Pack up that margarita to go (in the ice chest, not the cup holder) and drive as little as two hours in any direction, and you’ll find yourself in some of California’s most unique and exciting camping locales. North, South, East or West – pick your favorite direction and go.
No need to be an outdoor pro; these four weekend camping destinations will pack in enough excitement to make you forget that you haven’t showered since you left Los Angeles. With a cooler of your favorite grub in the trunk and your best buddies in the passenger seat, head out and make some of your greatest summer memories. Nothing says summer like driving with the windows rolled down, smelling like sunscreen and singing along to Johnny Cash.
GO NORTH! LOS PADRES NATIONAL FOREST, SANTA BARBARA
About 30 minutes outside Santa Barbara lies a matrix of trails and campsites that make up the southern portion of the Los Padres National Forest. There are hiking and mountain biking trails aplenty if action is what you’re after, but your day can just as easily be spent lounging alongside a freshwater pool along the meandering Santa Ynez River. One of the area’s highlights is a series of deep pools known as Red Rocks.
There is no campground here but it’s marked as a Day Use area, and the trailhead is clearly marked. Park at the trailhead, and head down the trail for a short walk to the first set of pools. These are deep and vast with loads of cliff jumping opportunities, but because it’s perhaps too conveniently located near the parking lot, you won’t find much solitude.
On hot summer weekends these first pools at Red Rocks tend to resemble a frat party in the woods complete with 12 packs of Natty Ice. But it’s still a great spot to have fun and get wet, and it’s a short enough walk to wear flip-flops.
If bonding with nature or private swimming opportunities are more what you’re after, head further down the trail. You can swim and play at any of the additional pools along the river.
They go on for miles, so if you don’t see one you like, just keep walking. Rumor has it there’s a rope swing if you walk far enough, though I couldn’t tell you for sure because I’m usually too tempted by the icy water on hot days to make it past the first few miles.
Don’t worry if it’s foggy as you drive through SB because all that changes as you head up over the San Marcos Pass. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a day in Los Padres in the summer that wasn’t beautiful.
GETTING THERE: 101 North. Once in Santa Barbara, turn onto the 154. Head up over the mountains, and make a right on Paradise Road. Follow the signs to Red Rocks or the Upper Oso campground. Travel time from Los Angeles is two hours or less.
INFO: 10+ campgrounds in the area. Try the Upper Oso Campground for flush toilets, fire pits and barbecues. $15 per night. Make reservations at www.rockymountainrec.com.
BONUS FUN: Check out the World Famous Cold Springs Tavern located nearby where local bands play and local biker dudes congregate on the weekends. Sunday is Tri Tip BBQ Day and is not to be missed by any carnivore.
EAST! FOSSIL FALLS, MOJAVE DESERT
If hot, hot heat is what you want, then east bound in the summertime is where you want to be. Contrary to our mountainous friends, you won’t find trees and rivers in Fossil Falls, but you will find unique geological formations and some fantastic rock climbing.
Many (many) years ago, ancient cinder cones spewed lava that flowed into the icy Owens River gorge to form deep ravines of slick black rock. Today, it’s a tourist attraction for road trippers traveling up the 395 and geologists alike. It has also become a hot spot for climbers seeking to experience a different type of rock than the typical sandstone of Southern California.
The ravine creates some highly coveted shade from the heat of the desert, plus some good times getting down into – and back up from – its depths. Not exactly a place you’d want to spend lots of time, as the attractions here are contained to a small area, but it’s an ideal destination for a one-nighter or to stop on your way to the Sierras.
Besides the basalt and cinder cones, you may be lucky enough to witness some of nature’s greatest expressions in this desolate spot far from the lights of any city. Fossil Falls has been known to yield some amazing stargazing and if you’re lucky, you can see lightning storms in the distance that seem to set the entire sky on fire when the weather is right.
GETTING THERE: 5 North to 14 North into Mojave. The 14 turns into the 395; keep heading Northeast. Turn onto Cinder Road, and follow the signs to Fossil Falls. Travel time from Los Angeles is about two and a half hours.
INFO: Only a few camping opportunities here; great for privacy. $6/night. No reservations. For more information, call (760) 384-5400.
