Camping a great way to see West Coast
Traveling through three states along the Pacific Ocean thrills adults and kids alike
If you're looking for a great, affordable (except for the gasoline) vacation for mom and dad and a couple of kids, here's a suggestion: Hit the road to see the West Coast of America, either south to north out of San Diego to Seattle, or reversed.
September is a good month to target to capture waning warm weather and have your choice of the tent or RV campsites that become wide open right after Labor Day.
I checked out family-friendly public RV and tent campgrounds for you, and the best events for a three-week outing. I prefer tenting and I think kids like it, too. But there's no question that an RV gives you maximum comfort, weather protection and a sense of security.
If you go the tent route, buy two -- one for the parents, one for the kids -- 9-by-9-foot Ozark Trail First-Up tents (Wal-Mart) upon your arrival. Ozark Trail outperformed Eureka in set-up and tear-down time and waterproofing on my test run. Ozark Trail virtually tosses itself up. No clipping the tent to poles. It's waterproof coated on the bottom, but set up a fly to keep rain and dew off the tent.
Here are other requisite items:
» Coleman or Ozark Trail queen-size blow-up (battery or motor), no-slip mattress for each tent for comfort, unlike those slippery old-fashioned Therm-A-Rests. Motor models plug into car cigarette lighters with an adapter for inflation in 90 seconds. Deflation is faster.
» Wide sleeping bags so you won't feel constricted like a mummy.
» Propane lantern. Battery ones don't shed enough light, offer no heat, and you need that thermal hiss at the camp table to make you feel you're really camping.
So here we go with a north-to-south itinerary. You can reverse this, but campgrounds get tough in summer and require reservations. It's hard to hit particular grounds on particular days. Either way, you have to make arrangements to drop off your rental car or RV at the reverse end.
BOB JONES / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Bring warm clothes because weather can change. The author found jackets, sweaters and watch caps handy.
Olympic Peninsula, Wash.
The parkland, boat rides and history of the Olympic Peninsula are made for kids and grown-ups. Your starter city will be Port Townsend, 50 miles and less than two hours from Seattle, 100 miles and a bit more than two hours from Olympia. It's best known for the spectacular old homes on the hill above the City Dock. Especially notable is the Anne Starrett B&B on Clay Street with its amazing winding staircase. Most architects and engineers cannot fathom how it supports itself. The owners offer tours after 10 a.m.
Fort Worden State Park is filled with history exhibits and has two campgrounds, one on the beach and one in the hills. Do lunch at the Landfall Restaurant, 412 Water St., and don't miss the fish tacos.
It's an hour west to Port Angeles, the gateway for those heading by ferry to Vancouver Island and those going to the magnificent Olympic National Park through the north entrance. The visitors center is clearly marked. You'll want to find a good tent or RV site right away in the Heart o' the Hills campground ($20 to $25 per night is fairly standard in all parks), then set off to explore trails on foot or drive up Hurricane Ridge Road to view Mount Olympus and the glaciers.
The park has bears and cougars, so never leave food out at night. Don't let small kids wander off without adult supervision. Cougars view youngsters, especially those who run, as prey.
The main event for kids in Port Angeles is the touch-stuff-from-the-strait exhibit at the Feiro Marine Center on the city pier. Sound Bikes on Front Street rents bikes and kayaks.
Another 3 1/2 miles west and south on the single highway fringing the park is the entrance to the Hoh Rain Forest and absolutely first-rate campsites along the Hoh River in national parkland. Elk will graze just beyond your tents or RV. But there's a reason it's called a rain forest. It didn't rain while I was there, but it started a day later. Kids will quickly make friends with the many friendly ravens and "camp robber" jays. It's a wonderful two-day stop.
I wasn't awed by the continuing (boring) road south through timber country. The only decent respite on this stretch was the Gray's Harbor town of Aberdeen -- Kurt Cobain's pre-Seattle home -- which has seen better days and is saved only by the full-scale replica of the sailing ship Lady Washington, which really does sail. Girls will enjoy the huge doll collection at the Arnold Polson Museum. Maybe some boys, too. Aberdeen's also where you find Billy's Bar & Grill, haunted by a ghost and known for its yak burgers.
Continuing south on Highway 101, cut west at the first opportunity to the stretches of peninsular beach road that pass through the beach resort villages of Long Beach and Seaview and then Ilwaco, the entrance to Cape Disappointment State Park (formerly Fort Canby), your next campground destination. Campsites are basic, but this is home to a beach called Waikiki (a misnomer if I ever saw one). Buy your provisions in Ilwaco town, not at the costly camp store. Most people come for the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and the half-mile hike to the dramatic Cape Disappointment lighthouse.
