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A ritzy version of roughing it

Leo Carrillo State Park's many scenic attractions keep one family returning to the popular camping spot in accessible Malibu.

February 11, 2007|Matt Lait | Times Staff Writer

THE campground at Leo Carrillo State Park is a scenic retreat where a family can hike the Santa Monica Mountains, explore tide pools or simply hang out around the fire pit.

It's also just a quick drive to a venti-sized caffe latte: We call it "Starbucks camping." And it's perfect for folks whose idea of "roughing it" includes access to flush toilets and a well-inflated air mattress.

Each summer, my wife, Leslie, and I take our two boys, Riley and Casey, to Leo Carrillo because it's a fun, affordable beach weekend in one of the country's ritziest swaths of real estate.

That fun, especially in summer, requires some planning. Because of the campsite's popularity, reservations for weekend spots must be made about six months in advance. Many of the campsites can easily fit two families. On our last trip we reserved two campsites for four like-minded, pseudo-outdoorsy families.

Getting here early is also key to a successful camping experience. Campers line up outside the park's gate about 10 a.m. so they can get sites that are more secluded or adjoining.

We arrive in minivans and SUVs so loaded down with luggage, coolers and camping gear that it looks as if we're intending to be permanent squatters. Our tent, which we really use only for this occasion, is roomy enough to fit a small army. Having done this for several years now, we also erect a designated kids' tent so they have a place to play games and tell ghost stories. The real objective, however, is to stop them from jumping on our air mattresses and tracking dirt onto our sleeping bags.

The park, which is open year-round, is part beach, part wilderness, bisected by the Pacific Coast Highway. It is named after Leo Carrillo, an actor known for playing Pancho, the sidekick to the Cisco Kid in a 1950s TV series. Carrillo was also a preservationist who served on the California Beach and Parks Commission and helped the state acquire Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

The campsites at Leo Carrillo are nestled among a grove of giant sycamores. To the north is Arroyo Sequit Creek. Head east and you find trails through the Santa Monica Mountains. Walk west a short way and you hit the Pacific Ocean. Our weekend trips generally have us going both east and west.

The beauty of this place is that our boys rarely utter the words "I'm bored." It's literally a natural playground that keeps them occupied. Last summer, Riley, 9, and Casey, 3, couldn't get enough of the beach. The only thing that got them out of the tide pools and sea caves was high tide. They found sand crabs, hermit crabs and a slimy sea slug. Beyond the breakers we saw dolphins breaching the surface.

The park's 1 1/2 miles of beach are its key attraction. Surf flicks, such as "Gidget," were filmed here. There are stretches of sandy beaches, as well as areas with rocky coves. It is a sportsman's paradise: surfing, scuba diving, windsurfing, kite-surfing, fishing and Casey's favorite -- sand castle building. It's easy to see why so many Hollywood stars make their homes in Malibu.

"It's one of those rare places," says Ron Schafer, a state park superintendent whose district includes Leo Carrillo. "It's old-time California with the surfing and the camping. It's really a great park."

After a long day at the beach, we head back to the campground for the evening's activities: showers, dinner, campfire, s'mores and sleep. People like to say that food somehow tastes better when you're camping. That's generally true as long as you have a good bottle of wine and your coals stay hot. On our last trip, I inadvertently made chicken tartare.

Breakfasts tend to be more successful. First, it starts with a trip to the nearby Starbucks for a carton of fresh-brewed coffee. Once the adults are fully caffeinated, our friend, Debora, mixes cheese, eggs and green onions in a zip-lock bag and drops it in a pot of boiling water for tasty scrambled eggs, camping-style. The kids, of course, always want pancakes.

While the beach is the focal point for our group of campers, we also enjoy the nearby hiking trails in the Santa Monica Mountains. We like the Nicholas Flat Trail, which starts right outside the campground and goes about two miles up through native grasslands and coastal sage scrub to meadows and woodlands. At the top of a medium-sized peak, there's a stunning view of the ocean and a canyon.

It's an easy enough trek for seven boys, ages 9 to 3, and two middle-aged men. (Some of the youngest take turns riding on old guys' shoulders.) Bird lovers can hike to a little pond in Nicholas Flat where ducks, coots, hawks and other birds can be spotted, especially in spring. Monarch butterflies also migrate to the meadows near the park.

"The park is a charming representative of our Southern California Mediterranean[-like] ecosystem," said Suzanne Goode, a senior environmental scientist for the state parks. "It has a little bit of everything."

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