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Weekend getaways: 7 great camping sites within driving distance of L.A.

Weekend getaways | Malibu Creek State Park
Declan Beck, left, his brother Colson and friend Dayna Monbello visit Malibu Creek State Park near Calabasas.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The great outdoors is a bit more crowded these days. The number of Americans who went camping rose 22% over the last five years, and a record 78.8 million people, many of them younger and more diverse, identified as camping households last year, according to the 2019 North American Camping Report from Kampgrounds of America.

Trends show that a fifth of them prefer shorter trips, fewer than 50 miles from home, especially first-timers or those with young kids. Southern California’s forests and beaches provide good options for quick escapes, places to test your gear and your back-to-nature mettle. Here are seven places that offer a refreshing respite from city life — and they’re not so far from the city.

1. Mount Pacifico Campground

Crave something rustic and remote? This spectacular and little-known hike-in campground for backpackers willing to go the distance is located 45 miles north of downtown L.A. on the summit of 7,124-foot Mt. Pacifico in the Angeles National Forest. Relax under the pines, catch superb views of the Mojave Desert to the north, and make tracks on the nearby Pacific Crest Trail, which runs 2,650 miles between Mexico and Canada. This area was heavily burned in 2009’s Station fire but has bounced back with grasses and wildflowers.

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Need to know: $8 to $12 a night, plus a $5 Adventure Pass. 10 remote, primitive campsites with picnic tables, fire rings, and a portable bathroom near the summit of the peak. It’s a 10-mile hike in. No drinking water (bring your own), no trash facilities (pack it out). Make sure you have a high-clearance vehicle; part of access to the campground is on dirt road.

The drive: From the 210 Freeway, drive nine miles north on Highway 2 (follow detour signs around the closure at Red Box Road), turn left on Angeles Forest Highway for 12 miles to the intersection with Santa Clara Divide Road at Mill Creek Summit. Turn right park along the side of the road within the next 1/4 mile. No cars are allowed the final 10 miles; either hike or bike six miles to the signed gate and another four miles on the dirt road to the campground.

Info: Mount Pacifico Campground, bit.ly/MountPacifico

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2. Crystal Lake Recreation Area

Nestled in dense forest at 5,500 feet above sea level, the campground 50 miles northeast of downtown gives you access to an extensive hiking/bike riding trail network, with spectacular forest views. Take the steep 2.5-mile trail from the campground to Windy Gap for gorgeous views of the lake and the surrounding mountains.

The campsite is next to namesake Crystal Lake, the only naturally occurring lake in the San Gabriel Mountains. Fed solely from groundwater and snow melt, the lake had shriveled during the drought years but has come back strong this year because of ample rains. There’s no boating or swimming, but it’s stocked with fish (state fishing permit required for 16 and older; go to www.wildlife.ca.gov to buy one).

Need to know: $12 a night. 50 campsites on weekdays and about 100 on weekends and holidays, all on a first-come, first served basis. The campground has pit toilets, fire pits, picnic tables and spigots with running water. You can find hot meals, sandwiches, firewood and camping gear at the on-site Crystal Lake Cafe and Trading Post. Also, there are three cabins ($110 a night; (626) 910-1029).

The drive: From the 210 Freeway, take California Route 39 above Azusa to its end.

Info: Crystal Lake Recreation Area, bit.ly/crystallakecamping; visitor center, staffed by volunteers 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, (626) 910-1149

3. Crystal Cove State Park

This campground will give you that away-from-it-all feeling, even though you’re on the edge of a huge urban area between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach in Orange County. Head to the beach to explore the ocean side, then hike the canyon trails on the inland side. You’ll find interpretive programs, such as guided hikes, tidepool walks, and geology talks, offered at the site too.

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The park includes the shoreline Crystal Cove Historic District, which features vintage rustic coastal cottages on the beach that are among the most popular (and hard to reserve) sites in the California State Park system.

Need to know: The Moro Campground on the edge of Pacific Coast Highway has 58 campsites with picnic tables, some are for RVs and trailers ($75 a night), some are for tents and van campers ($55 a night). Restrooms and showers are available. For a more primitive experience (no water, no fires allowed), you can hike in 3.5 miles for a site that costs $25 a night.

The drive: The campground is at 8471 N. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, about 50 miles from downtown L.A.

Info: Crystal Cove State Park, bit.ly/crystalcovepark; reservations, Reserve California, reservecalifornia.com

4. Malibu Creek State Park

This sweet spot puts you in the Santa Monica Mountains and close to some spectacular coastal spots. Inland hikes lead to the Rock Pools (easy) and Century Lake (moderate), good for cooling off. Or go bird-watching at nearby Malibu Lagoon and beach-walking at Point Dume.

The park closed temporarily after the devastating Woolsey fire in November, but burned areas have since greened up. The campground recently reopened after an investigation into the fatal shooting of a camper (a suspect has been taken into custody).

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Need to know: $45 per night. 63 sites for RVs or tents; flush toilets, water, hot showers (token operated), fire pit (campfires are seasonal).

The drive: The campground is at 1925 Las Virgenes Road, Calabasas, about 35 miles from downtown L.A.

Info: Malibu Creek State Park, bit.ly/malibucreek; reservations, Reserve California, reservecalifornia.com

5. Bolsa Chica State Beach

Camp here and you’ll have easy access to swimming and surfing or just watch the setting sun. Other things to do include volleyball (there are nets), bicycling on an easy 8.5-mile paved path, and exploring the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a natural bird preserve with a visitor center.

Ocean fishing turns up perch, corbina, croaker, cabezon, shovel-nose guitar fish and sand shark — and on full moons in summer — bare-handed hunting for California grunion, which spawn on sandy SoCal beaches (fishing permit required).

Need to know: $55 on inland side of the highway, and $65 on beach side. 50 beach RV parking-space campsites (no tents allowed) with water and electrical hookups. Amenities include fire rings.

The drive: The site is at 17851 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach, 30 to 35 miles from downtown L.A.

Info: Bolsa Chica State Beach, bit.ly/bolsachicacamping; reserve at Reserve California, reservecalifornia.com

6. Mountain Oak Campground

Go to this seasonal site for the serenity of Jackson Lake at 6,400 feet amid tall shady oaks as well as ponderosa and sugar pines.The lake in the Angeles National Forest is ringed by grass and sand beaches, stocked with trout, bass and blue gill throughout the summer. Swim, canoe and catch your lunch and dinner (California fishing license required).

Need to know: $23 a night. 17 campsites (5 require advance reservations, 12 are first- come/ first-served) with hiking trails, campfire rings, drinking water, flush toilets, and a grocery store with firewood. This campground is near the Mountain High ski resort and can get crowded on weekends.

The drive: The campground is located at 22223 Big Pines Highway in Valyermo, about 85 miles northeast of L.A.

Info: Mountain Oak Campground, bit.ly/mountainoakcamping; reservations at Recreation.gov

7. Dockweiler Beach State Park

This is strictly for members of the RV crowd who want to drive up and get to the beach — fast. You’ll hear planes overhead, taking off and landing at LAX, but otherwise you can enjoy your proximity to the ocean, the bike path and a rare uncrowded stretch of coast.

Need to know: Sites cost $55 to $65 a night. 118 beach-side parking-lot with full water, power and sewage hookups for RVs.

The drive: The campground is at 12000 Vista Del Mar, Playa Del Rey.

Info: Dockweiler Beach State Park, bit.ly/dockweilerrvpark, reservations can be made 90 days ahead of time (it’s currently booked into September).


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