We shouldn't have been surprised when the host at the Wheeler Gorge Campground told us we were one of only two groups settling in for the night. It was so cold that steam billowed from his mouth with every word he spoke.
Despite the requirement of a two-night stay on weekends -- which usually signifies a popular campground -- Wheeler Gorge, in the southernmost region of Los Padres National Forest near Ojai, was a virtual ghost town, even on a Friday night.
Temperatures straddling the line between cold and freezing had apparently kept most right-minded campers at home -- or at least headed to warmer climes.
When our family trip was planned, we weren't oblivious to the weather conditions at the campground. Still, after a three-hour drive from downtown Los Angeles in a heated auto, that first blast of cold air sent us scurrying for long johns.
After we unpacked and cobbled together a campfire, we realized how tranquil it was. The north fork of Matilija Creek gurgled a few feet beyond our site, and the stars in the jet-black sky beamed like a million night lights.
With my wife, Amy, and 4-year-old daughter, Ellen, along, I figured my chances at winning Father and/or Husband of Year would vanish if I insisted we sleep in a tent; our van would be our accommodations.
We made a relatively comfortable bed for two in the back. But I was relegated to the passenger seat, and as the night grew colder it felt like trying to sleep on a dentist chair inside a meat locker. By occasionally running the car heater, we made it through the night and awoke eager to get a glimpse of the surroundings in daylight.
Our site, like many others, sat beneath large oaks, which no doubt provide much-needed shade during the summer when the thermometer at Wheeler can reach triple digits. For tent campers, spring and fall are the optimal seasons to visit. Nighttime temperatures average in the high 40s, with days usually in the high 70s.
We took the eight-mile drive south to Ojai for breakfast, enjoying the sight of the snow-dusted Topa Topa Mountains before backtracking to the Wheeler Gorge Visitors Center, adjacent to the campground on Maricopa Highway.
The center, open on weekends, is one of only two facilities of its kind in Los Padres. (The other is in the northern section of the forest in Big Sur.)
Out front, we were greeted enthusiastically by Mike Havstad, president of the Ojai chapter of Los Padres Forest Assn. Much of his excitement was related to construction. For several weeks, Seabees from Port Hueneme's 30th Naval Construction Regiment have been gutting much of the center.
With a grant from the Forest Service and help from the Seabees, the one-time Boy Scouts camp is getting new public restrooms and a meeting area, Havstad said. The renovations should be finished by early spring.
After a quick tour of the construction zone, we picked up a trail map and were on our way.
This area is a hiker's haven, with no less than 10 trails -- varying in length and difficulty from toddler-doable to day-long treks with steep grades -- within a 15-mile radius of Wheeler.
Ellen was too young for a strenuous hike and too heavy to carry, so we settled on the mild Wheeler Gorge Nature Trail, a three-quarter-mile loop just north of the campground.
Treating boulders as if they were playground equipment, Ellen scrambled from rock to rock like a spider monkey. She also reveled in kerplunking rocks into the frigid creek and watching leaves float downstream over the tiny rapids.
Later, we walked around the rest of the still sparsely populated campground.
Most of the sites were ample size. Some were tucked in the trees, while others abutted the creek or held scattered boulders, providing a more private setting. The better sites were at the back of the campground.
Toward late afternoon, we noticed a small influx of campers staking claim to some of those prime locations.
As we began to pack, our site was overrun by giggling children from the day-use area of the park near the main entrance. I loved seeing them have fun, but I also longed for the night, when the campground belonged only to us.
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Setting up camp
Wheeler Gorge has 68 family campsites, five handicapped- accessible sites and six double sites for larger groups. Unlike other campgrounds in the southern Los Padres National Forest, Wheeler Gorge takes reservations, which must be made at least three days in advance. A two-night stay is required on weekends; three nights are required on holidays. Single-family sites cost $20 a night; double-family sites cost $40. No check-in after 10 p.m.
Facilities: Wheeler offers the bare minimum: pit toilets and a pay phone. You can buy firewood from the campground host. There is no potable water on-site.
A National Forest Adventure Pass is required if you are parking outside the campground for day hikes. Daily passes ($5) and yearly passes ($30) are sold at the campground or the Wheeler Gorge Visitors Center, which is open on weekends.
From Los Angeles, take Interstate 5 north, then west on California 126 for 28 miles to Santa Paula. Go north on California 150 for 16 miles. Turn left onto California 33 north for about eight miles. You can also take U.S. 101 north for 67 miles, then take California 33 north for 13.8 miles.
TO LEARN MORE
Reservations: (877) 444-6777 or www.recreation.gov
Wheeler Gorge Campground: (805) 640-1977, www.rockymountainrec .com/camp/padres-wheeler -gorge.htm
For more ideas on where to camp and outdoors activities, go to latimes .com/outdoors.