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Weekend Escape: El Capitan State Beach : They finally discover the joys of settling in at a popular beach campground. Now, if they could just get rid of their neighbors . . .

October 16, 1994|MELISSA PAYTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Payton is a news editor for The Times. and

EL CAPITAN STATE BEACH, Calif. — As a young married couple, our favorite way of getting away from it all was to backpack in the wilds: Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, Trinity Alps, Mt. Shasta. In our limited experience, car camping meant enduring a crowd of yahoos watching portable TVs and drinking beer outside Gargantuan tents at littered campsites with overflowing trash bins.

Two children later, car camping was looking better--better than not camping at all, anyway. So, this summer we planned to introduce Laura, 4, and Timmy, 18 months, to the joys of the outdoors.

We bought a spacious four-person tent to replace the lightweight one we had carried on our backs, a rechargeable lantern and camp chairs. In mid-July we dug out a 1991 Los Angeles Times article on Southern California's best family campgrounds that we had set aside and began calling for reservations. And calling. And calling.

It was impossible to get a reservation for a Friday night at a beach campsite through the Labor Day weekend. After Labor Day? Presto! We had our pick of any weekend at most campgrounds on the list.

We chose the Friday after Labor Day at El Capitan State Beach, 20 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, because it seemed to offer the natural beauty of the beach tucked into the shadow of coastal cliffs, as well as the amenities families need.

Naively expecting a pristine, uncrowded campground, we arrived in early afternoon and found a line of cars waiting at the entrance gate.

The ranger briefed us on the camp selection procedure, which was necessary to avoid disputes that would surely arise if two groups of campers both claimed to have spotted the same site first.

The camp looked at least half full, and the prime cliff-top sites above the beach were gone. So we wound up choosing a spacious site that was one of about eight ringing an area the size of half a football field. A live oak tree shaded a flat spot that fit our tent perfectly and fir trees shielded us, more or less, from our neighbors. As effective as they are as a visual break, fir trees are lousy sound barriers. But more about that later.

As we set up camp, we realized the effects of overuse. We had to police the perimeter of the site, picking up trash and regretted not bringing a broom or a rake to rid the area of cigarette butts. We also noticed, for the first time, that the site was virtually in the shadow of U.S. 101 and the Southern Pacific railroad tracks.

Well, we thought, there's always the beach. And El Capitan is a lovely one: Only a few hundred yards from our campsite, it is a compact crescent of fine brown sand, with rocky tide pools to the southeastern end and an expanse of steep bluffs stretching to the west. Above the tide pools, on a grassy knoll, are a dozen picnic tables with million-dollar Pacific Ocean views.

The kids romped, playing in the sand, chasing waves, tossing smooth rocks into the surf. After a swim in the almost-tepid water and some body surfing in the moderate waves, we joined them in excavating a sandcastle and moat.

"What's that black stuff on your hands?" one of us asked 20 minutes later. Then we noticed the "black stuff"--tar--was on our legs and our arms, and mostly, on the bottoms of our feet. Natural oil seepage that washes in from offshore, the gooey stuff does not come off easily. Later that night in the camp shower, however, we took turns with a dish scrubber and got most of it off. (A quarter buys several minutes of hot water and 50 cents buys enough time for an adult and a squirming child both to get clean.)

The next day we saw a sign warning about the tar, offering suggestions for its removal (including using mayonnaise) and advising that the best solution was to avoid it in the first place. Hey, thanks a lot.

By the time we left the beach, the campground was filling up and we started dinner. Each campsite has a fire ring, and the camp store sells firewood, but we used two backpacking stoves to cook a quick but tasty and filling meal. We had cooked a quantity of fusilli pasta before setting out from home and had brought along sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, scallions and spicy chicken sausage to dress it up. Home-grown sliced tomatoes and green beans, an inexpensive Pinot Noir and bread completed the repast.

Of course the children were famished and had little patience with such culinary indulgences. They downed fruit, yogurt, string cheese, undressed pasta and hot dogs while the adults' meal was cooking.

We cleaned up, got the kids bedded down and read outside the tent by lantern light. It was pleasant but not quiet: Our neighbors to the right arrived at 9 p.m. and were struggling to raise a tent while their three children howled and their dog woofed. Loud rock music blared from a radio at a site occupied by another of our neighbors. A trio of twentysomethings behind us on a gals-only camping trip giggled and shrieked like banshees.

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