CONSUMERS : Campsites Are Going, Going . . .

Times Staff Writer

Looking for a California park where you can take the family camping this summer? Better make your reservations quickly because the campsites are filling up.

Although California has a plethora of campgrounds--about 1,200 throughout the state--they are snapped up early each year.

By now, premium beach or lakeside sites are mostly sold out for summer weekends. And don't even consider a Memorial Day or Fourth of July weekend at the popular campgrounds, because they've been reserved for months.

Best Advice

The best advice is to stay home, throw some hamburgers and hot dogs on the barbecue and start planning for next summer.

But if you insist on Memorial Day camping, there are sites left at seven state parks. The closest to the Los Angeles area is Anza-Borrego desert state park east of San Diego, where there are 10 campsites available. The rest are upstate, some way up.

Benbow Lake near Garberville has 17 remaining; Castle Craigs north of Redding has 7; Col. Allensworth near Bakersfield, 13; Mt. Diablo near Oakland, 22; Humboldt Redwoods, south of Eureka, 120; Jedediah Smith Redwoods, northeast of Crescent City, 56.

"Californians are real campers," said Ken McKowen of the California Department of Parks and Recreation. "With over 27 million people living here and a few million more out-of-state and foreign visitors all vying for space in state parks, making camping reservations as early as possible is the best route."

To complicate matters this year, two of Southern California's state beaches are closed to overnight camping because of repairs and a third is on a call-first basis for camping availability.

Near San Diego, San Clemente State Beach is closed for overnight camping until July because of parking lot improvements. Doheny State Beach is under repair and shut down for overnight camping until next spring.

North of Santa Barbara, Gaviota State Beach will have occasional repair work until the end of summer and has been taken off the phone reservation system. Call (805) 968-1711 for availability.

Depending on location of the camp and the facilities offered, tent campsites can range from about $10 a night to $34 a night for a group rate. Beachfront RV sites with hookups are about $20 a night. Desert, lake or mountain RV camps range from about $12 to $17.

The newest accommodations at the state park level are tent cabins being offered at Big Basin Redwood State Park near Santa Cruz for $29 per night. There are 20 tent cabins--10x14-foot structures with wooden floors, screened sides and a canvas roof with wood-burning stoves--that opened last week. Fifteen more are planned to be added by the end of summer.

For the new camping family, recreational industry specialists advise that you need not hock the family jewels to get perfectly good camping supplies.

You should be able purchase what you need for family tent camping or moderate weekend backpacking for $500 to $600.

According to Keven Golic of Recreational Equipment Inc. in Carson, that breaks down to about: $200 for a good tent for three people; $100 for a frame backpack; $100 for a three-season sleeping bag; $8 to $60 for a pad under the bag; $50 for a stove; $100-$150 for additional camping necessities, among them, utensils, first aid kit, flashlight, knife, water and fuel bottles, windproof matches, etc.

"For a bigger family, you can get a good-sized tent for four to six people for $300," Golic said. "You don't need a high end $600, four-season tent of expedition grade that you could take to Mt. Everest.

You'll need a couple more things for hiking trails.

"For hiking or backpacking with a small child, you'll spend $100-$120 for a child carrier," he added. "You can get moderate-priced hiking boots (of synthetic material), a hybrid between tennis shoes and heavy hiking boots, for $40-$80 that have cleated soles for good traction and give you ankle support. Leather hiking boot range from $150-$200."

Wherever you decide to camp, making reservations may be somewhat confusing.

Some campsites can be reserved through the parks themselves; others through the computer services of Ticketron (for national parks) or Mistix (for many state parks and some national forests). Some reservations may be in writing and paid for by check, others by phone with charge cards. Others have to be made in person at Ticketron outlets or camping stores that have the Mistix system.

The easiest way to make reservations is through a store that has a reservation computer system. That way, you can search in person with the computer operator for an alternative date or site.

To determine how your favorite park accepts reservations, the best thing to do is call either of the two computer reservation services.

If the park you want is unavailable for the first date you request, Ticketron's computer will automatically offer it for an alternative date. Mistix offers four other dates or other camps available if your original choice is sold out.

Yosemite Sells Out Fast

Speaking of sold out, you might as well give up for summer and early fall dates in Yosemite, the state's largest and most popular park. It sells out the minute campsite reservations are offered.

"Yosemite is always sold out," said Tom Largi, director of leisure time services for Ticketron in New York, which handles reservations for many of the nation's national parks through its computer reservation service. "I get letters of complaint all the time."

Ticketron, which handles 1,220 of Yosemite's 1,785 sites, reserves up to eight weeks. There are two ways to get a campsite at the park. One is to show up at a Ticketron office two months before your planned trip and hope that a site becomes available. No checks or credit cards are accepted for Yosemite orders in person.

Largi said you can also mail in an order, accompanied by a check, no more than 10 weeks before the requested date and Ticketron will try to accommodate you when the date becomes available.

The remaining 565 available campsites at the heavily requested park are handled by the park on a first-come, first-served basis and are nearly impossible to get.

Reservation periods vary for each national park, Largi noted, so campers "will have to call and try it" for each park. This year Ticketron has added five national Western camping areas to its phone-in reservation service: Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree National Monument and Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.

But many desert parks are taken off phone-reservation systems when the weather starts to get unbearably hot. Joshua Tree in the Yucca Valley goes on a first-come, first-served basis May 31.

On the other hand, many of the mountain and lakeside parks have become so crowded that they remain on a reservation basis until fall. For example, Perris State Recreation Area near Riverside is so busy that this year it has begun taking reservations on weekdays as well as weekends.

For national park reservations, Ticketron may be reached at (213) 410-1720. You can reserve sites eight weeks in advance, and pay by charge card. Checks may be used with mail reservations. Ticketron charges a $2.25 service fee per night for campsites, meaning an $8.75 site will cost $11 each night total, if purchased through the computer service. An additional handling fee of $1.75 per total order is charged for phone-reserved camps.

Where to Call

You can call Mistix at (800) 444-7275 for most state park reservations; or (800) 283-2267 for the national forests that it handles in California. Mistix will book eight weeks ahead. It adds $3.95 per reservation; $6 for national forest service parks. Payment may be made through Visa, MasterCard, and ATM cards or payments by check are permitted if they are received in seven days after you made the reservation.

"We get hundreds of thousands of requests a day--sometimes 50,000 requests a day for holiday weekends," said David Praga, director of telemarketing for Mistix, headquartered in San Diego. "We have 9,000 reservable sites in the state system, and the supply will never come close to the demand."

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