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3 of L.A. County's Best Coastal Campgrounds

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A view of the Santa Monica Mountains from Malibu Creek State Park. | dwanjabi/Flickr/Creative Commons License
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This guide is part of KCET's California Coastal Trail project, which looks at the state's massive undertaking to build a trail over 1,000 miles in length along its whole coastline.

Though people might try, L.A. resists being shoehorned. At times it might seem like endless sprawl. And yes, there's plenty of that. But there are also miles of sun-kissed beaches, and vast expanses of coastal wilderness that can wash away the worst urban worries. Luckily, a few campgrounds are squeezed into the mix.

Not surprisingly, beaches are among the busiest parks in the state. Generally, reservations can be made up to seven months in advance through ReserveAmerica.com. Book as soon as possible because many sites get snagged the day they become available. Cancellations can also free up previously booked sites, so watch for that. Thanks to CampsitePhotos.com, images of just about every individual site are available online, letting you choose a spot in the shade of a sycamore with just the right view. Unless otherwise stated, sites permit both tents and RVs or trailers. Some companies deliver RVs directly to campgrounds, making it possible to enjoy a road hotel without the need to pilot one on the highway; rental information can be found on most state park websites.

Dockweiler State Beach

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Panoramic shot of Dockweiler | Dolan Halbrook/Flickr/Creative Commons

This three-mile-long beach bears way more than its share of L.A.'s metropolitan weight. A flight path for neighboring LAX is directly overhead and the site (and, perhaps, smell) of the Hyperion Treatment Plant to the south may leave some campers less than impressed. But try as it might, urban encroachment cannot fully destroy Dockweiler's charm. It's still quite a pleasant beach, particularly with a sea breeze. It has a bike path, sand dunes, light crowds, and even some decent surf occasionally. To be fair, the beach extends north to Marina Del Rey, and the area fronting Playa Del Rey is truly picturesque, nice-smelling and quiet. But the RV park (sorry, no tent camping here) is near the southern end, and could not be any closer to the water treatment plant. Dockweiler does earn extra points for the strange distinction of bordering the ghost community of Surfridge, a once-chic neighborhood abandoned with the advent of commercial jet engines and the post-WWII expansion of LAX.

Malibu Creek State Park

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A view of the park from the campground. | Photo: Rachel/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Okay, this isn't precisely within sight, sound, or smell of the coast, but as this park's eponymous name implies, there is an important connection to the ocean. Malibu Creek --and its tributaries, like Las Virgenes Creek that runs near this campground -- flow out into Malibu Lagoon and into the Pacific. The water quality here upstream helps determine the health of the sea at the outflow point. It's a good reminder that even if we're miles away from the beach, what we do inland has an effect on the coast.

Now to some important camping details. There are over 50 reservable sites, split among tent only and standard sites that can be used by RVs, located on a large single loop that surrounds bathrooms and shower facilities. Dogs are allowed, but must be on a leash and not on trails. Malibu Creek does have a vehicle entrance fee, but your reservation covers that, at least for the first arrival (an extra vehicle will cost you). Lastly, a heads up that this is one of those parks where the entrance gates are closed overnight (a one-way exit is open all day). All the details can be found with California State Parks.

Leo Carrillo State Park

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A serene night scene from the bluffs at Leo Carrillo State Park. | Jeff/Flickr/Creative Commons

Out here, 28 miles north of the Santa Monica Pier, and beyond the opulent communities of Malibu, are a surprising amount of unspoiled coast and wild lands. Leo Carrillo is smack in the middle of all that beauty. Gray whales and dolphins make frequent appearances offshore, and the rocky sea bottom and tide pools host anemones, lobster, kelp beds -- you name it. The beach and sea caves here invite lounging and exploring, as do miles of nearby surf breaks and sandy beaches. Not to mention that the Santa Monica Mountains are a gigantic playground bursting with opportunities to hike, bicycle, ride horses, rock climb, even check out wineries. The Yellow Hill Fire Trail departs from the campground and heads up steep ground, offering impressive views of the ocean and the channel islands.

The inland campground for tents and RVs itself is pleasantly expansive and wild, its 141 sites naturally landscaped with sycamore trees and brush. Hot showers and fire rings are available.

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