Wisps of sea mist obscured the moon. San Elijo State Beach in Encinitas is one of the most popular campgrounds in San Diego County, overflowed with tents, RVs and campers. The campsites were van-size dirt parking spots, each with a fire ring and picnic table. The air was incredibly still and quiet and smelled like campfires. Diffuse moonlight illuminated the beach 100 feet below, the sand extending.
Surfing’s popularity grew at the same time California’s newly founded State Park Commission was looking for beaches and waterfront property to protect, and many of the best surf breaks on the coast became parkland. Eighty years later, the network of state beaches and campgrounds is one of the largest in the country and covers a third of California’s 840-mile coast.
Because most of the campgrounds between Los Angeles and San Diego are accessible by car, roughing it in Southern California isn’t very rough. Parks provide showers and bathrooms, and most bring everything they can fit in the trunk and put up mini outdoor versions of their homes.
San-O, as locals call it, was another surfing center in the 1930s, when the beach was a fishing camp and surfers had to pay 25 cents to get in. Back then the surf pioneers Hobie Alter, Dewey Weber and Dale Velzy would drive a Ford Model T truck to the beach and ride giant redwood boards on the mellow waves.
There are almost as many private campgrounds along California’s coastline as public ones. The Malibu Beach RV Park was truly a home away from home with Wi-Fi, cable television hookups and a stunning view of the Pacific. Surf crashed on the beach below, and a cool ocean breeze blew through the screens. Three hundred feet above the Pacific, alongside gulls gliding on the updraft, the scene probably wasn’t so different from the one that surfers who pioneered the California coast saw, nodding off for the night in the back of their Model T, hoping that the waves would be up again in the morning. All California state campgrounds take reservations through Reserve America.