1A SELECTIVE GUIDE TO SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FAMILY CAMPSITES:

There are more than 200 established campsites within a couple hours' drive of the Greater Los Angeles area. Here are a few destination suggestions.

VENTURA COUNTY

INLAND:

Forest Service:

The Santa Ynez Mountains, once home to the last wild condors, still offer a measure of freedom to families fleeing civilization. Dozens of camps are scattered through the Los Padres National Forest east of Santa Barbara. Wheeler Gorge Campground,for instance, sits on the

north fork of the Ventura River, sheltered by sycamore, oak and poplar trees. With swimming holes and decent fishing, it's the kind of camp kids would like to call home. $7. Running water and toilets.

Up California 33, in the Rose Valley area, there are several small, relatively remote campgrounds. Lions Campground,on the Sespe River, attracts lots of families. $6. And on the east end of the forest, where the Piru river runs into Lake Piru,Blue Point Campground is another not-so-secret fishing hole. Information for all above: Ojai Ranger District (805) 646-4348.

County:

Ventura County operates five public campgrounds in the inland valleys and mountains, the most popular of which is probably Steckel Park,near Santa Paula, a first-come first-serve area with running water, toilets, etc. and a nearby stocked creek. Information and reservations: (805) 654-3951.

BEACH:

State:

McGrath State Beach,near Oxnard (Seaward Avenue from U.S. 101 then south on Harbor Boulevard) has 174 developed sites, showers, a nature trail and lots of beach. (805) 654-4744. Point Mugu State Beach,15 miles south of Oxnard on California 1, has 55 developed sites in Sycamore Canyon across the Pacific Coast Highway, and 102 primitive sites at La Jolla Beach for self-contained vehicles. Families can also walk two or five miles up La Jolla Valley to primitive campsites. (818) 706-1310. Sites in state campgrounds go for $16 a night with hookups, $12 for developed sites with coastal access, $10 for developed inland sites, and $6 for primitive sites. All state park reservations must be made through Mystix, with a $3.75 fee per site reserved (800) I GO PARK.

County:

Emma Wood State Beach,operated by Ventura County, has 81 beach sites just outside Ventura. It's popular with families willing to forgo such amenities as showers and running water in order to camp within earshot of the waves. Chemical toilets only. $6 a night. First-come, first-serve.

Hobson and Faria Beaches,about two miles apart on the old Pacific Coast Highway north of Ventura, have 29 sites at each, many of which are on the water. $9 a night includes real bathrooms, showers and running water but no trailer hookups. Both parks were recently renovated. "We have some regulars who won't go anywhere else," says a spokesperson. Information and reservations: (805) 654-3951.

LOS ANGELES COUNTY

INLAND:

Forest Service:

The 70 or so camps maintained by the Forest Service or Forest Service concessionaires in the Angeles National Forest range from relatively pristine backpacking camps to the sort where folks spend less time admiring the night sky than scanning it with satellite dishes attached to wide-screen TVs. Many of the drive-in camps have barbecues, fire rings, picnic tables and toilets of various qualities, and most are picturesque in their way. A few suggestions are in order, however.

North of the Antelope Valley Freeway, a cluster of campgrounds in the Bouquet Canyon area lures swarms of families each weekend.

Fewer people, however, have found out about Cottonwood Campground in Elizabeth Lake Canyon, north of Castaic Lake. It's more densely vegetated and kids like to play in the creek and hike in the surrounding hills. Both are $5. Saugus Ranger District (805) 296-9710.

Buckhorn Camp,with its incense cedars and a stream colored with lush ferns is a slice of the Eastern Sierras just a 45 minute drive up Angeles Crest Highway from La Canada. Camping, at $10 per site per night, is strictly first-come, first-served. Crystal Lake Campground,north of Azusa in San Gabriel Canyon is one of the most popular campgrounds. It's also the only Angeles National Forest camp that requires reservations (through Ticketron).

East of Angeles Crest Highway on the West Fork of the San Gabriel River,Valley Forge and Westfork campgrounds lie hidden in a deep, richly shaded canyon. Campers must endure a dirt road that makes kidneys quiver. But their reward is a total of 24 nicely shaded campsites suitable for tents or small campers, in a setting traversed by a stream containing rainbow and native brown trout. You'll feel eight hours farther from Los Angeles than you really are. Arroyo Seco District. (818) 796-1151.

