An Ocean at Your Doorstep
Editor's Note: Due to the erosion of the cliffs above the campground, this site has been permanently closed.
San Onofre State Beach, off Interstate 5 near San Clemente
If you've ever driven along the Orange County and San Diego coast, shaking your head in sadness and dismay at the urbanized state beach campgrounds along the ocean, you need to make a trip to Echo Arch. You may have never heard of it plenty of locals haven't. You've probably never seen it, either, because unlike the other state beach campgrounds, Echo Arch is blessedly hidden from Interstate 5.
Echo Arch is the walk-in camping area at San Onofre State Beach, a park that is best known for surfing and for its famous neighbors: the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant and Camp Pendleton. Luckily, they're not the kind of neighbors who are always coming over to borrow something. Very quickly, you'll forget they even exist.
The main oceanside campground at San Onofre State Beach is typical of others on the Southern California coast: A long strip of pavement on which RVs and tents are jam-packed, side by side, with their inhabitants drifting to sleep to the roar of the interstate instead of the roar of the ocean waves.
A Bluff by the Beach
But if you're willing to walk a short distance, you can bypass the asphalt camping and instead spend the night at Echo Arch, on a low coastal bluff just a few yards from the beach. Echo Arch's cove is set off from the rest of the state beach; its walls form the amphitheater that gives Echo Arch its name. The only problem with the camp is that the coastal terrace it rests on is constantly eroding. Park officials have to close the camp occasionally, especially after storms, because of fear that the cliffs will tumble down on unsuspecting campers.
The walk to Echo Arch is only a quarter mile from where you leave your car, so even if you've never carried a backpack in your life, you can make this trip. What the heck, the walk is so short, you can leave your backpack at home and just carry your stuff in grocery bags. Make sure you bring all your supplies, especially water and food, because there are only limited facilities at Echo Arch."Limited facilities" means each campsite has a fire pit and table. Chemical toilets and an outdoor cold-water shower are located nearby. The two things you should be sure to leave at home are radios and dogs. Because this is an environmentally sensitive area, both are strictly forbidden. Dogs are allowed in certain other areas of the park, but not at Echo Arch.
What to Do at Echo Arch
Once you've set up camp, how should you spend your time? Here are three suggestions: First, stare at the ocean. Second, stare at the ocean. And third, stare at the ocean. If you keep your eyes peeled during your trip, you're likely to see dolphins or whales. When you catch sight of one of these great creatures, it makes everything seem perfect in the world. They're a thrill to watch.
If you insist on more activity, you can always surf fish, swim, walk along miles of sand, or go surfing. There are plenty of waves to go around, but the most famous ones are located at Trestles Beach. Over at Surf Beach, you'll find sand volleyball courts usually in heavy use and shade shelters for the sun-wary.
Facilities, reservations, fees: There are 22 walk-in campsites at Echo Arch at San Onofre State Beach. Each site can accommodate up to eight people. No water is available; you must pack in bottled water. Campfires are permitted. Reservations are recommended; There is a nightly camping fee. Pets are not permitted.
Who to contact: San Onofre State Beach, 3030 Avenida Del Presidente, San Clemente, CA 92672; (949) 492-4872.
Season: Open June 1 through October 30, depending on weather and the condition of the coastal bluffs.
Directions: From Oceanside, drive north on Interstate 5 for 21 miles. Take the Basilone Road exit, turn left (west) and drive 2.9 miles to the park entrance.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication