Camping in California – From the Mountains to the Prairies

The Suburban on a Road Trip!

This was our first decent sized road trip in our Suburban, from Southern Oregon to Southern California. We packed everything in the car and hit the road leaving around 6:00 pm: destination Los Angeles and hopefully a visit to Jim’s dentist.

After a three-hour drive, we stopped at Juanita Lake Campground. It was a small place west of Highway 97 just inside Northern California up a narrow dirt road. Since it was late we immediately began the set up for our first night sleeping in the car. I guess it’s not a car, but I’m not used to using the correct term yet.

It took forever for us to get things just right, stuff stashed in every direction, windows cracked a little, our new headlamps handy and so on. Finally, there was enough room for us to sleep. 

In the morning we explored the area before departing. The campground itself was quite pleasant and right beside a lake. We could see many other campers by the time we left at the crack of dawn. 

Juanita Lake first thing in the morning – lovely, right! If you had a small boat, it would be a beautiful place to explore. Fishing is apparently the main draw here. 

Where to Camp

After a few hours, we stopped for gas and called Jim’s dentist in Los Angeles and got an appointment three days out. That meant we had a reasonable amount of time for a slow drive through California. 

At one point, we decided to visit and camp at Pinnacles National Park. We entered on the east side and hated it – what a dump and so busy, at least on that side of the park. We understand that Parks want to keep all the camping in small areas, leaving the rest of the Park for wilderness.

Even so, why use the sardines in a can model – campers all on top of each other? Ten thousand acres and we’re all crammed into these ten acres. Ugh. We also couldn’t see any pinnacles from where we were. We just left and kept driving, thinking there must be something better.

After turning this way and that, we finally settled on Williams Hill Campground. That makes it sound simple; it was anything but simple. We drove south, then east, then back west and north, then finally south and west up into no man’s land: a typical route to the BLM campsites we like best. 

Williams Hill Campground

Eventually, we got as far up on the mountain as you could get on the dirt road when we went around a sharp corner, and suddenly things turned ominous, steep, windy and narrow. I couldn’t handle driving up it since I couldn’t tell what was around the corner.

We ended up parking the car and walking up and around this bend. We weren’t sure if we could even turn around up ahead and we’re still traumatized by our experience in the Mendocino forest.

Jim walked for about 15 minutes past this point and returned to assure me the road was fine up ahead. We did find the campground, but much further up the hill. Most of the area is given over to off-road riding with signs describing the difficulty level, in all directions. 

There were only two other campers present, but a million flying bugs, as thick as thieves. One camper had a huge motor home; all set up with a generator, awning, lights, chairs. It looked comfortable, but we wondered how he got up that road? It was on top of a knoll, one of only a few places we’ve camped where you have unobstructed views in all directions. If you can stand the bugs, you get quite the view.

A white carpet of clouds 200 feet below us, greeted us in the morning and covered everything but the top of the mountains, eerie. We did get to witness a glorious sunrise, looking down on the clouds.

Driving down the mountain was a lot easier than up it. However, we did have to take a few more back roads to find Highway 101 south. We spent some time in Morro Bay mostly on Morro Rock: what a cool place – but all our photos were terrible in the dense fog. Then down to Lompoc and out to the coast, since neither of us had ever been out there. It was quite desolate and cloudy and headed back inland.

Where in the World is the Campground?

We had decided to camp east of Solvang up in the mountains. It turned out to be a long, slow, challenging drive! We kept going up and up into the mountains near Los Olivos. As you can see from the photos, it was quite high, and a very narrow road, with a ton of blind curves.

Every time we thought the campground must be on the next mountain we found out, there were yet more mountains and the road kept going. It was a white-knuckle ride, at least for one of us. 

Eventually, we found the campground tucked into a ravine. It was a great spot, and for whatever reason, we decided to go back to town and then return here in the evening. As we headed back up there later, we gave each other questioning looks when the tire hit the cattle guard at the start of the incline. Maybe the sound shocked us awake?

Nope. Didn’t have the will to go up that road again. So, let’s just stay here in the parking area by a trail-head. Well, why not. We cooked a quick dinner at the side of the road, packed up our things and hit the hay when darkness finally came. We heard a surprising number of cars going in and out all night for such an incredibly remote area with so few homes nearby.

Jim had terrible headaches every evening – something incredibly unusual for him – maybe from the meds? Oh, and add in some paranoia about parking there all night. Would a sheriff come and shoo us off? Never happened we’re glad to say.

Dental Appointment

The next morning, we drove the three hours to the dentist office and got some good news.  (Can a root canal be good news?) Compared to what we imagined, yes: root canal? Yes indeed, but, no crown! And a merciful price for the procedure for which we thanked our dentist and the ADA gods.