BEACH:

State:

Leo Carrillo State Beach,north of Point Dume on Pacific Coast Highway, has two campgrounds for families. The Canyon campground has 138 sites, with tables, stoves, food lockers, showers and restrooms. The Beach campground has 50 sites for self-contained vehicles. And early reservations are encouraged, as the beach attracts hordes of families eager to explore its rock formations, and romp around in its waves. (818) 706-1310.

ORANGE COUNTY

INLAND:

Forest Service:

The Forest Service operates a total of five campgrounds within the Trabuco Ranger District, a section of the Cleveland National Forest straddling Orange and Riverside counties. Bluejay Campground,three miles north of Ortega Highway at 3,500 feet, is especially scenic, with pine and oak trees and access to excellent hiking into San Juan Canyon (bring water). Trabuco Ranger District (714) 736-1811.

County:

Still reeling from tragic mountain lion attacks in the area,Caspers Wilderness Park,off Ortega Highway, and O'Neill Regional Park,in Trubuco Canyon do not admit campers under age 18, thus Featherly Park,off the Riverside Freeway in the Yorba Linda area is currently the only county campsite for family camping. The 660-acre park is split by the Santa Ana River and shaded by California sycamore, Fremont cottonwoods, live oaks, and willows. Southern Californians interested in a foreign vacation close to home might note that in summer 80% of the 140 campsites are filled with out-of-staters and foreign visitors who've figured out that this is the closest public camp to Disneyland. Camps have running water and hot showers. Fees change July 1, from $6 to $7 per campsite (same at all parks). First-come, first-served or reservations: (714) 637-0210.

BEACH:

State:

Some of the best beach camping in the state can be found in suburban Orange County, and a surprising number of the campers who line up to get into these beaches arrive from homes just a few minutes away. Bolsa Chica and Huntington state beaches allow self-contained RVs to spend one night in their parking lots. But Doheny and San Clemente state beaches are bona fide campgrounds, with individual sites for tents as well as RVs.

Doheny State Beach,just off Coast Highway in Capistrano Beach, has 115 developed sites with a smattering of eucalyptus and other trees for shade. With the infusion of day-use beach lovers, the place becomes chaotic on weekends, but the ocean front sites offer one of the few opportunities for those who can't afford an ocean-front home to step from one's bed onto the beach. (714) 492-0802.

Down the road a few miles,San Clemente State Beach in San Clemente has a total of 157 sites laid out on a sparsely vegetated bluff, with trailers segregated from the tent camping crowd. Reached by long stairways, the mile-long beach is arguably one of the nicest on the coast. (714) 492-0802.

RIVERSIDE COUNTY

INLAND:

Forest Service:

The San Jacinto area supports some of the most beautiful forest in Southern California. In the shadows of 10,786-foot San Jacinto Peak,Dark Canyon Campground, with 22 sites near a stream laden with fish is a recreational bargain at $7 a night. So is nearby Fern Basin,with 22 sites at $6 a night. But both book up Friday before noon. So families who want to get away from the crowds might try Tool Box Spring or Thomas Mountain primitive camps, south of Idylwild on Thomas Mountain. And they're both free. San Jacinto Ranger District. (714) 659-2117.

State:

Lake Perris State Recreation Area with 176 developed campsites, (714) 657-0676 and Lake Elsinore State Recreation Area (714) 674-3005 with 167 tent sites and 264 RV sites are popular with families who enjoy water sports and fishing. Both are south of Riverside and within sight of Interstate 10.

Ten-thousand-acre Chino Hills State Park,opened last year at a cost of $47 million, making it the most expensive in the State Park System. An eight-site primitive campground is located under cover of sycamores and a network of riding trails makes this popular with the horse set. Between the Pomona and Riverside freeways off Pomona-Rincon Road, it's hard to find but reportedly worth the effort.

State:

The state maintains two campsites near Mt. San Jacinto. Mt. San Jacinto State Park,at 5,500 feet (on California 243 near Idylwild) has 33 developed sites, 50 primitive sites, and an environmental campground. (714) 659-2607.

County:

Riverside County has eight family campgrounds with a variety of facilities, from Lake Cahuilla Park near Indio to Rancho Jurupa Park along the Santa Ana River between Riverside and Norco. Idyllwild Park,within walking distance of Idyllwild village off California 243, offers sites for tent campers at $8 a night and access to some of the best hiking trails in Southern California. Lake Skinner Park,east of California 79 at the southern end of the county, is on a 1,200-acre lake stocked with catfish, largemouth bass and trout. It has sites ranging from primitive to developed at fees from $7 to $12 a night. For information and reservations call: (714) 787-2553.

