I’ve wanted to go camping on my own for the several years, but I hadn’t gotten out there and done it. When I daydreamed about it, I thought about Cheryl Strayed in Wild, clearing my head, relying on myself, coming to great emotional epiphanies and, you know, triumphing over all my problems.
Keep in mind that I was contemplating spending a night or two in a campground, with flushing toilets and running water handy. Overdramatic much? Still, as a mom of three with a husband who’s been working from home for more than a year, the thought of being more or less alone for even 24 hours was appealing.
Yet, every time I reserved a campsite and thought I would strike out alone, I’d start to feel nervous and ask my kids if any of them would go with me. The first two times, (Big Sur, Henry Cowell) one or two of them agreed to come along, and those turned into wonderful bonding experiences. Also, this may surprise you, but all three of my kids (ages 11, 14 and 17) know how to set up tents much better than I do! It’s always been our campground routine that I set up the camp kitchen while the kids help Erik set up the tent, so they have plenty of tent experience and I don’t.
A couple of weeks ago, I finally got out there alone. It happened because my oldest needed to be dropped off at Girl Scout Camp in Calaveras county, a three-hour drive from where we live. Since I have always wanted to explore that area, I snagged a one-night reservation at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. I wanted the family to come along, but drop off was on a Sunday and my husband didn’t want to take Monday off work. At first my younger kids were going to come along, but they begged off because one had plans with friends, and the other wanted more time to pack for their upcoming trip to Wisconsin.
Fine! I told them. I’ll just go alone.
Well, not completely alone. I planned to bring one of our two dogs. Which one, though?
Agnes MacDonald, Boy Detective, is a German Shepherd who, although super gentle and shy, is big enough to make anyone think twice before bothering me. She’s super alert and has a deep, loud growl and bark, so, in German Shepherd style, she’s an excellent guard dog. However, being only a year old, she is not as chill when hanging around a camp site and might need to be tethered.
Then there’s Aggie’s propensity to try and crash through the wall of your tent if she doesn’t know where the door is. The first time we took her camping, she got away from me and very nearly trampled our neighbors’ tent, while they were sleeping inside. Thank goodness I got ahold of her in time.
Badger, a mix of Australian cattle dog, pit bull and chihuahua (I know, right? Must have been some party.), is also a good guard dog, but he looks less imposing. However, at nearly 3 years old, he knows how to stick to a campsite when told and is very well behaved off leash.
The clincher was the cuddle factor. When camping, Badger will crawl down into the sleeping bag with me and keep me extremely cozy. Agnes, at a rangy 62 pounds, could not fit inside my sleeping bag if she wanted to, and doesn’t really understand the concept anyway. In the past, when camping, we have had her sleep in a crate.
So, Badger was crowned Official Companion of the First Solo Camp. The morning of camp drop off, I loaded a few dog supplies and a just a few camping supplies into the back of our Toyota Highlander.
What I brought:
- No tent. (I’d be sleeping in the SUV with the seats down.)
- Large lunchbag cooler with road trip snacks (cherries, sparkling water) and camping food (one frozen mason jar of milk for my coffee).
- Camp stove.
- Cooking supplies: Kettle, pot, metal coffee cup, large metal cup for both cooking and eating, one set silverware, large slotted spoon, paper towels, cloth towel, tablecloth.
- Food bin (1 can of soup, 1 pack dry noodles, 1 can sardines, coffee, Terra chips for road, dog food, whiskey.)
- Sleeping bag, air mattress, two pillows.
- Lantern and headlamp.
- Folding chair.
- Book to read.
- Backpack with sleep pants, change of clothes, toiletries.
Nutmeg added her camp gear, and off we went.
It was a strange feeling, pulling out of the Girl Scout camp and knowing I was totally on my own for the night. Part of me felt the thrill of freedom, like when school got out for the summer, while part of me felt like I was watching myself in a movie, and this is the part where the heroine gets herself into trouble. As if I didn’t know how to do anything without my husband with me and I was going to end up getting myself hurt or killed or lost. I do get lost easily. But I just told myself not to be silly and cruised over to the campground, where I was easily able to check in.
