An Ocean at Your Doorstep
For anyone who believes that "camping" means living more in nature's world than man's, car-camping can be a big disappointment. Too many people, too much noise, too many "comforts"any of these can sully even the most beautiful, rugged setting.
The magic words I look for when scanning the offering of a public-lands campground are environmental campsites or hike-in campsites. These are often the most beautiful, secluded sites you'll find at any campground, and strangely enough, most car-campers don't want to walk the gear even a quarter-mile away from the car-park. Here are five sites in the thick of the densely settled southern California coast that take you away from the muddle to your own "private" patch of beachfront real estateownership for a night or two just takes a little sweat equity.
Montana de Oro State Park, off U.S. 101 near San Luis Obispo
Every time we come here, we wonder the same thing: How can a state park this good be free of charge? We can't figure it out, but we're glad it is. Day use at the park costs absolutely nothing, and camping is at present a mere seven bucks in winter, nine dollars in summer.
But instead of staying in the rather dull 50-site car campground located behind the park visitor center, spend your seven or nine bucks on a more precious experience: an easy backpacking trip to one of the park's environmental camps. There are four secluded environmental sites at the park, each requiring a hike of a half mile to two miles one-way. They are Hazard Grove Camp and Bloody Nose Camp, located in a eucalyptus grove near some park residences, and Badger Flat and Deer Flat, located on high bluffs overlooking the ocean. Forget the first two and head right for one of the best camps: Badger Flat or Deer Flat.
What's so good about Montana de Oro State Park? Three main items: Flowers, ocean, and hiking trails. The park's name means"mountain of gold," and they aren't talking about the expensive mineral, they're talking about yellow flowers. Somewhere between February and May each year, the blooming season occurs, and the coastal park lights up with poppies, buttercups, tidytips, mustard, and all their colorful friends. This would be spectacular enough on its own, but it's made even better by the fact that the flowers grow on top of the rugged headlands that line the park's beaches. The coast is still wild here at Montana de Oro, and a walk along its blufftops reveals steep dropoffs, rocky offshore outcrops, and colonies of sea lions.
Trails: The first trails you will get acquainted with are the ones that will lead you to your chosen environmental camp. Both Badger Flat and Deer Flat are located on top of coastal bluffs, so it's an uphill walk from the park road to reach them. For Deer Flat Camp, park your car at the gated dirt road on your left, about 1.25 miles past park headquarters. (If you reach the Coon Creek Trailhead, you've gone too far. Careful: parking overnight at the trailhead might get you a ticket.) Hike up the dirt road to the top of the bluff (it should only take about 15 minutes), and you'll see a little outhouse, picnic table, garbage can, and flat spots for tents. You won't share this site with strangers; it's all yours, and you can have as many as eight people in your party. You are surrounded by coastal scrub that is just high enough to keep some of the wind off you, but not high enough to block the incredible views of the ocean. In spring, look for blooming Indian paintbrush, monkeyflower, hooker's onions, and yellow violets.
By Car: For Badger Flat Camp, park your car in the small parking area on the east side of the road, three-quarters of a mile past park headquarters. From there, hike up the dirt road (signed as Badger Trail). Just before the intersection with Rattlesnake Flats Trail, you'll see the camp. It has the same amenities as Deer Flat Camp, but it's less protected by brush. A small eucalyptus grove nearby provides a place you could go for wind protection, if necessary.
You can bring your camp stove with you for cooking, but no campfires are permitted. Barbecue grills are located at Spooner's Cove. Be sure to pack in plenty of water; you can get mighty thirsty looking at the ocean all day. And keep your food in your tent at night; raccoons and coyotes may show up for snacks if you don't.
Another option on the long days of summer is to have an early dinner at one of the restaurants in Los Osos or San Luis Obispo, drive over to the park, hike up the cliff, and set up camp just in time to watch the sun set around eight o'clock. Wow the perfect date. Then wake up at dawn and check out the ocean. What, you left your binoculars in the car? No big deal, hike back down and get them. Now this is easy camping.
Short Hikes: While you're in the park, be sure to hike the Bluffs Trail, for a great view of the park's eroded marine terraces and its offshore sea stack, Grotto Rock. The flat trail contours along the top of Montana de Oro's shale and sediment bluffs, with nonstop views of colorful rock cliffs and the big blue Pacific. If you're hankering to get down to the water's edge, head for the lovely beach at Spooner's Cove, right across from the visitor center turnoff.
If you like to climb, head for Valencia Peak, the tallest summit in the park. With a cool ocean breeze keeping you comfortable, this aerobic hike is a spectacular day trip. If you forget to carry water, or if you hike in the heat of high noon, it can be rather unpleasant. Park near Spooner's Cove and head uphill on the inland side of the park. In two miles and with an 1,100-foot elevation gain, you arrive at the top of Valencia Peak, elevation 1,347 feet. On a clear day you can see from Point Sal in the south to Piedras Blancas in the north. Hope you brought a few sandwiches or a good book; you'll want to stay a while.
Facilities, reservations, fees: There are four hike-in campsites at Montana de Oro State Park; each site can accommodate eight people. No water is available; you must pack in bottled water. Campfires are not permitted; bring a backpacking stove. Reservations are recommended; phone Parknet at (800) 444-7275. There are nightly fees for the campsites. Pets are not permitted.
Who to contact: Montana de Oro State Park, Los Osos, CA 93402, (805) 528-0513; Morro Bay State Park at (805) 772-7434; or San Luis Obispo Coast State Parks at (805) 549-3312.
Maps for backpacking: A map of Montana de Oro State Park is available at the visitor center. For a topographic map of the area, ask for Morro Bay South from the USGS.
The park is open year-round.
Directions: From U.S. 101 in San Luis Obispo, take the Los Osos exit and head west on Los Osos Valley Road. Drive 12 miles on Los Osos Valley Road to the Montana de Oro State Park entrance.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication