Urban Camper: Escape to Sunrise Point

S.F.’s southernmost urban campsite is a little-known respite for the outdoorsy.

It may come as a surprise that in our seven-by-seven-mile city we have not one but two campgrounds. There’s Rob Hill in the Presidio, frequented by entire classes of schoolchildren, where the permanently reserved campsites come in at a laughably-expensive $125 a night. And there is Candlestick Point’s Sunrise Point Campground, a horseshoe-shaped ring of six $35 rustic campsites that sit along the edge of the Bay.

On approach, it feels like an odd place for a campground. The quickest way to get there from much of San Francisco is via Highway 101, and the Candlestick Point exit is decorated with piles of trash blown against teetering chain-link fences. The road to the site quickly gets bumpy, and slaloming slowly over potholes past the massive dirt pit that used to be Candlestick Park is a surreal experience. Turn into the parking lot for the Candlestick Point State Recreation Area, and the first thing you’ll encounter is a dark black ring of doughnuts on the asphalt, no doubt left by joyriders who’ve identified the spot as a no-man’s land.

The parking lot is vast, the equivalent of a couple city blocks, and on most afternoons it is fairly full of cars, as people lug out picnics and unload their dogs. The campground is walk-in only, with the nearest site about a quarter-mile from the parking lot along a paved path (a wagon for towing supplies would be useful here). Along the southern side, fishermen try their luck along a pier.

By day, the campground is completely open to dog walkers, kids playing soccer, and families celebrating parties. Check-in for the sites is at 2 p.m., but there’s a high likelihood of people walking past your chosen spot. But when night falls, you’re alone, and only those with reservations are allowed to stay. They’re not hard to get, either; when SF Weekly booked a site for a Saturday night three days prior, only two of the six had been reserved.

There could be a few reasons for that, not least of which is that the area is clearly under construction. The new bathrooms, surrounded by piles of dirt and sagging caution tape, are out of order; temporary porta-potties offer their services instead. Pink confetti and watermelon rinds line the ground near trash cans. The park is wild and unlandscaped, with rotting bales of straw scattered underneath the trees. The highway and SFO are nearby, and while the former provides a soft, white noise, the latter sends the occasional roaring jet overhead. And, as a woman, it doesn’t feel entirely safe to camp there alone, with no all-night ranger on duty and the pulse of the city noticeably close by.

But all that aside, Sunrise Point is breathtaking. The water laps gently against the rocks, ground squirrels dart through the grass, and seabirds dive for fish in the Bay. All six campsites are within 30 feet of the water, a rare luxury even in a state that borders the Pacific Ocean. They’re large enough for two tents, with clean barbecue grills and metal cupboards for safely storing food away from wildlife. And Sunrise Point’s proximity to the city is somewhat of a blessing; it’s only an 18-minute drive from Upper Haight, when alternatives require the soul-crushing traffic of the Golden Gate Bridge on a Saturday morning.

There are a few other details to keep in mind if you go. First, campfires are not allowed, so shake those visions of hosting sing-alongs around crackling flames out of your head. (To be honest, though, every campsite in California bans open flames right now.) Dogs, while welcome during the day, are allegedly banned at night unless they’re service animals. (We say “allegedly” because rule-enforcing rangers appear to be in short supply.) And potable water is available, though the taps are badly marked, so find one before night falls if you didn’t bring your own supply.

All told, Sunrise Point offers a decent dose of the wilderness for those of us who love camping enough to book a last-minute site within a stone’s throw of the comforts of home. It’s no Desolation Wilderness, to be sure, but waking up early to watch the sunrise over the Bay, wrapped in your sleeping bag at a picnic table with a cup of third-wave coffee in your hands, is a pretty spectacular way to start a day.


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