Last-Minute Northern California Vacations

How and where to go on vacation when you suck at planning.

It’s worth noting that I am such a procrastinator that I fully procrastinated the writing of this very piece — on how to go on vacation as a procrastinator. Are you, too, a procrastinator? Will you lie to your own mother about having already booked a flight home — even shouldering the higher cost of putting off the simple online transaction until a later date — just to avoid worrying about it right then? Are you that person in your group of friends who — in a way that’s funny to you but decidedly less funny to everyone else — is terminally late to everything all the time, because you usually have some stuff to take care of (read: you were doing your taxes)? Are you reading this right now as some sort of excuse for putting off making a dentist appointment? Well, then, you’re probably not very good at planning vacations, for the simple reason that they require, well, planning.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t indulge in vacations like the rest of the well-functioning, do-things-ahead-of-time, responsible adult world. We Bay Area procrastinators are lucky to live in a place that people regularly journey long distances to see, because we’re surrounded by beautiful sights and great things to do. And with sharing-economy tools like RelayRides and Airbnb becoming more common, you can pretty much decide to pick up and go whenever you want.

So procrastinators of the world, rejoice! Here are some easy Bay Area vacations tailor-made for you, even if you decide to pack up and go on a Saturday morning, gleefully last-minute.

Harbin Hot Springs

18424 Harbin Springs Rd., Middletown, Calif.

707-987-2477 or

I first heard about Harbin Hot Springs two years ago, when my friend and his then-girlfriend woke up one Saturday morning with a hot-springs itch, called Harbin, drove off, and came back fully rejuvenated. In case you think that a clothing-optional, no-talking hot springs is not really your jam, know that it’s decidedly not my friend’s thing either (he’s famous for eating almost solely pepperoni pizza), and he still came back starry-eyed and singing the praises of floating in hot spring water cradled in the arms of a loved one.

Plus, procrastinators need relaxation — putting things off is a pretty good guarantee for more stress, so the occasional hot springs trip will likely be necessary. With more than 50,000 gallons of mineral spring water flowing into an assortment of hot, warm, and cold pools open 24 hours a day, Harbin allows guests to soak whenever they want. “So even if you get a wild idea and decide you want to come here in the middle of the night — you can!” their very friendly reception manager told me over the phone, perhaps knowing that procrastination often goes hand in hand with impulsiveness. When you get pruney, you can get a massage, take yoga classes, or enjoy meals in the garden-view restaurant. And in case you’re on a budget and forgot to pack food, you can purchase produce and other items from the Harbin Market.

Though it’s a popular destination, Harbin pretty much guarantees lodging. Even if you call on a Friday or Saturday, you might be able to snag a tent cabin ($100 a night for a two-person cabin on the weekend), and Harbin doesn’t limit camping spots on its 5,000-acre property — and it only costs $40 a night. If you don’t have a ride, there’s a ridesharing board that makes it pretty easy to find a ride from the Bay Area. (Harbin is only about a two-hour drive from Oakland.) Otherwise, hop in a rental car via RelayRides, which usually costs about $40 per day for 200 to 300 miles of driving.

And while Harbin is technically a “technology-free zone” and doesn’t allow alcohol, my friend managed to sneak in a bottle of wine and an iPad. So he and his girlfriend wrapped up their day of relaxation with the very romantic, decidedly unspiritual experience of watching Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

Berkeley Echo Lake Camp

Echo Lake Camp, Lot 7, Echo Lake Rd., Echo Lake, Calif.


Echo Lake Camp is Express staff writer and Berkeley native Ellen Cushing’s “happy place.” Though it’s a bit more of a trek for the last-minute traveler, it’s well worth a long weekend. Located on the rim of the Tahoe Basin, just off Highway 50, the City of Berkeley-run camp is just a half-mile from the beautiful Lower Echo Lake, and it’s much less crowded than Tahoe. It’s also really close to Desolation Wilderness, a federally protected area in the Sierra with stunning granite basins.

The City of Berkeley has run the camp since 1922, and its season lasts from mid-June to mid-September. Though it prefers guests to register ahead of time, the camp — which is near the popular Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Canada to Mexico — is used to getting drop-ins. The other great thing about Berkeley Echo Lake Camp is that it not only has tent cabins (eliminating the need to borrow a friend’s tent), but it also provides three meals a day, cooked onsite, for a flat fee of roughly $59 a day (discounted if you’re a Berkeley resident). Guests interested in hiking down to the lake can request bagged lunches, and other camp amenities include a cozy lodge, an archery range, a pool, and basketball courts. The trip is perfect for the whole family — and no one will be able to tell you did little to nothing ahead of time.


Most people know Chico as land of the bros, home to Chico State and its plethora of beer-soaked textbooks. And though they may be right, that’s also overlooking something really important: Chico, Bro-town as it is, is also an objectively great place to visit.

Perched on the northeast edge of the fertile Sacramento Valley, with the Sierra Nevada just to the east and the Sacramento River flowing to the west, Chico is in many ways the picturesque stereotype of Northern California. It’s also, as a plus for sun-seekers in the Bay Area, hot in the summer time. Chico is about a three-hour drive from the East Bay, or you can also get there fairly easily via Amtrak for $30 to $50, depending on the time you choose to travel. Since there’s Wi-Fi on the train, book any of the dozen Airbnb options in town, all of which cost less than $100 a night — and many of which pay for having an entire home to yourself (I’m lookin’ at you, “Rustic Spanish Oasis” and “Cottage by the Creek”).

And here, I present you with The Perfect Day.

Start off your morning by getting coffee at Empire Coffee (434 Orange St.), located in an old train car decked out with cozy combination of modern art and opulent and plush antiques. From there, engage in one of my favorite activities, and one of the big reasons Chico is such a good destination: really, really cheap thrifting. Check out Thrifty Bargain (2432 Esplanade), ARC Store (2020 Park Ave.), and the Discovery Shoppe (315 Flume St.), where I guarantee you will find an awesome pair of $3 clogs that would cost at least $30 in the picked-over and vintage-obsessed East Bay.

After your thrift itch has been thoroughly satisfied, grab some fish tacos at La Cocina Economica (905 Wall St.), and make sure to try their awesomely sweet and vinegary pickled vegetables on the side. Once you are satiated, it’s time for creek-life to commence. Bidwell Park — which covers roughly 17 percent of the town, runs through the college, and generally just makes the whole town feel quaint as hell — is also a great place to relax on a hot day. Drive to Upper Bidwell Park and park your car for a short hike into Big Chico Creek or HorseShoe Lake, where you can easily wade in the shallow water and then rejoin your beer and book for some serious unwinding.

When you head back into town, dabble in bro-ville for an amazing (three-shot!) Margarita and cheap happy hour faire at Tres Hombres Long Bar & Grill (100 Broadway St.). Go catch a movie at their tiny movie house, the Pageant (351 6th St.), and follow it up with the most heartwarming beverage in the world — the “Bowl of Soul” at the Naked Lounge Tea & Coffeehouse (118 W. 2nd St.), a giant cup of chamomile tea with steamed soy milk and a really indulgent amount of honey. Walk around downtown and revel in the fact that in the entirety of your stay, you have probably driven a total of three miles. Then head back to your cottage and bask in the simple sweetness of your day and the silence of your night — and hope there’s not a rager happening next door.

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