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Surf, turf and Old Man Winter

Spacious, clean camping sites and challenging swells are a big part of San Elijo State Beach's draw, even in winter. But remember: Bring a jacket.

January 13, 2008|Tim Hubbard | Times Staff Writer

CARDIFF-BY-THE SEA, CALIF. — As Southern Californians, we have long been able to thumb our noses at the changing seasons (what changing seasons?) as one 70-degree day blends into the next. (OK, maybe it hits 110 in Woodland Hills every once in a while.)

So what's an appropriate SoCal way to welcome the first day of winter?

Install storm windows? Sweep fallen leaves from the driveway? Yeah, right.

I headed to the coast and San Diego County's San Elijo State Beach, near Encinitas, for a pre-Christmas campout.

Of course, mocking those knee deep in December is bad karma. A series of rainstorms nearly washed out the trip before it got started. But by the time the day to head out had arrived, blue skies were back, and Southern California had returned to its temperate brilliance.

Location might be everything in real estate, but too many of California's coastal campgrounds seem to rely solely on the draw of the ocean while offering tiny sites and less-than-stellar (read: less-than-sanitary) amenities. San Elijo certainly went against those tendencies.

Perched atop the bluffs, the campground stretches three-fourths of a mile, with about a third of the 171 spots at the cliffs' edge, where campers can wake up to the sight of the cobalt-blue Pacific.

For tent campers like me and my two sons, the sandy, flat soil was a welcome relief. Our spot came with the obligatory picnic table and fire pit and looked big enough to handle three medium-size tents and a car. The campground has a store (with limited hours), wireless Internet service and tiled showers so clean they looked like Hazel's handiwork.

With these creature comforts in line, it was time to check out the main attraction: the beach. As we rambled down one of the numerous wooden staircases to the water, we were struck by the long stretch of sand before us. It wasn't light and fluffy or rocky but as moist and smooth as pottery clay.

Using the sparsely populated beach as their personal canvases, my teenagers quickly went into Picasso mode, creating rough but not altogether unartistic drawings of Bart Simpson, SpongeBob SquarePants and other art-world classics.

With ocean temperatures in the high '50s (about 10 degrees cooler than in August), we didn't even consider wading in. But the brisk water didn't deter the wetsuit-clad surfers from taking on the improved swells brought on by storms.

The Encinitas area is a surfing hot spot, so it was no surprise to see so many head for the waves. But I was inspired by the variety of the participants. Surfers of both genders and of various shapes, sizes and ages were flocking to the beach with boards in tow, and for a moment, I wished I could join the parade. But then I remembered that I had never set foot on a board before, so common sense prevailed.

The sport is so popular in these parts that the Eli Howard Surf School has set up shop right on the campground's premises to help young gremmies reach their full curl-ripping potential.

At night, we cooked our hobo-worthy dinner of hot dogs and beans, played cards and tried to make out the shapes of various constellations.

After we huddled in our tent, I began to rethink my snooty attitude about SoCal winters. Water isn't the only thing that's blue in December. My toes were too.

Temperatures dropped into the high '30s, and while my sons slept soundly, I spent much of the night trying to warm myself with thoughts of the Starbucks across the road. That tactic failed, and I lay listening to the trains roll by a few hundred yards away, thinking unneighborly thoughts about those holed up nearby in their toasty RVs.

The next morning, a hot breakfast was in order, and the 101 Diner in Encinitas helped expedite my thawing process.

Walking through town, we noticed all the dogs (and their owners) in stores, at restaurants, on the hiking trails. Nearly everyone we came across had a canine at their hip or a surfboard under their arm -- or both.

From there, we headed south to Cardiff State Beach, where San Elijo Lagoon's entrance channel provided water park-like fun, no waves necessary. Lying on their stomachs, young teens outfitted in wetsuits could ride their boards through the light rapids leading to the ocean, paddle to the side, then do it all over again.

On the other side of U.S. 101, you can enter the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, where seven miles of trails traverse the wetlands.

We also checked out Swami's Beach, about a mile north, a noted surf retreat named after the nearby Self-Realization Fellowship Temple and Ashram Center, established in 1937 by yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. The hermitage and meditation gardens, which include a small waterfall and koi pond, are open to the public.

Making our way back to camp in the late afternoon, we noticed someone else had used the beach to exercise their right to "creative expression." The drawing may have been R-rated, but I knew it was only a matter of hours before the tide would roll in and wash the canvas clean for the next budding artist.

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