California Mountain Camping

A First-timer's Guide

So Cal Mountain Camping

hiking trail scene People from Colorado scoff at our So Cal Mountains but they are really fantastic. We just love that we can travel to the mountains in under an hour and not actually have to live in or "deal with" the cold any longer than the length of our visit. The mountains of So Cal offer hiking, biking, skiing, snowboarding, boating and fishing. There is always something to do - whatever the season and the roads are only temporarily impassable a couple of days per year. During winter months the resorts are able to make snow most nights but be sure to view a current video of slope conditions before you drive up there. We have been suckered a couple of times - but no more!!

mountain stream camping-so-cal Angeles National Forest -is a thousand square miles of forest land located less than an hour's drive from downtown Los Angeles. The Angeles National Forest offers camping, picnicking, fishing, water sports and even some limited off road, winter sports and hunting opportunities. There are a number of campgrounds available for day and overnight use. We used to drive up to picnic and walk the nature trails quite often when we lived in the San Fernando Valley. Go online to find out more and understand that road closures are most likely due to fire danger rather than weather concerns.

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area -comprising over 153,000 acres is the world's largest urban national park. Grassroots efforts to protect open spaces began in the 1950s and 60s became a reality in 1978. That year a 65 mile Backbone Trail effort began to unite the patchwork of public parklands from east to west. There are only 5 miles left to complete this amazing effort. Many motion pictures and television shows are filmed in the park and there are dozens of outdoor festivals and activities scheduled each month. Log on to and check it out! We love to drive through the park in the spring (especially after a rainy winter like this one (2007-08) and enjoy the wild flowers and the breathtaking ocean views. My favorites are the purple lupines. Go to their web site to check out camp ground availability.

San Bernardino National Forest -contains the highest peaks in So Cal and therefore the best opportunity for snow and winter sporting activities. They are also the best place to seek out cool mountain air during the summer heat. Many So Cal folks spend time in the San Bernardinao mountains year round!

snow valley snow summit boarding snow boarding with friends Big Bear, Lake Arrowhead and Crestline are the main destinations in the SB Mountains. We go snow boarding at Snow Valley (35% beginners 35% intermediate terrain) just out of Running Springs, Bear Mountain (30% beginners 40% intermediate terrain) and Snow Summit (10% beginner and 40% intermediate). All three offer skiing as well and make snow whenever the temperature allows. Sports Chalet Sporting good stores offer lift tickets for these resorts at tremendous discounts! And…you can get mid-week specials that include lift tickets and lodging for as little as $69.00 per person.

We also love to visit Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead in the summer and have rented cabins and stayed at the lodge. You can rent canoes, motor boats or simply "chill" and take long walks and smell PINE and fresh air. The Ice Castle Training Center (Lake Arrowhead) is open year round on weekends for recreational ice skating and it is a blast! You can choose from lovely hotels, motels, cabins and even a variety of bed and breakfasts. There are campgrounds located throughout the area which can be booked through the National Forest Service at The fishing is reported to be fabulous!

national forest view so cal duck ducklings Cleveland National Forest - is the southern most National Forest in California and encompasses approximately 460,000 acres in Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties. There are campgrounds, hiking trails, hosrseback riding and all sort of other outdoor activities available year round.
park trail
The Ortega Highway (Highway 74) slices through the forest from Orange County to Lake Elsinore in Riverside County. There are campgrounds, funky shops and some bars and restaurants located along the way. Watch out…people commute on this highway and drive really fast between where they live in Riverside to their offices in the OC!

Mount Palomar is located in the Cleveland Forest (off Highway 76) and is open to the public from 9-4 daily. They have a 200 inch Telescope and the dome is open to the public. All sorts of tours are available - Google Mount Palomar and click on tours to see what's going on. This is a nice day drive with plenty of places to stop for a walk and a picnic. Overnight campground are available but you should book in advance.

The Cleveland National Forest offers hiking, camping, horseback riding, biking, OHV and many other recreational opportunities but as a result of the recent fires many areas are closed. It is best to check their web site before making immediate plans in the area.