SAN BERNARDINO

COUNTY

INLAND

Forest Service:

Up above the inversion layer the San Bernardino Forest boasts camping to match that anywhere in the southern state.

Dogwood campground,just north of California 18 near Lake Arrowhead "is probably one of the prettiest campgrounds I've ever seen," said a ranger there. "It's very lush. Most campgrounds you can see about 10 campsites around you. Here you can't see any others there's so much vegetation--Ponderosa pines, sugar pines, the incense cedars grow like weeds." This is one of the few camps where weekend reservations can be made at Ticketron.

Families interested in sailing and swimming should know that Grout Bay Campground is the only campsite on the water at Big Bear Lake. It has 23 sites at $7 a night on a first-come first-served basis. Meanwhile,Hanna Flats,2 1/2 miles north of Fawnskin down a good dirt road, is a good place to get away from the crowds drawn to Big Bear. It has 86 sites and flush toilets at $9, and it offers access to Holcomb Creek, where fish and beavers--yes, beavers--swim side by side. Big Bear Ranger District. (714) 866-3437.

At the other end of the forest, adventurous families may want to try camping at the Joe Elliot Tree Memorial,which, although just north of Upland, can only be reached by an hour drive on a dirt road. A primitive campsite, Joe Elliot is sheltered from the sun by a conifer forest and offers easy access to hiking trails in the Cucamonga Wilderness Area. Cajon Ranger District. (714) 887-2576.

State:

Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area has 135 family campsites near the 1,000-acre lake, which sits at an elevation of 3,353 feet in chaparral. Amid scrub oak and trees, the camp is a great escape place for fishermen and boaters. Fees are $10 a site per night for one vehicle. (619) 389-2281.

County:

San Bernardino County maintains four Regional Parks within easy range of urban and suburban Southern California,Calico Ghost Town Regional Park,near Yermo, is of particular interest as it is tucked into a desert canyon near the restored gold mining town. It has restrooms and showers for washing off the gold dust, but no running water within the sites. Mojave Narrows Regional Park, in Victorville is set on an old ranch and contains two small lakes. June 19 to 21, the park will hold its Huck Finn Jubilee Celebration, with entertainers, a raft building contest, a fence white-washing contest and arts and crafts booths. County campsites, are $9 to $14 at each park. Some have hot showers and hookups, some don't. (714) 387-2594.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY

INLAND:

Forest Service:

Laguna Campground in the Mt. Laguna area, east of El Cajon, is popular with trailer campers, and has 104 sites in a pine forest adjacent to the large Laguna meadow. The Observatory Campground near Mt. Palomar not only offers pine and oak scenery but it's especially popular with families who bring their own telescopes to watch the scenery in the sky. It has 42 units at $6 a night. Palomar Ranger District. (619) 745-2421.

State:

Twenty-six-thousand-acre Cuyamaca Rancho State Park,has several campgrounds with running water, stoves and tables, and some with hot showers. Forty miles east of San Diego, just south of Julian, the park boasts stands of pine, fir and cedar as well as oaks, willows, alders and sycamores and 100 miles of hiking and riding trails to peaks and a waterfall. (619) 765-0755.

County:

San Diego County maintains 10 campgrounds, scattered from the Mexican border to Fallbrook. A schedule of the interpretive talks, campfire programs and nature walks rangers present at the parks each weekend during summer may be obtained by calling (619) 565-5928.

Among the more interesting parks is Wilderness Gardens,in the San Luis Rey River Valley, 45 miles north of San Diego on California 76. An easy mile backpack brings families to an oak-shaded campground specially designed to teach about the environment.

Reservations for all the parks can be obtained at (619) 565-3600. Prices range from $5 for some primitive sites to $12 for those sites with full hookups.

BEACH

State:

San Onofre State Beach just south of the nuclear reactors, has 272 camp sites suitable for family camping. The campground itself is simply a long straight stretch of highway that's been divided into boxy sites vaguely separated by shrubbery. But trails lead down the steep bluffs to one of the nicest, most undisturbed stretches of sand in the southern part of the state. (714) 492-0802.

South Carlsbad State Beach,north of Leucadia, has 226 campsites, and San Elijo State Beach, south of Encinitas, has 171. The camps are similar, with nice shrub-lined sites, hot showers, tables and stoves, and both are perfect for days spent enjoying the beach, and nights spent sleeping to the sound of crashing surf.

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