Southern California Camping Summer 2012

05.31.12


Pitch Hits

Break out the Jiffy Pop, camping season is here! From mountain highs to valley lows, here are three places that deserve a pitch.


Marion Mountain Campground

Marion Magnitude

Men In Black 3 wasn’t the only big opening on Memorial Day Weekend. Marion Mountain Campground in the San Jacinto Mountains kicked off its summer camping season—at 6,200 feet! Surrounded by boulder-strewn peaks, this tranquil 24-site retreat near Idyllwild is set in a forest of tall sugar pines. Reaching it requires navigating a windy road that many RVs avoid. Rather than the rumble of big engines, you're more likely to hear the distinct chorus of the yellow-rumped warbler and the Steller’s jay headlining a birdsong, with acoustics courtesy of nearby woodpeckers. Set up your tent on a spongy bed of pine needles and take a short stroll. The campground is home to the snow plant, which grows only at this high elevation and is identified by its red spires. Golden Eagles also make appearances in these parts—keep a keen eye out! When the afternoon starts to slip away, scurry up the hillside behind site 9, where a pile of boulders offers prime seating to watch the sun set over Dark Canyon. The mountains fade into navy while the sky illuminates in rose and yellow hues. As the moon begins its night climb, bust out marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers. S’mores go better with altitude.

TIP: Marion Mount Campground is 4,600 feet below the summit of Mount San Jacinto, the second highest point in Southern California at 10,834 feet. You can reach this peak via an epic 12-mile (round-trip) hike on Marion Mountain Trail, which begins near the campground. Godspeed.

Take I-10 to Banning, exit on Hwy. 243 and drive 20 miles south into the mountains. Turn left on Azalea Trails Rd. and follow signs for another 1.5 miles to the campground (map). Sites are $10 per night and may be reserved online (with an additional $9 reservation fee). There are metal fire rings with grills and a picnic table at each site, plus potable water and vault toilets. Dog-friendly! 

La Jolla Valley Hike-in Campground

Pack It In

Want to go wild without going too far into the wild? La Jolla Valley Hike-In Campground in Point Mugu State Park is a rarity in the Santa Monica Mountains, an easy-to-reach (and surprisingly little-used!) backcountry campground. It’s the place to go for an "Intro to Backpacking" adventure. Several trails lead to La Jolla Valley, but the most straightforward is a 2.4-mile (one-way) option on the La Jolla Canyon Trail, beginning just off PCH across from Thornhill Broome Beach Campground. Toss on your backpack and make your way to the canyon’s namesake falls just .75-mile in. The surrounding canyon walls rise impressively and close in on the La Jolla Canyon Falls (note this seasonal oasis is barely a dribble right now). Next hike a switchback along the canyon’s east side where the trail gets steeper and rockier. The unusual local plant, giant coreopsis (resembling a miniature Joshua tree sprouting sunflowers), sycamores and jagged boulders add color and a rugged edge. After a mile, the trail levels out on the final stretch to the campground, passing through a green-turning-golden meadow featuring a panorama of the surrounding valley, Sandstone Peak, and the Boney Mountains to the east. While La Jolla Valley campground doesn’t offer views, the appeal lies in its privacy. Nine sites sprawl a good distance apart beneath a canopy of oaks, providing a cool respite during hot weather. It’s quite likely you’ll have this first-come, first-serve campground all to yourself, even on a holiday weekend. Consider it your reward for that stellar backpacking effort. Jump for La Jolla!

BONUS: For ocean views on your return, hike back either on the Ray Miller or Mugu Peak trails (note: this will make the hike a bit longer and tougher).

Take Pacific Coast Hwy. to La Jolla Canyon in Point Mugu State Park (map). Sites are $8 per night. Register at the Iron Ranger in the parking lot at the bottom of La Jolla Canyon. Sites are first-come, first-serve but rarely book up (even on weekends). Hike 2 miles up La Jolla Canyon Trail, turning left at the second junction toward the campground. When the trail ends at La Jolla Valley Fire Road, turn right and make an immediate left to the campground. Campfires are prohibited. There is a vault toilet. Pack your own water. Here is a trail map. No dogs.

Chilao Campground San Gabriel Mountains

Join the Club

Mile-high camping is one of the ultimate fresh air experiences, and here’s the "pitch": You don’t have to venture far from Los Angeles to make it happen. Roughly an hour from the city, and set at 5,300 feet in the higher backcountry of the San Gabriel Mountains, Chilao Campground is so close, yet so far. Set up camp at one of its 83 sites spread around two loops, Pine and Manzanita. Jeffrey Pines, oaks, and red-trunked Manzanitas separate the sites, lending privacy. Of the two loops, Manzanita offers superior scenery, unfolding across a ridge that overlooks Big Tujunga Canyon. Low vegetation allows sweeping views to the west—a prime area to catch a banner sunset! Grab a site numbered in the teens or twenties for the best vantage and bask in the golden rays that blanket the campground. Daytime adventures come easily, too. The 53-mile-long Silver Moccasin Trail, which follows old Native American trails, passes right through the campground, so there’s plenty of nearby hiking—including a trail to Mount Waterman. On clear nights the Milky Way puts on a show. Chill out at Chilao!

BONUS: Forgot the burgers and beers? Roughing it doesn’t have to be rough! You may be in the middle of the mountains, but Chilao sits a mere mile from Newcomb's Ranch. Grab a pint of Fat Tire and devour some homemade beef chili. Ahhhh, nature...

From I-210 in La Canada, exit on CA 2, Angeles Crest Highway, and drive northeast 26 miles into the mountains (map). At the sign for Chilao Campground, turn and continue to either loop. Newcomb Ranch is another mile up the road. Call (818) 899-1900 for current campground conditions. Sites are first-come, first-serve at $12 per night. Each site comes with a picnic table and a fire ring with a grill. Vault toilets and potable water provided. Campfires permitted. An adventure pass is required to park on national forest land outside the campground and may be purchased at Newcomb Ranch for $5 per day. Dog-friendly!

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