Orange County Wilderness Park Camping
The great thing about camping in the OC at one of the wilderness parks is that you can do it just about any day of the year. The weather is almost always fabulous so winter is not a big issue. But remember that with the warm temperatures and low altitude the vegetation is oak trees and scrub brush instead of piney woods and water is scarce!

hiking trail to the pacific ocean wilderness park hiking trail Casper's Wilderness Park - is Orange County's largest park with over 8,000 acres. Camping is available for RVs, tents and trailers and there are even equestrian accommodations at Starr Mesa campgrounds. Book with and do book early as reservations go fast!

O'Neil Wilderness Park - is located in Trabucco and Live Oak Canyons and offers camping, RV and trailer accommodations. It is located inland from the ocean but the old growth live oak and sycamore trees are beautiful and the quite, serene setting is really lovely. Book with and remember the creeks are dry and it is quite hot during summer months.

California Forest Camping
Sequoia National Park -is one of the most amazing places in California and it is about a five hour drive from my house. We have visited the park in all seasons and different ways. We have stopped by for the day, camped and stayed in 3 Rivers at a motel. There is nothing like Sequoia anywhere and I cannot recommend it enough. We have tried to stay in a lodge or motel actually in the park and never been able to secure accommodations. That is my next goal! I believe our camping trip to Dorst Creek was one of our most incredible (scary) trips EVER! There were bears everywhere! We had them shaking our bear boxes at night, running through our camp while we were roasting marshmallows and even smelling our heads through the tent at night. I could not wait to get out of there and would not consider such a trip unless you are 'good' with being that close to nature! The ranger told us that the mother bear that walked through the camps one morning with her two cubs used them to distract campers so she can steal their food! General Sherman (a spectacular redwood) is reported to be the largest living thing on earth is one of the hundreds of spectacular specimens of these giant beauties. One day we drove to Lake Hume and the kids spent the day on the natural rock slide and jumping off a huge floating log that some folks we met told us had been floating in that lagoon all their lives! Go to to book Lodgepole or Dorst Campgrounds up to 5 months in advance and ask them about the BEARS!!!

Kings Canyon National Park -is north of and contiguous to Sequoia and is supposed to be the deepest canyon in the United States. There are several groves of giant sequoias in Kings Canyon including the General Grant and Redwood Mountain Groves. The rest of the park (90%) forms the headwaters of the South and Middle Forks of the Kings River and the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. There are extensive glacial canyons and much of the park is inaccessible to motor vehicles. The parts that are accessible are often closed due to land slides and weather caused issues so do check with AAA or the CHP before you plan a visit to Kings Canyon.

curry village curry village tent bear trap half dome yosemite falls mountain pond meadow and stream

tuolumne meadow merced river float trip river rafting merced river yosemite float trip glacier point glacier point yosemite fishing not catching

glacier fed lake tenaya lake tenaya
Yosemite -is my grandson, Jacks favorite place. We take the kids 'camping' at Curry Village every summer in July (about six hours drive) and have a blast. It is the most wonderful answer to taking little kids camping. You move into already constructed tents with beds, blankets, sheets and electricity. Food is not allowed in Curry Village and everything you brought in the car had to be locked up in bear boxes out by the parking lot. We eat at the buffet or fast food stands in the village or go over to the Yosemite Lodge and eat at the food court. (no cooking over a campfire, folks!) We always hike up to Yosemite Falls and Bridal Veil, go to the shows at the amphitheater and drive to Lake Tenaya just before Tuolumne Meadows but try to add something new each year. We have gone river rafting, horseback riding and star gazing and have visited Glacier Point and the Sequoia Grove. It is important to book reservations early and expect crowds. Earlier in the summer is best especially if it has been a dry year. The reason we went horseback riding last summer is because the river was too low for river rafting! We always see bears and deer in the parking lot eating from the apple trees and look forward each year to our stay in Yosemite! Call the National Parks at 1-866-875-8456 to make reservations.

