NOTE: This piece was published in March of 2022.
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 much of 2020 and 2021—visitor centers, museums, day-use areas—are buzzing with activity again.
Because the number of park visitors has grown exponentially since the pandemic started, pre-trip planning is more critical than ever, Gloria Sandoval, deputy director of public affairs at California State Parks, 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."
For help with creating that backup plan, check out 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.
"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."
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 the dramatic increase in visitors and ensure that people recreate safely and responsibly.
Given the boost in daytime beach visits, it's not surprising that beachfront campsites are at a premium. 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 reserving a spot can be difficult. 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.