the biggest I’ve seen in Marin. There were black oaks. We saw a skink, a magical lizard with a bright blue tail. Deer crashed through the brush with their heavy yet light-footed bodies and pricked their ears up every time we took a step. The salt marsh rippled with (probably) hybridized spartina, which waved in the wind like green watered silk.
The moon was straining towards fullness the entire time we were there. On the last night, we walked out to look at the marsh plain under the glowing moonlight.
The first night we’d spent there, I’d heard coyotes shrilling and yapping in their crazy way, somewhere out in the baylands. Jay and I hoped to hear this again, but the yells and shrieks were all coming from the children, playing one last game before bed in the campground.
It still counts, I thought. We are, after all, animals too.
For Laura, who wanted to know how we did this, and for Alexis and Krikor who showed me how. Long Live the Purple Monster backpack!