As Californians faced challenging times during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Golden State's coastline, mountains, and forests offered their resilience and natural beauty. California's parks and beaches became a respite for anyone seeking sunshine, healthy exercise, and a break from the endless news cycle.
Now that the most difficult months appear to be behind us, all of the state's beaches and parks are open without restrictions. Even indoor facilities and group areas that were closed for the past 15 months—visitor centers, museums, day-use areas—are buzzing with activity again.
"Everybody is super excited about the state's June 15th reopening," says Gloria Sandoval, deputy director of public affairs at California State Parks. "We're really appreciative that because the majority of people followed the state's guidelines, California has reopened. We're so happy about that."
Because the number of park visitors has grown exponentially since the pandemic started, pre-trip planning is more critical than ever, Sandoval says.
"We ask people to go online and check the status of the specific park they're planning to go to," she says. "And we suggest that people have a backup plan every time they head out. If the park they want to go to is crowded or the parking lot is full, they should try out their backup plan."
Creating that backup plan is about to get easier. Starting in July, California's 280 state parks will be featured on OuterSpatial, an app that provides information about public lands near each user's location by aggregating maps and information from multiple park agencies across the country.
Sandoval says OuterSpatial gives park visitors an easy way to stay informed about closures, road work, weather hazards, and other important advisories. She also stresses that visitors shouldn't assume all parks are operating under the same guidelines this summer.
"Each one of our state parks is unique," she says. "Each park may have its own restrictions, and it's not just about COVID. For example, some parks have fire restrictions, so people need to do their homework to find out whether or not campfires are allowed."
Visitors should also take into account this summer's drought, which has reduced the water level of California's lakes and streams. "What people saw when they visited a lake or reservoir years ago may not look the same this year," she says. "Some areas may be closed because water levels are super low."
In addition to parks in the mountains, deserts, and redwood forests, California State Parks manages a large swath of California's shoreline—about 340 miles of beaches. The state's remaining 800 miles of ocean frontage fall under the jurisdiction of county, regional, and federal agencies. Each agency is working to manage a dramatic increase in visitors since the pandemic and ensure that people recreate safely and responsibly.
Stinson Beach, a broad swath of white sand in Marin County that's operated by Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), has long been one of the San Francisco Bay Area's favorite beaches, and in the past 15 months, its popularity has grown.
"Over the Memorial Day weekend, Stinson Beach's parking lots reached capacity by about 10 in the morning,” according to GGNRA public affairs specialist Julian Espinoza. “We expect for that to continue over the course of the summer, especially on holidays. People travel to our beaches and coastal areas to beat the summer heat. To avoid crowds and traffic, we recommend that visitors travel to the beaches during non-peak hours, which means before 9 a.m. and after 3 p.m.," he says.
Espinoza reminds visitors that a safe day at the beach requires a few precautions, like checking to see whether it's safe to swim. "Folks might not know this, but we only encourage swimming at Stinson Beach when lifeguards are on duty,” he notes. “If you visit any of our beaches, please remember to never turn your back to the ocean, to avoid entering the water alone, and to know your limits as a swimmer.”
Given the boost in daytime beach visits, it's not surprising that beachfront campsites are at a premium this summer. Campers who hope to fall asleep to the sound of the waves need to plan far in advance. Beach campsites operated by California State Parks are generally booked as soon as the state reservation system makes them available, which is six months from the current date.
On a craggy beach just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Kirby Cove Campground in Golden Gate National Recreation Area offers dazzling views of the glistening blue Pacific and the San Francisco skyline, but it's fully booked for this summer. The camp is on the federal reservation system and can be reserved three months in advance.
"No question about it, beachfront campgrounds have been very, very busy," Espinoza says.
But for last-minute planners, there's still hope: A handful of California's beachfront campgrounds operate on a first-come, first-served basis, including Faria Beach Park and Hobson Beach Park, run by Ventura County. On the northern California coast, California State Parks manages no-reservations-needed beach camps at Westport-Union Landing State Beach, Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, and Manchester State Park. Just remember that by definition, "first-come, first-served" means you should arrive early in the day for the best chance of scoring a site.