Some campgrounds I’ve visited during Covid have not been staffed at the entry booth, but Calavares Big Trees State Park had an employee there to check me in. They had wood for sale, but they only take cash at the entry, so I needed to drive over to the Visitor Center to pay with my credit card, then return to the entry with my receipt to pick up the wood.
When I arrived, late afternoon on a summer Sunday, there was a sign warning that the Visitor Center lot was full, but I was able to find a spot before long because someone was just pulling out. I noticed that this park has a lot to do and see right by the entrance. It reminded me more of a National Park than the typical State Park. There’s a gift shop, and although the visitor center was closed, they had a table set up outside with a couple of rangers giving out advice on where to hike and what to do.
The short trail to North Grove, home of the giant sequoias the park is named for, starts and ends at the Visitor Center parking lot. I didn’t stop to walk to the Grove because dogs aren’t allowed on trails in the park, but I plan to on our next visit. A lot of people like to visit this grove as a less crowded alternative to Yosemite. I mean, nothing is an alternative to Yosemite, but this seems like a nice chill place to view some redwoods without getting reservations.
After I paid my $8 and returned to the entry gate to pick up my wood, I ran into another set of Girl Scout parents from Alameda, where I live, who had also just dropped off their kid. Noticing that I had Badger in the car with me, they told me about a good fire trail to take him hiking on. Like most California State Parks, dogs are not allowed on the hiking trails at CBT, but they are allowed on fire roads.
My site was in the Oak Hollow Campground, which I was surprised to learn was four miles from the entrance. I was glad I had everything I needed. Although the tiny town of Arnold is close to the park, driving an eight-mile round trip to the entrance and back would make it a bit of a journey if I’d needed to run into town for anything.
I was thrilled with my site, OH121. It doesn’t really show on the map, but this site is separated from the one next to it by a dry creek bed. On the other side, there’s a generous stretch of trees before you hit the road. To the back, nothing but woods and creek bed. There are no campsites directly across from this site either. There was easily enough room for two tents, and there were plenty of choices of trees for hanging up the hammock. It’s really a great spot, and when I chatted with an employee who came to cleap up my site as I was packing up the next day, she told me that it was a site favored by staff when relatives came to camp. Maybe that’s why it was randomly available for my one-night stay.
Setting up my site was incredibly quick, since I wasn’t using a tent. After taking a short time to unload my stuff, locking my food in the bear box, and taking a quick rest in the hammock, I decided to make the most of the remaining afternoon and check out the fire road near the Beaver Creek Picnic Area, like the other Girl Scout parents told me to.
Driving through the park away from the entrance, I saw that there are a lot of nice picnic areas, each with a pit toilet. There’s a riverside picnic area as you cross the North Fork of the Stanislaus River. I ended up parking at the South Grove trailhead, believing for some reason that I had arrived at Beaver Creek. But what I thought was a fire road there turned out to be a dead end. I ended up moving my car and taking another walk near a walk-in campsite area, I forget which trailhead, but it led me to a riverside barbecue spot, where a family or two were cooking meat while their kids played among the boulders in the shallow water.
Badger and I waded in too, and the icy running water felt just wonderful. Badger had fun pawing at rocks under the water, then plunging his nose in to pick one up, only to realize that it was just a rock, and dropping it. He did this many times. I’m not sure what he was hoping to find under the water, but a rock didn’t seem to be it.
Just a few mosquitoes accosted me as dusk approached, while we walked back through the wood to the car. Without Erik along to remind me to hurry back, I tend to stay out longer to see more. Fortunately, when I got to the car, there was still enough daylight to find the campground again easily. Did I mention I get lost easily? In fact, as I pulled out of the parking lot where I’d been hiking, I accidentally drove away from my campground instead of towards it, which turned out to be a good thing, because it brought me to the Beaver Creek picnic area that I had failed to locate earlier. Just past that, the road dead ends with a loop, and there I found the fire road I’d been looking for. I decided to come back first thing the next morning to hike it.
