Semi-urban camping

In line with my sort-of-resolution for the new year, I’ve been trying to take advantage of the weekends to spend more time outside (and less time whining about how I can’t because I work full time). So, this weekend, after a lot of research (probably too much research, I probably spend too much time obsessively reading about potential outdoor adventures) we decided to try some local car camping with 2 other (awesome, fun, hilarious) couples. After a lot of deliberating we decided to try the semi-local Crystal Cove State Park in The Laguna Beach area (Red Rock Canyon State Park was a close second, but we thought it might get a bit cold for some of the gear the group had). Now, I’ve been south of LA only a handful of times since moving to the area. It’s somewhere I don’t understand, nor usually have any reason to visit. On top of that, I spend large amounts of energy devoted to finding the perfect car camping place much as I look for the perfect backpacking route. That being said, I have a love/hate relationship with car camping:

-Camping. In general it’s always a good thing.
-Camping with stuff I wouldn’t carry while backpacking. Full meals, a bottle of wine! A nice craft beer from Oregon. I was not raised by camping parents. In fact, I generally was attracted to friends who also happen to have camping parents (thus, I would also get to go camping). It’s taken me a long time to figure out how to car camp. In fact, for many years, on the rare occasion when car camping did happen, I would basically bring my backpacking gear, and make my same backcountry food at a picnic table in a campsite. But I’m learning.
-Real pillows!
-Real books!
-Camp chairs!
-You can make real food over a fire without carrying a lot of fresh food on your back.
-You sometimes get to camp with great friends who probably wouldn’t want to backpack.

The bad:
-The other people. This is a weird statement, I understand. Many car campers are lovely, quiet, respectful folks. However, some are not. Case in point: the RV generators late at night, the drunk teenagers, the guys playing Led Zeppelin in the next campsite over. These are all things that can happen, and I don’t usually have to think about this when I’m backpacking.
-On a related note: the sense that you’re still with a bunch of crowds even though part of the reason you went camping was to get away from those.
-Car camping close to a city: the strange feeling that sometimes you’re sleeping right next to a city, which feels kind of weird.
-Maybe it’s gross, but I don’t care: I’d rather pee in the woods than some of the campground bathrooms you find.

However, not all car camping places are the same. Living in California, we are incredibly lucky to have some of the nicest and most gorgeous car camping spots around (oh, and all that great backpacking too). Case in point, this view from the weekend is pretty nice:


In the distance you can see Catalina island, which makes for an extra gorgeous sunset:


Overall, we had a great night at Crystal Cove State park. After arriving at around 1pm (actually, 12:52, but the individual working the gate was pretty set on us checking in exactly at 1pm. So we spent approximately 8 minutes pulled over next to the entrance eating snacks). While you can check-in at 1pm, you don’t actually get to go to your selected site until 3pm (we picked site 33, more on this later). This was fine because we had already planned a hike with 4/6 of the group, and actually finished this at almost exactly 3.

My initial impressions of this campground were overall very good. The sites are big, clean and since each loop is tiered above the loop in front of it, every site has a GREAT ocean view (see above).

Things to note:
-No fires, but apparently you’re allowed bring your own portable fireplace? I’m not 100% sure what that is…
-No tent stakes. This site used to be an old trailer park turned state park campground in 2011, so the surface is nice and flat, but also hard and not able to take any stakes. So, a free standing tent is a must.
-If you are coming from the west LA area and taking highway 405, you can see snow capped Baldy AND also get a great view of Mt. San Jacinto too (I was very excited about this).

Things I learned that would impact my choice to camp there again:
-As I mentioned, this is a very popular RV spot, since it is so accessible and right next to Highway 1. Overall we had very little issue with generators running late at night (there seemed to be only one person running it until the 10pm cutoff time). The top loops are 100% occupied by RV’s, and while we picked somewhere in the middle, our row was also almost all RV’s (see photo below). So, in the future I would pick Dolphin loop (we were just above that, on Sage loop) or below, which looked much darker and maybe a little quieter.
-You can definitely hear the highway and see the traffic lights on the road. This was sort of why I didn’t pick the lowest tier (which in theory is right above the highway). It fortunately was not nearly as loud and annoying as I thought it would be during the night, with only the occasional loud motorcycle passing by. It was definitely quiet enough for us to hear coyotes out in the hills behind the campground, which was neat. Bothered by the cars? Bring ear plugs for bed time!


Verdict: I would definitely camp here again. It’s exactly 1 hour from my house (without much traffic on the weekend), and it’s a lovely and well maintained campground with an unbeatable view of the ocean and on a clear day Catalina is right in front of you. Throughout the day there were multiple rounds done by a friendly volunteer/ranger and overall I found the other campers to be pretty respectful and quiet. While you can hear the highway at night, you can also see shooting stars and hear coyotes too. As someone pretty picky about where I car camp (okay, I’m very picky), there seemed to be enough going for this park that would make me want to come back again.

The details: Crystal Cove State Park (this link as some info, but also check out the official state park site with a nice campground map).
Reservations: Yes, you can make them through the reservations link on the state park site.
Price $35 with an $8 transaction fee, which covered all 6 of our party, with 2 cars.
Amenities: Bathrooms (that seemed really clean), showers, a nice beach, lots of hiking trails. If you need food or don’t feel like cooking, there’s restaurants right down the road, including a Trader Joe’s
Directions: Moro Campground at Crystal Cove State Park is located just off the PCH before you reach Laguna beach. Click here for the google maps location! (Note: if coming north, definitely take the left right before the school (the street will have a sign that says “State Park” with an arrow). It looks like you can turn off on another road just south of the campground, but that is actually not open).



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