Adam
Pacifica, CA
Joined August 2016
Worth doing at least once. Bring mouse traps.

How is it possible that I am the first to review this place, the number one most difficult to reserve spot in all of California (and therefore presumably all of America)?!

So the cabins are not only notoriously difficult to reserve -- you need to be ready to click "reserve" on the website at no less than 5 minutes before the window opens for your dates of interest, which was 6 months ahead of time when I reserved -- but kind of expensive for what they are, at $100/night plus reservation fee.

For that, you get your own seaside cabin with million dollar views just 30 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Sleeping platforms for about 6 people split among 3 semi-private rooms. Flush toilets at the parking lot and an honor system for buying firewood bundles with kindling. A full-time host lives in the house at the parking lot. There are dish washing spigots scattered among the cabins. There are wheelbarrows for schlepping your stuff to the cabins and campsites; more on that later. And charcoal grills outside each cabin. A couple general use picnic tables scattered about. So those are the basics you can read anywhere.

Various thoughts and recommendations, based on my solo weekend visit in mid-March 2018, staying in Cabin 7 at the bottom of the hill closest to the little beach:

  • It's a classic, twisty ride on Highway 1 to get to the entrance, and then another steep, curvy ride down to the campground. Campers sensitive to motion sickness or vertigo be warned.
  • Mice. There were several brand new mouse traps provided at the entrance to my cabin. You'll need them. You'd think staying in a cabin would elevate the camping experience a bit, but frankly, this brought things down a couple notches. In two days, I caught three and actually had to buy more traps. Removing any hint of food every night might work, but that's a pain. Experienced cabin-stayers will probably have better advice than mine.
  • Views. The campground and all cabins have incredible views. Bring binoculars and your good camera. Bolinas, Stinson, The Farallon Islands, fishing boats, the night sky, raptors, seals, all manner of water fowl…that's why you're here. The views. And…
  • It's about a mile into Stinson Beach if you need provisions or restaurants, and you can hike right onto the Steep Ravine / Matt Davis trails and climb all over Mt. Tam from the campground. It's also a great base camp for exploring Bolinas and the Pt. Reyes area by vehicle.
  • Wind! It's typically windy in this area most afternoons from May to September. Between those months, there's always a chance of rain, so being inside the cabin with the woodburning stove does have a major advantage over the campsites.
  • Seating. Bring your camp chairs. The cabins have fixed sleeping platforms, a built-in table, and two hard wooden benches. If you want to sit close to the wood stove or just lounge comfortably inside or out, it's DIY.

My advice? If you're a small party that just wants a couple days with the gorgeous oceanfront views and location, stay at the tent sites, not the cabins. You won't sleep with one eye open waiting for the mousetraps to pop, and it's a flat, easy portage from the parking lot to the campsites. Easier to keep clean, and I find cooking outside to be less of a hassle and easier to clean up than doing it inside the cabin where there isn't any water, sink, or spillage containment solution. Cheaper and (barely) easier to reserve a tent site, too.

If you're intent on having the cabin experience, or if you're staying in winter, or staying for more than a couple days, or have kids and really want to set up house, then go for a cabin, and I'd recommend choosing a cabin close to the parking lot. They're actually more private and you can use the wheelbarrows to move your stuff from car to cabin. The cabins further away from the parking lot are further down the hill; wheelbarrows are not an option, and footing is iffy when carrying large, heavy items up and down from the parking lot. Views are the same from all cabins so you're not losing any benefits. I'll try for CB04 next time.

But take whatever cabin you can get, and check "Steep Ravine Cabins" off your camping bucket list.

Stars!

Second time I've been here. Five years ago, I thought it was pretty bare-bones but just what I wanted: first-come, first-serve tent spot within 3 hours of San Francisco and within a walk of the ocean. No city lights to speak of = incredible stargazing. Oceanside = fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves. Did I mention first-come, first-serve? Nearly all the other campgrounds on the CA coast require a reservation 6 months in advance for weekends, with weekday availability not much better. This small campground had a number of empty spots available at 8pm on a Saturday.

This year, it was nearly the same story. Park funding cut back, so no host = no firewood (KOA up the road sells bundles for $8). And it's only open on weekends until further notice. The vault toilets had plenty of TP, and the sites were well maintained so clearly someone is looking after the place. In fact, the overgrown grass and coastal scrub that previously lent some extra privacy to sites was cut down, a bit of a bummer. Go for the spots on the northern loop. The trees there offer some wind protection and the views over the valley toward Alder Creek are worthwhile. I wanted to set up my hammock, but tree-less sites closer to the road render that a non-option. For site variety, spaciousness, privacy, and amenities, I'd say Manchester is more like 2-2.5 stars. But last-minute availability bumps it up to 3.

There is still a pasture full of cows across the street and the Pt. Arena lighthouse just beyond to greet you in the morning, and the ocean still crashes within earshot. Salt Point and Gualala campgrounds are warmer and woodsier. Mackerricher and Russian Gulch offer much more to do. But in a pinch, Manchester will continue to be my impromptu coastal road trip stopover.