The 35-mile trail system that snakes through Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness in San Juan Capistrano offers dozens of scenic vistas. Photo courtesy of OC Parks
The 35-mile trail system that snakes through Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness in San Juan Capistrano offers dozens of scenic vistas. Photo courtesy of OC Parks

A guide to the many popular camping destinations in the area

By Steve Breazeale

It’s about that time for locals to dust off their camping gear in the garage and make a trip to one of the many popular getaway destinations in the area. From San Clemente to San Juan Capistrano, Dana Point and back, a variety of different campsites offer a wide range of exciting and unique activities to get you off the couch and into the surrounding wilderness. Here is a list of some of the most popular camping spots in the area along with some helpful tips on what to do when you get there.

Doheny State Beach
25300 Dana Point Harbor Drive
949.496.6172

For those thinking of booking a summertime camp spot at Doheny State Beach, time is of the essence. A beachfront campsite at one of the most popular campgrounds in the state is a tough ticket. On the first of each month, the 120 sites available for seven months down the road usually sell out within minutes according to Lori Coble, special event coordinator for California State Parks, Orange Coast District.

The reason behind the demand is the park’s proximity to just about everything. A camper on the beach is just a few steps away from the Pacific Ocean and a popular surf break. The park’s snack bar offers kayak, stand-up paddleboard and bicycle rentals. And just around the corner is the OC Dana Point Harbor, which has shopping, restaurants and many more recreation options.

But for those who want to dig a little deeper into the camping scene at Doheny, take a walk up to the nearby Headlands. Five minutes inside the Dana Point Nature Interpretive Center at the top of Scenic Drive will be enough to get one’s bearings before walking the 2-mile-long looping trail around the area. Walkers will encounter postcard-worthy views of the harbor and coastline as well as a preserved sliver of land with indigenous wildlife.
For cyclists, the paved San Juan Creek trail starts right at the beach and heads east for about 5-miles, taking riders into nearby San Juan Capistrano.

Campsites at Doheny during peak season (March 1 to November 30) are $60 per day.

San Onofre State Beach
San Onofre Bluffs is located south of San Clemente on I-5 (Exit Basilone Road)
San Mateo Campground is one mile inland from I-5 (Exit Cristianitos)
949.492.4872

The two camping options at San Onofre State Beach are unique in their own way. On the ocean side of the freeway are the San Onofre Bluffs, which have campsites perched along the cliffs that stretch down the beach. Just a short mile away, on the inland side, is the San Mateo Campground, which is more of a traditional Southern California camping scene. Both sites cost $35 per day.

Those staying at the Bluffs can take one of the six major trails leading down to the beach, where surfing, fishing and hiking are the main attractions.

At San Mateo, campers are nestled into one of the many valleys, where they can explore the area and see all kinds of wildlife.

“San Mateo is what you really picture what a campground is. It’s not an urban campground and you’re out in the boonies,” said Coble. “You get to see the wildlife. That’s a great campground.”

A 1.5-mile nature trail links San Mateo to the nearby Bluffs.

San Clemente State Beach
225 Avenida Califia, San Clemente
949.492.3156

As one would expect, the ocean is the main draw for campers at San Clemente State Beach. The campsites are perched near the bluffs off of Avenida Calafia, with multiple access trails leading down to the water and beach below.

For surfers, the beach is near some prime real estate. To the south lies Trestles and even further down the way is San Onofre State Beach with its well-known surf break. The San Clemente Beach Trail extends from North Beach, past the San Clemente Pier all the way down through San Clemente State Beach and beyond, so walkers can head either north or south on the trail and take in the sights.

Fishermen will also enjoy the area and are a regular sight on the beach. The minimum age to fish at the site is 16 years old.

The going rate for a campsite is $35 and weekends book quickly. The occasional Saturday or Sunday might be available through the state’s reservation website, www.reserveamerica.com, but if one wants to grab a two-day weekend spot, it’s best to plan several months ahead.

Caspers Wilderness Park
33401 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano
949.923.2210

Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park is only a few miles inland off Ortega Highway, but it looks and feels like another world.

Caspers Wilderness’ 8,000 acres of open space and 35 miles of trail systems make it the largest in the region. For hikers, mountain bikers, campers and equestrian riders alike all of that space can translate into solid day of exploring.

Unlike neighboring parks, reservations for campsites at Caspers can be relatively easy to get. While weekends are busy, especially during the summertime months, it’s not necessary to reserve several months in advance. Just around one month before you make your trip should be enough time to secure a prime spot according to Caspers’ supervising park ranger Dennis Shaffer.

Caspers is also one of the more affordable options for camping in the area, with rates starting at $20 per day for all three of the different campsites. Ortega Flats is for the RV crowd, Live Oak is for tent camping and Starr Mesa is the equestrian zone.

The park’s equestrian offerings help distinguish it from other campsites in Orange County. Each space in the Starr Mesa campgrounds has its own corral, which comes with a $3 per day, per horse fee.

The staff at Caspers provides weekly nature hikes, campfire programs and expert discussions on the ecosystem and wildlife in the area.

For those who want to do their own thing, the trail system at Caspers provides easy to moderate hikes. Shaffer’s favorite trail is the 3.5-mile Loskorn Trail.

“It’s a beautiful hike with really good views. It’s fairly short and you can get on top not only of Coto de Caza but to see most of the park area as well,” Shaffer said.

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