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Tents, Tides and Kids in Tow

A family rediscovers the simple pleasures of camping at Leo Carrillo State Beach


We were heading toward the first weekend of spring, tired of being held hostage by weeks of unrelenting rain. On our agenda was a weekend trek to snow-covered mountains; it seemed the perfect escape valve for the pent-up energy of my small brood.

But as the week wore on, each day dawned sunnier, warmer, more like spring. And by the time the weekend rolled around, the obvious getaway was no longer Big Bear but the beach.

So on a Saturday morning so bright that the sun hurt our eyes, my three daughters and I hauled out our dusty camping gear and loaded the SUV with a tent, sleeping bags, towels, sand toys and a cooler stocked with provisions, and we headed--on faith--for a one-night camp-out at the beach.

Our first choice was Ventura County's Thornhill Broome Beach, a small strip of sand in Point Mugu State Park. Rangers had assured me there would be space--it had been virtually vacant for weeks. But when we arrived at noon, all 75 campsites were full.

So we headed south on Highway 1 to Leo Carrillo State Beach, a 2,000-acre campground at the Ventura-Los Angeles County line, with three camping areas--one for RVs only, one for large groups and the 138-site Canyon Campground for families like ours.

We were lucky. The roster read "Full," but there were enough no-shows to give us a few spots to choose from. Spur-of-the-moment camping has gotten tougher over the years. Camping at most state parks is by reservation only, and the most popular parks are booked months in advance.

"You can reserve a spot as much as seven months in advance or as little as 48 hours ahead of time," said campground supervisor Lynn Mochizuki. "It's probably not too late to make reservations for this summer [at Leo Carrillo], but most of our vacancies fall midweek. Weekends, it can be tough to get in." And you can forget holiday weekends; those have been booked for months.

"The best time to come is from September to November," she added. "That's our best weather, and it's a little quieter."

We found it quiet and uncrowded enough, with several choice spots still available. The one we most wanted was already reserved--it was smooth and grassy, with a shady tree, and it overlooked a stream.

But we found a place just down the road that was close to the bathrooms--but not too close--and near enough to the camp store that I could send my daughters there unaccompanied. Our campsite was equipped, like the others, with a fire ring and a picnic table, and a parking space that made unloading our gear fast and easy.

As always, setting up camp was a challenge. That dome tent that was supposed to assemble in minutes took almost an hour, as my 14-year-old and I wrestled with poles, stakes and plastic flaps. The other girls, 9 and 11, set up the cooler in the middle of a giant anthill. And the plastic tablecloth had blown away before I could round up the girls to eat.

But none of that put a damper on our evening. Over the years, we've learned to keep camping simple. We're not much on backpacking or hiking; we leave that to more hardy souls. Our main attractions are the campfire, the night walks, the feeling of sleeping under the stars.

So we gulped down juice and turkey sandwiches, then headed off to explore. We skipped rocks on a stream, made friends with a family of rabbits, watched chipmunks cavort under a tree.

We were surprised to see how outnumbered we were by the behemoth homes on wheels. Next door to us, the rumbling of an RV generator was so loud that it almost drowned out the Shania Twain blaring from our neighbor's CD player on the other side.

But when the sun went down, the city noises were drowned out by the sizzle of dinners cooking all around us. My mouth watered a bit as I watched my neighbors down fresh fish, grilled eggplant and barbecued corn.

The girls and I slipped hot dogs on our skewers and thrust them into the flames until they were burned--the only way to eat campfire franks. After that came marshmallows roasted until they were gooey black.

Sometimes I think the campfire is the best thing about camping--the way it makes even a hot dog taste good, the musky scent it leaves in our clothes and hair. And I understand what my daughters feel when they climb into our tent and breathe in its scent and one of them says, "I love this smell."

Still, nothing--even this close to nature--is perfect. Across the way, a pair of thirtysomething couples talked into the morning about their jobs, their stock options, the rumor that Curt has taken up with Kay . . . or maybe it was Ray.

Their voices woke me more than once and kept my youngest daughter--the one with superhuman hearing--awake past midnight. When 3 a.m. rolled around and they were still talking, I thought of going over and asking them to quiet down, then figured they might not be talking loudly after all. The slightest noise carries in the still of the night.

Eventually we slept, our tent window open to the breeze, with the moon shining through.

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