My friend Jill warned me about camping down at Trails, which are the gorgeous, remote surf beaches at the southern tip of Orange County and northern border of San Diego County. When I asked if she wanted to join us at one of the spots along what’s called The Bluffs at San Onofre State Beach in May, she wisely scoped them out ahead of time while surfing down there. And she took a polite pass.
(You can get a sense of the reason Jill opted not to join us in the background–the train tracks and the car that is zipping along the six-lane I-5 freeway within several hundred yards of us.)
Even with this knowledge, we did what the hundreds of other campers who ponied up more than $40 a night for a narrow slice of concrete did that day and every day all summer long–we went anyway. This campground is only a half hour drive from our home in Laguna Beach, but it’s one of our favorite destinations. Not only is the surfing perfect for long-boarding, but you can bring your dog to two of the trails that lead down a cliff to the beach: Trail One and Trail Six.
Those other campers apparently knew this, too. Many were there to surf, but most were families who had a great time doing the typical camping activities–roasting marshmallows, nursing cold beers, listening to music and simply enjoying each other’s company. But the main reason was that if you walked a couple hundred yards, you ended up here.
And if you wanted to hang out on the expansive beaches, you just head down one of the seven trails. Besides the train and road noise, we had a few other detractions to our good time. Our battery was accidentally drained (no power in our little camper that night for lights and music) and our Coleman stove went kaput on use. But we still managed to have a great time. If you have a crackling fire, a bottle of wine, strong coffee, head lamps, a good book, a warm beanie and a sky full of stars, and your favorite husband and favorite dog in the world, it’s hard not to have a great time no matter where you are.
All around us, other campers had a similar attitude and experience. It was a lesson in how we all have the power to decide whether or not we are happy.
Every time the noise started to bother me, something wonderful would pop back into our picture to drown it out–like this full moon rising at dusk. This urban camping is not for everyone. The place is a study in extremes–the good and the bad, the mad rush and the serene, feeling crowded and cramped and feeling like you are in the middle of Baja.
The contrasts can be so dramatic. I spent the last decade surfing just north of this beach at a popular break called Old Man’s, where you can drive up to the beach. It’s also a beautiful spot, but is closer to the nuclear power plant (see the infamous “boobs” in the distance) and the Marine base. Often, while sitting waiting for waves and taking in the natural beauty, you will hear the power plant’s sirens go off (testing) or hear the ground-rattling booms of the practice bombs in the nearby hills.
It all has a very surreal Southern California feel to it–that stark combination of stunning natural beauty and way too many people determined to grab their piece of the fun.
And the pressure will only continue to grow. To score one of these campgrounds, you need to book them within a week or so of when they become available, this year it was in January. We happened to be in one of the least protected campgrounds, at number 159. In general, I would try to get a spot closer to the entrance, where some campgrounds are protected from the roar of trains, cars and trucks by small hills and more trees (Numbers 40 to 70 seemed better–but that’s a very general recommendations. Don’t hold me to it!).
I couldn’t resist this shot. Hope I don’t know this guy.
If you surf–especially long board–this place is heavenly.
It was crowded because of the long Memorial Day weekend, but usually you have nice, fat waves all to yourself.
If you prefer to hike, you can walk for miles under the bluffs in either direction.
If you head south, however, just understand that you might pass some nude sunbathers and other frolickers. Even though the state has tried to ban the nude beach, I believe it’s still an active spots. At some point, you enter onto military land, which is marked but passable. Enter at your own risk–but no one bothered us and there wasn’t anyone but surfers as far as we could see.
People have carved elaborate designs–some crude and pornographic–into the sandstone. Can you make out the face at the base here? I featured more of the carvings and Trails in this post.
I reviewed another popular Orange County campground, called Crystal Cove State Park, recently, and hope to feature more in the near future. I apparently had good timing–it was featured on the cover of the May 2013 issue of Sunset magazine. Remember, you read it here first! Haha.
I’m going to provide some tips on each place with a pros and cons list, in case you find them helpful. My main warning about camping at The Bluffs at San Onofre State Park is that you are literally on a long parking lot, and the noise is outrageously loud–no matter how great your attitude is. (If we go back, I will bring ear plugs.)
Pros: Access to one of the most beautiful beaches in California, fire pits; amazing surfing; fun place to hike along beach; long, paved road for riding bikes; friendly crowd; clean chemical toilets and running water.
Cons: Constant noise from trains and freeway traffic. Little to no shade (bring your own). No showers or other amenities. Pick up groceries along the way or in nearby San Clemente.