If earthquake repairs, recession woes or a staggering workload leave you short on vacation time or money (or both), you may not be able to book a flight to Hawaii--or even spend a week at Yosemite.
But you can get away from it all by pitching a tent in the mountains and forests surrounding the San Fernando Valley. Of course, you'll have to forgo some modern conveniences--such as watching movie videos, sleeping in a soft bed and waking to Mr. Coffee. But you may find the joys of wildlife watching, stargazing and cooking over a campfire more than offset whatever creature comforts you surrender.
Less than an hour's drive away, many local campgrounds are in settings spectacular enough to rival the most beautiful national park. They are cheap--most run from $5 to $16 a night. Near sandy beaches, fish-stocked streams and miles of hiking or biking trails, they offer plenty to do. Or if relaxation is what you are after, you can do plenty of nothing, too.
"Camping is a very inexpensive way for families to break up their day-to-day routine and spend quality time together, away from television and other distractions," said Brad Childs, executive director of the Wilderness Institute and a former national park ranger. "It's healthy, you get some exercise, you learn new things about plants and the environment, and you feel like you've accomplished something."
It doesn't take much to gear up for local outings. If you are new at camping and do not want to spend a lot of money on supplies, you can rent everything from stoves to sleeping bags at such outdoor outfitters as Adventure 16 in Tarzana or REI in Northridge. Tents start at about $12 for one night, $2 to $4 per additional night; sleeping bags rent for about $8 for one night, $2 to $3 per additional night.
Here are a few places you can try your tent-raising, campfire-building, mosquito-whacking skills. You'll be there in no time.
ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST
The 654,000-acre Angeles National Forest offers more than 100 developed campgrounds, from secluded forest sites high in the San Gabriel Mountains to sunny stream-side locations. Available on a first-come, first-served basis, most forest campgrounds are remote and somewhat primitive. Some, but not all, include pit toilets, picnic tables, stoves or grills and piped drinking water.
"If you don't need showers or flush toilets, you can visit some really beautiful sites that are not crowded at all," Childs said. "In the higher elevations, with the pine smells and the fresh air, you feel like you are miles and miles away. It feels like a real vacation."
Campers should be sure to fill their gas tanks and bring ample food and supplies, as few services are available throughout the forest. Warm extra clothing is also a good idea. Night temperatures in the San Gabriels can drop below 40 degrees. "It can be a nice warm day in the high country," said Terry Ellison, district ranger for the Arroyo Seco District, "and a thunderstorm will suddenly come through, and you'll get drenched."
For campers seeking solitude, silence and scenery, Ellison recommends Buckhorn Campground, which at 6,300 feet is similar in terrain to the High Sierra. "Buckhorn is deep in the woods with tall cedars and pines, a year-round stream lined with ferns and abundant wildlife," he said. A two-mile hike from the campground leads to fishing and swimming in Littlerock Creek.
Also in Angeles National Forest, Monte Cristo Campground is an easily accessible, popular destination with many flatlanders, according to Julie Molzahn, recreation officer for the Tujunga Ranger District. "The camp is under the sycamores, near fishing holes, and a creek runs through it," she said. "And it stays cool in summer because it's at a high (3,600-foot) elevation."
SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS
If your idea of roughing it is carrying your own luggage into a room at the Hilton, camping in Angeles Forest may seem too rugged. You may prefer to sleep under the stars and enjoy such civilized touches as hot showers and toilets that flush in the nearby Santa Monica Mountains.
The downside is that these fully developed campgrounds, especially those along the ocean, are often mobbed. "Because we are so close to Los Angeles, we book up every weekend," a state parks spokeswoman said.
Two popular campgrounds in the Santa Monicas are Canyon at Leo Carrillo State Beach and Big Sycamore Canyon at Point Mugu State Park.
Just a few miles apart on Pacific Coast Highway, both offer campsites shaded by giant sycamores and coast live oaks, short trails to the beach and the chance to be lulled to sleep by the sound of the ocean.
Of the two, Big Sycamore Canyon, with more than 70 miles of trails crisscrossing the Point Mugu wilderness area, feels more rustic. But if convenience is what you're after, Canyon--with its own general store stocking groceries, beach gear, ice and firewood--can't be beat.
Also nestled in the shadows of the Santa Monicas, but slightly less well-known (and less crowded) than the beach camps, is the campground at Malibu Creek State Park, which includes miles of trails, year-round creeks and Century Lake a short hike away.
According to outdoorsman Rob Anderson, manager of Adventure 16, the 70,000-acre wilderness area is one of the best local places to pitch a tent.
"It's only about a half-hour away, but it feels fairly secluded," he said. "I have seen everything from deer to rattlesnake there."
Malibu Creek also offers ample opportunities for outdoor recreation, Childs said.
"You can mountain bike, rock climb, swim, wade or hike on fairly flat trails. There are nearby shady oak woodlands and streams. The best part is all the wildlife you see during the quiet times at dusk and dawn."
You don't need much to gear up for a local camping trip. Of course, you'll bring a tent, sleeping bag, clothing, hiking boots, toiletries, cooking equipment and food. But you also will want to pack these essentials:
* Sunglasses, sunscreen and lip moisturizer
* Water bottle or canteen
* Matches in waterproof case
* Pocketknife (Swiss Army)
* Toilet paper
* Insect repellent
* First-aid kit
* Whistle (three blasts is a distress signal)
A Guide to Getting Away From It All
* Location: Off Angeles Crest Highway, about 34 miles from the Foothill Freeway in La Canada.
* Price: $10 a night includes tables, camp stoves, pit toilets and piped water; 40 campsites.
* Call: Arroyo Seco Ranger District, (818) 790-1151.
MONTE CRISTO CAMPGROUND
* Location: On Angeles Forest Highway, north of Big Tujunga Canyon and south of the Antelope Valley Freeway.
* Price: $5 a night includes piped water, tables, pit toilets and stoves; 19 sites.
* Call: Tujunga Ranger District, (818) 899-1900.
* Location: At the Ventura County line on Pacific Coast Highway.
* Price: $16 a night; 138 developed campsites.
* Call: (800) 533-7275 or (818) 880-0350; for reservations (usually necessary during summer), call (800) 444-7275 .
BIG SYCAMORE CANYON CAMPGROUND
* Location: Four miles west of the Ventura County line on Pacific Coast Highway.
* Price: $16 a night; 55 developed campsites.
* Call: (800) 533-7275 or (818) 880-0350; for reservations (usually necessary during summer, especially weekends), call (800) 444-7275.
MALIBU CREEK STATE PARK
* Location: Las Virgenes Road, about three miles south of the Ventura Freeway in Calabasas.
* Price: $14 per night; 60 developed sites on a first-come, first-served basis.
* Call: (818) 880-0350 or (818) 880-0367.