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California Campers : More and More, Families and Upscale Couples Are Being Lured Into the Wilderness Experience

This is the forest primeval. Here in Buckhorn Campground, beside California Highway 2 in the Angeles National Forest, the richest are poor and the poor live in abundance no matter what brand of tent they pitch.

Indeed, the soothing influence of nature untrammeled can cause even overstressed city folk to wax poetic. Well, at least until more practical matters intrude.

“Prop the log up on that stump before you chop it,” said the computer programmer, shining her flashlight beam on the woodpile. “No, no, split it with the wedge,” suggested the mechanical engineer sitting beside the campfire. “The bow saw’s a lot quicker,” the carpenter declared.

Relaxing in Comfort

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“He holds the lantern while his mother chops the wood,” the group’s only experienced camper quipped. The novice campers he’d brought along on this mountain weekend laughed. Reluctant at first to try this earthy undertaking, they actually were enjoying sleeping and eating out-of-doors.

They had feasted on grilled steaks, baked potatoes and tossed salad. (With a cooler and ice, almost any menu is possible.) Now they sat on folding lawn chairs, propped their feet up on the rocks around the campfire and relaxed. Time to leave major decision-making back at the office.

It’s summertime again, and camping vacations--once the province of Scout troops and latter-day John Muirs--are on the top of the outings list. But now it’s couples and families in search of adventure in the great outdoors.

And when you have only weekends to get away? No problem, as the seekers have discovered. About 200 large and small drive-in campgrounds are scattered throughout national forests and state and county parks around Southern California. Most of them are within a two- to three-hour drive of downtown Los Angeles.

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“Family camping for two- and three-day excursions is where the trend is going,” confirmed Mike Horner, store manager of Oshman’s sporting goods store on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles, which sells and rents camping equipment.

“This has been one of the best camping seasons in years,” he reported. “The weekend before Memorial Day it was incredible. We had to make extra trips to get more merchandise into the store. It’s not that backpacking is fading out, really. It’s just too rugged for family-style camping.”

A Different Outlook

But, he explained, camping no longer appeals just because it’s cheap. “We’re a pretty affluent store, so we’re not limited to shoppers who can’t afford big weekends in Las Vegas,” he said. “We see all economic groups in here buying.”

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So why are couples who can afford a suite at the Ritz heading for the sticks? “Camping is more than economics,” Horner said. “The ‘80s was an era of me, what can I do for me? Now people are realizing that that isn’t where the answers are. They’re trying to find something more simplistic than city life, to take the family out and let them enjoy nature.”

Scott Nelson, an assistant store manager at REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) on Torrance Boulevard in Carson, agreed. “Some of the tents we sell are $300 or $400 apiece. But a week in a bed and breakfast that runs a hundred dollars a night, that gets pretty expensive, too.”

A browse through any camping and sports store reveals shelves stuffed with merchandise designed more for consumer appeal than for wilderness survival, although many items were actually developed for backpackers.

Varied Equipment

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Day packs (for short hikes) in neon green and shock-me pink. Orange plastic tent pegs and folding saws for traveling light. Alcohol-gel fire starter, in case you haven’t earned the campfire-building merit badge. A plastic case for matches, should rain or snow threaten. A water filter system to counteract insidious microbes, and a foldable solar shower intended to be hung from a tree branch.

But the basics, Horner says, are still the biggest sellers: tents, coolers of every size and shape, large and small gas stoves, camp cookery sets, lanterns and sleeping bags.

“More people are buying the dome-style backpacking tents, even when they’re car camping,” Horner said. “They’re a lot quicker and easier to set up.”

Lauren Gold, a salesperson at Tex’s Sporting Goods in Santa Monica, said she has noticed more parents with youngsters shopping.

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“A mother was in here yesterday buying a sleeping bag for her 8-year-old daughter,” she said. “The daughter was going on a father-daughter camp-out in the local mountains.”

Tents Can Be Rented

Many sporting goods stores rent equipment. Gold said some people want to try out the equipment before they buy. “Nine times out of 10 they say they have a great time,” she said. “But once in a while people come back and say: ‘Never again! There’s dirt all over.’ ”

A dome tent big enough to sleep four people comfortably was what the campers at Buckhorn had rented and set up under the pines. And now they were ready to sample a wilderness weekend in the forest, a world they had only suspected existed.

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Around the campfire, where tall Jeffrey pines brushed the sky, an ancient stillness prevailed, broken only by wind blowing through the top branches.