But we learned we’d have to stick around a week for the second end of the process. We can do a week in Los Angeles, right? The meds had Jim a little hazy but no pain so we could concentrate on doing some fun things. A delightful turn of events that was. We just had to figure out where to sleep for the next week!

How about this place? Sure. Looks great.

Our New Home

We settled on McGill Campground at Mt Pinos – which is north of Los Angeles and west of Interstate 5, about 15 miles. The road goes through the little town of Frazier Park, then through small valleys and up into the hills. Into the national forest and up the mountain. At about 7000 feet. 

We got everything ready to stay for a while. There was a lot of fallen limbs, so we had great fires going during the cool evenings and mornings. We were glad to have the large water jug with us (and full) as there was no water to be had anywhere nearby. 

A little later we heard a voice from the road “You took my favorite spot!” Oh no, we’re not gonna get hassled are we? No: it turns out the camp host said that from her ATV.  She was an amiable lady who had her spot up the road in a camper. Before hosting, she and her husband had come here regularly and just loved this spot – “the best view in the whole park” she said, and we agreed.

This was the first time we spent all day at a campground. We’re usually heading off down the road every day. We looked around the area and hiked some. We mostly hung around and can’t remember what we did all day! We’ve never stayed at the same campground for three consecutive nights, and it was a bit bizarre for us.

At one point, we did go into town for a few groceries and more water. We’ve always wondered what folks do all day if they camp in one place. We were restless by noon. But we also found it restful not to drive all day. Food and eating become the main diversion, followed by hair washing using our new shower bag. Just hang it up and let the sun heat up the water. It works!

How About Some Beach Camping?

All good things must come to an end, even our stay here. We decided to try some beach camping as we had just about enough of the hot and dry version. Off we went early and headed to the beaches out past Malibu.

The first night was at Sycamore Canyon, just across the highway from the beach. Small place, with lots of people, but relatively quiet. Lots of kids on bikes and skateboards. Folks were walking out and across the highway to fish in the ocean. The next day we spent driving into Camarillo and Oxnard for some shopping and a stop at REI, which we’ve come to think of like Mecca for campers.

The next night we camped at Thornehill Broome right on the beach. Right on the beach: highway, sand, water. Funny thing with the rocks there. When the waves came up to the shore and then went down, the sound was like clapping as the rocks banged against one another. Couldn’t hear it twenty feet away, but up close – very strange. The crowd was up late, though quiet. After dark, you look down the beach and see dozens of campfires all in a line going off into the distance.

Our next-door neighbor, camping with his wife on her birthday, drug a colossal driftwood tree over and stuck it in the fire, and it burned all night – the best campfire we’ve seen. We also did our daily good deed at one point: scaring off a seagull who helped himself to some of their steaks. Aggressive buggers they can be, the gulls that is. 

They had set the steaks out on the picnic table to marinate and were getting other things ready for dinner. They turned their eyes for half a second, and we saw one of those steaks fly off into the air. We’d never seen steaks fly before. We scared off a few gulls who thought they would follow suit after the first raid worked out so well. Hey, off you go now! Well, at least one lucky bird had an excellent dinner that night instead of pulling cold fries out of the trash.

At last, the week was over, and we had a dentist appointment in town for a quick bookend on the drilling. Quick and painless – just how dental work should be.

Goodbye Los Angeles

Off we went eastward, of course in rush hour traffic. After that annoying journey all the way across metro LA from the beach to the mountains, we arrived at the southern entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, for our second boondocking experience.

We arrived after dark and chose a place off from the many rigs settled in for the night. It seemed to us that there were quite a few people there, even though they were all spread out. We had to keep an eye out for snakes and scorpions every time we got out of the car. Ah, the great outdoors.

Daylight showed us only six others camping there, and they were closer than we thought. Night time we had the rumble of trucks in the distance, on Interstate 10 in the distance: heavy traffic between LA and Phoenix. All night long, never let up, never saw a gap in the headlights.

After the morning routine of getting everything packed, we headed off early for Phoenix stopping for coffee at a gas station just east of Joshua Tree. That whole little area was developed by a fan of General George Patton, which explained all the old tanks and other military vehicles sitting all around. 

The small museum there was dedicated to General Patton who had opened a tank training post in the area some years before. We figured it was a great place to give over to Army training as there wasn’t much else going on then or now.

Here are some photos of the relics all around the area.


Here’s a photo of the area. Doesn’t it just make you want to jump in a tank and head off up in those mountains? No? Us neither, but we could see how some training there would come in handy if Old Blood and Guts said “Take that hill…!” and you didn’t have much of a say in the matter.  Better get ready.

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1 comment

    • Cindy Birko on January 10, 2018 at 9:14 am
    • Reply

    Wow! That was quite the road trip. Someday you’ll have to put your blogs and photos into one book and present it as a travel guide for the western US. There’s always room for one more, you know. Think of you guys often and look forward to seeing you in the fall.

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