Quick-hit camping, next door to Julian

Quick-hit camping, next door to Julian
A North American gray wolf is among the residents of the California Wolf Center in Julian. (Don Bartletti / LAT)
So you never did get around to camping this summer. Another season spent without taking the tent out of the garage.

I too am something of an accidental camper. I'm happy to do the short-term back-to-nature thing. But I'm not willing to set my clock for that midwinter moment when state parks begin accepting reservations for summer, when the die-hards leap onto websites and flood phone lines in hopes of snagging a tent site. Not me, not for the privilege of sleeping on the ground.

For us casual campers, there's William Heise County Park, next to the mountain town of Julian, northeast of San Diego. Hit by last year's catastrophic Cedar fire, which destroyed more than 2,000 houses and blackened over 270,000 acres, more than any fire in state history, the park is coming back to life and even showing off wildflowers that haven't been seen here in decades. Though about 700 of the park's 900 acres burned, much of the area visible to visitors is still lovely. Many people don't know this, which has kept the usual summer crowds away.

My husband, Amnon, and I discovered the park by accident when we visited our 13-year-old son, Sam, at his summer camp nearby. Looking to avoid the tourist scene in Julian, we followed the signs to Heise. There, a park map showed a half-mile, self-guided nature trail that looked like something even our 6-year-old daughter, Aviva, could manage on a hot day. But the major surprise was that more than half the campsites were empty, even though it was the weekend.

On a Monday last month, I called for reservations for Friday and Saturday. A clerk said the park's four tiny cabins ($36 a night) were taken, but tent sites were available for $14 a night plus a flat $3 charge. To fill out the weekend, I also called a Julian observatory to sign up for Friday-night stargazing and planned a visit to a nearby wolf reserve for Saturday afternoon.

On Friday we drove south to Oceanside and east on Highway 76, past suburbia, farm fields, ranches and wilderness — and the startling, garish Pala Casino. At Santa Ysabel, we picked up Highway 78, the main road into Julian, and turned off for the park about a mile outside town.

A renewal of life

By the time we reached our campsite in the early evening, dark storm clouds had gathered, and thunder rumbled. I later learned that storm clouds, as well as summer squalls, are common this time of year. We pitched camp anyway and lighted a campfire. (You have to bring your own firewood to Heise; no wood gathering is allowed.)

We cooked sausages, and roasted marshmallows for the requisite s'mores. Aviva lined up her little plastic kitten dolls on a pile of wood "because they've never experienced a campfire before" and danced around the fire. We watched the sky for stars as dark gathered.

No stars — but no rain either. Our stargazing trip was canceled, but the observatory said that if the weather changed, it would squeeze us in the next night.

Saturday morning started with breakfast at camp and plans for some hiking. During our quick stop at the park the previous weekend, we had hiked a short, self-guided nature trail that was quite green — until it yielded to a hillside of burned manzanita, its normally reddish wood crisped black and white from fire and ash, the leafless limbs twisted into free-form sculptures. Beautiful but haunting. Blackened oak trees loomed farther ahead, some marked with a red X indicating that they would be cut down.

But even in the severely burned patches, most of the trees and plants showed new growth at the roots or crowning above. There were flowers, brilliant sapphires that stood out vividly amid the black-and-white backdrop. It was a lesson in the beauty and hope that can follow catastrophe.

With that optimism still fresh in our minds, we set out this time following the ranger's recommendation to hike the Canyon Oak Trail to the Desert View Trail, a moderate climb of about three miles round trip that led us to a point where, on a clear day, you can see Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to the east and the ocean to the west. (Other major trails are still closed because of the fire.)

Green forest mixed with patches of fire-charred acreage. We found trees burned into black spires and spectacular wildflowers that I have never seen before — one like a tiny purple trumpet and another like a bright orange daisy, both "fire followers" that spring to life only after a blaze.

The hike was hot, and the last thing I wanted to do was stoke up another campfire, so we went to the Julian Grille in town for lunch. It was pleasantly cool on the shaded patio but not pleasant enough to warrant the 45 minutes we waited for our orders to arrive. At least it was nice to have a cold green salad after all that canned and smoked camp food.

Then we drove four miles to the California Wolf Center, a nonprofit reserve founded in 1977. It has a contract with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to raise endangered Mexican gray wolves for possible reintroduction into the wild. Though those wolves are kept out of public view, visitors can see other human-raised species up close.

By this time, black clouds had piled up again, and there was a downpour. That's supposed to make the wolves livelier, but they weren't during our visit. The only "pack behavior" we saw was group napping. Even so, it was a thrill to see our first wolves, with their gangly legs and huge feet — the better for running through snow, we learned.

Catch a falling star

Afterward, Amnon and Sam rested at camp while Aviva and I rode swings at Heise's playground. The sky darkened through the oak leaves, and for a while it looked as though we were in for another clouded-over night. But then a star appeared, and another and another, until the entire sky glittered.

We jumped in the car and drove to the Observer's Inn, about a mile south of Julian. Much of the tiny bed-and-breakfast burned down in the Cedar fire and is being rebuilt by owners Mike and Caroline Leigh. But the observatory, with its rolling roof and three research-grade telescopes, remains open.

Mike, an astronomy buff, used a laser pointer to pick out and explain sights in the sky. My family and six other stargazers hardly needed a telescope. The Milky Way shimmered from horizon to horizon, and anyone who looked up for a couple of minutes could catch a falling star. Aviva, though worn out from the day's activities, looked open-mouthed above her.

Inside the observatory, Mike trained the telescopes on one breathtaking sight after another — a ring nebula, a dying red star, a star cluster shaped like a swan. Aviva eagerly checked out a couple but, overcome by fatigue, stretched out across two chairs and fell asleep. Sam, though, was fascinated and asked plenty of questions.

I was stunned by the wall-to-wall carpet of stars. It reminded me of what a small, temporary piece of the landscape I am, despite my daily illusions of being the center of the universe.

We awakened early Sunday morning and after breakfast decided we'd already had a full weekend.

"I love camping and being in the woods," Aviva declared, collecting her kitty dolls from their last "campfire experience."

We broke camp quickly and were home before noon — in plenty of time to launder smoky clothes and stow the tent in the garage, awaiting my next last-minute camping urge.


Budget for four

Expenses for this trip:

Campsite, William Heise County Park, two nights $31.00

Food $65.00

Firewood $10.00

Lunch, Julian Grille $45.40

Wolf center tour $28.00

Stargazing session $80.00

Gas $20.00

Final tab $279.40


William Heise County Park, 4945 Heise Park Road, Julian; (858) 565-3600 or (877) 565-3600, .

California Wolf Center, 18457 Highway 79, Julian; (760) 765-0030; .

Observer's Inn, 3535 Highway 79, Julian; (760) 765-0088;