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THE GREAT OUTDOORS / GETTING AWAY

Two Many Camping Options

June 26, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You might say that Orange County campers have it two good:

Freeway-close wilderness in two regional parks. Two sites in a national forest. Two state beaches. Even "en route" camping at a couple of spots along the coast.

There's also easy access just over the county line to two coastal campgrounds (one with views of a nuclear reactor) and two more national forest campgrounds.

What's it all add up to?

"Diversity," said Mike Tope, chief ranger for the Orange Coast District of the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

"We've got some of the finest camping opportunities in California, right here in our own backyard," Tope said. "And we've got sand--some of the most beautiful, most accessible sandy beaches in the state, with both longboard and shortboard surf breaks.

"

Doheny State Beach and San Clemente State Beach, and barely inside the San Diego County line, San Onofre State Beach Bluffs and San Mateo campgrounds, are all administered by the Orange Coast District.

Each has its strong points.

* Doheny State Beach is at beach level, so ocean access is easiest. There are hot showers, a visitors center and day-use area with picnic tables and barbecues. Dana Point Harbor is within walking distance. But it's also the most difficult park to get into: There are 400 requests for reservations for every one that's successful.

* San Clemente State Beach is situated on a bluff with two paths down to the beach. There are both complete hookup sites with sewers, electricity and water, and non-hookup tent or RV sites. Campsites are not of the cookie-cutter type; eucalyptus trees add to the natural feeling. An outstanding group site accommodates 50 people.

* San Onofre State Beach/San Mateo Campground opened six years ago a mile-and-a-half inland (perfect by bicycle) from Trestles Beach. It overlooks farmland, there's privacy between camp sites and there's no train or traffic noise; excellent facilities include coin-operated showers. A site reservation includes includes free parking at the state beaches.

* San Onofre State Beach/Bluffs Campground offers six trails to the beach and a reminder that even in the Atomic Age, a picturesque beach and bluffs are among life's finest pleasures. There are flush toilets but only cold showers, fire rings but no hookups, little or no distance between campsites. Is it your imagination or is the ocean here slightly warmer?

Self-contained destination camping in RVs and camper trucks--"en route" camping--is available at Bolsa Chica State Beach, and may soon be allowed at Crystal Cove State Beach.

But park ranger Tim Miller advises getting your head out of the sand and heading for the foothills--of the Santa Ana Mountains, to be exact. Miller oversees Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park and O'Neill Regional Park.

"You've got massive development and urban sprawl all around O'Neill, three major corridors crossing it, but right in the middle is complete wilderness," Miller said. "I could take you into Arroyo Trabuco, there are massive oak and sycamore trees . . . "

"What makes Caspers special is that it's contiguous wilderness land, so the chance to see wildlife is much greater. There are few times I go into that park in the morning that I don't see deer.

"Both parks, you've got miles and miles of trails."

Both parks also offer excellent equestrian facilities, and both have large areas for youth groups and RVs. Caspers boasts 7,600 wilderness acres, O'Neill 3,100.

For those who find the regional parks still too civilized might venture into the Trabuco District of the Cleveland National Forest.

"A lot of people want to get a little further away," said Mary Thomas, wildlife biologist for the Trabuco Ranger Station. "We're more remote than O'Neill, and the altitude is higher. But if there's any real advantage, it might be the cost." Blue Jay is $7 per night for one vehicle versus $12 at O'Neill.

Blue Jay Campground and Falcon Group Campground provide water, tables, grills and pit toilets. Just outside the county line are Upper San Juan Campground and El Cariso North and South, and "disbursed" wilderness camping (not in designated sites and requiring wilderness and campfire permits).

And for those for whom close proximity to civilization is a priority, there are plenty of RV parks and private campgrounds in Orange County. They range from Newport Dunes at the mouth of Newport Bay to CC Camperland in Garden Grove, within striking distance of Disneyland.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Starting Costs

Here are some estimated costs for a beginning camper:

* Tent: $30-$100.

* Sleeping bag: $20-$100.

* Stove: $20-$75.

Source: BENJAMIN EPSTEIN

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