Camping At “The Indians”

Sep 25, 2010 | Brian Wall, Travel

by Brian Wall

Brian Wall on the summit

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.

Entrance to Los Padres National Forest

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.

River Crossing

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!

Brian Wall lives in Reedley with his wife, Sheryl, and their daughter, Kiana. He is a professional software developer and has a B.S. degree in Ag Business from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.


  1. I hope you had fun! Sometime you should ride the ferry across Florence Lake and hike back up there. I went in 2005 and it was quite an experience! It’s definitely isolated!

    • I haven’t tried hiking up to a camping spot further than 10 feet from the car, but I’d like to someday. At this point I’m not in good enough shape, and there’s no way I could put everything on my back that I normally take camping. I’ve considered taking a mule, but where do you find a mule? And how do you take care of one if you’re camping for several days? Do they eat pine cones? Anyway, one of these days I’ll have to try that (crossing Florence Lake on the ferry and hiking from there – not the mule thing). Great idea, thanks!

  2. Really good article!

  3. Great article Brian. I’m glad there are still people who like the old traditional tent camping and hiking. Just be careful when you’re out there all by youself “20 miles northeast of Hinkley!”

    • Thank you Diana! I’m learning to be more careful. Before heading out on an adventure, I recommend leaving a note at your campsite stating when you left and what you are doing. Even with that, understand it could be days before anybody finds that note, so save your real adventuring for trips with friends (they’re often better enjoyed with others anyways).

  4. Hi, I was wondering if anyone knows if there is a nice and deep swimming hole anywhere around Indians. Some friends and I were going to camp over there and do some climbing, but not all of them are climbers so I hoped there would be a deep spot in the river to keep those folks occupied. Please let me know if there’s anything around there.


    • First, I’m leery of calling it a “river.” It’s more like a large stream. A 5-minute walk up the road and to the left through a gate will take you to what looks like a boys’ camp structure (if the gate’s open, you can actually drive there). There’s some large-ish wading spots there. It’s not big enough to really “swim,” but it’s big enough for several people to play in the water. It may get up to 4-feet deep at spots depending on the time of year. I wouldn’t count on that being the entertainment alternative for the whole day, and by mid- to late-September the water may start getting uncomfortably cold, but it’s certainly a viable option to consider.

  5. is that 6.2 mi. round trip to junipera serra peak or one way?

    • I should also re-emphasize the importance of bringing proof of insurance and registration. I was up there in September (2013) and was stopped at a checkpoint.

      Here’s a tip: in California you can now provide proof of insurance in digital form. Still have your registration paperwork with you, but go digital with the insurance card if you like!

  6. Hey Brian I noticed in the article you wrote that you have to drive through fort hunger liggett. Just wanted to let those know who’ve never been that it’s fort hunter liggett they have to drive through to get to the Indians, just in case they were looking for a place called fort hunger liggett and couldn’t find it. I go quail hunting in fort hunter liggett and in the Indians and you’re right about having the registration, insurance, and drivers license, although you don’t have to go through the checkpoint to go to the Indians.

    • Thanks Tony, good catch!

      This last time I went there I couldn’t get around the checkpoint. It was an impromptu checkpoint just after the first river crossing. Unless there’s an alternate route?

  7. Hi Brian.
    That place gets packed during deer season. Not too long ago the road went all the way through to Arroyo Seco feeding into Carmel Valley and the Salinas Valley. It was closed after heavy rains and mudslides. Since it went thru the “ventana wilderness” it was left closed to vehicles as the dirt from the dozers would cause damage to native thingies. Now you have to go thru the military base. By the way, your car can and will be searched if they want to. You have no rights as a civilian on military bases. Do not take a firearm unless it has been cleared with the military BEFORE you arrive to the base. Some days the check station is active and some days it is not. Maybe it’s time to contact our Representatives to ask for an access route other than thru a military base.

    • Great advice, Hal. Thanks!

  8. Great article. I’m planning on taking my family there but am concerned that with only 8 spots, we might not find a place to camp. Is that a possibility?

    • Hey MP, did you go and find a spot? I haven’t been back in years, and imagine things have changed.

    • Great info, thanks Shannon! I haven’t been in years and wasn’t aware of this change. Will definitely plan ahead and get reservations next time 🙂


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