Mammoth Mountain Lakes -offers five lakes (Coldwater, Twin Lakes, Lake George, Lake Mary and Pine City) with camping facilities for a total of about 250 spots. There are different services and amenities at each and most take advance reservations through ReserveAmerica. The fees are about $13.00 and campgrounds are open mid June through mid September. We have had great experiences at Pine City and Twin Lakes but you really can't go wrong. The water falls are wonderful at Twin Lakes and you can stay at the Tamarak Lodge if you prefer an indoor experience. The lakes are pristine, ice cold and remember…this is bear country!

silver lake June Lake -is another place we go camping every, single year. We just love the area and camp in the campground on the lake, just past the fire station, before you get into town. Book through Reserve America and we usually pay about $15 per night. There are many different hikes available in the area and Joe and JJ and a friend hiked up to june lake june lake swim boulder hopping june lake
gem lake trail rock climbing june agneu dam supply track gem lake Gem Lake last summer (2 ˝ miles that seem like 10). Trout fishing is unbelievable and we always rent a boat for a day and jump off into the ice cold water when we can't handle the heat another second. Sometimes we take all of our food and cook and sometimes we just take stuff for lunches and eat dinner at a restaurant in town. We always have trout and it is delicious! It is fun to drive around the loop and make frequent stops and then go swimming at the end of the lake off the sandy beach.

Our newest favorite camping spot from this summer's recent trip is -

HENDY WOODS STATE PARK -is up in Northern California in the redwoods near my daughter Lori's home. Take the 101 North out of Santa Rosa and at Cloverdale take the 128 west to Hendy Woods. The campground is really beautiful providing cool, dense forest camp sites with a lot of room. There are plenty of logs to climb and the river runs nearby.

single file walk navarro river navarro river swim wading navarro stream turtles basking in sun rocks under navarro bridge
The best local swimming hole is under the bridge and JJ spent hours jumping off the huge rock with the "big" kids. The younger kids waded in the shallow water with tadpoles, minnows and snapping turtles. We sat on the rocky beach taking hundreds of pictures and feeling very blessed!

dawson family hendy woods paul's secret swimming hole friends at secret swimming hole castle building We met a wonderful family from Redwood City who took us to a fabulous place at mile marker 3.66 on the 128 towards the ocean. We call it Paul's Secret Swimming Hole - so don't tell anyone or...if you do give Paul credit! We spent the entire day splashing in the cold Navarro River and baking in the hot summer sun on the sandy beach. You can continue down the road a few miles to the glorious Pacific Ocean shore or head back to Hendy Woods.

apple juice press fresh apple juice On the way back to the campground we stopped at a really fabulous rock shop on the right hand side and picked up some treasures. Then, we stopped at the apple orchard on the left side (just before the bridge) and had fresh apple juice. It was amazing and every single one of us drank it down without stopping for a breath! They have an honor system - help yourself and put the money in the box and make change if you need it!

nintendo break chandelier drive through tree We took a sidetrip loop up to see the Chandelier Tree. James really wanted to see the tree you "could drive through" so we stuffed the kids in the car with electronic gear in hand and headed out. The Drive Through Tree Park is located at Leggett and they charge a $5.00 per carload fee for entrance. Be sure to tuck in your side view mirrors before taking your turn because it is tight! drive through tree pond baby frogs hollow redwood antique logging truck The pond is loaded with little frogs, turtles, fish and geese and the gift shop is enticing to all ages. Fires were burning all around the area and smoke was thick so we decided to head towards the ocean down Highway 1. It is a winding road through beautiful old growth but it made Jack sick and halfway to the sea we found ourselves in the middle of a forest fire! It was a bit scary but we made it to the coast and really enjoyed the scenery of the Northern California coastline on the way back.
poison oak navarro river bank climb hendy woods climbing tree northern California coastal view mendocino coast mendocino water sports
We absolutely loved our visit to Hendy Woods and the area where it is located and will return there often. Several little towns are close enough to go get ice or whatever else you forgot (or maybe a latte at the drive through). The area is rural - yet comfortable. There is a lot of poison oak and ivy so show the kids what it looks like FIRST THING. Our favorite town is Boonville and we shopped daily at the Anderson Valley Market and Deli. The friendly ladies there confirmed what we had heard from Paul's wife Liz that Boonville has their own language. It is called Boontling and it was either started long ago by the old folks or the kids - there are different stories 'going round'. So - if you are in Boonville and you are looking for a restroom you might try, "Where is the typin moshe?" or if you wonder when the rodeo is say, "When is the bluebirding tidric?" We hope you won't need a "shoveltooth" during your visit!!!

