The ideal time to go weekend camping in Southern California?
For those who hate crowds, the answer, of course, is that there is no ideal time. Southern California campgrounds are filled or close to it every weekend, particularly in the Los Angeles area.
While no weekend is ever perfect, however, some are better than others, and the best time to catch a good one is in the off-season, October through April. Although state park campgrounds in Los Angeles and Ventura counties usually fill up in nice weather on off-season weekends, the population density is considerably less than during the summer, according to state rangers.
"Our campgrounds max out in the summer," Chief Ranger Ken Leigh said, "and the population is almost double what it is when the campgrounds are filled in the off-season."
With only half the people, campgrounds are serene, less frenetic now. Among the absent are rogue bands of small children who terrorize campers early in the morning. Off-season camping, it seems, is a spur-of-the-moment activity for people who have minimal logistic problems.
"Families with kids have to prepare eight weeks ahead of time," state Ranger Lynette Hernandez said.
There are other benefits to off-season camping. Campgrounds look and feel different. Days are shorter, afternoons cooler. Soft light filters through bare trees. In the mountains, noises seem muffled, and even birds sound tired. On beaches, tides rearrange the sand, exposing new rock playgrounds.
"I wouldn't trade a day in the winter for a week in the summer," said Robert Jessup of Palmdale, who was camping in his van at Thornhill Broom Beach in Point Mugu State Park. "It's just a lot prettier."
An advantage to off-season camping at Point Mugu: sunsets. In summer, the sun sets behind a mountain, but the Earth's angle to the sun changes in winter, resulting in unobstructed sunsets on the ocean.
Off-season camping may be less intense than summer camping but reservations (made through Mistix at (800) 444-7275) are still strongly advised at L.A.-area state parks. "We have the potential to fill up on any weekend," Leigh said. "Some years we've been filled all 52 weekends."
Unlike most state parks, Malibu Creek is not on the reservation system. The first-come, first-served approach seems to deter campers, and on a weekend after a recent rainstorm, the campground was virtually empty.
"I like camping here better in the winter than the summer," said John Richardson, a 16-year-old Oak Park High School sophomore who was camping with friends. "It's a lot quieter and you definitely have more privacy."
With a small staff and no seasonal employees, rangers in the Santa Monica Mountains District are spread thin in the off-season. Sometimes, kiosks aren't manned for parts of a day. For campers without reservations, self-registration is permitted if no ranger is on duty, but it can lead to trouble on weekends, as one man discovered on a recent Friday at Big Sycamore Canyon.
He put $42 in an envelope to pay for three nights, found an empty campsite and set up his tent. When the ranger returned, the man was told that the campground was sold out. He had to pack up, his money was refunded and he was sent to Leo Carrillo State Beach, six miles to the south.
Campgrounds seem quieter in the off-season, but Hernandez said "there are more parties in the winter. You get more teen-agers in here." She said that underage drinking, however, is not tolerated.
Off-season camping doesn't mean a reduction in RVs--they still dominate the landscape, particularly at the beaches. The only way to escape them completely is to use Malibu Creek, which is strictly for tent camping.
Los Angeles-region state park camping:
Point Mugu State Park--Big Sycamore Canyon (54 campsites), Thornhill Broom Beach (90), La Jolla Valley Walk-In Camp (25).
Leo Carrillo State Beach--North Beach (30), Arroyo Sequit Canyon (140).
Malibu Creek State Park (64).
McGrath State Beach (174).
Emma Woods State Beach (5).