Crystal Cove campground construction underway

CRYSTAL COVE STATE PARK — From a distance, or at least a bird's-eye view, the construction crews are barely visible as they work under the shroud of a thick marine layer. They're laying the infrastructure, building the restrooms and the lifeguard headquarters, and pouring the concrete to what could very well be one of Southern California's last coastal state park campgrounds.

It's all happening in Crystal Cove State Park along both sides of Coast Highway. The 2,400-acre gem combining coastal bluffs and wild backcountry is located between Laguna Beach and Newport Beach.

Park Supt. Todd Lewis said he hopes to have the 60 campsites up and running by the 2011 Labor Day holiday weekend.

"This could be the last campgrounds we ever build," said Lewis, referring to the California State Parks system. "There's just not that much land available anymore in Southern California. And it's not every day that you're able to get approval from the California Coastal Commission."

The entire project will cost $12 million. It was funded by Proposition 12, bond money approved for state parks in 2000 but whose funds were put on hold for much of 2009. But early this year, sometime around January's heavy rains, that taxpayer money was unfrozen, and work crews have been working since, inching closer to making the campground a reality.

The project will be built on 35 acres. There was once a mobile home park on the beach, but the state bought the land and has since returned the beach to its natural state, with the exception of the construction of a lifeguard headquarters.

Four full-time positions are also being created for the new campgrounds: A state parks peace officer-lifeguard; a park's maintenance assistant, another state park maintenance worker; and a state park interpreter. Combined, the four jobs will total more than $100,000 in yearly salaries.

The campsites will go up on the other side of Coast Highway.

The future campgrounds will now pick up the slack for those who want to do spend a few days near Laguna Beach or Newport Beach and will no longer have to travel to Doheny State Beach, near Dana Point, or Bolsa Chica State Beach, near Huntington Beach.

The overnight prices, Lewis said, are still being calculated, but so far the figure is falling between the range of $60 to $75.

Hook-ups for recreational vehicles will be available for $65 to $75, he added.

And for those who just want to pitch a tent or drive their conversion van in and spend a night, they will probably run between $50 to $60, Lewis said.

In 2000, California voters approved a general obligation bond to address several key resources needs. The bond — the Safe Neighborhood Parks, Clean Water, Clean Air, and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2000, also known as Proposition 12 — allocated $1.36 billion to the California State Parks, with $519 million for additions and improvements to the parks.

California's State Parks includes 278 parks with more than 14,000 campsites, 320 miles of coastline and more than 4,500 miles of trails, making it the largest state park system in the lower 48 states. In addition, it has the highest number of visitors of any state park system in the nation, with more than 76 million visitors yearly. 

Lewis said California State Parks worked closely with nearby El Moro Elementary School, assuring everybody that there would be no traditional wood-burning fires allowed at the park. Only propane is allowed into the campground, Lewis said.

"The cliché has always been that we 'protect the parks from the people, the people from the parks and the people from the people,'" said Lewis.

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