Lake Sonoma, California: Camping in Wine Country

Few travelers drive the five miles beyond Sonoma’s beautiful and bucolic Dry Creek Valley to a destination that otherwise requires hours of serious driving to equal its lakeside splendor. Preston and Bella vineyards are perched at the end of West Dry Creek Road. The 1881 General Store, at the junction of Dry Creek and Yoakum Bridge Road is a roadhouse with fine edibles; a great spot for a delicious lunch.  Just a few miles up Dry Creek beyond the exquisite Sbragia Family Vineyard is a large earthen dam. It sits across the top of the valley and was constructed in the 1980s to abate flooding from the natural lake beyond.

The road snakes up the hillside (changing its name to Skaggs Springs) and from the top you can see a lake reminiscent of the visual delight of Shasta, though smaller. This jewel is Lake Sonoma; less than two hours from San Francisco. Operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, the lake features excellent camping, great swimming and boat rentals.

The Rockpile Road bridge soars over one arm of the lake. The parking lot on the left has pathways down to the lake and a road to a boat launch. A turn below the bridge takes you to the marina. Continue on Rockpile Road for three miles and you‘ll see a sign for a campground on the left. It’s a mile to a booth where you pay for camping access — $10 per night, regular rate; $5 for seniors. Three campsite circles spread over acres of hillside. Find a site under a spreading oak or set your tent on a hilltop. A pump-house failed a few years ago and running water has been supplanted by a plethora of PortaPotties. The word is that running water will be back in 2011 and with it, flush toilets. The Potties are well tended and clean. But you need to bring in water for cooking and drinking.

Campsites perch high above the lake and are set back so only by peering over an edge on one circle can you see the lake. But the vistas are gratifying, stars plentiful and the quiet is immersive.

The best camping locations on Lake Sonoma are “boat-in.” The cool move is to scout your site by hike or map, then rent a boat for an hour to drop off coolers and camping gear. Parking areas are found a mile above several of the remote sites. Drop off non-hiking campers and gear, then return the boat and drive to a nearby parking location with parking permit displayed on your dash. Hike a mile down to your lakeside site, and stretch out for one sweet chill.

Lake Sonoma – so near and so far – is a virtually undiscovered treasure that requires you to travel a fraction of the distance and trouble of Lake Pillsbury or Shasta. Where else can you camp out and rough it while still being less than 20 minutes from wine tasting? That’s a combination with many virtues!

Marty Perlmutter Written by:

Marty and his family spent a year circling the globe; he’s hoping to do it again. Marty and wife Miki wrote a guide to Napa wine country for the California Automobile Association. They love camping almost as much as they love spas. Marty has written for the Boston Phoenix and San Francisco Chronicle. He has edited two multimedia newsletters and has been working in interactive video for decades, producing and recruiting.