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DOWN & DIRTY

Just you and maybe a tree in the O.C.

Take the road less traveled to Crystal Cove's inland side. For the hardy hiker, the rewards are solitude and vacant campgrounds.

July 15, 2007|Jordan Rane | Special to The Times

THERE are two sides to Crystal Cove State Park, one of the most appreciated (and, it turns out, least appreciated) plots of mansion-free terrain left on Orange County's so-called California Riviera.

Heading south on Pacific Coast Highway between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach, look to your right, and there's the side you probably already know about. Side A is a 3.2-mile thread of flawless public sand furnished with 80-foot bluffs and a cluster of park-operated, historic rental cottages with a waiting list.

To your left is Side B, 2,400 hilly acres of chaparral with 17 miles of backcountry trails, 800-foot overlooks and three primitive campsites with no waiting list.

Officially known as the El Moro Canyon area, the larger, loftier, drier, hotter, emptier inland side of Crystal Cove seems barely known -- especially to campers.

"Now and then, we get people hearing about campsites at Crystal Cove who pull into the El Moro Canyon parking lot and think that they can just drive their car right up to the campground and be at a beach site," says park ranger Greg Scott. "Then we tell them that they actually have to backpack everything -- including plenty of water -- up three miles of hilly terrain."

Looping around the park's network of service-road trails on a campsite tour -- up a sere canyon flanked with dormant mustard grass, sun-bleached "you-are-here" signs and the odd flowering artichoke thistle -- there's not much human activity: just a woman on a horse and a lone mountain biker walking his wheels up a steep hill called "I Think I Can." I'm sure this is going to be one of those lighter camping weeks at Crystal Cove State Park, Side B.

First stop is Lower Moro Campground, where 13 sites (yes, all vacant) with picnic tables and hitching posts (two horses max per campsite) are perched on a sage-splotched, 700-foot ridge overlooking the Pacific. For ocean-side views, a decent breeze and requisite solitude, this is an easy choice among the three.

About a mile farther up the Moro Ridge Trail, Upper Moro Campground's 11 inland-facing (and also empty) sites somehow feel even more desolate, marked by coyote prints, the occasional possum dropping, mirage-like views of McMansions sprinkled on neighboring hills and a barely audible hum from the nearby California 73 toll-road extension.

The real lone-wolf campground of the three is Deer Canyon, sequestered in a riparian woodland in the northwestern corner of the park, which offers the only reliable shade for miles. It's here that I finally run into my first campground guest at Crystal Cove -- a pleasant young guy from Long Beach sitting at a picnic table under an oak tree reading a book. The Bible, it turns out. He's just another day tripper.

"I come here all the time, and I've never seen a tent," he says, looking down at the dry creek by our feet and up into the quiet, sun-baked hills surrounding us. "But on a full moon, I'm sure it would be real nice. Real peaceful."

Pass it on.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Setting up camp

BASICS

Crystal Cove State Park's El Moro Canyon area offers 32 primitive campsites (four people maximum; amenities include a picnic table and pit toilet) at three campgrounds. All are accessed by strenuous three-miles-plus uphill hikes. It costs $15 per night year round, which includes overnight parking for one car at El Moro Visitor Center. Day use is $10 per vehicle. Call (800) 444-7275, or go to www.reserveamerica.com. (You can also reserve the beachfront cabins, which often are booked months in advance, at the same phone number and website.)

DRIVE TIME

From Los Angeles, drive about 40 miles south on the 405. Merge onto California 73 and exit at Newport Coast Drive ($1.75 toll). Turn left onto Pacific Coast Highway, drive about two miles south and turn left at the School/State Park traffic light. El Moro Visitor Center parking lot is on the right.

TO LEARN MORE

California State Parks, (800) 777-0369; Crystal Cove State Park, (949) 494-3539.

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