BOB JONES / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
West Coast campsites generally are big, clean, safe and have fire pits.
From the cape, you'll cross the Columbia River on an impressive, 4-mile-long bridge into Astoria, Ore., another town with knockout houses from the years of timber and shipping barons. Kids will enjoy the Maritime Museum, with its mounted submarine periscope that lets you scope out river traffic. You can camp here, too, at the 400-site Fort Stevens State Park.
But I think your real destination has to be the Tillamook Cheese Factory (ice cream, too) south on Highway 101. The second-story window-walk is hypnotizing for people of all ages. Samples are offered, and it's the only place you'll ever taste "squeaky cheese" -- the rudimentary stuff before it's smoothed out into bricks. The ice cream cones are not to be missed.
And you cannot miss the Tillamook Naval Air Museum three miles south of town. The big blimp hangar sign hits all southbound drivers right in the face.
Camping's scarce here, so I recommend heading to Devil's Lake State Park south of Tillamook and just outside Lincoln City. It's very kid-friendly, and like most all West Coast public parks, has flush toilets and showers.
Your next target will be Newport's Oregon Coast Aquarium. That's where Keiko, the killer whale of "Free Willy," was housed before being set free. Not as great as an aquarium I'll recommend later, but definitely worth the stop. You can camp at South Beach State Park two miles south of town, on the water.
Coos Bay is a tribute to poor planning, so zip right through or stop if you need supplies. Take the not-so-well-marked road eight miles west off Highway 101 to the little fishing town of Charleston (traveling with a GPS device really helps).
Charleston is cool! It's a working fishing harbor kids will love. Fishermen love to talk to strangers. The Sunset Bay state campground is absolutely lovely. You've got your choice of seafood restaurants, lots of outdoor trips for kids, the Shore Acres Botanical Garden -- which was the private garden of a rich man's mansion -- and the Cape Arago lighthouse. You'll be tempted to say this as good as it gets and just stay on. BJ Moniz, formerly of Hawaii, runs her Aloha Cafe down on the docks.
But do move on via the Seven Devils Road on a windy path to Bandon, another great dockside site with crab shacks and shops in Old Town. You'll be tempted by the Crazy Norwegian restaurant on the main highway, but boaters told me seafood here is shipped in, not fresh catch. For the latter, eat at the small and plain Dock Cafe, with wonderful fish and chips and interesting souvenirs.
There's fine camping for tents and RVs at Bullard's Beach State Park. But if you can stretch your driving south of Port Orford, there's a green, forested campground for tents and RVs at Humbug Mountain State Park. Remember to shop for food, wood and ice first in Port Orford.
Your last Oregon stop will be Brookings. You've never seen so many malls! That's because Oregon doesn't have a sales tax and California does, so Northern Californians come here for their major buys. It's also where you can ride jetboats up the wild and woolly Rogue River. Camp by tent, RV or yurt at Harris State Beach Park.
BOB JONES / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Kids will never forget a visit to the shark tank of the Monterey
Now you're headed down the incredibly long California Coast. I suggest sticking to Route 1 rather than the faster and nonscenic 101 inland. You'll get more fog but you'll also get more sightseeing. That highway starts at Leggett.
Your destination is the Redwood National Park south of Crescent City but north of Eureka. Stop in the visitors center to learn redwood facts and watch a movie about the environs. Then drive up to Lady Bird Johnson Grove for a 1-mile loop trail with self-guiding instructions. Easy walking for children and adults awaits amid the stunning and ancient trees.
The closest campsite is Patrick's Point State Park. I recommend the oceanfront sites, which are much drier and lighter than those deep in the forest. The bathrooms are a bit shabby (like Hawaii's), and the raccoons have learned how to open even a zippered cooler.
Eureka is a nice, small town with many grand old houses. You'll enjoy just driving around or stopping for a coffee and bagel or a milkshake.
After that, many people like to take the Lost Coast Road (Highway 211) through Ferndale and Cape Mendocino. It's about a two-hour drive through charming small villages, but make sure you cut back east to Highway 101 when you reach Honeydew. That's because you don't want to miss driving through the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. These are the granddaddies of redwoods, with some magnificent short trails. You'll hear plenty of oohing and aahing from the kids. Both the "drive-through" redwoods in the park are on private property, and you have to pay $5 to drive through, stop and take your picture.
At Leggett you have the option of going back on coastal Highway 1 or staying on inland 101 to make better time.
The next major destination is the extensive Point Reyes National Seashore. Thank goodness for land that's been set aside when developers have their eyes on it. It's a half-day-at-least adventure to drive and see it all. Samuel P. Taylor State Park six miles inland has very big, very safe sites for kids. I like site No. 18 by the river.
