There are more than 200 established campsites within a couple hours' drive of the Greater Los Angeles area. Here are a few destination suggestions.
The Santa Ynez Mountains, once home to the last wild condors, still offer a measure of freedom to families fleeing civilization. Dozens of camps are scattered through the Los Padres National Forest east of Santa Barbara. Wheeler Gorge Campground,for instance, sits on the
north fork of the Ventura River, sheltered by sycamore, oak and poplar trees. With swimming holes and decent fishing, it's the kind of camp kids would like to call home. $7. Running water and toilets.
Up California 33, in the Rose Valley area, there are several small, relatively remote campgrounds. Lions Campground,on the Sespe River, attracts lots of families. $6. And on the east end of the forest, where the Piru river runs into Lake Piru,Blue Point Campground is another not-so-secret fishing hole. Information for all above: Ojai Ranger District (805) 646-4348.
Ventura County operates five public campgrounds in the inland valleys and mountains, the most popular of which is probably Steckel Park,near Santa Paula, a first-come first-serve area with running water, toilets, etc. and a nearby stocked creek. Information and reservations: (805) 654-3951.
McGrath State Beach,near Oxnard (Seaward Avenue from U.S. 101 then south on Harbor Boulevard) has 174 developed sites, showers, a nature trail and lots of beach. (805) 654-4744. Point Mugu State Beach,15 miles south of Oxnard on California 1, has 55 developed sites in Sycamore Canyon across the Pacific Coast Highway, and 102 primitive sites at La Jolla Beach for self-contained vehicles. Families can also walk two or five miles up La Jolla Valley to primitive campsites. (818) 706-1310. Sites in state campgrounds go for $16 a night with hookups, $12 for developed sites with coastal access, $10 for developed inland sites, and $6 for primitive sites. All state park reservations must be made through Mystix, with a $3.75 fee per site reserved (800) I GO PARK.
Emma Wood State Beach,operated by Ventura County, has 81 beach sites just outside Ventura. It's popular with families willing to forgo such amenities as showers and running water in order to camp within earshot of the waves. Chemical toilets only. $6 a night. First-come, first-serve.
Hobson and Faria Beaches,about two miles apart on the old Pacific Coast Highway north of Ventura, have 29 sites at each, many of which are on the water. $9 a night includes real bathrooms, showers and running water but no trailer hookups. Both parks were recently renovated. "We have some regulars who won't go anywhere else," says a spokesperson. Information and reservations: (805) 654-3951.
LOS ANGELES COUNTY
The 70 or so camps maintained by the Forest Service or Forest Service concessionaires in the Angeles National Forest range from relatively pristine backpacking camps to the sort where folks spend less time admiring the night sky than scanning it with satellite dishes attached to wide-screen TVs. Many of the drive-in camps have barbecues, fire rings, picnic tables and toilets of various qualities, and most are picturesque in their way. A few suggestions are in order, however.
North of the Antelope Valley Freeway, a cluster of campgrounds in the Bouquet Canyon area lures swarms of families each weekend.
Fewer people, however, have found out about Cottonwood Campground in Elizabeth Lake Canyon, north of Castaic Lake. It's more densely vegetated and kids like to play in the creek and hike in the surrounding hills. Both are $5. Saugus Ranger District (805) 296-9710.
Buckhorn Camp,with its incense cedars and a stream colored with lush ferns is a slice of the Eastern Sierras just a 45 minute drive up Angeles Crest Highway from La Canada. Camping, at $10 per site per night, is strictly first-come, first-served. Crystal Lake Campground,north of Azusa in San Gabriel Canyon is one of the most popular campgrounds. It's also the only Angeles National Forest camp that requires reservations (through Ticketron).
East of Angeles Crest Highway on the West Fork of the San Gabriel River,Valley Forge and Westfork campgrounds lie hidden in a deep, richly shaded canyon. Campers must endure a dirt road that makes kidneys quiver. But their reward is a total of 24 nicely shaded campsites suitable for tents or small campers, in a setting traversed by a stream containing rainbow and native brown trout. You'll feel eight hours farther from Los Angeles than you really are. Arroyo Seco District. (818) 796-1151.