SAN DIEGO — The aroma of smoke from snapping campfires blended with the scent of Ponderosa Pines as Aimee Brazeau leaned back from the picnic table to draw in a deep breath.
"We always dread camping because you have to get everything together, plus the long drive," said Brazeau, an office manager from Los Angeles. "But once you get out here, you wonder why you don't do it all the time."
Brazeau was not speaking from the middle of Yosemite or the Sierra Nevada. She shared a campsite--typically decorated with stray sleeping bags, a lopsided tent and several cans of sodas on the picnic table--with about eight friends and family at Palomar Mountain State Park in northern San Diego County.
San Diego County may not offer the same breathtaking scenery that makes Yosemite famous, but the mountain and desert areas suit many Southern Californians who are looking for a quick weekend getaway from the hustle of the city.
"I was born and raised in San Diego on the beach," said Bob Nightingale, who had just emerged from his tent after a midday nap. "It's nice to get away to the mountains. I spend a great deal of time on the beach in the water. I don't think that holds as much allure as the mountains for someone from Southern California (on vacation)."
Jeanne Lomont, who also camped at Palomar Mountain, said: "We all like to camp. We knew nothing about this place and had only a few days. But it turned out to be a real nice place to be."
Most campers boast that an evening of cooking over a smoky fire and sleeping under the stars offers a certain tranquility that a vacation in a city can't. There's no rushing, no fighting traffic. Just the calm of a forest breeze.
"Out here you are kind of forced to relax," said Bill Nies, a commercial real estate broker from San Diego. "There's not really a lot you \o7 have \f7 to do, so you just relax.
"It's great R and R and it's inexpensive."
But camping is more than lounging in the shade of the forest. Hiking, fishing and sightseeing are some of the other activities in which campers indulge while trying to forget about the hassles of everyday life.
"Camping eases your way back into the city," said Lomont, a teacher from Seal Beach. "Then once you get back into the city, you eventually want to leave again."
Campers at Palomar Mountain, one of the county's best camping grounds, are only minutes away from the Palomar Mountain Observatory. Daily tours are given. There is also Doane Pond, a murky fishing hole stocked weekly with Rainbow trout.
Some of the county's campgrounds, such as Los Coyotes Campground near Hot Springs Mountain, are located on Indian reservations, providing campers with many opportunities to learn more about native American Indians. Old grinding stones and other Indian artifacts remain intact at the reservations.
There are a number of campgrounds within the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, especially Green Valley Campground, that have among the best hiking trails in the county. Along the popular trails, hikers often encounter raccoons, squirrels and an occasional fox. They also take in the broad valleys and a rare waterfall or two bordering many of the paths.
The beach campgrounds, stretched along San Diego's coast, offer travelers an opportunity to stay overnight near the beach. Camping overnight is not permitted on any of the state-controlled beaches, according to James Caldwell, state park ranger at South Carlsbad beach.
"It's illegal to go out to the beach, throw your bags down and sleep overnight," Caldwell said. "There are just too many problems (with crime) with people sleeping overnight on the beach."
Caldwell said that the state does have campgrounds near the beach, such as South Carlsbad, but the campsite, normally located on a nearby cliff, is "usually a good walk to the beach." At South Carlsbad the walk is about a quarter mile.
The mountains and arid deserts in the East and North County are popular with most campers, said Paul Muspratt, manager of visitor services for the state parks department. Muspratt said preparation is as important to a camping trip as other vacations.
In the desert areas, such as Borrego Springs, campers should investigate the area that they plan to explore before driving there, Muspratt said.
Muspratt suggested that campers traveling to desert areas bring an ample supply of water, a hat for protection from the sun and extra food in case they are stranded for any time. A first-aid kit also is a must for any outdoor expedition, he added.
Temperature changes are one thing many San Diego campers forget to prepare for when planning their trip, Muspratt said.
"What may be comfortable in San Diego may not be comfortable after dark at Palomar Mountain," he said. "Campers should bring extra clothing for all kinds of weather."