How to get there: The park is four miles east of San Rafael on the shore of San Pablo Bay. From Highway 101, go east on North San Pedro Road for five miles until the road enters the park. To reach the China Camp Village, continue straight past the campground entrance road for 2.2 miles to parking on the left.

Why it's cool: You can introduce your family to tent camping while still being close enough to civilization to pick up a bottle of wine, a cup of coffee or just about anything else you forgot to stash in the car on your way out the door. Or, make it a day trip -- you'll still get the peace and quiet of nature without tangling with stakes and sleeping bags.

This quiet park, popular with bicyclists, is just minutes from San Rafael, yet feels pleasantly far away from everything, with great not-too-strenuous trails that meander through the ecologically diverse wetlands and forests and hug the shores, offering a wide view of the calm blue waters of San Pablo Bay.

What kids like: On the trip we took in July, it seemed like just about everyone camping overnight had babies and young children, a testament to the kid-friendliness of the place. The layout of the sites (a short walk from the parking lot) means there aren't any cars driving by, making it fairly safe for little ones to explore the grounds. And kids like nothing better than a wide berth of ground upon which to frolic -- hunting for lizards, collecting sticks and climbing on logs. Plus, not too far from the campground is a rocky beach perfect for wading.

What parents like: The park is good for casual Bay Area campers -- folks who like to load up the car on a Friday morning, take a short drive to their destination and head home on Sunday afternoon. It feels quite remote while you're there, but those of us too lazy to brew coffee on our camp stove only had to drive five minutes to a local cafe for our morning fix.

Other tips: The camp host sells firewood, so you don't have to bring your own. It can be windy and dusty if there hasn't been any rain, so don't wear anything white. If you have to get clean, there are pay showers. Because there's a walk of about 50 to 300 yards from the main parking lot to the camp sites, many campers bring a kids wagon or something similar for toting gear. The camp has one to loan out as well.

Don't miss: There's a great old interpretive center at the beach that details the camp's history as a Chinese shrimping village in the 1880s. Nearly 500 people, originally from Canton, China, lived in the village. In its heyday, there were three general stores, a marine supply store and a barber shop.

Also, the picnic tables overlooking the water at 25 various sites along San Pedro Road (including a large group site) offer incredible views of water wildlife and windsurfers. There was even a sunset wedding taking place at one of them during our visit.

Before you head home: Check out nearby McNear's Beach County Park. There's fishing, a snack bar, a large public pool (with a shallow toddler pool), a great view of the Bay and lots of lush grassy areas for picnics. Fee for park entrance is $8 during the summer, $2 walk-in.

-- Kari Hulac, staff writer

The basics

  • WHERE: China Camp State Park in Marin County.

  • HOURS: 8 a.m.-sunset.

  • CONTACT: http://www.parks.ca.gov, 415-456-0766.

  • CAMPING: Reserve at 800-444-7275 or http://www.reserveamerica.com ($7.50 reservation fee); $25 per night.