Getting to the campground at Doheny State Beach is a snap. It isn't in some isolated spot at the end of a long and winding road with deer crossings and rock slide warnings. No, it's right at Coast Highway, near Dana Point Harbor Drive, across the street from Denny's.
The difficulty is in getting in the campground. Unless you're willing to wait seven months for an opening, you might as well choose among the other 272 state parks available.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Doheny beach map -- A map with an article in Monday's California section about camping at Doheny State Beach mislabeled San Juan Capistrano as Irvine.
What makes this campground so darn popular? For one thing, it's right on the beach. Not above it, or near it. On it. That rarity has made it one of the most popular spots in the state park system. Reserve America, the company that handles reservations for state parks, says it turns away more people from Doheny than any other campground.
Jim Serpa, supervising ranger at Doheny, sits on a picnic table overlooking the ocean and says in a faraway, dreamlike voice: "Some days, you look out here and you swear you're in the tropics. You'll see five different shades of greens and blues [to the water]. You can sit and watch the gray whales right from your campsite."
It's that one-of-a-kind quality that makes Doheny harder to get into than the Oscars. Of the 120 campsites, only 33 have a front-row view of the beach. But because Doheny is a long, narrow campground, the others are just a hop, skip and jump away from the prized views.
Those 33 spots are sold out year-round. The others are about as much in demand. The beachfront campsites cost $20 a night; inland sites go for $16.
"I've heard that for every person that gets in, 400 people don't," Serpa says, beaming like a proud papa.
At the beginning of every month, the race is on to get a spot seven months hence. Every date in the month is booked minutes after the opening bell.
Campers use cunning and persistence to get a reservation. One person will work the phone while another tries to get through online. They hit redial and refresh over and over, aware that this is the game they have to play in inflationary times: too many campers chasing too few campsites.
John and Debbie Purnell, having snared one of the 33 prime spots months ago, were setting about enjoying it one recent afternoon. They've been coming to Doheny "since my kids were little, more than 20 years," Debbie said. "It's the hardest park to get into, and it's the best park in the world.
"If you don't have a fast computer, you don't get in."
Serpa said that in January, there was such a crush of calls for July that "it fried the computer" at Reserve America.
A few spaces away, three couples sat at their picnic table, savoring beers, the warm temperature and soft breezes.
Barry and Sharon Tanner of San Clemente, Steve and Kate McIntyre of San Clemente and Doug and Jackie Price of San Juan Capistrano have been coming to Doheny, they said, for about 25 years. To get their spots, one on the beach and others inland, they were all on the phone, pressing redial.
"By 10 a.m., they [Reserve America] were sold out," said Steve McIntyre.
The men had barbecue chores and were planning steaks and scallops for that night. On the beach. Tough life.
And the best part is, "you're five minutes from home. There's no traffic time. If you forget something, it's five minutes away," said Jackie Price.
Doheny has cast its spell on many a camper and just as many surfers. Just ask the Beach Boys, who made famous the lines: "All over Manhattan / And down Doheny way / Everybody's gone surfin' / Surfin' U.S.A."
Yet the runoff that flows into the ocean from nearby San Juan Creek has made it a polluted beach. Last week, Heal the Bay graded Doheny the worst in the state in its annual report card on beaches.
That doesn't seem to bother the surfers, though. Doheny's three breaks -- the Boneyards, Second's and Gaylord's -- are all still in fairly heavy use. The Boneyards is especially popular with beginners because the waves break at the same spot at the same angle all the time, Serpa said.
Doheny also has a charming visitors center, complete with a 500-gallon tide pool with scorpion fish, grunion, horn sharks, sea stars and abalone.
Day-use sites, available on a first-come, first-served basis, book-end the campgrounds. For $5 to drive in, the day-use spots offer fire pits and the same beach access. Visitors have to leave by 10 p.m. during peak season.
But they shouldn't leave without visiting the newest addition to the park: a butterfly garden, an idyllic little corner filled with flowers and vegetation meant to attract butterflies.
So where are they?
"If you sit very still, very quietly, they'll come," says Vicki Wiker, a ranger who built the garden.
A perfect way to end the day.