MONTANA DE ORO STATE PARK, Calif. — We were only minutes into what turned out to be a spectacular bike ride along the aptly named Bluffs Trail at Montan~a de Oro State Park when we reached the first overlook. About 180 miles north of Los Angeles, the ragged coastline here nearly takes your breath away, so stunning, so savage is its beauty. A few feet beyond the trail, the land falls off and the craggy cliffs drop about 100 feet to the water, which shown aqua in the clear morning sun.
Nesting shorebirds with curious orange webbed feet poked in and out of holes carved in the cliff walls, checking on their nests and the clamoring chicks within. Behind us spread patches of California poppies and other golden wildflowers.
We chose this little jewel of a park for our first experience of quasi-camping with young children. Translating to "Gold Mountain" for its profusion of spring wildflowers, Montan~a (pronounced Mon-TAN-ya) de Oro is tucked into the Central Coast just west of San Luis Obispo and across the water from Morro Bay.
But we decided not to rough it with "pure camping" our first time out with the kids. So we rented a tent trailer from All Tent Trailers in Ventura, the only place we found in the San Fernando Valley/Ventura County area that leases tent trailers. They fall somewhere between a tent and a camping trailer, fold down to 10 by 6 feet and can be towed by a passenger car.
With a roof that cranks up so you can stand without bending over, two large beds at either end and a pull-out stove top that allows cooking inside or outside, our trailer was far more convenient than a tent. It was even wired to hook up to electrical outlets. (There are none available at Montan~a de Oro.) But, unlike a full-size trailer or an RV, the tent trailer requires set-up and break down, and it has no shower or built-in toilet.
Darrellyn Meritt, owner of All Tent Trailers, requires substantial arrangements in advance, including reservations, payment and deposit, proof of auto insurance, confirmation of the type of trailer hitch you're using, (it must be rated to pull 2,000 pounds and be installed before arrival) and an appointment to pick up the unit.
We arrived in Ventura about an hour later than we had hoped Friday afternoon, calling ahead to warn Meritt. After a 45-minute orientation to learn how to set up and break down, we were hitched up and ready to roll onto U.S. 101. The unit was light enough at 1,500 pounds that it created no automotive power problems, even during the shortcut over California 154's San Marcos Pass near Santa Barbara.
Ater a quick dinner in Pismo Beach, we took the Los Osos Valley Road exit for a 15-mile drive to Montan~a de Oro and a stretch of beach that the locals know as Spooner's Cove.
It was just dark as we arrived, and the sign said "Closed" on the ranger's cabin, a 100-year-old former farmhouse. The "Campground Full" sign at the entrance made us a little nervous, despite my paid reservations made three weeks earlier through the state's Destinet system. Because no campsite number had been assigned, and because another van and tent trailer were waiting right behind us, we took the first campsite available.
We picked this park because it is more remote than some and small, with only 48 camping spaces. It is less developed than larger state parks (with only pit toilets and no showers), thus more primitive, affording the opportunity to see more wildlife. And it would be quiet, we thought. Our little tent trailer folded quickly out into a little rolling cabin, with one king-size and one double bed, a table and bench seats, a two-burner stove and yes, even a portable toilet.
A couple of hours later, the attentive park rangers evicted a subdued group of college-age students who had camped nearby, apparently without reservations. That left an unfortunate opening for a family we nicknamed Mr. and Mrs. Loud. Entreaties (and shouts) seemed to calm their kids. But the adults continued to talk into the night until one very unhappy camper politely but firmly asked them to cease at about 1:30 a.m.
About then, I was wondering whether a cozy motel room in town might not have been the better choice. After all, the setup was not cheap at $215 for the trailer for the weekend (including a $50 cleaning fee, $25 of which is refundable if you want to clean the trailer yourself, inside and out) plus $22 for the campsite and $6.75 service charge for Destinet.
But, the next morning, we found a much more secluded spot with better shade on the upper half of the campsite loop. The shade was great since it was warm the weekend we were there, but some veteran campers we talked to across the way said the often-foggy weather makes the sunny sites the most sought-after.
Besides, no hotel could have afforded us the luxury of open spaces for the kids to run, a large tree under which they napped with a light afternoon breeze across their cheeks, campfires to throw twigs into and all that great dirt and grit.