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Old 01-10-2021, 06:20 PM   #1
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Southern California easy camping with little kids

Hi All!

We’re looking for some easy getaways 2-4 hours from SoCal for a first time outing for Van Camping. We’ve got a couple little kids with us... 2 and 4. They’re tearing the house apart. Any suggestions?? Any tips for little ones is helpful too. Thanks 🙏
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Old 01-10-2021, 10:54 PM   #2
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Right now pretty much everything is closed due to the lockdown order; the only legal camping currently available is primitive dispersed camping on BLM land. I can make a few recommendations for when the lockdown eases, though:

Lake Cachuma, in the Santa Ynez range north of Santa Barbara, is a large-ish campground with full hookups available. We used it for our first outing with the new van because there's a camp store, so we could fill in any items we didn't realize we needed. There are playgrounds and a disc golf course. Swimming in the lake is not allowed because it's a drinking water reservoir, but you can rent boats. Some sites have fire rings and some don't, so check when you make reservations if you plan to have a campfire.

Lake Casitas is similar, but additionally has a water park -- currently closed due to COVID, unfortunately.

Jalama Beach County Park is hard to get reservations for, but sometimes it's possible to snipe canceled reservations if you can go on short notice. It's right on the shore (to the point where I usually have to hose the salt spray off the van when I get back.)

Further north, Hearst San Simeon State Park is pretty nice, with a walking path to the ocean shore. It's easier to get into than some of the other state parks that are right on the ocean. (e.g. Morro Bay, Limekiln)

Any of these would make a good first camping experience, I think.

If you want something more primitive, the Los Padres National Forest has lots of campgrounds. I particularly recommend Figueroa, but it's not always accessible during the winter. These were pretty underused until the first wave of COVID restrictions, when camping suddenly became the only recreational option available to people. Almost none of them have hookups or dump stations. Most have pit toilets.

It's been a long time since I was 4. But I think my main tip would be to not overthink it. Everything is new to a 4-year-old, so it's ALL interesting. When they get older maybe get a bike rack -- some of my fondest memories from camping as a kid are of riding around the campground on my bike.
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Old 01-10-2021, 11:29 PM   #3
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Thanks for all the info.

We’ve been to Jalama in our pre-kids days... you’re right. It’s awesome. I’m excited to try a try some more of your suggestions come warmer weather... and less Covid conditions.
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Old 01-11-2021, 11:05 AM   #4
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All great suggestions by Orv. Not sure what kind of van you are driving but for some more off-grid options I can offer some suggestions. I have a 2.5 year old who loves "Bouncy Bouncy" in the van.

Blair Valley: very mild off-roading, pit toilet at the entrance, some short but cool hikes to do nearby

Mojave National preserve: off-roading difficulty can be whatever you want, this place is huge! Kelso Dunes, Lava Tubes, Hole in the wall, etc. If you need more specific suggestions PM me. You can camp almost anywhere out there.

Anza Borrego: Again there are lots of options here. All remote camping with higher difficulty of off-roading than previously mentioned locations. We just did upper coyote canyon this past weekend. Have also stayed in the lower portion of coyote canyon, Oriflamme Canyon, hawk canyon, and pinyon mountain valley. Again PM me if you want more specifics

Big Bear Yellow post sites: not sure if these are open right now but I have stayed at both the ones on the North side of the lake and south side of the lake. north side ones are a little easier to access a it is basically a fire road. Also, there are a couple spots that have a pit toilet.

Toro Peak: Not a ton of camping camping locations here or areas to explore but really cool spot if you get the site at the top of the mountain. There is a nearby helicopter crash that happened years ago that you can hike to.

Kern River: Tons of options up here and really cool spots if you can camp along the river.

Few other places that I haven't been to in many years but are close by with BLM land:
Joshua Tree
Ocotillo Wells
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Old 01-11-2021, 11:47 AM   #5
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Thank you! They all sound awesome. We’ve got a 2013 E350 2wd with a Weldtech Ocotillo 4” lift kit. It’s changed how our van drives completely. Can’t recommend it enough.

