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HAVE A LARK IN THE PARK : Local Campgrounds Offer an Alternative

Summer Special. Ninth in a series on recreation and outdoor life in Orange County during the summer.

August 20, 1986|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | Times Staff Writer

It ain't the High Sierra, but . . .

Many a conversation about Orange County-area campgrounds has been prefaced by such a statement.

There is no breath-taking scenery, no fresh-water streams or fishing at Trabuco Canyon's O'Neill Regional Park or Anaheim's Featherly Park; no snow-capped mountains or lush, green landscapes at San Juan Capistrano's Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park or Elsinore's Ortega Oaks Park.

And there is no mountaineering or rock-climbing at the Doheny, San Clemente or San Onofre State Beach parks.

About the only things local campgrounds and Sierra campsites have in common are squirrels, ants, snakes, bees, mosquitoes and such. The similarities end there.

But those who camp for recreational purposes in or around Orange County don't expect the kinds of features you find at Yosemite.

For many who, perhaps, don't have the time or money to travel to the High Sierra, local camping provides an alternative.

"When I get my two-week vacation, I'll go to Yosemite," said Chris Parra, a 24-year-old telecommunications employee from Orange who spent last week camping with his girlfriend in O'Neill Park. "Yosemite is my favorite place, but for a week getaway, this is beautiful."

Among Parra's favorite things to do at O'Neill: Sit in the shade, take nature walks, ride tandem bicycles, watch birds and squirrels, look for spiders.

"That may not put this place on the map, but those are things I enjoy," he said.

Camping in this area--an afterthought for many--isn't bad. It isn't without its problems, either.

According to park rangers, an increasing number of transients and homeless people have occupied up to 40% of the campsites at the county's three regional parks (Featherly, O'Neill and Caspers). There have been some complaints of vandalism, thefts and family disputes.

The problems have resulted in a proposal being discussed in the county's parks and recreation department, that would restrict the number of days people can spend in the parks. Currently, people can stay 15 days per month.

"I'm all for the proposal," said Neil Underhill, supervising park ranger at Featherly. "It's the only fair way to allow an adequate number of campsites for recreational users, rather than the homeless repeat users."

There is an array of recreational opportunities at area parks, ranging from nature walks and horseback riding at the inland parks to surfing, wind surfing and fishing at the beach parks.

And camping is cheap, with prices for most tent sites ranging from $5 to $8 per night.

To understand why people enjoy camping in the Orange County area--even with its problems and without the mountains, streams and waterfalls--is to understand why people camp in the first place.

For many, the campground is not the most important element of the vacation. Rather, it's what they leave behind.

"I like getting out of the house, away from civilization," said Marilyn Fenton of Azusa, who spent two weeks with her family at O'Neill Park while her husband worked at a nearby construction site. "You rough it and get uncomfortable sleeping on the ground, but it's nice.

"You don't have to worry about the phone ringing, or people knocking at your door, trying to sell you something. And you can make friends here."

For Marilyn's 8-year-old son, Brian, there are other benefits. "I like riding bikes and catching lizards," he said.

Dale and Carol Nelson of Fresno have camped in Canada, along the East Coast, and throughout California, but their favorite spot, and one they have come to every summer for the past 17 years, is Doheny State Beach Park in Dana Point.

"This is so delightful," Carol said. "We have the ocean breeze, and I love the sound of the ocean. We've camped in Yosemite, but I like this better. I like the sight of kites flying and kids playing at the beach."

And then there is Rose, who camps inland to get away from people at the beach.

Rose recently spent about two weeks at Ortega Oaks, a privately owned park located in the Cleveland National Forest just outside of Orange County.

Rose would rather not reveal her last name. She would only say that she lives and works in an Orange County beach city.

"I'm a very private person," she said. "I prefer my own little space. That's why it may seem awkward (not to give you my last name)."

Rose spends her days reading, hiking and swimming (Ortega Oaks has a pool). The nights are spent with friends around the campfire.

"When I'm camping, I want the feeling of freedom--like there's no other soul around," Rose said. "I love the outdoors. It makes you appreciate life a little more. Everyone should appreciate their surroundings."

The three county parks and Ortega Oaks operate on a first-come, first-served basis, but all recommend that during the summer--especially on weekends--campers arrive around check-out time (2 p.m.) to secure a spot. Ortega Oaks recommends reservations during summer weekends.

The state parks (Doheny, San Clemente and San Onofre) accept reservations up to eight weeks in advance or as late as two days prior to the arrival date. Campers can make credit-card reservations by phone (1-800-446-7275) or in person at a MISTIX outlet.

Doheny and San Clemente, the two most popular beach camping areas, have been booked every day, eight weeks in advance, throughout the summer, but San Onofre usually has openings on weekdays.

Crowds ease up after October, but Doheny and San Clemente still recommend reservations for the weekends. San Onofre goes off the reservation system on Sept. 15 and operates on a first-come, first-served basis.

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