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DOWN AND DIRTY

Just far enough off the beaten path

San Clemente State Beach campers stake out bluff-top and descend to a welcoming beach nearby. There's a lot of space -- and not a lot of people.

March 25, 2007|Scott Doggett | Special to The Times

San Clemente — WITH its wide swath of sugary sand tucked between lovely sandstone bluffs and waves that often curl into perfect surfer pipelines, mile-long San Clemente State Beach ought to be blanketed with sun worshipers and board riders year-round.

Its daytime temperature rarely dips below 60 degrees, and nighttime lows hover in the 40s or 50s -- ideal temps for walking down short (though steep) paved paths to cool sand. The campground is also a good spot to huddle around campfires after watching the sun slip silently into the ocean.

The beach's location, midway between L.A. and San Diego but not too close to any urban center, helps keep it free of the hordes found on other Southland beaches.

Whatever the reason, San Clemente is an overlooked Ferrari of a beach. Atop the bordering bluffs are 160 campsites on priceless real estate that tent and RV campers can rent nightly for less than most families spend at the movies, popcorn included. The beach is like a Corona ad minus the beer, a primo spot for picnicking, sunbathing, dolphin and gray-whale watching or just chilling to sounds of gulls, sea lions and folks frolicking. Board and body surfing are a treat here, but watch for dangerous riptides. (The giveaway: brownish, swirling water flowing away from shore.)

Trails follow two ravines that cut through sandstone canyons dense with coastal sage scrub and occasionally offering glimpses of gray foxes, cottontails and raccoons. Hummingbirds, great horned owls and even green parrots abound. A mostly paved trail between the beach and bluffs lends itself well to joggers, and some photographers thrill to capturing images of passenger trains that pass on nearby tracks.

Tent sites 82, 83, 85, 88 and 90; a 50-person group site; and RV sites 61 through 65 have the only substantial sea views. Sitting around a campfire as day becomes night makes these some of the finest campsites in the state. (One caveat: Fires aren't allowed on the beach, only at campsites.)

Other factors to consider: There's a visitors center with good historical and wildlife information, but it's rarely open. Dogs are allowed on the beach but must be on a leash and attended at all times.

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Setting up camp

BASICS

San Clemente State Beach has 157 campsites; 72 offer RV hookups. An RV site costs $34 a night; a tent campsite, $25; day use is $10 per vehicle. Campers and day users have access to well-maintained restrooms offering full showers with plenty of pumped hot and cold water. There's also an RV sanitation station, public telephones and Wi-Fi, though its range is limited to about 50 feet from the ranger station. Reservations are recommended, especially for holiday weekends. To reserve, call (800) 444-7275 or go to www.reserveamerica.com.

DRIVE TIME

The state beach is 75 miles from Los Angeles. Go south on Interstate 5 and take the Calafia Avenue exit. From the exit, follow signs for about 200 yards to the park entrance.

TO LEARN MORE

California State Parks, (949) 492-0802; www.parks.ca.gov

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