Urban Camping at San Elijo State Beach in Southern California

This is a guest post by Susan Guillory of The Unexplorer.

I label the type of camping I’m about to tell you about as “urban” because I’ve been camping in the desert several times without a toilet or paved roads. So camping at San Elijo State Beach, where you can walk to Starbucks and a fantastic donut shop definitely falls on the other end of the spectrum.

Setting the Scene

San Elijo is a beach in Cardiff, California, about 30 miles north of San Diego. The campground is in crazy demand in the summer: on February 1, online reservations open up, and within minutes, all the spots are gone for the summer.

We — that being my son and myself, as well as our closest friends — decided to stay five nights. With Bull Taco providing “inauthentic Mexican” food on premises, we decided to go light on the cooking (normally that’s our central focus) and instead veg out on the beach. I vowed that I would take surfing lessons, something that I’ve been wanting to do for years.

The campground itself is pretty packed, at least for people used to having an entire desert valley to themselves. RVs waddled into their spots, children zoomed by on scooters, and several accountants-by-day sauntered by with their surfboards as we set up camp.

Beach Bumming It

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Camping — within earshot of a train that goes up and down the coast and honks every few hours — isn’t conducive for sleeping in, so each day we popped awake, prepped the coffee, and scarfed down breakfast before heading down the dozens of steps to the beach. Interesting fact: there’s no camping on the beach in San Diego. We were positioned on the bluff above, but could still hear the waves at night and enjoy the views.

Our three children, boogie boards in hand, immediately sprinted toward the water, which was pleasantly mild compared to what it is on other local beaches. Adults settled in with books and illicit alcohol hidden in coffee mugs. We spent hours basking in the late summer sun, occasionally wandering out for a dip in the cold (but not as frigid as it can be) Pacific Ocean.

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A million times, I decided to cancel my surf lesson, but after watching children surf easily all day long, I put on a brave face and headed back to the campground where Eli Howard Surf School was located. To my chagrin, I was the only adult. Everyone else was under 10. No matter. Once I glommed onto the instructions, I was raring to go.

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I’m proud to say I popped up on my board the first time, and pretty much every time after. The feeling of gliding along the waves gave me such euphoria. Too bad my instructors didn’t teach me how to stop! I’d ride the wave until it petered out, then lose my balance and fall. But I got back up on the board again and again.

We Came Prepared (More or Less)

I’ve camped enough to know to make my list and check it twice. Unfortunately, we got off to a rough start when my son and I realized one of our tent frames was broken. A quick call to a friend got us a couple of loaner tents, so the snafu was amended.

Apparently I was the last to know that you’re supposed to have a sleep sheet in your sleeping bag! It keeps the bag from getting stinky and needing to be washed as frequently. I was given a sleep sheet from The Friendly Swede for my upcoming hiking trip in Italy, and this camping trip was my first time testing it out. It folds up to practically nothing, and slid right into my sleeping bag.

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The Friendly Swede also send a couple of cool collapsible LED lamps that were small but provided great lighting (that came in handy for my middle-of-the-night trip to the restroom). You can see it to the right of my sleep sheet.

Good Food: Essential for Camping

While we packed some food, we ate frequently at Bull Taco just because it was amazing! Seaside Market is a short walk away, and is a super fun place to spend all your money on good food! And we’d heard that VG Donut & Bakery was a must-try, so we went on our last morning. I wish we’d gone on our first! I’m not that into donuts, but these were the best I’ve ever had. That explained the 10-minute line out the door.

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All in all, our urban camping adventure created wonderful memories around the campfire and at the beach, and allowed us to let our hair down and get our feet sandy.

Insider Tip

It’s not always as hard to get reservations as it is for the summer. Our first visit, we went in April and had no trouble making online reservations. If your schedule permits, go any time other than the summer. It’ll still be warm (though you’ll want that campfire lit on our chilly SoCal nights!), though you might not want to venture in the water.

Need to Know

Campsite reservations are $35-50 a night, depending on whether you’re tent camping or need hookups for an RV. Dogs are allowed, on a leash only. We opted not to bring ours because she likes to explore.

If You Go

Park information: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=662

Reservations: http://www.reserveamerica.com/camping/san-elijo-sb/r/campgroundDetails.do?contractCode=CA&parkId=120083 or 1-800-444-7275

2050 S Coast Hwy 101

Cardiff, California 92007

Article and photography by travel writer Susan Guillory. I received complimentary products from The Friendly Swede, but all opinions are my own.