cloverdale station pacific madrone lumber mill thistle wild turkeys and deer clear lake clear lake vista
Shasta - after dropping Jack off with his Dad in Cloverdale (they were on their way to Minnesota), we traveled to Interstate 5 via the 175 and 20 through dry rolling hills and windy roads past Clear Lake. We stopped along the way to take pictures and were surprised at how large the lake acutally is.

route 175 rice paddies lake shasta tree shasta trinity national recreation area antlers rv resort manzanita antlers tent camp
Later, we arrived at Shasta and found the water level down hundreds of feet, our camp marina (Baily Cove) closed and our campground overrun with poison ivy. We wondered if we should have made the long drive. But the helpful camp host directed us to Antlers RV Resort and before long we were set up in their campground where the Sacramento River runs into Lake Shasta. The marina was open and the park had a pool, playground, basketball court, laundry and free SHOWERS! SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE!!! Note: when traveling to water in summer be sure you book with someone you can talk to and get current updates. We booked with ReserveAmerica and were never advised of falling water levels and the closed marina. When I was checking into Antlers they had an agent on the phone calling future guests to let them know the situation! This picture is from National Geographics News article on America's Lost Parks and shows the park at it's best:

antlers marina boating shasta lake fishing boat pilots lake shasta houseboats
The lake was very low this year and the marinas floated down with the water. We had to hike down stairs to get to the boats which would be at parking lot level in good years. We reserved a fishing boat and tried our luck at landing dinner! I was in charge of baiting hooks. JJ got fed up early and jumped into the lake to cool off. As we got to the dam we spotted two new fires that we later learned were set just about the time the ones caused by lightning were getting contained. JJ loved driving the boat around the lake and is looking forward to next summer when he has his license being able to rent a SeaDoo. It was very hot during the day but very comfortable on the water and in the evening. We had a great time and will return to Antlers after a couple of years of heavy snow pack. We met some people who had been coming to Antlers for 40 years and we could see's like family and so easy to make new friends!

fishing on lake shasta lake shasta fishing swimming in lake shasta down to the marina lake shasta arson fires summer 08 fires shasta interstate 5 across lake shasta
We drove up to Weed for dinner so we could get a good view of Mount Shasta. It was still covered with snow, majestically rising out of the clouds of smoke from the persistant forest fires.

As we drive through our beautiful state we always stop along the way to see new places and explore new things. Two places we visited on this trip are really worth your while. We stopped at San Juan Batista (one of the original 21 missions and our favorite) on the way north after leaving Los Osos and picking up James.
el camino real mission san juan batista mission adobe statues san juan batista hotel san juan batista
ice cream treat san juan batista plaza square blacksmith san juan batista homes san juan batista san juan batista cemetary
On the way back we stopped in Sacramento to show him a bit of our state capital and to visit the capitol building. The governor was out visiting the gap fire near Santa Barbara so we were invited to go into his office and make ourselves at home. What a treat! We also visited the replica of the Liberty Bell out near the koi pond. There is one located at every state capitol in the country - and so far JJ has visited 28! california state capitol mounted chp sacramento san luis obispo exhibit sacramento orange county exhibit sacramento governor schwarzeneger governors office liberty bell replica california capitol
tribute koi pond sacramento california state capitol garden statue sacramento capitol war monument sacramento water tower golden bridge sacramento sacramento golden bridge