We don’t mind the bouncy bouncy, or as my kids call it the “oinga-boingas” ��

Anza Borrego sounds like a winner
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Old 01-11-2021, 12:25 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by Lady_Van-Go82 View Post
Thank you! They all sound awesome. We’ve got a 2013 E350 2wd with a Weldtech Ocotillo 4” lift kit. It’s changed how our van drives completely. Can’t recommend it enough.

We don’t mind the bouncy bouncy, or as my kids call it the “oinga-boingas” ��

Anza Borrego sounds like a winner
That's awesome! I actually have the 6" weldtec kit on my van now, has worked out very well. I did a lot of the stuff I listed in my first van which was 2wd and had an Agile RIP kit (2" lift) and LSD, so you should be fine. Just bring max trax and a shovel.

If this is your first outing and you are going to Anza I would avoid upper coyote canyon. We just went and the trail was super washed out. It was doable, but might not be a good first experience.
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Old 01-12-2021, 03:48 PM   #7
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Carrizo Plain is pretty cool too. The San Andreas Fault runs right through it, creating some pretty exotic looking terrain with pressure ridges, sag ponds, and a soda flat not unlike what you'd see in Death Valley. There are two campgrounds (currently closed) and dispersed camping is also allowed. We camped there in March, and again for New Years'. The main road through, Soda Lake Road, is mostly gravel, badly washboarded in places but passable by most vehicles in all weather. Most other roads there are passable with 2WD in good weather; exceptions are the roads up in the Temblor Range, some of which have 4WD recommended. All the secondary roads can get muddy and slick when wet. I have a 2WD van with no lift and street tires and didn't have any trouble navigating Elkhorn Road and the unnamed road that crosses between it and Soda Lake over the Elkhorn Hills.
I've only ever been in winter but I'm told the spring wildflower bloom can be pretty impressive (and crowded.) In winter it's pretty quiet.
To do dispersed camping there you need to be self-contained and fairly self-reliant. Cell service is spotty at best and the nearest gas is at least 15 miles away.
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Old 01-19-2021, 02:00 PM   #8
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Carrizo Plain is pretty cool too. The San Andreas Fault runs right through it, creating some pretty exotic looking terrain with pressure ridges, sag ponds, and a soda flat not unlike what you'd see in Death Valley. There are two campgrounds (currently closed) and dispersed camping is also allowed. We camped there in March, and again for New Years'. The main road through, Soda Lake Road, is mostly gravel, badly washboarded in places but passable by most vehicles in all weather. Most other roads there are passable with 2WD in good weather; exceptions are the roads up in the Temblor Range, some of which have 4WD recommended. All the secondary roads can get muddy and slick when wet. I have a 2WD van with no lift and street tires and didn't have any trouble navigating Elkhorn Road and the unnamed road that crosses between it and Soda Lake over the Elkhorn Hills.
I've only ever been in winter but I'm told the spring wildflower bloom can be pretty impressive (and crowded.) In winter it's pretty quiet.
To do dispersed camping there you need to be self-contained and fairly self-reliant. Cell service is spotty at best and the nearest gas is at least 15 miles away.
This is the first time I've hard about this place. Where do you all prefer to camp out that way? Is there some good hiking things to do out that way?
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Old 01-19-2021, 03:42 PM   #9
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This is the first time I've hard about this place. Where do you all prefer to camp out that way? Is there some good hiking things to do out that way?

I've never dispersed camped there but have visited during the bloom. Each year's bloom is different and generally depends on the early rainfall. There are several places in the plain to drive to and many spots have foot trails to the specific areas that hold flowers. Sometimes the upper ridge roads have good blooms between late Feb and into Apr. I wasn't thrilled with the campgrounds but off season might be OK if nobody is there. During a good bloom, the place can be a tourist trap. These pics are from a decent bloom...not great but OK. Still there were a bunch of people and this was during the week. The blue in the one picture is a group of flowers not water.
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Old 01-19-2021, 08:50 PM   #10
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Dispersed camping is legal anywhere but the valley floor. The usual BLM rules apply. I've never been there for the bloom, actually. It's pretty quiet when that's not going on. Last time I was there it was just the occasional 4-wheeler or target shooter.

Here's a picture of what it looks like in the dry season.
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