Up next is Monterey Bay. Don't make my mistake of arriving the weekend of the world-famous jazz festival, when parks and motels are maxed out. Monterey has the end-all of aquariums -- and one that allows kids to touch things to their heart's content. Plan to stay for at least two hours for this one, which makes our Waikiki Aquarium look like a pipsqueak.
Monterey Peninsula is upscale, so you won't find any suitable public camping parks (Veterans Park is rated "primitive") and will have to settle for parking your RV in a private site or staying at one of the motels that line Munras Street.
There are good cheap eats at the Turtle Bay Taqueria on Tyler Street. But this is a foodies' town, so I suggest splurging on something great downtown or at one of the many tourist lures at Cannery Row.
The south end of the bay is anchored by Carmel-by-the-Sea, where residents are all slim and beautiful (and so are their dogs) and the houses seem to start at $8 million. Don't even think about camping here. But do drive through (RVs discouraged) for a glimpse of how the rich folks live. (Actor Clint Eastwood was once the mayor.) There are no Wal-Marts, McDonald's or Longs Drug stores here, but there is a lovely old Junipero Serra mission that even children will enjoy exploring. Nifty graveyard, too.
The two-hour-plus coastal road south to San Simeon is gorgeous but winds like a snake, so if you don't care about wild scenery or get carsick, stick to Highway 101. Your destination is the Hearst Castle, once the redoubt of wealthy newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst and now part of the California state parks system. You must not bypass this one. You'll eat up the better part of a day with the bus rides up and down from the hilltop castle, about two hours for the tour and a half-hour for the movie. I don't think kids will get bored because this really is a castle, with all the trimmings.
Remember that when you think you can safely judge your arrival time at San Simeon, call the castle ticket office (800-444-4445) for tour reservations. It's important to do this because it's very, very busy here.
San Simeon State Park has 204 sites for campers, with beach access, lots of wildlife and shopping in nearby Cambria. Cambria also has the Soldier Gallery, a toy store with toy soldiers from around the world, some arranged in major battle scenes.
If you want to cover more road before you camp, head to El Chorro Regional Park 10 minutes south of Morro Bay on Route 1 heading toward San Luis Obispo. My favorite is site No. 22.
At San Luis, skip the Mission de Tolosa except for a photo op, but do go to the Children's Museum, with its Indian cave, hands-on fire engine and many other goodies for youngsters. It has an oddly named Web site, www.slokids.org.
Every child should walk to the end the Stearns Wharf pier in downtown Santa Barbara to see the fishing people and huge seagulls.
Highway 101 South takes you through the center of town, but do go down to the Shoreline Drive for a city trolley tour (from the wharf).
On Sundays you'll see a mile-long arts and crafts fair along the shore. At the foot of Stearns Wharf, activists place white crosses in the beach sand every Sunday, one cross for every American who's been killed in Iraq.
This might be a good place to take a break from camping and stay at a small inn, dine at Brophy Brothers Clam Bar and definitely have breakfast at Esau's on State Street.
If you're not tired of old churches, there are the missions of Santa Barbara, Ventura and eventually San Luis Capistrano north of San Diego, though I think a little "mission viewing" goes a long way with kids.
Now let me recommend a few campsites as you head south toward the maelstrom of Los Angeles and beyond.
One is Malibu Creek State Park (outside Malibu, of course), which is dry and located in a gulch but has lots of trails and horse riding. Sites 44 and 46 afford maximum privacy. The rest are jammed too close together.
My other biggie is South Carlsbad State Beach. At first it will seem too crammed between the Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean, but you can have a site with privacy hedges on a bluff just 20 feet over the pounding sea, with miles of beach. I could have stayed two days easily.
BOB JONES / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
No family should miss Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Calif. Plan on spending a whole day.
There's so much to say about this kid-friendly, manageable city that I could do a separate article on the Wild Animal Park (north of the city); the city zoo in Balboa Park, which puts our puny Honolulu effort to shame; and the Cabrillo National Monument out on Point Loma, where kids can watch pelicans diving for fish and wade in fantastic tide pools.
The Reuben Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park has one of the most amazing, hands-on science exhibits I've ever seen, and the adjoining IMAX theater is always screening something stunning.
The San Diego Museum of Man in the California Tower in Balboa Park will be a hit for its mummies.
And the restaurants just never end.
West Coast people eat. I saw some of the fattest people of my life in Oregon.
In San Diego, look for Perko's Cafe for Sarah's Old Fashioned Breakfast, consisting of a 1-pound slab of ham, three eggs, country spuds, biscuits and gravy, at $11.99 regular and $9.99 when on sale. I said this was a budget trip. On that, you probably could feed most of the family.