Summer vacations might not be a thing anymore after leaving school, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the longer hours and warmer weather with a weekend get away. If you’re looking for a thrifty way to step away from the office, commune with nature, and explore your city or state, camping just might be the perfect solution. After rediscovering the joy of camping earlier this year I quickly booked several more weekends of camping this summer. You can search for the perfect campsite using ReserveAmerica or Recreation.gov or try your luck with first-come first-served sites.
I thought it might be fun to start a series of posts highlighting these camping trips, so I’ll start with my trip to Lake Cachuma in Los Padres Forest, just outside of Santa Barbara. The weekend was a group camping trip with a few meetup groups, all in all almost 90 people camping together! As nervous as I was before going on a trip with a bunch of strangers, I had a really good time.
The biggest problem (for me) with camping is gauging the amount of setup versus the time you actually camp. If you camp on a normal two day weekend, you only stay one night so it might not make sense to drive half a day to your camping spot only to have to turn around and come home the next day. For this trip most of the group arrived during the day on Friday. My carpool left LA at about 6pm, after work. The trip took us about 3 hours, with a quick stop at Costco for dinner and a bathroom break. We had to set our tents up in the dark, using my car’s headlights but it gave us an additional full day on Saturday so I feel like it was the right decision.
The Lake Cachuma Recreation Area campground is an absolutely huge space taking up 9,000 acres on a peninsula jutting into Lake Cachuma. Lake Cachuma is a reservoir created by the Bradbury Dam, flanked by the Santa Ynez and San Rafael Mountains. We were in the Dakota Springs group campground pretty much at the center of the park. There are spots reserved for tent camping, some reserved for RVs, as well as yurts that can be rented. Renting a yurt might be a good option if you want to camp but are not quite ready to go all in. They have wooden floors and most of them have lake views.
There are some tent sites that have full shade cover and some that are partial, or if you’re like me and you end up getting to the group site after everyone else already has arrived you just might end up setting up your tent in the open. Night temperatures dipped down to the 40s but not soon after the sun rose they jumped back up again to 80+. Luckily this trip did not focus on hanging out at the campsite all day so the lack of shade wasn’t too devastating.
This campsite had flush toilets and hot showers which was great, but many sites have only vault toilets (basically port-a-potties) so just be sure to check out the details of the site when reserving if you are more of a need-to-wash-my-hands-after kind of girl, like me.
Things to Do
The campsite has several trailheads that leave straight from it, although I didn’t try any of them. Instead I went with some of the group to the Red Rock Hike – more on that later. There is a nature center with a small museum chronicling the history of the area, from the Chumash Indians to the Spanish settlers and so on, and they also offer naturalist led nature hikes. I learned a lot of stuff about the plants and animals that inhabit the area in a short period of time.
There is no swimming in the lake, since it’s a designated drinking water reservoir, but you can rent kayaks and boats from the dock. There is also a pool if you or your kids want to go swimming.
The trailhead for Red Rock is a good distance from the campsite, about 30 – 40 minutes drive, but so, so worth it. Basically all the way at the end of Paradise Road off the highway, you will stop at the entrance to the park and pay a $10 cash fee. It’s not marked because it’s not operated by the National Forest, but by a volunteer group of conservation enthusiasts. Now begins your trek into the wilderness and includes crossing the river at several points. The river runs right over the paved road so you won’t be driving in dirt but precaution should still be taken. There will be times that the road is closed when the river is too high, so be sure to check before leaving. We caravanned in 4 cars, two of which were small sedans, so you don’t need to have a 4 wheel drive vehicle to cross the river but it does help.
Once you get to the trail head, it’s barely even a mile to get to the first swimming hole. It’s a super easy walk (I am NOT a hiker and I thought it was easy) the only hard part was crossing the river without getting wet. When you come around the trail and see the swimming hole you’ll follow the trail down an incline and come to a river bed with big boulders. The water was high this season so that part is like a small river, but the big rocks stick out making for several places to cross. If you don’t mind trekking through the water, you can just smash across without a second thought. If you are not looking to get your hiking shoes wet, it can be a bit precarious to get across. (especially when you have bad balance, like me) But once you get over to the other side you’ll find crystal clear water and even a big rock to jump of of.
We had come to this site thinking it was a 6 mile hike to a swimming hole, but found the water so quickly that we were all confused. After playing in the water for an hour or so we decided to head back instead of looking for the rest of the hike. But apparently there is a 6 mile hike somewhere back there, so check it out if you’re down for the long haul.
What to Eat
Normally when camping, the food you eat is the food you bring. Cooking on the campfire is similar to cooking on a grill in your backyard: hamburgers, corn on the cob, veggie skewers are all easy to make and enjoy. You can literally do anything from oatmeal and mac and cheese (just bring a pot to boil water in), to eggs and bacon and steaks for dinner. It’s all in the amount of effort you want to put into it. And a little in how big of a cooler you have. For this trip I premade breakfast burritos with egg, sausage, and cheese wrapped in aluminum foil to cook in the campfire. After a little trial and error burning one corner of my first burrito, I had it down for the second day. Along with some sliced apples and carrots, and a bag of mixed nuts I had a really filling and nutritious breakfast that kept me going for awhile. Our group was having a potluck on Saturday evening so I didn’t have to bring a full meal, but there are lots of easy recipes that require only a little bit of prep before leaving. For my next trip I’m planning on bringing sliced potatoes, sausage, and corn foil pockets to cook in the campfire.
Cold Spring Tavern
One of the activities the group had planned was to eat lunch at Cold Spring Tavern, not far from the campground down off Paradise Road. The Tavern was a stagecoach stop way back in the 1880s and has been a restaurant/bar/music venue for decades. Set right on the side of what is now, appropriately, called Stagecoach Road, Cold Spring Tavern and the Log Cabin Bar are pretty much exactly as they appeared back in the day. They are famous for their tri-tip sandwiches and they have live music on the weekends both outside and inside the bar. You can also order your food to go from the restaurant and sit on the benches outside. It was extremely hot the weekend we were there but sitting outside under the shade of the surrounding trees was surprisingly relaxing. We watched a Stellar Jay flit around stealing dropped bits of food for awhile before heading back to camp.
Stagecoach Road runs below the Cold Springs Canyon Bridge, part of Highway 154. We drove over this bridge on the way into the campground but had no idea how beautiful or tall it was until we saw it from below. It’s actually the tallest arch bridge in California!
Lake Cachuma Recreation Area has so much to offer campers of all types. Whether you are a tent camper, a glamper, a group, a family or anything in between the campsite is a great location with tons to do nearby. Even if you’re not much up for hiking, the beautiful city of Santa Barbara and the quaint Dutch village of Solvang are very close and are both wonderful destinations for a day trip. Try the aebleskivers, pancake balls topped with raspberry jelly and powdered sugar in Solvang, walk around Santa Barbara’s downtown shopping district, or visit the missions in Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez. There’s always Pea Soup Andersen’s in Buellton if you get a craving for some delicious soup.
What are you favorite campgrounds? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to check them out.