by Brian Wall
Camping can take all sorts of forms–from creating a shelter using the supplies available in the forest to parking your RV in a well groomed RV park and busting out the lawn chairs. I recently monitored the progress of British explorer Felicity Aston, who spent 59 days alone crossing Antarctica–the first woman to do this ever in history! That’s 59 days with no human contact, no shower, no bathroom, in -22 degree weather!
I’m not as rugged a camper as Aston by any comparison. I don’t do so well when temperatures drop below freezing and it’s a long camping trip if I’m gone more than four days, but I do value the solitude. There’s something renewing–both physically and spiritually–that you simply can’t experience in a social camping environment (though I do enjoy a good camping trip with friends, too).
This pervasive motivation to find lesser-known campgrounds led me most recently to Alder Creek Campground, located in the Monterey Ranger District of Los Padres National Forest. Here’s the link to a Google map version.
Based on what little information I could find about this campground online, it sounded very promising. So I e-mailed Larry Razzano (email@example.com) in the Monterey Ranger District office to make sure the road was passable for my minivan. He confirmed it was, so I loaded up the minivan and headed out for a five day solo camping trip.
The directions to this campground will take you south through Paso Robles, across Highway 46 to the coast, then up Highway 1 about 39 miles to Forest Route 23S01. The coastal part of the drive is so beautiful it’s worth the trip in and of itself! The turn on to Forest Route 23S01 is easy to miss because it is also the entrance point to Treebones Resort and looks more like a driveway than a road!
Forest Route 23S01 quickly becomes rough gravel and is slow going. It ascends into forested mountainside quickly, and if you’re there at the wrong time of day you could find yourself quickly engulfed in coastal fog. Always drive safely, and stop if it feels too dangerous! As you enter the forested area, the road becomes smoother and you’ll find yourself driving through a long stretch of road with gated driveways to private property, most with signs warning you to keep out. These are old mining settlements that are still under private ownership. Best heed their warnings!
The road eventually peaks at the ridge, where it crosses Los Burros Road, and then descends on the other side for just over a mile where it terminates at the campground. There are intermittent areas with gorgeous views of the ocean, and the road offers one last view of the coast just a few hundred feet from the campground entrance. Unfortunately there is no ocean view from the campground itself.
To my chagrin, one of the three campsites was already occupied when I arrived. It wasn’t what I had hoped for, but ended up being just fine. My camping neighbor was a single Vietnam vet (Frank) from southern California who was nice as could be. I had confirmed with the ranger district office that I could build a campfire if I printed out and signed the California Campfire Permit. So whenever I had a campfire going, Frank would come over and we’d shoot the breeze for a while. He had some pretty entertaining stories to share!
This campground is the most primitive one I’ve ever stayed in. Each camp site has a picnic table and fire pit, and that’s about all that the campground offers (aside from an oddly placed unenclosed toilet in full view of the camp sites, full nearly to the rim with dirt and an easily disturbed wasp nest next to it! In all practicality it’s no more than an unusual taunting image of what the campground lacks the most!). I was there in early November, and the creek that runs through the middle of the campground still had some water flow. It was minimal, but enough to fill my water kettle for boiling water over the fire.
There are some old mining roads connected to the campground that aren’t drivable anymore, but can be fun to explore by foot. You can also drive back up to the Los Burros Road intersection and drive that road for miles. In fact, I understand you can follow the ridge all the way east to Fort Hunter Liggett, or west to some amazing vistas (though I didn’t try this myself).
The campground is also the trailhead for the Buckeye Trail, which I hiked on Nov 7, 2011 to Cruikshank Camp and back (I was actually aiming for Villa Creek Camp, but I missed the trail that offshoots to it).
The trail had recently been cleared so it was very easy to navigate, and it offers some amazing views of the ocean. Always be on the watch for poison oak, as it’s everywhere! The sign at Alder Creek Campground says the hike to Cruikshank is three miles. The sign at Cruikshank Campground says the hike to Alder Creek Campground is four miles! Interestingly, the hike from Cruikshank Campground is mostly uphill, so it does feel like it’s at least a mile further than the hike in! The hike was one of my main highlights of the trip.
Another simple highlight of my trip was a day when I just sat extremely quietly at the picnic table, simply reading a book. After 10-15 minutes, the birds in the forest came out full force and became surprisingly chatty. It was an amazing transformation of the campground! Soon after I saw several deer amble straight through the campground. You just won’t get that kind of experience in a social camping situation, and that’s one of the many benefits of camping alone.
Altogether my experience at Alder Creek Campground was a positive one and I’ll probably be going back. If you don’t mind roughing it a bit and don’t need a lot of amenities to be happy, this could be a great choice for you. I hope one day to be physically fit enough to hike in to Cruikshank Campground and set up camp there. Maybe once I’m able to do that, I’ll be ready for Antarctica… not!