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DOWN AND DIRTY

Wisps of magic in Carpinteria

Some campsites may feel cramped and the passing trains can disrupt a night's slumber, but there are plenty of opportunities to treasure.

December 23, 2007|Amy Hubbard | Times Staff Writer

CARPINTERIA, CALIF. — There are some lovely moments in life that you know will stick with you, even as they're happening.

One occurred for me on the beach in Carpinteria under a lollipop moon. The air was warm, the long stretch of sand was empty, and four of us chased along, laughing, until I caught sight of what looked like broken glass, glittering under the "Moonstruck" beams. It wasn't glass. It was soft, cooling tar.

My husband, stepson, daughter and I pressed our fingers into the black Play-Doh stuff, leaving our mark, if only for a short while.

It was all slightly surreal and one of several magical moments that helped balance out a camping trip that had its share of groans.

We were newbies to beach camping, so the throng caught us by surprise. That "just me and the trees" feeling you often can achieve even in busy forest campgrounds was out of reach here. We were packed in like sardines.

The campsite was basically an extra-wide parking spot with a piece of dirt behind it. Nearly all our neighbors were housed in RVs, which seemed the better way to go. We had to move the picnic table to squeeze in our two small tents. And at night when we roasted the obligatory marshmallows, I kept a watchful eye for sparks that could potentially ignite our night's accommodations. One tent was mostly uphill, and those of us who drew the short straws got to sleep with our heads closer to the train tracks.

Yes, the train tracks. Those who have stayed in a beach campground along this section of the Pacific will know what I'm talking about. About 50 yards from our tent, trains regularly roared through.

From a sound sleep, it's akin to being buzzed by a low-flying jet. The first time it woke me, around midnight, I waited, expecting the babies and dogs in our filled-to-the-gills campground to begin howling. But there was . . . nothing. The silence amazed me. My 4-year-old snoozed angelically and woke up the next morning happy and bouncing.

For those who sleep less soundly than babes in the woods, camping at Carpinteria State Beach is all about luck and trade-offs.

If you're lucky (and make your reservation early -- think months in advance), you land one of the precious spots farthest from the tracks and nearest the water, where you can wake up, open your tent flap and see the waves lapping the sand.

If you're not as lucky, here's what you get in exchange for an interrupted night's sleep on a wedge of parking lot: The beach is still just steps away; you're within walking distance of the charming village of Carpinteria; and there are hiking and biking trails with beautiful views of the Santa Ynez Mountains on one side and the Channel Islands on the other.

Downtown Carpinteria is clean and quaint, with antiques stores, touristy shops and inviting little restaurants. Also, cool sites can be reached in easy day trips. We visited the Gallup & Stribling Orchid Farm, billed as the largest orchid-growing operation in the U.S., for a peek at the plants. Then it was on to the Coronado Butterfly Preserve, where strangers talked together in hushed, church-like tones as they gazed up at the fluttering monarchs.

The sun shone through the butterflies' wings, making them look like chips of stained glass.

Back at the campground, we made the short hike to the seal rookery. No seals. But we enjoyed the hike. Then we dipped down to the beach. At the southeast end of Carpinteria State Beach, natural tar oozes from the rocks and forms black mounds. According to the park service, plant and animal fossils excavated in the late 1920s rival remains found in L.A.'s La Brea Tar Pits. The Chumash Indians used the ooze for their canoes.

We saw people surf fishing and digging in the sand. Then we discovered the tide pools. The rocky formations in this part of the beach create a haven for little creatures, including sea stars and anemones. Our first pass at the tide pools was less than thrilling, though. There was a small horde. Two young kids in black plastic boots gleefully ran about as their parents looked on. Junior and Sis were unknowingly trampling mini-creatures underfoot.

But the nice thing about staying at the campground was the chance to return later, when the day trippers had exited.

My youngest daughter and I crouched down on the nearly empty beach and watched the tiny movements of an anemone. It was a kick to see her expression as it dawned on her that these were real, living things.

There it was again. Another magical moment.

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amy.hubbard@latimes.com

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Setting up camp

BASICS

This campground has 216 sites; 120 have RV hookups. There are coin-operated hot showers, fire rings and picnic tables.

DRIVE TIME

Carpinteria State Beach is off U.S. 101, 12 miles south of Santa Barbara. From the 101, exit at Casitas Pass Road, turn left on Casitas Pass Road, turn right on Carpinteria Avenue, turn left on Palm; the campground entrance is at the end of Palm.

TO LEARN MORE

Call (805) 968-1033, or go to www.parks.ca.gov. For reservations, contact Reserve America at (800) 444-7275, www.reserveamerica.com.

On travel.latimes.com

Rocky shoreline, foaming waves, fluttering monarchs and other Central Coast images can be found at latimes.com/carpinteria.

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