Quick Getaways: Camping along the Southern California coast
Quick Getaways: Camping along the Southern California coast
I looked down from the cliff where we pitched our tents, our surfboards set up against a fence between us and the water. The waves were pumping, with sets rolling in one after another as the sun glistened off the ocean where surfers looked like small ants from above.
On a recent surf camping trip with friends and family at San Elijo State Beach in San Diego County, it struck me just how lucky we are to be able to enjoy an overnight surfing safari just miles from our home.
Surf spots are easy to come by in Southern California, but it takes a bit more work to find the best beachfront digs to set up camp for an overnight wave-catching adventure. When I don’t have the time or money to spend on a surf trip in another country, I look in my own backyard for a quick and easy getaway.
There’s nothing like warming up next to a campfire to ease the chill from a sunset surf session, or waking up to the sound of crashing waves and peering out from your tent to see how the surf looks.
While spots may be hard to score during summer months, the offseason is the time to enjoy what our coastline has to offer.
Here’s a list of top Southern California destinations to combine a surfing and camping trip into one:
San Elijo State Beach, near Cardiff-by-the-Sea
Be prepared to feel the burn in your legs. Getting down to the surf spot from the clifftop isn’t easy, but once you trek the long wooden stairway and reach the water, it’s worth it. And when you’re in the lineup, the cliffs with the tents and trailers above are an amazing sight.
This campsite is at one of the best surf spots around, a wave enjoyed by shortboarders and longboarders alike. But the crowds are thin, even when a swell hits.
The surf: There’s no shortage of good breaks here. A number of reef breaks are visible from the campgrounds just above. It’s a rocky bottom, so be sure to watch your step as you’re walking out to the surf. Nearby is the famous Swamis, a right-reef point that draws a big crowd, as well as Cardiff Reef, a slow and mushy wave that can beef up during a big winter swell. Beginners can get lessons from Eli Howard Surf School, which runs its operations at the campgrounds (elihoward.com).
Camping: The campsites are mostly on the aforementioned cliff – except for the ones to the south end of the site – and the oceanfront locations ($50 a night) offer a gorgeous view of the water. The waves can be heard all night from here. On the other side ($35), the sounds are less appealing as cars whiz by on Pacific Coast Highway and trains pass often with horns blowing. All the spots are extremely spacious, so you can fit big groups. RV sites are available – $70 for ocean views, $55 for inland spots.
Must-know: While I’m a big fan of roasting hot dogs and getting creative for breakfast while camping, you could easily skip the hassle and opt for the food stand set in the middle of the campground run by Bull Taco. The food is beyond good, with offerings like duck or shrimp curry tacos, and possibly the best breakfast burrito I’ve ever had – stuffed with egg, chorizo, bacon and tater tots, and slathered with Sriracha sour cream. And if you really don’t feel like roughing it, there’s a Starbucks across the street.
Leo Carillo State Beach, Malibu
This campground seems far away from the rest of the world. It’s one of the few campsites along the Southern California coastline where you really feel like you’re in the woods, with plenty of thick shrubbery to give you an authentic camping experience. It’s a popular location, but easier to access during the offseason.
The surf: The waves are a bit faster here when a swell hits, and there’s only one take-off site next to a rock – so expect to battle the crowds. It’s also a popular kite and windsurfing destination when the winds kick up. Heavy kelp and a rocky bottom can also make surfing here a challenge. It’s a bit of a trek from the campsites set farther from the coast, but you can drive in to a beach parking lot.
Camping: There’s not a bad site here, and most of them are spacious. All cost the same, $45 a night. There’s a great general store on site that gives the sense of traveling a few generations back in time.
Must-know: Leo Carrillo is adding RV hookups to about 50 campsites, so there will be construction in areas starting early this month and running through mid-March, and then again mid-April through July 1. Some sites will be closed for upgrades.
Doheny State Beach, Dana Point
There’s a reason this is one of the most sought-after campgrounds in the state parks system. I discovered camping at Doheny State Beach about 10 years ago, and have been in love ever since.
Doheny is one of the few spots along the Southern California coast where you can actually pitch a tent on the sand – but good luck getting those premiere beachfront spots, as eager visitors nab them on the reservation system months in advance, and cancellations are rare.
But if you can get one of those prime locations, expect to enjoy a glass of wine with the setting sun as your view. Look to the north and you’ll see the popular surf breaks within walking distance of your tent.
There are plenty of things to do here if the surf isn’t great. Check out the Doheny Interpretive Center at the entrance to the park, where an aquarium and tidepools educate visitors. There’s also the Ocean Institute nearby in the harbor, where there’s plenty to learn about local ocean habitat and critters. Baby Beach in the Dana Point harbor offers stand-up paddle rentals for those looking to go beyond the surf line.
The surf: The waves are mellow enough for beginners on a small or medium swell, but when a big summer south swell hits, it could be massive and intimidating. Expect big crowds in and out of the water during the summer, but it could be flat as a lake during winter months. Lessons are available through Girl in the Curl Surf School; make reservations at girlinthecurl.com
Camping: As mentioned, beach-front sites on the sand are the best places to pitch a tent ($60 a night), but the other spots ($35) aren’t too shabby – they’re a bit small, but offer enough space to fit two or three tents. There are also RV sites available with hookups. A train goes by every few hours, so be prepared for loud horns and other noise from the railroad tracks through the night.
Must-know: While Doheny has super fun surf, it’s not exactly the cleanest beach around: It often lands on Heal the Bay’s “Beach Bummer” list for dirty water test results.
San Clemente State Beach
This camping spot is less popular than the others, but it has its own character. The sites are set up on a cliff above the water, and one thing I love about this place is the grass surrounding the camping areas.
Getting to the beach requires a bit of a climb down rocky cliffs, but the outcroppings can make you feel like you’re on a great exploration.
The surf: It’s not great here, with waves out front often walled and closed out. So why did it make the list? The best surf spots in Southern California are just a short car ride (or long walk) down the road. The world-class Trestles break just south of here offers a high-performance wave, but be warned: The crowds can be brutal. A bit farther down is San Onofre State Beach, known for its long, mellow rides relished by longboarders.
Camping: The 160 spots are spacious and affordable ($25-$45 a night). Each has a fire ring and a picnic table. There’s also an RV area with hookups that accommodates 72 vehicles. A group campsite can hold up to 50 people and costs $250 a night. Coastal sage is scattered around the undeveloped bluff top.
Must-know: Surf fishing is popular here, with bass, croaker and corvina close to the surf line. But make sure you get a fishing license for anyone over 16. A nature trail and a butterfly trail at the edge of the park are also worth checking out.
Bolsa Chica State Beach, Huntington Beach
You won’t be able to pitch a tent at this campground, but if you have an RV or pop-up trailer, it’s a great place to enjoy a beach camping experience. The RV campground is set up in the state beach parking lot, with a great people-watching view of passersby jogging, biking or skating along the boardwalk.
The surf: There are plenty of waves to be found here, and it’s one of the best beginner spots around in the summer. Those looking to try surfing can get lessons from the Corky Carroll Surf School, set up near tower 20. But be warned, the break turns vicious during the winter, when the swells come in from the northwest and can be pounding and dangerous.
Camping: You won’t get a great “away-from-it-all” feeling here, with cars whizzing by on Pacific Coast Highway. There’s no greenery, and the RVs are set up on concrete. But you can’t beat the proximity to the ocean, just feet from the camping spots. Those closer to the beach are $65 a night, but spots are cheaper on the side next to the road ($50).
Must-know: Watch your toes – the sting ray injuries have increased here in the past few years. Make sure you do the “sting-ray shuffle” to avoid getting hit by one of the painful stingers, which could send you hobbling to the lifeguard headquarters for hot-water relief to ease the pain.
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Posted on January 5, 2015, in The world as i see it as a camper and who loves his country and tagged campers, camping, how to's, Koa, money, motorhomes, outback, outdoors, parks, road trips, rv news, rv tips, rv's, rving, state parks, towing, trailers, travel, traveling, winter camping. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.