ADDED BONUS: Fossil Falls marks the gateway into the spectacular Owens River Valley as well as hot springs territory! This means plenty of hot springs further up the road. Also, it’s a great way to break up a longer drive into Bishop or Mammoth, where there are tons of additional camping/hiking/weenie-roasting opportunities.
STILL GOING EAST! SAN JACINTO PEAK, PALM DESERT
Perhaps you didn’t know that smack dab in the middle of the desert east of Los Angeles lie some very tall mountains. And as nature would have it, the further up those peaks you go, the cooler it gets. It may not be ideal atop Everest, but here in Palm Desert, where temps can reach 120 degrees, that drop in the mercury is well appreciated.
The San Jacinto Peak Tram will sweep you up from a sweaty heap at the base of the mountain and take you for a scenic ride before dropping you at 8,516 feet. The cool mountain air hits you like the bug that hit your windshield on the drive up (only more welcoming). From here you can hike an easy 2.1 miles to the Round Valley Campground.
Without your car parked right at your campsite, this will require a little planning, but if you can find yourself a backpack and a lightweight stove, over-nighting at Round Valley can be a cinch. The drastic change in scenery from the bottom to the top is itself worth the trip.
In the morning, hike to the summit for a view of the entire desert before heading back down the tram to your car (which will likely be scorching, so be careful). Though you probably won’t see bears here, it’s a good idea to hang your food just in case.
At 10,804 feet, San Jacinto is the second highest peak in Southern California and there’s a book to sign if you make it to the top. Round-trip hikes from Round Valley to the summit will take you a couple of hours, but the views will greatly reward your efforts. While up top, check out your neighbor peak to the west, and you’ll see San Gorgonio, the highest peak in SoCal.
GETTING THERE: 10 East to junction SR 111; SR 111 8.5 miles to Palm Springs Tramway Road. Travel time from Los Angeles is less than two hours.
INFO: Tram fare is $21.95 round-trip. There are six different campsites that can be reached from the top of the tram. Round Valley is the closest at 2.1 miles, which is conveniently located to hike the summit. You must have a permit to camp here. Obtain one in advance during the busy summer months.
ADDED BONUS: The tram can be a fun day event even if you don’t feel like camping. There are plenty of day hikes at the top as well as barbecue pits and picnic tables. Tickets can be purchased upon arrival at the tram station. The tram is suspended from above and slowly rotates 360 degrees as it climbs to give you unobstructed views of the valley. The ride lasts about 15 minutes.
WILD WEST! CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK, SANTA CRUZ ISLAND
Located just off the mainland of Southern California lies a small archipelago comprised of five islands that make up the Channel Islands National park. All are accessible to the public, but one in particular is the most convenient to get to and offers plenty of action once you’re beached.
A short one-hour boat ride from the Ventura harbor, Santa Cruz Island offers two main campgrounds for year ’round island fun. The easier one to get to is Scorpion Bay, located just half a mile from the boat dock.
The crew that takes you will actually transport your gear for you, so pack all the steaks and Jack Daniels you want. You won’t have to carry a thing.
After a scenic boat ride where whales are frequently spotted, make landfall and bask in the sunny skies and crystal clear waters. From your campsite, you can hike, kayak, snorkel or simply take in the abundance of wildlife and plant life this unique environment offers. The water here is cold, so bring a wetsuit if you have one.
You can also bring your own snorkel gear or rent it from one of the many outfitters and explore some of Channel Islands’ rare and unique kelp forests. Kayaks can be great vehicles for exploring the cave-lined perimeter of the island. You can’t build a campfire here, but you can bring a propane stove, so pack up some of your most delicious meals, and set out for a weekend of island style adventure. GETTING THERE: 101 North to Ventura. From the Ventura harbor, sea travel time is about an hour.
INFO: Many outfitters will take you here. One to try is Island Packers (www.islandpackers.com), which will take you out (and bring you back) for $60; and they will lug your gear too! Campsites are $15 per night and advanced planning is highly recommended for the busiest summer months. Campsites have outhouses and picnic areas.
BONUS: If you don’t have a weekend to spare, the Channel Islands make a fantastic day trip. Island Packers will take you out and back the same day for $46 and will allow you plenty of time to explore the island. Plan to do some whale watching if you are traveling from the end of June through August.