by Brian Wall
No doubt, the first pioneers to crest the Sierra Nevada rushed our great Valley with ground-kissing vows to never brave those hills again. Aside from a few rebel jaunts in search of Big Foot and that whole gold rush thing that saved California from a budget impasse, surely they were content to stick to the Valley floor.
As fears of Sasquatch faded and populations increased, the mountains once again drew interest. They no longer threatened peril, but beckoned adventure. New trails were blazed, roads laid, campgrounds cleared, and ultimately the induction of the official Stetson park ranger hat, proudly debuted by Charles Noriss, an emigrant from Texas known for his bad acting skills.
Today we find our mountains are as much a destination as the beach or backyard Doughboy, and with good reason. One can hardly resist the fresh pine air and escape from the noise and activity of the city. Unfortunately, nowadays you escape the city to find its equivalent in the mountains (sans smog – mostly). With generators, music, unsupervised kids, and generally loud (occasionally drunk) people, a camping trip can be pretty disconcerting. It has escalated to disturbing levels, where Rangers have reported finding large quantities of earplugs at nesting sites for deer and other forest animals.
If this is your kind of camping experience, your choices are endless. Your only dilemma may be trying to find an open campsite. Personally, unless I’m camping with friends, I’m looking for as quiet and serene a camping spot as possible. This is tough, especially for the weekend camper. For absolute separation from mankind, you could pitch tent 20 miles northeast of Hinkley or rent an island off the coast. However, for the more moderate camper who can handle some equally moderate neighbors (i.e., neighbors who leave the satellite dish at home), you still have some choices.
I’m still in the early stages of my exploration, but one such campground I’ve found is Santa Lucia Memorial Park in Los Padres National Forest (known by the locals as “The Indians”). It’s a first-come-first-serve campground that has eight campsites and is completely free. There is no electricity and no cell service, and the road isn’t very conducive for navigating a 38 ft. R.V. (which weeds out a whole demographic I’m trying to avoid anyways).
The sum of the amenities include fire pit, charcoal BBQ, picnic table, and toilet facilities (they’re classified as “vaulted,” which could conjure up images of toilets enclosed in reinforced rooms protected by a massive steel door that is unlocked by turning an oversized wheel. In actuality, it’s just a crude outhouse – best bring your own t.p. just in case). The Arroyo Seco River flows nearby with some swimming holes. The river is infant at this elevation and can be crossed in many spots by rock hopping, so don’t bring your canoe (unless you want to sleep under it).
Most of the campers who end up here aren’t looking to roost, but rather to explore. The campground is a popular access point to the trailhead that leads up to the Junipero Serra Peak, a 6.2 mile, nearly 4,000-foot ascent (comparable to the more popular hike up Half Dome in Yosemite). I successfully reached the summit earlier this year (though the trail slapped some humbling reality in my face!). Before attempting such a hike, I strongly recommend some training, as it’s grueling if you aren’t ready for it. I’ve read that the Ventana Wilderness (where the campground is located) is home to many unique plants and is the subject of interest for some individuals. I personally don’t count myself among such individuals, so I can’t speak to this specifically.
My first experience with this campground was earlier this year in May when I arrived on a Friday afternoon and camped through Monday. The campground was full until Sunday evening, when the entire campground emptied out and I was completely alone (“20-miles-northeast-of-Hinkley” alone!). I knew this might happen, so before everybody left on Sunday I made sure my car would start so I wouldn’t be stranded the next day.
To get to the campground you have to drive through Ft. Hunger Liggett military base. Be prepared to show ID, registration, and proof of insurance, and carefully observe all traffic laws as the roads are heavily patrolled. Also, bring mosquito repellant and, while exploring the surrounding area, tread carefully lest you wander into the prolific poison oak. This is all a part of camping, and at least in May it was more than tolerable.
So leave your cushy sofa and get into the woods! For the weekend wanderer Memorial Park campground is a great place to start. I’ll be returning at the end of September and can’t wait! I hope not to see you there!