Fresh air. Trailheads 30 yards distant. The Chilao Visitors Center down the way, offering nature exhibits and recreation programs. At night, a deep black sky undimmed by reflected city lights. And, of course, a crackling campfire kindled with instant Boy Scout (charcoal lighter fluid), vital for the thick bed of glowing coals the traditional late-night marshmallow meltdown requires.

The campers chose the site with care; they had planned ahead, arriving Friday mid-afternoon in daylight, before all of Buckhorn’s 40 sites were filled (at $10 each per night). Like most Forest Service campgrounds, sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. (In some state parks, sites must be reserved in advance.)

The spot was a good one. The closest neighbor’s tent was 50 feet away behind a row of ferns and cedars. The site on the other, upwind side was still empty, while the pit toilets (outhouses, really) were far enough away, and downwind, to be invisible.

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The piped water spigot was handily close to the picnic table, and the trees overhead provided midday shade but didn’t block the early-morning sun’s rays from warming sleepy breakfasters at the picnic table.

Many Campgrounds

Around Los Angeles, most campgrounds, such as Buckhorn, are in the area’s national forests. In the 650,000-acre Angeles National Forest alone, which encompasses the San Gabriel Mountains north of the city, there are 80 campgrounds with a total of about 1,250 individual sites.

The most popular are along Angeles Crest Highway (California 2), between La Canada on the west and Wrightwood on the east. Horseflats Campground, with 25 sites, on a dry, piney, sunny ridge, is one. Buckhorn is quite different: Its 37 sites wind down along the sides of a canyon. In spring, a small stream flows through it and ferns grow along the banks.

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Farther east, Grassy Hollow and Blue Ridge campgrounds look over the Sheep Mountain Wilderness. Crystal Lake, north of Azusa, attracts fishermen in the spring, when the water level is high. You can even see black bears in the vicinity.

The 1,750,000-acre Los Padres National Forest (west of Interstate 5 and north of Ventura and Santa Barbara) has about 60 campgrounds; the 660,000-acre San Bernardino National Forest (north of the Moreno Valley) has 21; and the 420,000-acre Cleveland National Forest (north and east of San Diego) has 15 campgrounds.

More Greenery Farther South

In the Cleveland National Forest, Observatory and Fry Creek campgrounds are several miles from Mount Palomar. This area is greener and lusher than the Angeles Forest, with tall grass and wide meadows nearby.

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Nearby Doane Lake is stocked for fishing, and short hiking trails wind around the hills; a 2 1/2-mile trail leads to the Palomar Observatory. A small museum on the grounds explains the work of the 200-inch Hale Telescope, which can be viewed during daylight hours from a glassed-in viewing room.

There are also many state park campgrounds, in addition to those along the beach. The larger include Anza Borrego Desert, Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. Palomar. Some of these require reservations; call MISTIX at (800) 444-7275.

A warning about holiday weekends when folks want to take advantage of three days off work: No campground is far from the madding crowd on such holidays as Labor Day. Unless you know a favorite place and enjoy the company of people, trucks, blaring tape players and strange dogs, these long weekends are a good time to stay home.

On other weekends, though, sites don’t usually fill up until noontime Saturday. Some campgrounds don’t have running water. Be sure to choose one that does. And build fires only in the fireplaces or grills provided at the site. This is a dry season, and forest fires are already a problem. In fact, it’s wise to check with the forest service or parks and recreation departments to be sure there’s no fire damage in the camping area you like.

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Need Good Maps

To find a campground, you’ll need something better than a road map. The California Office of Tourism’s map, called “The Californias,” shows some campgrounds and lists telephone numbers of parks and recreation associations. Write to the California Office of Tourism, 1121 L St., Suite 103, Sacramento, Calif. 95814.

To find all the drive-to campgrounds, however, more detail is essential; automobile clubs and camping equipment stores are a good source for maps and books.

The national forests also publish detailed section maps with a wealth of information. They describe not only campgrounds but the geology and wildlife in the wilderness areas, naturalist programs, hiking and nature trails, swimming, fishing, hunting and winter sports.

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National Forest maps are sold at all forest ranger stations and visitors’ centers. To order by mail include $2 and a 9x12-inch stamped, self-addressed envelope.

Information on the Angeles National Forest is available at 701 N. Santa Anita Ave., Arcadia, Calif. 91006, (818) 574-1613. For the Los Padres National Forest, the address is 6144 Calle Real, Goleta Calif. 93117, (805) 683-6711. For the Cleveland National Forest, it’s 880 Front St., Room 5-N-14, San Diego, Calif. 92188, (619) 557-5050. For the San Bernardino National Forest, it’s 1824 Commercenter Circle, San Bernardino, Calif. 92408, (714) 383-5588.


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