Surf Cities – Huntington Beach and San Clemente

The organization that Maureen used to run before retiring had last year’s annual meeting in February at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach. During the meeting, Maureen and I took a walk along the beach, and we were surprised to see that there was a campground right across the street from the hotel, set up essentially in the beach parking lot. We decided that it would be both a great celebration of her new retired life and a fun reminiscence of the meeting if we could stay at this campground during our first Odyssey.

We left Joshua Tree National Park on Presidents’ Day, thinking “this will be a breeze – holiday traffic should be light.” Ha! When we plugged our destination – the Sunset Vista Campground in Huntington Beach – into the GPS and started out, we soon found out that most everyone in Southern California was heading to the beach that day. And no wonder – contrary to the El Nino forecast, weather was sunny and warm.

The combination of construction zones and traffic turned a 2½-hour drive into something more like 4, or at least it seemed like it. The other interesting factor was discovering that our route to the coast contained toll roads. Given the traffic, we were in no mood to make the detour that avoiding tolls would require, so we decided to bite the bullet and pay the man. Except we had no idea what we were paying! Since the roads were all “open tolling” with no gates, you drove now and paid later on the toll road’s website. We later learned our shortcut cost us about $14 in tolls. Ah well, at the time it seemed worth it.

Making the turn onto Pacific Coast Highway, all the frustrations of traffic and tolls evaporated like the morning marine fog layer. Suddenly we were in the land of sun, sand and surf, bikinis and bicycles. Except! One last challenge remained. Because of the beach crowds and full parking lot, the left turn lane from PCH to the parking lot of the campground was closed. But we knew we had a reservation, and my nerves were spent. I wasn’t going to drive more miles in frustrating beach traffic just to find a place to turn around, so I made an executive decision to turn left anyway. It turned out fine – yes, this has been the pinnacle of my civil disobedience over the last year.

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My sister and her family live north of Los Angeles, and when we knew that we would be visiting the area, we scheduled a get-together on the beach. So as soon as we were safely parked and set up in our campsite, we walked up to the pier and met them at Duke’s. We don’t get a chance to see each other very often, so it was great to catch up on family news. After lunch we said goodbye, and Maureen and I walked along the beach.

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It was exactly as we remembered: the bike path and beach full of a mix of surfers, boogie boarders, joggers, swimmers, volleyball players, sand castle builders, “chopper” bicycles and a wide assortment of lovers and free spirits. On the holiday, pedestrian traffic was particularly dense, but it thinned out considerably on Tuesday.

During the rest of our four-day stay we took several walks along the shore and pier and generally soaked up the beachy ambience. When I had made the reservation I selected the site on the very south end of the front row, thinking we would have an unobstructed view of the ocean. That turned out to be true, but the downsides to this location were our proximity to 1) the ramp to the beach, on which bicycles would constantly stream up and down, across the front of our “living room”, 2) the aluminum can and glass bottle scavengers, who frequently rummaged through the garbage cans near us in search of recyclable booty, 3) the general rowdiness of the beach, and 4) the vague sense you have in a highly-trafficked area like this that your things or your person aren’t 100% secure.

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That said, things really quieted down after dark. Huntington Beach is one of the few communities that still allow campfires on the beach. Most other communities have shut them down because of the smoky air blowing into the front yards of pricey homes, but HB feels they are such an intrinsic part of its brand that they have been allowed to remain. Occasionally the smoke was bothersome, but mostly we enjoyed the incense of Other People’s Campfires at night.

We met our campground neighbors, Kelly and Bob, who suggested we check out the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve while in town. Just a few minutes north of the campground along PCH, Bolsa Chica is a wetland that had at one time been destined to be a high-priced housing development, but due to local preservation efforts has been conserved for the waterfowl that now call it home. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the park, where – lamenting my lack of a telephoto lens with which to photograph the many unusual birds – I “invented” my “monocular” technique, marrying half of a pair of binoculars with an iPhone camera. The resulting pictures may not be award-winning, but at least they’re different.

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We paid $70 a night for our electric and water hookup site at Sunset Vista – pretty much more than double the rate at a typical state park. That’s pretty steep for sleeping in what is basically a city parking lot, albeit one with an ocean view. Was it worth it? For a four-day stay I would say yes. Even given the downsides mentioned above, it was a lot cheaper than the Hyatt Regency, and a few days along the beach inhaling fresh ocean air and feeling the carefree vibe were ultimately relaxing, even if we started out fairly relaxed.

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Kelly and Bob had also suggested we check out other state beach campgrounds for future stays, such as San Clemente, San Onofre and Carlsbad. Since we were in no hurry to head back east and we had no further reservations scheduled after Huntington Beach, I started searching for a coastal place to stay the following week. I wasn’t able to get a spot right on the beach, but found the next closest thing: San Mateo Campground, part of San Onofre State Beach, but located inland 1.5 miles from the coast. I was able to book us a weeklong stay to extend our SoCal adventure.

San Mateo looks like a typical state park, with tree-shaded sites, picnic tables and campfire rings situated in loops. It doesn’t offer views of the ocean, but there is a nature trail down to the famous Trestles surf beach (I believe so-named because of the prominent train track trestles that carry the Amtrak and Metroliner commuter trains along the coast).

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The unusual thing about San Mateo is that it is located on the northern edge of the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. After reading reviews about the park before booking, I knew that we should expect real live military activity during our stay. And it was true: at random times during the day and early evening we would clearly hear mortar fire, muffled machine-gun fire, V-22 Osprey airplanes and helicopters flying overhead, and once or twice a loud “thump” strong enough to rattle the trailer. Out on the ocean we saw amphibious vehicles being launched from LSD (Light Ship Dock) ships as the Marines learned how to storm the beach. But none of this really bothered us, and it was even sort of entertaining. I was just glad that we were comfortable in our RV, and didn’t have to get up before dawn, carry a full pack and rifle, eat MREs, and be around live ammunition exercises. And I was grateful that there are people who are willing to do those jobs.

The closest town to the campground is San Clemente, home of the former Nixon “Western White House”. We drove over to town several times to do shopping, laundry and use the library. It’s a quintessentially hilly, quaint southern California coastal town. During our stay we also drove down to the charming town of Carlsbad and walked around a bit. On a whim I suggested that we drive over to nearby Escondido for a brewery tour and lunch at Stone Brewery, maker of some really righteous beers.

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And on another day we drove up to nearby beautiful Dana Point and walked around its massive harbor.

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A benefit of the California State Park system is that your paid campground fee lets you park at any state beach during your stay. So we took advantage and sank our toes in the sand a few more times.

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When we set out on our Odyssey, I had made reservations for as far as Huntington Beach, but after that we had no plans. Having the freedom and courage to spontaneously extend our time on the coast is the kind of thing I hope to do more of as we become more experienced with this lifestyle.

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