It's Thursday morning. You've counted your pennies and decided there is no way on Earth you can afford to get away for the Labor Day weekend (even if you could still get a room). You have 12 projects hanging over your head at work, the dishwasher is making a weird noise and the cat is getting that creepy maternal look. Again.
Not to worry. Whether you prefer a good, old-fashioned family picnic or a couple of rip-snortin' nights on the town, there are plenty of ways to enjoy a great three-day weekend without ever crossing the county line.
To make things a bit easier, we've put together three possible packages: "Tides, Turf and Take-Out," which includes tips from local beach and park experts on possible sites for the family picnic, plus tips on delectable take-along meals; "Nights Out," which highlights concerts and club dates; and "Fun and Festivities," a wrap-up of area special events and theme parks.
Tides, Turf and Take-Out
Beaches: On a just about any holiday weekend in this county, all roads lead to the beach. They don't get you there very fast, mind you, but that's the price of living in paradise, right?
To keep you from getting burned on your coastal outing, representatives of several city, county and state beaches offer the following tips:
To shag a prime parking spot for your car and your bod, plan to arrive at most beaches before 11 a.m., says Larry Paul, manager of coastal facilities for the County of Orange. Paul expects heavy crowds just about everywhere (the heaviest on Labor Day itself), but beaches at the southern end of the county may be a bit lighter.
"A good rule of thumb is the farther south you go, the better your opportunity," says Paul. "And keep an eye on the weather. If it's an overcast morning with a probability of afternoon sun, those who come out and take a little morning chill will be in the best position for the afternoon."
As any beach-goer knows, searching for a parking spot can be as irritating as dumping the hot dogs in the sand. Metered lots are available at the county's Salt Creek Beach and Capistrano Beach, both located in Dana Point, but they fill up early. Paul suggests the lesser-known Selva lot, located just south of the Ritz-Carlton resort entrance off Pacific Coast Highway. Going south, turn right on Selva into the unmetered lot for direct access to the Salt Creek and Selva beach areas. At Aliso Beach in the South Laguna area, look for another "secret" lot on the inland side of PCH just across the road from the Aliso main lot. Cross under PCH in the nearby pedestrian tunnel.
If you're heading for the state-run Huntington or Bolsa Chica beaches, plan to hit the sand no later than 10 a.m., advises Jack Roggenbuck, district superintendent of the California State Department of Parks and Recreation, Orange Coast District.
"These are two nationally recognized beaches, and if the weather is nice, we can expect them to stay busy as late as 8 or 9 p.m.," said Roggenbuck, who added that parking is very tight at both locations.
Also popular is Crystal Cove State Park, which combines 3.5 miles of sandy beach with a variety of off-beach park facilities. Located off PCH between Laguna and Newport Beach, the park features hiking, biking and equestrian trails in the rolling hills near El Moro Canyon and picnic sites on the bluff overlooking the beach (bring your own chairs). Expect to hike up to 1/3 mile to the sand from the parking lots, which are marked on the coastal side of PCH with signs reading Pelican Point and Reef Point, and on the inland side, El Moro and Los Trancos. (And pack a few extra bucks. On Sept. 1, parking on any of the state parks and beach lots jumps to $6 per car.)
Lt. John Blauer, a lifeguard with the city of Newport Beach, says that Labor Day crowds on his beat have been lighter in recent years, thanks to the earlier start date of some local colleges.
"In the past, it was a zoo around here," laughs Blauer. "Now it's only two steps short of crazy." For the best parking spots in the Balboa or Corona del Mar lots, plan to arrive either before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m., advises Blauer.
Parks and bike trails: There are 19,000 acres of operational parkland managed by the county, including 10 large regional parks and three camping parks. All of them will be popular on Labor Day weekend, says Tim Miller, the county's manager of regional parks, but the situation is far from hopeless.
"There are four big holidays for park use every year: Easter, Labor Day, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July," says Miller. "We expect all our day-use parks to be filled to capacity by 10 or 11 a.m. and our overnight parks to be filled by Friday night.
"However, once the parking spots are taken, the parks will still admit visitors on foot or bicycle," he notes. "And as groups leave during the course of the day, we'll open it up for more cars. By controlling our parking, we can ensure that while there may be plenty of people in the park, it won't be wall-to-wall."