Back at the campground, there were more people around than there had been in the afternoon. Although my site was relatively private, a wilderness journey this was not. There were kids pedaling bikes and pushing skateboards along the campground roads, couples and clusters of friends walking and chatting. It had a cozy feel. People said hi.
At first, Badger folowed me as I puttered around the site, and trailed along every time I crossed the road to the water spigot. Eventually, he got the idea that the site was home for now, and allowed me to leave its boundaries without him. I set up my stove and heated up my dinner: a can of Progresso soup. I was loving how easy this was, without having to come up with a meal that no one else would complain about. One can, one large cup/pot, done. While eating, I sat at my picnic table and read my book, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. After eating, I rinsed out the small pan I’d used for both cooking and eating out of and put that and my trash inside the bear box. There were warning signs all over to avoid tempting bears, so I was extra conscientious about that. Then I made a fire, put on my headlamp, fixed myself a drink, and settled into my folding chair for more reading.
Badger, after enjoying his own dinner of kibble, sat next to my chair on blanket I’d spread out for him, staring at me quizzically. He seemed to be wondering when we were going to go home, or maybe, If we’re camping, where is the tent?
The stars came out, the logs crackled, the family next door settled down into silence, Badger dug himself a little impression in the dirt and flopped down. I felt overwhelmingly at peace. I was not scared to sit here in the dark on my own. This was good news, because it meant I could plan lots more solo camping trips without worrying that it would be scary.
In the morning, after making coffee, Badger and I drove back to the end of the road for that hike. It was wonderful. Arriving at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning, we were the only car in the little parking area, and I didn’t run into a single soul the whole two hours we walked.
We saw butterflies, spiders, wildflowers, mushrooms, ferns. Although it’s always pleasant to walk and talk, it’s easier for me to notice little things when I’m not distrcted by chatting with hiking companions. I alternated between listening to an audiobook (The Queen’s Gambit) and just looking and thinking. Eventually we came to Beaver Creek itself. We passed it by on our outbound hike, but on the way back, we stopped for more fun wading and cooling our feet. Badger drank from the stream.
Hiking alone except for my dog, I found I had so! many! thoughts! I spent a lot of time on this whole trip thinking about writing projects I wanted to start. The book I had been reading had started me down that path, since a lot of it was about Louisa May Alcott’s writing ambitions and projects.
When we returned from our hike, I made myself lunch — noodles and sardines, followed by more coffee. As I was packing up to go, a pickup truck pulled up and asked if I was leaving. I was a bit put out. It’s true that it was a few minutes past checkout time, noon, but check in at this campground is supposed to be 2 p.m., so I had thought I’d be fine taking a few extra minutes. After awhile, the staff member showed up to prep my site for the next people, but she told me she had just now realized she was ahead of schedule and that I should not rush. I chatted with her as I put away my last few things, but completely ignored the hovering early arrivals. The employee told me they actually liked it when people show up early, though, because it cuts down on the 2 p.m. backup.
After this experience, I am really looking forward to returning to Calaveras Big Trees with Erik when we drop our other daughter off at camp in July. This time around, we’ll be at the North Grove campground, much closer to the entrance and visitor center, for two nights. I’ll make sure to actualy see the North Grove this time, since Erik will be there to stay with the dogs while I do. But I’m really glad I took the other trip first, because if not we might not have thought to explore deeper into the park, and to get into the river farther from any crowds who may be there in July. I plan to take Erik and the dogs right back to the fire road I hiked. I’d also love to tour one of the caves in the area, like California Cavern, although I guess that would have to be a solo adventure, so that one of us can stay back with the dogs.
Have you camped on your own before? What do you like about it, or what challenges have you had?