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Lake Casitas: Water park makes camping cool

Once known for some of the best fishing in the state, the recreation area's attraction is a great way to spend a weekend up a Lazy River.

July 05, 2009|Hugo Martin

LAKE CASITAS, CALIF. — I was floating on an inner tube, basking in the sun of a bluebird day in western Ventura County, as my inflatable vessel coasted on a lazy current under a spray of cool mist. On the shore, a tanned lifeguard looked down at me from behind big pink sunglasses.

This is what passes for camping at Lake Casitas.

Sure, Lake Casitas Recreation Area has campsites -- more than 400, plus a marina and some of the best fishing in the state. But the water park I was enjoying is the big draw here.

Just inside the park entrance is a showering, spraying jungle gym set inside a giant wading pool. A few feet away, a snaking concrete-lined waterway with a gentle current carries inner-tube riders in a circuitous route under waterfalls, misters and cascading showers.

So how did a water park end up on the shore of this 2,700-acre lake?

For decades, Lake Casitas was known for fishing. If you check out the photos at the bait shop near the marina, you'll see some of the monster largemouth bass and dinosaur-size trout that hard-core anglers have wrestled from these waters over the last 30 years. Among fishermen, Lake Casitas has been a favorite to produce a world-record catch.

But in the last few years, the popularity of sport fishing nationwide has plummeted faster than the California real estate market. To make up for the decline in paying visitors, the lake's operator -- the Casitas Municipal Water District -- built a small water park, the Casitas Water Adventure, and a few years later added the Lazy River, a serpentine pool with water jets that push inner-tube riders around the 1,200-foot route.

Based on visitor numbers, the water features have been a boon for Lake Casitas.

On a warm Thursday morning, I drove from Los Angeles to Lake Casitas with my 10-year-old daughter, Isabella. She wasn't thrilled with the idea of camping and fishing. Too many biting mosquitoes and idle hours standing on a muddy shore, she said. But when I told her about the water park, she looked up from her Nintendo DS screen and asked, "How big are the water slides?" I took that as a positive response.

The lake is about a 70-minute drive from Los Angeles, a perfect distance for a quick weekend getaway. Drive along oak-shaded California 33 east of Ventura into the rolling hills near Ojai and then turn west onto California 150 and you'll find the blue-green waters of Lake Casitas. When we pulled up to the entrance, we requested a campsite near the water park. (Camping permits start at $25 per night.) We got a spot in campground C, a short walk from the water park and within earshot of the cacophony on 150.

Once I saw how close our campsite was to the road I considered requesting a quieter spot, but my daughter was in a hurry to get to the water park. In the shade of oak trees, we unpacked our gear, set up our tent and changed into our swimsuits.

The Casitas Water Adventure is good for children younger than 5. The water around the multilevel jungle gym is no more than 18 inches deep. From the jungle gym, water squirts from water cannons, dumps from overhead buckets and shoots from almost every angle. Beach chairs circle the water park so pale-faced cubicle dwellers can catch rays while watching the kids work off excess energy.

Isabella made a beeline for the Lazy River, ordering me to follow. We each grabbed an inner tube and let the current push us around the river. I would have been happy just to coast for the day, but that was too sedate for Isabella, who wanted to play tag in the river. The Lazy River is no more than 3 feet deep, so I wasn't worried about drowning. Besides, lifeguards are stationed every few hundred feet along the route. The water was cool and clean. A few hours of water horseplay and I was ready to collapse in my tent.

Back at our campsite, we cooked chili and hot dogs on my camp stove, then tried to roast marshmallows over the campfire. I pointed out the stars poking through the branches of the oak trees, but Isabella was already talking about going to sleep. After a long day in the water, we slept soundly, barely noticing the occasional traffic roaring by on 150.

"What time does the water park open?" Isabella asked the next morning. Not until 11 a.m., I told her. That gave us enough time to do some fishing. From the marina, we rented a small motorboat ($50 an hour) and circled the lake. I threw out a spinner lure but got no bites. When we spotted a lone deer grazing on the shore, we turned off the motor to glide closer. We came within about 20 feet of the deer before it bounded into the brush.

After returning the motorboat to the marina, we were back at the Lazy River, drifting on the cool current, playing tag on the inner tubes and wondering if we would ever again have this much fun camping.

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hugo.martin@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Lake Casitas

THE BEST WAY

From Los Angeles, take U.S. 101 north for about 70 miles. Take California 33 east toward Ojai and continue for about 10 miles. Turn left onto California 150 (Baldwin Road), then left again onto Santa Ana Road. The park entrance is on the right.

COSTS

Overnight camping: $25 for a basic site; $30, Fridays, Saturdays and holidays. Higher fees for RV and trailer sites. To make reservations, call (805) 649-1122 between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. Mondays though Fridays.

Water Adventure fees are $12 per day; $5 for entry after 5 p.m.

TO LEARN MORE

Go to www.lakecasitas.info

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