On the outskirts of Los Padres National Forest in Southern California, there’s a modest-sized campsite that few venture out to. A lack of running water, vault toilets, pesky deer flies, and dusty dirt drives most visitors toward the cooler shores of Cachuma Lake or the calm, sandy beaches along the California coast. For many people, Figueroa Campground is an inhospitable nightmare. For Kierstin, Simba, a few friends, and me, it provided a veritable weekend getaway.
My high school friend and roommate during college, Jawsem, and I left early on Friday morning. We drove an hour along the tortuous Highway 154, past Cachuma Lake, through Los Olivos, and along a windy, narrow, less-traveled road until we arrived at the isolated campsite. Online reviews of Figueroa Campground are scant, bu
t I had read that mid-August is deer season. This meant that hunters seeking an inexpensive, remote place to set up camp might also find their way to Figueroa Campground. But when Jawsem and I showed up as the sun was climbing over the Santa Ynez and San Rafael Mountains, there were probably only about 5 or 6 other campers sparsely situated throughout the 33 campsites Through the whole weekend, the maximum number of spots filled probably never exceeded 10.
The factors previously mentioned (e.g., a ditch for a toilet, no water faucets, bugs and bugs and bugs) must have played a role in granting us a nearly-vacant campsite, but there was much more to appreciate than complain about. Red manzanitas with smooth bark that peeled away like chocolate shavings stood out among the oak and pine trees scattered throughout the campsite, providing cool shelter from the Southern-California-hot 90 degree weather. We arrived, windows down, and the oxygen-rich air at 3500 feet smelled as camping should; the scent of pine trees and dirt absent of smog and people and buildings. An opening in the trees provided a view of the western horizon, green, brown, and yellow-spotted mountains jutting out over coastal cities. We took a moment to take it all in before setting up camp, our fellow campers eventually joining to help.
I think there are two things that make a camping trip great: games and food. If you can find ways to occupy yourself away from the daily buzz of computer fans, vibrating phones, and news anchors while enjoying the company of others, you’ll have a fantastic time camping. If not, you still might have tasty grilled food to fall back on. The first night we played dice games, Scattergories, and bocce ball. We also grilled marinated chicken, dripping with a spicy red sauce, topped with fresh cilantro, chopped white onion, thick slices of avocado, generous dollops of sour cream, and hot salsa all on warm corn tortillas. We all had our fill, then stuffed ourselves doubly with s’mores with a twist; peanut butter cups instead of plain chocolate bars. Bellies filled, and a little drowsy from a couple of drinks, we climbed into our tents early and dozed off quickly.
We moseyed around the second morning until just before noon, when we packed lunches and set off to find some trails. The campground is a couple miles away from two trailheads: the Davy Brown Trail and the Ballard Trail. The maps promised creeks, canyons, and springs, but we were aware that the current drought might impact the sites along the way. We chose the shorter trail, the Davy Brown Trail, and set off. The trailhead was a perfect spot for photo, overlooking Santa Ynez and Los Olivos below. The creek ended up being nearly dry, with a few pools of stagnant water that beckoned Simba to our displeasure. The trail was also overrun with poison oak in a few spots, but we managed to steer clear for the most part and only suffered one casualty a couple days later. The sun started beating down on us just after noon, and we realized that the map’s description of a completely shaded trail might have been inaccurate.
I think Simba gave up first. The heat quickly made him exhausted, prompting him to run ahead to the shade and lie down while waiting for us. Kierstin, Sophie, and I decided to stay behind with him while the rest of group went ahead. We each took a two-way radio, mostly so that we could play twenty questions against each other. After a short break, I decided to hoist Simba into my arms and help him along the trail. From the pictures that Kierstin took, I’m led to believe that he tricked me into carrying him.
That night was filled with more games and more great food, but first we stopped at the Figueroa Mountain Lookout. Nearly the tallest peak in the entire area at about 4500 feet, the lookout provides an expansive view north, east, west, and south. We drove up just before sunset to watch the fiery orange orb settle behind where the clouds and ocean meshed together. In the east, verdant mountains covered with horizon to contrast the warm mixture of yellows and reds in the west. Breathing in the invigorating mountain air and watching the sun sink behind the Great Pacific was an incredible highlight of the weekend.
When we got back to camp, we grilled tri-tip until there was a crusty, charred outside and a light pink center, soaking in flavorful juices. Zucchini, green beans, and bell peppers of all colors were chopped up, covered with butter, and wrapped tightly in foil and placed over the fire pit. Sweet Hawaiian dinner rolls and baked beans, sweetened with brown sugar and flavored with bacon, completed our delicious campfire dinner. We scarfed down our food, grabbed a couple of beers, and settled around the fire for some scary stories. I even told a story I wrote, including a few details that had actually happened to Kierstin and I so that she was so scared she could barely sleep.
Sunday morning was the last morning for two of our campers, and so we celebrated the weekend with an enormous breakfast and mimosas. We stuffed blackened bacon, dripping with grease, scrambled eggs, and melted cheese into giant tortillas, creating breakfast burritos that could rival the best cocinas. Stuffed and exhausted, we spent most of the day lounging around and playing board games or card games. Even Simba, our ever-excited, overly-enthusiastic whirlwind, was spent, barely moving and caked in dirt so that he looked more like a mutt than a Yellow Labrador. The evening came and campers left; of the thirty-three sites, there were barely any occupied besides our own. We found a clearing behind one of the campsites, set up my telescope, and enjoyed a little stargazing. The Milky Way stretched across the clear night sky, which was perfect for seeing the constellations above as well.
Our adventure in the Los Padres National Forest was coming to an end. We left the next morning, exhausted, craving soft beds and fluffy pillows, dirty, wishing for warm showers and the dirt-gripping powers of soap, but happy, satisfied with a weekend of beautiful views, fun games, good food, and great friends.