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Wildlife and water slides too at Lopez Lake

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

"Why settle for small sites at the beach where you can hear your neighbors breathing?" said Crystal Robbins of North Hollywood. "Lake Lopez in gorgeous San Luis Obispo environs gives you miles of water frontage, large sites, hiking, boating, swimming, sunbathing and other great California summer family bonding moments. We can't wait to go back."

The setting

If you've ever trekked north along U.S. 101, past Buellton'ssplit pea soup joint, toward San Luis Obispo, you probably zipped right past the turnoff for Lopez Lake Recreation Area. It's easy to miss. No billboards or neon lights point the way to this 4,600-acre park in the oak-studded hills east of Arroyo Grande. But if you take the Grand Avenue exit and continue past the shops and eateries of Arroyo Grande, you will follow a snaking road that borders several family-run wineries and hillside vineyards to a lakeside retreat for car campers, anglers and waterside enthusiasts.

Lopez Lake is a diamond in the rough where 345 campsites dot the grassy hillsides overlooking a 1,000-acre shimmering blue lake. Jet skis, motorboats and kayakers launch from a busy marina that is home to a convenience store, a tackle shop, a restaurant and a boat rental business.

That cacophony of screaming kids and water splashing comes from the water slide park on the eastern shore of the lake. And those soaring black wings overhead are turkey vultures, just part of a vibrant assortment of wildlife, including deer, wild turkeys, egrets and herons.

The vibe

Take a campsite near the water park and you can expect the usual regional park scene: big crowds, loud music and crying babies. The Mustang Water Slides park features two 600-foot curving slides, a wading pool for toddlers and a giant boomerang-shaped inner tube slide called the Stampede. That racket echoing off the hills is a mishmash of rap, country and Mexican ranchera music, most of it from competing car stereos.

But with so many campsites to choose from, you can avoid much of the racket by pitching your tent farther from the marina and the water park. Try a campsite in the "Buck" or "Conejo" campgrounds for a nice view of the lake without the noise of the crowds. If you're lucky, your campsite may get a visit from a family of doe-eyed deer that have become so accustomed to humans that they routinely tiptoe within a few yards of campers.

You can buy most of your camping supplies at the marina's convenience store but you'll probably save money by stopping by an Albertsons or Trader Joe's back in town, a few miles north along U.S. 101. Single-track hiking trails connect all of the campsites around the lake so once you park your car, you can get around on a mountain bike or by the soles of your hiking boots.

Overall

If you're looking for California's version of Walden Pond -- a retreat where you can get in touch with nature -- Lopez Lake is not it. This is a bring-the-kids, crank-up-the-stereo and toss-around-the-football kind of place.

To avoid the din, get a remote campsite and try to avoid the weekends, when the crowds are rowdiest.

On the plus side, Lopez Lake is ideal for Southern California families with hyperactive teens and preteens. The lake is a four-hour drive from Los Angeles, good for a three-day weekend visit.

The campsites are usually full on most Friday and Saturday nights in the summer so I secured a campsite near the water park on a recent Sunday night. I set my 10-year-old daughter, Isabella, loose in the water park, where lifeguards oversee the water mayhem, while I set up our tent and camp stove. From my campsite, I only had to walk a few yards to check in on her.

A walk along the lake shore at sunset is a great way to wind down the day. The fading rays of a setting sun shimmer on the rippled surface. Along the shallow shores, you may see egrets and herons feeding on squirming shad. From the looks of the fish that anglers were cleaning near the shore, the lake serves up a hefty stock of crappie, sunfish and smallmouth bass.

After dark, the stars shine through the overhanging moss-coated oak branches. Lopez Lake is not remote enough to be considered dark-sky country, but the sky is black enough here to put on a memorable late-night light show, accompanied by a cricket serenade.

For directions and reservations go to www.slocountyparks.com/activities/lopez.htm.

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